OF TRANSLATION ACTIVITY IN INDIA
AND POSSIBLE REMOVAL
Translation activity could be of great interest to someone
like me in more ways than one: my own writings have been translated,
my own reading includes a fair number of translated writings, and
I have translated quite a few writings (some of them of being my own).
Naturally, persons like me who are beneficiaries, clients, and agents
of translation are very unhappy about the poverty of translation activity
in our country. To wit, there are aren’t enough translations to meet our needs and the ones that are available
are very often of indifferent quality. If there are any good translation,
the client don’t care of them and, perhaps as a consequence, the beneficiaries
or the agents often don’t care of them either. No wonder that irresponsibility
is prevalent in this domain, there being no prestige to gain or standards
to achieve or insist on. We propose to consider these twin lacunae
here : lack of prestige and lack of standards.
away, this is a astonishing state of affairs in a country with so
many languages and, as recorded in census of India in recent decade,
a high proportion of persons knowing two or more languages. Moreover,
this is a country with a rich, many faceted cultural tradition with
a with a long history. Then,
why this poverty – the poverty too is of long standing. How does one
account for this?
No prestige for translation
does translation activity enjoy no prestige? So much so that, not
uncommonly, the translator’s name is quietly omitted or the fact of
a text being a translated text is not mentioned or noticed at all.
It is understandable if Indians find
some pride in the fact that Sanskrit and pali texts have been translated
centuries ago into Chinese and other language to the east of India.
Likewise, with Sanskrit texts having been translated into Arabic Latin
and other languages to the west of India. But the dismal fact remains
that there are hardly any translation of, say, Chinese or Persian
text into Sanskrit or any other Indian languages. There is nothing
to be proof of in this blatant proof of our self-complacency. We have
obviously thought all along that, while we have much to offer to the
rest of the world there is nothing that the rest of the world could
offer us. An early witness to this state of affairs is the Arab astronomer
and mathematician al-Bīrūnī (10 th 11th
centuries) writing in his account of India based on his travels (Tā’rīkh
al Hind, vol .I,) acuity combined with their singular apathy to
all things foreign and their lamentable complacency. (Interestingly
enough, he surmises that this tendency to self isolation and self-overestimation
had probably not always been a trademark of the Indian attitude. The
hardening of the arteries probably came with the Brahmanical Counter-Reformation
that followed the Buddhist-Jain-lokāyata revolt.)
The Indian self- complacency has also
an inward looking aspect. The Indian is not only indifferent to anything
from outside India; he is just as indifferent to anything not readily
available in his part of the Indian world. It has been a common place
that India is a country of small villages if not hamlets. (This has
been especially the case after the great decline of the cities in
4th – 8th centuries to which the 7th – century
Chinese piligrim Hsuan Tsang testifies.) There is no doubt that a
certain sense of belonging and warmth of fellow- feeling in a village,
but the observe side of this is a certain sense of distance, if not
downright mistrust, towards the outsider, especially deepening towards
the outsider coming from a city or from another region. This is the
local dimension of Indian self- complacency. We are so pleased with
our locally familiar way of life that we don’t have even a curiosity
about other ways of life.
The great 19th century Indian awakening
(complacently called the Indian Renaissance, which it wasn’t) notwithstanding,
this two fold complacency has not been basically disturbed. Who would
care for translation in such a ambience? Who would prize being a beneficiary,
a client, or an agent of this activity?
Remedies such as prizes, subsidies,
royalties to the translator or such other measures certainly have
a as incentives. But they won’t be sufficient for changing the basic
attitude. ‘Vinda’ Karadikar, Marathi poet that has won the Kabir samman,
has said that, as a recognized author in Marathi, he considers it
his responsibility that in his writing career he translate two or
three major works into Marathi—indeed, he has translated Shakespeare’s
King Lear and Aristotle’s poetics as also offered a
modernized version of Jnāneshwara’s 13th century philosophical
poem Amrtānubhava. Karandikar’s word and deed was certainly
a shot in the arm for other translators. Even the clients and the
beneficiaries should realize that translating is not work fit only
In the curricula for Marathi literature,
they should include translations of Indian and foreign works. This
should help broaden the horizon of both teachers and students of Marathi
both in terms of life experience and of literary experience. Likewise
with the curricula for other
modern Indian literatures and for English literature. This measure
may serve to motivate more translations.
Again in respect of M. Phil and M. Litt. dissertations, they
could provide for an alternative. Translating a Sanskrit treatise
(šāsta-grantha) along with a critical introduction and
notes has always been an acceptable form of a dissertation in Sanskrit.
