The Place of Translation in a Literary Habitat and other Lectures

I am grateful to Prof. Udaya Narayana Singh, the Director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, for doing me the honour of inviting me to deliver the annual Foundation Lectures of the Institute in July 2003. I should like to take this opportunity to thank him and the staff of the CIIL (particularly Professors Rajyashree, Rakesh, Ranjeet Singh and Halemane) for having treated me courtesy and extended to me all the necessary help during the days I spent in Mysore.

The set of three lectures published in this monograph have a kind of sequence and a plan. The two lectures on the translations of stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and the play, Andha Yug, by Dharamvir Bharati, are based on my own experiences as a translator. In these lectures, I have tried to speculate about my own political, religious and ethical concerns which may have led me to choose certain kinds of texts for translation. It is strange that while I have no personal understanding of what a religious experience is or could be like, and while I am not a passionately committed political ideologue, the works I have chosen to translate over the past decade or so have always led me to the edges of the religious and the political. In order to understand why I have chosen certain kinds of texts for translation, I have found myself turning to the writings of figures like Gandhi, Emerson and Simone Weil each of whom mingle the religious and the political to answer the only serious question we should, perhaps, be concerned with - the serious Socratic question - 'how should we live?'

In these lectures, I have rarely quoted from their writings. Yet, throughout these lectures, they have been real presences for me, for without them I would not have been able to take the few tentative steps I have taken towards an understanding. The lineage of gurus I have lined-up for myself is deliberate for I want to indicate at the outset that the literary habitat I want to establish for myself is distinctly different from the intellectual style of the times in which we live.

I use the word 'habitat' in the third lecture because it refers not only to 'home', but also contains in it the word 'habit' - a habit that comes from a tradition of living and thought. What I am trying to indicate by using the word 'habitat' with such deliberateness is the fact that the texts I have translated, and my own concern with the theories of translation, are tried up with my attempt to define the civilisation in which I live. This civilisation is clearly not defined by geographical boundaries, though I am sure that it can not exist without a sense of what those boundaries could have been like in history and at present are. Perhaps, one way of explaining what I mean by my 'civilisational habitat' is to describe the experience I had soon after I arrived at the Mysore station. I was received by Prof. Ranjit Singh Rangeela. He is a Sikh. On the way to the Institute, as he hummed dohas from the Gurubani, he first pointed out a mosque for me to notice, and then a Rama temple. When I asked him if the mosque and the temple were old, he replied, "That doesn't matter, does it?" As soon as we reached his office, he played for me a moving piece on the shenai by Bismilla Khan, which he said had been specially composed by Khan Sahib for Naina Devi. This conversation, I should add, was conducted, quite unselfconsciously in English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. What Prof. Rangeela had created for me, with a few quick gestures, was the civilisational habitat of the Indian subcontinent of which I am the inheritor and in which I participate. It seems to me that, as a translator, it is this habitat, which I have been trying to share with others, even as I have been trying to define it, and given the times we live in, defend it. I should add that the two writers whose works I have dealt with extensively in these lectures - Manto and Dharamvir Bharati - have been doing precisely that - defining, defending and redeeming the cultural spaces we inhabit which have been fissured rather badly over the past sixty or so years of our sub-continental history.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank friends and colleagues without whose help and support these lectures could not have been written: Venkat Rao and Mahasweta Sengupta who generously lent me books on translation theory; Rustam Singh, the editor of Hindi: Language, Discourse, Writing, who published early drafts of two of these lectures; Ashok Vajpai, who invited me to participate in a seminar on translation theory; and K. Satchidanandan, the Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, who encouraged me to work on the translation of Andha Yug.

I should, finally, like to acknowledge the editorial skills of my wife, Vasundara, for without them I would make many more grammatical mistakes than I usually make.

Alok Bhalla
July 17, 2003