Indian Literature: Translation Stories

There have been quite a few stories in the past couple of weeks about the issue of translation in Indian literature, most of them stemming, I think, from the annual Jaipur Literary Festival which took place last month. (Incidentally, I've been keeping up with these stories through The Literary Saloon, by far the best blog for world literature out there right now. All the links below come from that blog.)

Some of the stories read kind of like pep talks for translators -- come on guys, get translating! This story, in The Hindu, might be one such example. Mini Krishnan focuses on the idea of a translator as a creative figure in his or her own right -- a "conjurer." One of the translated passages she quotes, from a Tamil writer, seemed particularly evocative to me:

The translator throws her voice so skilfully that the truth of a text originally written in an Indian language is “heard” in English. Here is Vasantha Surya translating the Tamil writer Ki Rajanarayanan: “Taking out the betel leaves one by one as if he were taking things out of a pooja box, he would lay them out with the devotion due to objects of worship. . . Next he would sniff the broken areca nut. Then he would blow on it. This sniffing and blowing procedure was repeated several times, his hand transporting the areca nut from nose to mouth, nose to mouth, more and more rapidly until ooomm-oosh, ooomm-oosh, ooomm-oosh, dabak! Into his mouth the areca nut would go, having been noisily purified.” Which Indian — educated in English, unable to read his mother tongue or born of a mother other than Tamil — will not thrill to such a retelling? (link)

What I liked about this is the fact that the translator doesn't feel the need to translate every word. Even though I don't know Tamil, I have a pretty good idea of what a word like "dabak" must mean, just from context. I think even writing originally written in English can often get away with the inclusion of many more words from Indian languages than people might think. (I've seen my students pick up words on their own as they read books by Indian authors. They often have no idea how to pronounce them, but the foreignness of the words usually doesn't stop a dedicated reader; if anything, it presents them with an interesting puzzle to solve while reading.)


There's also another story in The Hindu, this one about the future of Hindi literature. Much of the article rehearses the trend we might expect -- Hindi literature is in trouble because of the growing emphasis on English in Indian cities. On the other hand, things look quite different once you get out of the big metros, so perhaps the situation isn't really that dire:

Battling the two formidable adversaries of the Internet and English writing, the consumption of Hindi literature has long been restricted to school curricula and competitive examinations. Then there are some who accuse publishing houses of not putting in enough to propagate Hindi literature. “Hardcover books are expensive and beyond the reach of most Hindi readers. Paperbacks are released only after the hardcover has raked in enough profits. The publishers should take pains to promulgate this literature to places where it is sure to be voraciously devoured,” said Khalsa College student Brijesh Kumar, adding that another undeniable aspect of the scenario was Hindi’s limited scope in professional set-ups, particularly with the advent of the new MNC/BPO culture.

Another significant facet of the readership equation is the apparently increasing age of readers — Hindi books seem to be read only by people well into or well past their middle age.

Author Teji Grover, however, said to arrive at an accurate reading of the scenario, one would have to make a trip to the rural areas where there is a hunger for Hindi books that rivals the obsession with cinema. “I don’t think there is a readership crisis at all. If one diverts one’s gaze past the urban centres, children vie to read even the smallest scrap of paper they find lying around. I have chanced upon discussions comparing Premchand to Gorky in remote villages.” (link)

In short, maybe it depends on where you're standing. If Hindi literature publishers can find ways to sell cheap books out in the smaller towns and villages, they might find a potential readership numbering in the hundreds of millions.


It's not only literature, of course, that needs to be translated. The coverage of the Jaipur Literary Festival in the Deccan Herald had an interesting point about the urgent need for translation of science and technology terms.

What was Dr Suman Sahai, president of Gene Campaign, doing at the Translating Bharat festival? Throwing new light on language, of course. Sahai started Gene Campaign in 1993. The Campaign is a grassroots organisation with a presence in 17 states across India. Gene Campaign is a research and advocacy organisation working on farmers' and community rights, intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge, among other related issues.

These are all regions where language – and its accurate translation for proper comprehension – plays a primal point. “There is a need to bridge India and Bharat, a need to simplify our dialect,” she pointed out. Science and technology continue to be in India, while the people who practice the laboratory findings of science are on the fields of Bharat. She is convinced that it is time that we got down to reporting science and technology in Hindi. And in regional languages, of course.

The time is more than right, indeed, it has been so for a while, to develop a contemporary vocabulary in science and technology. The challenge is not as simple as, say, translating telephone as ‘doorbhaash’. That is one example of how a word can be accepted in the ‘foreign’ language and Indianised with no lapse anywhere: it’s still called telephone, or teliphoon, if you wish, almost across the country. So, the translation has to be simple enough to be taken to the farmer, to be accepted at the grassroots and carry with it some flavour of the technology.

Well, if you think that’s simple, try this one that kicked up a bit of a debate at the conference: How do you explain gene modification to the farmer? While you ponder on that, here’s a hint from Dr Sahai. Try, gene ‘sanshodhan’. Or would you like to make that simpler? (link)

In France, there are government bodies that make sure that every new technology object has a proper French word that has some kind of justification linguistically. I don't know if this is being done in Hindi and regional languages -- but perhaps it should be.


And finally, The Hindu has yet another story, this one on the publisher Namita Gokhale, who is starting Yatra Books, a publishing house dedicated solely to translations -- back and forth, between English and any number of Indian languages (and from one Indian language to other Indian languages). An interesting bit about the publisher's approach to translation comes out when one of Gokhale's associates describes the direction given to the translator of a novel by "Shobhaa" (Shobha De?):

Neeta Gupta joined us as we chatted in Namita’s cosy study, with the winter sun’s rays prying gently through the window. She said, “We are trying to discount Sanskritised Hindi promoted by hardcore bhasha followers. We tell our writers and translators not to shove in difficult words that sound pompous unless it’s a text that demands classical Hindi like Shakuntala. We used Bombaiya Hindi in Shobhaa’s Spouse. We want to throw away that baggage of having a rigid vocabulary, the Raj Bhasha angle and its tediousness has to go.”

Namita added, “Languages are evolving, whether through Bollywood, advertising or even our daily speech. They have a vibrancy of their own; we have to let them go where they want to. Like Indian English is already accepted as a language, it has also developed its own dialects.” (link)

I strongly agree, and wish all the best for Yatra Books.