Why not accept translations of important in English, French or other
‘library languages’ into a modern Indian language along with a critical
introduction and notes for a post – MA in sociology, philosophy, literary
criticism or the like? (I am speaking of articles rather than book-length
works in this context for two good reasons; this will be more manageable,
at least initially, and thesedays key articles rather than longer
treatise represent the growth points of disciplines in this age of
knowledge explosion.)This measure will also serve to strengthen Modern
Indian language as media of intellectual activity.
One could extend this plan to short
works of creative Literature. Struggling with the job of translation
is surely an intimate exposure to the critical problems of comparative
If Indians are unduly degree-minded
today, why not harness this degree-mindedness to a good cause? Provided,
of course, that the standards are established from the outset by hastening
slowly; no floodgates to be opened, please; Translating mustn’t be
looked upon as a ‘soft option’. At the same time it could also be
more rewarding than mediocre research.
The question of prestige and the question
of standard are closely connected with each other. Lack of prestige
works against the emergence of a sense of responsibility. There is
nothing wrong in translating in order to earn money, but then the
professionalism must not be devoid of a sense of pride and responsibility.
Today such translations are being published in Marathi as cannot even
be called translations expect as an act of misplaced charity. I have
seen a Hindi translation of Wellek and Warren’s Theory of literature
that quietly leaves out many a crucial sentence that could have offered
some challenge to the translator: We certainly need disincentives
to bad translator:
No standards for translation
there is no word in Sanskrit coterminous with ‘translation’. The term
anuvāda simply means ‘saying something again in one’s
own word’-- whether in the same language or in some other language
(bhāsāntaram anuvāda, paraphrasing in another
There is a certain limited tradition of anuvāda in
another language in India. Rāmāyana, Mahābhārata
(inclusive of the Bhagdvadgita ), and Bhāgavata came
to have a status second only to the vedic canon; while the vedic canon
(inclusive of major Upanisads) was available to the elect (the
high cast males, especially the Brahmans) as a sources of spiritual
wisdom, the former were available to everybody (even women, the lower
castes, and the outcast) as sources of spiritual wisdom and of role
models, The medieval Indian poets therefore took it upon themselves
to offer anuvādas of the epics or specific episodes of
these in the vernacular languages.
These anuvādas were in the nature of adaptations
or elucidative commentaries rather than translations proper. The poet
felt free to alter episodes or characters or to introduce anachronistic
motifs or images. Thus Rāmacaritamānasa
of Tulsidās is faithful not so much to Vālmīki’s
Rāmāyana as to propogation of bhakti and contemporary
social norms: thus, Tulsidās’s invertebrate Sīta
bears no resemblance to Vālmīki’s Sita. (There are
a few stray anuvādas coming closer to being translation
proper, but they fall outside this tradition. A case in point is the
17th- century Marathi version of Bhartrhari’s
šatakatrayam by one Vāmana .)
Coming closer to our times, the Indian Awakening motivated
many to compose modern Indian language versions of the ancient or
medieval Indian classics or of English or other European classic or
popular works. Thus, Kālidāsa’s šākuntala or Shakespeare’s
Othello or English romantic poems or Cervantes’s Don Quixote
or Mill’s On the Subjection of women or some
popular works of the 18th-19th century Britain all appeared in Marathi
versions. The notion of faithfulness to the original was simply absent
rather than abandoned in some of these versions.
In such circumstances, one cannot expect the emergence of any
critical standards of excellence in translation. How can we go about,
in that case, introducing such standards and thus motivating beneficiaries,
clients, and the agents of translation to take due cognizance of these?
To begin with we need to distinguish between reviewing a piece
of translation and criticizing a piece of translation. Anyone who
is interested in a party in translation can only undertake a review,
whether the review is from the point of view of the beneficiary, the
client, or the agent of translation. Thus the beneficiary, being the
original author, will expect the translation to be a replica of the
original, two linguistic bodies and one soul as it were. The client
being the final consumer, will be comfortable if the translation is
not felt to be a translation at all, as if it were a work in its own
right. The agent, being the one who gets the credit or the blame,
will want the others to notice his source language proficiency and
target language prowess. In order to do proper justice to translation
activity, anyone undertaking a criticism should divest himself of
such specific vested interest, Rather, a critic should take a global
view of the matter.
Translation criticism then will have to raise a couple of basic
question about translation activity: What do we set out to accomplish
what we set out to achieve? Only a consideration of the question of
intention and the question of method will equip us to work out the
criteria for judging translation critically,
What do we set to accomplish by translating something said
in one language into another language? Let us assume that two persons
speaking differing languages are communicating with one another with
the help of a translator (or interpreter as the person sometime called).
