Ashok R.Kelkar






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.


            In 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


            Why 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 for hacks.

            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 study.

            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

Significantly enough, 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 language).

            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 hain.

            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 hain.

            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 translation.

            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 unpublished.

            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 in 1996).