A clash of ideas on translation took place not too long ago between Tamil writer Ambai and translator N Kalyan Raman. Ambai had written about her perception of certain inadequacies in literary translation from an Indian language like Tamil into English. Her protests were a writer’s, and, despite some generalisations that I couldn’t entirely get behind, I could sympathise with her writer’s need to be well-represented, her apprehensions about certain perceptions of a hierarchy between English and Tamil – consequently, between the translator and the writer – and the demands of the market.

N Kalyan Raman’s response, from a translator’s perspective, was to clarify the practices in contemporary translation. That is, translation is not finding an exact equivalence of the source text in the other language – it is not in the “service” of the source text – but rather, it is an act of creating a negotiated text that does justice to the source text while creating a literary piece in the target language. This is important, for we have so few literary translators around us, and hardly any discussions of their craft, either in print or in literary festivals or otherwise. This ties to what I perceive as a general lack of critical discourse in the larger English-driven Indian literature space.

As both a writer, writing in Tamil, and a translator working between Tamil and English, and thus perhaps as someone who understands both sides of this debate, I have a few things to say on this matter.

Samvada, samanvaya

My understanding of translation is more in line with Kalyan Raman’s perspective than Ambai’s, perhaps because I am a practising translator. No, translation is certainly not in the “service” of the source text. Nor are the writer and translator in competition. “Translator / traitor” is a well-worn phrase, but I think it is an idea that comes out of a culture that sees literature, and everything else, as the product of agon, or conflict and contest. On the other hand I feel that translation is moulded, quite intuitively, by samvada and samanyava, harmony and integration.

The sensitive, skilled literary translator is no traitor, either to the writer or the reader. Sensitivity is its own kind of skill in this enterprise, as skill in translation is necessarily expanding one’s sensitivity to rhythms of language, meaning and expression in both languages – really, in the language-less zone that underlies both.

Translation is quite simply an act of bringing in harmony and balance. It is an act of tact and grace. The harmony really exists within the translator, for it exists in the language-less zone. Everything else is simply its expression, an expression negotiated with the writer and reader through the text.

The translator embraces both the speaker-writer and the listener-reader within themselves and then proceeds to create a nuanced, lengthy dialogue with them both. Often, within the translator, they are both the same person, the translator themselves, now acting as one, now as the other. It is this self-talking, this internal monologue posturing as dialogue, that the reader reads as the translated text.

Where precisely is the harmony achieved? In language, in expression, in meaning.

The facility of reading should be unimpeded in the other language – if possible, creating the same kinds of rhythms and waves and swings in the mind as the original did. This is harmony of language.

The translator should never interpret the text, or try to minimise the interpretive influence, they should adopt the veils and masks of the writer in keeping the erotics of the text, its bhavana, intact. This is harmony of expression.

The translated text should evoke the same kinds of emotions and resonances in the reader, in the same order, to the same extent, with the same overall striking effect as the source. This is harmony of meaning.

Reader, writer, translator

The success of the translated text perhaps lies in how much its reader identifies with the reader within the translator. Or how much the translator is able to persuade the reader of this identification. The writer, when they write, simply does not think of any reader – they just writes, moulding instinct into form. But the translator always carries the reader within themselves too. It is inescapable.

What I can report from experience as a translator is, the most one can do is simply accept the internal reader for who they are and write for them – not obsess too much about the reader “out there”. It is simply an instinct, much like the writer’s instinct for form. It is the knowledge, the intuitive certainty within oneself, that “I am an ideal reader, and if it satisfies me, it will satisfy them too”.

The writer, of course, is a very important person in this negotiation – but arguably, not as important as the text, or the reader is. The presence of the writer in the room as the translator works is onerous and intrusive. I cannot imagine encountering the writer in flesh and blood as I translate – it is frankly horrifying to imagine the writer sitting on the translator’s shoulders like a vethalam whispering instructions into their ear as they work.

The writer, too, cannot evaluate a translation wholly impartially, even if they are a reader in the other language. This is understandable. It is a part of the creative process. The writer may perhaps provide feedback on words grossly mistranslated, but any intent or meaning from the text is best left to the judgment of the translator, if there is trust.

And no good translator, no translator who understands translation as an act of harmonising, will allow the overt influence of the writer on the aesthetics of the translated text – it is really too much of a disharmonising influence. Almost like an intrusive parent trying to clean your room.

My sense is most writers understand this, for there is an equally subtle creative process at play here. It is this trust – between writer and translator, that one will dip and draw out of the great language-less zone just as instinctively as the other did, that matters.

The writer can trust in the text, and the competence of the translator to read them as them. If there is no trust, certainly it is better to withdraw permission. Perhaps an even better thing would be to only entrust translation into those hands and eyes that one implicitly, instinctively trusts.