In case the translator is assisting the listener, the listener will
ask him to tell him what the speaker is saying in the source text.
The replica text that the translator will come up with in response
to this demand will be the decoding translation of the source text.
(One could call it chāyānuvada, alluding to the practice
of recovering a Prakrit text in a Sanskrit chāya.) just
in case that is what a translation is expected to accomplish, obviously
a decoding translation will be a true translation. But then in the
case the translator is assisting the speaker, the speaker will ask
him to say to the listener in a effective manner what the speaker
wants to say, namely, such and such. The replica text that the translator
will come up with in response to this demand will be the re-encoding
translation of the source text (One could call it bhāvānuvada,
alluding to the practice of identifying the bhāvārtha
emerging from some valued text.) Just in case
that is what a translation is expected to accomplish, a reencoding
translation will be a true translation.
The other question is – How do we go about
accomplishing what we set out to accomplish? Any translation, in order
to qualify as true translation, has to show fidelity in two distinct
directions at the same time—fidelity towards the source text and the
fidelity towards the target language.
Some examples are called for. Let us say that the sourse text
is the following text in Hindi: us ne sir par top#ī rakh#ī aur gale men mālā.
And a replica text in English is being offered as follows:
He put a cap on his head and a garland in his neck. The first
part of the replica text sounds all right, but can ‘gale men’ adequately
translate as ‘in the neck’? One cannot defend this as a decoding translation,
for the proposed replica is not faithful in either direction. In the
present situation, a true translation of ‘gale men’ will be ‘round
his neck, and not ‘in the neck’, whether one sets out to accomplish
a decoding translation or a reen-coding translation. But then situations
will often arise in which simultaneous fidelity in both the directions
is not feasible. Sometimes source-text fidelity needs to be given
priority even if this is at some loss of target-language fidelity.
Such a situation calls for a dependent translation, so called because
it declares itself to be a translation and thus dependent on the source
text and ready to wrest concessions from the target language.
Source text: merī ānkhen nīlī
English replica: My eyes are blue.
Sometimes, on the other hand, target – language fidelity needs
to be given priority even if this is at some loss of source – text
fidelity. Such a situation calls for an independent translation, so
called because, not capture the right slant. The English version may
be more ‘idiomatic’ than faithful.
Source text: merī ānkhen nīlī
English replica: I have blue eyes.
What then is the precise relationship of the translation to
the source text? Just in case the main tactic is to achieve fidelity
to the content and form of the source text, the translation accomplishes
its main goal, decoding or re-encoding as the case may be, in the
dependent mode. Just in case, on the other hand, the main tactic is
to achieve fidelity in form and content to the target language, the
translation accomplishes its main goal, decoding or re-encoding as
the case may be, in the independent mode.
A translation critic needs to determine first what is being
demanded from translation activity in the given situation. What precisely
is the nature of the linguistic transaction involving the source text?
More specifically, if the source text moves in the direction of poetic
creativity, how does the translator recreate it? And if the source
text moves in the direction of intellectual stimulation, how does
the translator recreate it? Without going into the matter depth, I
shall limit myself to offering a couple of sūtras, so to say.
The recreation of the literature calls for dependent reencoding translation.
The recreation of intellectual writings calls for independent decoding
If translation activity has to achieve a greater measure of
prestige in Indian society, then this activity needs to be entrusted
to translators possessing the adhikāra ( the privilege
justified by qualification) for it, and also, due recognition needs
be accorded to true achievement in translation.
If translation activity has to strive for critically adequate
standards in Indian society, then this activity needs to be subjected
to adequate and disinterested critical activity. (Mere interested
reviewing is not enough as a disincentive to poor translation.)
Given these measures, the removal of our poverty in translation
need not be too distant as goal.
This is based on a talk given in Hindi at the Hindi department,
University of Pune on 31 December 1995. The English version has remained
Those interested in going into greater depth could consult
the author’s other writings on translation:
‘To translate or not to translate?’, Meta: Journal
des traducteurs (Montréal) 30:3:211-23, Sept. 1985. ‘Translation
as recovery’, in: Dilip Chitre & others, ed., Tender Ironies:
A Tribute to Lothar Lutze (NewDelhi: Manohar, 1994). ‘Anuvāda:
Šāstra kī kalā?’, in his: Madhyamā: Bhāsā
āni bhāsāvyavahāra (Pune: Mehta, forthcoming