Hierarchies in translation

Is there a hierarchy in translation? Is publication in English considered a prestige in and of itself?

Yes, there is certainly a prestige associated with publication of vernacular work in English. There are far more readers in English, and then there is the fame that is accorded to writing that appears in English that cannot be compared to the fame of the vernacular writer, except maybe in languages with a thriving literary culture like Malayalam and Bengali.

There are networks available to the writer who is recognised by the English speaking academy that a vernacular writer cannot access. An English-language text is likely to be noticed by international readers, and all writers like to be read, especially be people as different from them as possible. There is also the prestige associated with being internationally known.

But most of the perception of prestige, I feel, is because of a paucity of true literary culture in the vernacular. If a writer has enough readers in the language she writes in, enough engagement, discourse and criticism, then that provides the writer with a great dose of health and courage. They would not care so much about translation into English as a language of special status. It might be just as well for the writer for the work to be translated into other Indian languages, for they might find shared-heart readers in greater numbers well within the country.

And then we have this strange state of affairs where a writer with international fame is suddenly discovered in his own country, hoisted on shoulders and hailed – as if international fame inherently is any arbiter of quality. This is because, quite frankly, we don’t have enough readers and translators and critics in our own country to talk fiercely and passionately about what they feel is “good”.

Ambai’s concerns have some merit to them in this regard – what is translated and “taken over” to the west is oftentimes what the west wants to see, or what we want the west to see. There is a reason why Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubaagan (One Part Woman) is read in the west, and Joe D’Cruz’s Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Rimmed World) is not. This is not to take anything away from Perumal Murugan, but simply to stress that a robust literary culture will place both works in front of a wide audience of readers, and talk back and forth about the merits of each work, giving the western readers something to think about, allowing them to listen, to expand their literary horizons and values.

Indeed, the work of any true literary culture is to mould the taste of its readers, expand their horizons, no matter what the colour of their skin is. They shouldn’t be telling us what is good in our libraries. We should be telling them, and then inviting them to discuss. When there will be enough such voices, the recognition from an international audience will take its proper place, as the acceptance of yet another section of readership, with its own preoccupations and mental slants.

Building such a true literary culture rests on the back of readers. But translators have a role too. A culture with many, good, translators will be a culture where literature exists in all the spaces within and between languages. There will be so many works translated back and forth, so many presses and online portals publishing them, that there would be no fear of niche publishing houses and interest groups deciding “what will be translated”. That will not be a decision left to them, if that is what writers like Ambai fear – that will be a decision made by the translators themselves.

Name the translator – if you can

This is particularly true in the international stage. Novels from India, by Indians, about India, tend to be rather similar, and as a matter of personal taste, bland. A robust literary culture within the country will certainly change our dealings with literatures of other nations. There is so much talk on “opening up the canon” – which is fair – but then they place Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy in the Indian canon when we have Ilango and Kalidasa and Vyasan and Kamban. Who else will question this, but a translator, who can simply “speak” Ilango to those readers? Surely we have our sahridayas there.

I don’t agree that there is a hierarchy between the Tamil writer and English translator with the translator on top, as Ambai claims. It’s almost surreal and laughable. In France, or Germany, a person can make a living as a professional literary translator. A translator in India is not paid much, nor recognised, even within the literary community.

No one knows names of literary translators in India – who was Premchand’s best translator? Bibhutibhushan’s? Bhyrappa’s? It’s even worse for translators into Tamil from English, or between Indian languages. I am yet to read a piece, an essay, written by any Indian English writer about the translators who translated into English from various Indian languages. AK Ramanujan is the only oft-repeated, famous name. So where is the question of this hierarchy?

As far as I am aware, translators today pull no rank on writers as Ambai claims. For we have very good writers in Tamil and I think most of the translators working today are aware, respectful and admiring of their talent. Translation is immersion, deep reading, prayer. I could never translate an author I didn’t like. And it seems rather silly to have a superiority complex because I type my words in English – particularly, when as a writer still exploring and learning the narrative craft, there is always something I learn from every author I translate.

Indian literature is not just Indian-writing-in-English literature. But the lay, English-educated reader cannot escape this perception. The elephant in the room, is of course, the privilege this society-world holds over non-English writers because of their networks and contacts, their clout in the west because they speak its language, and the almost complete absence of critical discourse within this space in India.

This state of affairs may not be because of active malice, or haughtiness on the part of English writers in India – most individuals are quite nice people. But it needs to change. This is a separate concern in and of itself that I won’t go into in too much detail now, except to make the point that translators translating into English oftentimes become part of this culture, and they have the tools and responsibility to change it, to expand its horizons. This is already happening with a new crop of talented translators coming up, but there is more to be done.