Over the past 30 years, translations in India have gained a higher public profile than ever before. More books of translated literature are being published every year and public interest in translation, as evidenced through, sales, discourse, and awards, has grown steadily. This is no doubt a heartening development for people on the supply side – writers, translators, publishers, and literary agents – and naturally for literary enthusiasts of all description, it is indeed hard to put a finger on what it all means for society as a whole, if it means anything at all. Is it too early – or not – to be talking about ‘Uniting Cultures through Translations’? If we want to explore the possibility of so grand a mission, what should we be looking at?

As the first step in this exploration, let us look at the function of literature and by extension, translated literature.

No one could have put it more pithily than Susan Sontag when she says, ‘[Translation] mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist.’

Literature makes possible empathy and understanding towards people different from us, because the world we encounter in a literary work, original or translated, is inhabited by those who are irreducibly human. We know that life, even imagined life, happens in particular historical, cultural and political contexts, but the literary experience helps us transcend these contexts to see, perhaps even learn, something deeper about the human condition.

I believe this is the fundamental experience that translated literature, and literature itself, offers us. When we read Dostoyevsky, in translation from the Russian, we may learn about 19th century Russia, its landscape, society and culture, but we are far more deeply engaged with the characters and how they cope with their human predicaments, and may thereby learn something essential about human nature, albeit during a specific moment in history, in a specific cultural context.

Almost all stories are told in this spirit of inviting understanding and empathy at the human level. Can they also function as a mode of societal intervention? The topic, ‘Uniting Cultures through Translation’ leads us inevitably to that question.

Can translation unite cultures?

Undeniably, there have been instances where translation has had a huge influence on societies and cultures. But they cover such a vast range of time and space that it is impossible to theorise the process and manner of such cultural impact. We can only understand the phenomenon through empirical study. Here I want to cite four different instances to bring out certain inferences.

First, the transliteration of Valmiki Ramayana, or its retelling, by Kamban, a Tamil poet of 12th century CE. This was followed by a retelling of Mahabharat by Villiputhurar in the 14th century. Both were efforts by Tamils to make these texts, till then the preserve of the priestly classes, their own. This helped the wider Tamil community to participate more vigorously in the larger ‘epic culture’ of India, which Ashis Nandy has astutely defined as ‘the construction of a past outside history’. On the flip side, this might have helped the emotional integration of the subaltern classes into a power structure that was rife with inequality and exploitation.

Second, the translation of the verses of Kabir Das, the 15th century poet, into many Indian languages, including Punjabi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, and Kutchi. The popularity of these verses, and their incorporation into Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of the Sikhs, keeps alive, even today, the possibility of harmonious living among ordinary people of different faiths. That the verses and teachings of Kabir and other saints arose at a particular moment in history and helped the spread of a syncretic culture across North India that promoted co-existence rather than conflict is beyond question. Interestingly, these developments seem to have been autonomous from the political authorities of the day.

Third, the production of the King James Version of the Bible in early 17th century England through a new English translation brought renewed power and influence to the text among the English people and reinforced the position of England as an independent Christian nation in Europe.

The fourth example pertains to the first half of the last century in India, when a number of literary and political texts in English and some major Indian languages were translated into other languages across India. These translations, sponsored mostly by the upper caste leadership of the freedom movement, helped promote nationalist aspirations among the Indian people as well emphasise the need for reform in Hindu society.

A common feature of all four examples is the propagation of a powerful idea in response to social and political needs of the day. The sponsors were usually those who wielded power in society, except in the case of Kabir’s verses, where the translation and propagation were carried out for the most part by grassroots movements.

And in all four cases, the translations were received with great enthusiasm by the target communities.

The social role of literary translation in contemporary India

In the first two decades after Independence, ‘national integration’ was a crucial objective pursued by the State, understandable in a new country of such staggering diversity, both linguistic cultural. As a part of this effort, literary translation between Indian languages came to have an important place in the cultural life of the country, with Sahitya Akademi providing leadership for the activity, a task it has continued to perform diligently through the subsequent decades.

Translation of literary works from other Indian languages was also pursued in certain states with a strong literary culture. However, as the republic attained a degree of stability, and integration was achieved more tangibly through public institutions, interest in and public support for literary translation waned to some extent. Moreover, with the formation of linguistic states, the focus in most states shifted to development of literature in the local language, in consonance with local history, traditions and conditions, pushing translations from other Indian languages to the margins.

Meanwhile, English gained an important – some would say, predominant – place in the intellectual, professional, and cultural life of the country, spawning a community of Indians with advanced capabilities in the language for a variety of purposes including creative writing. Starting from the early eighties, the genre of Indian Writing in English became prominent as an important branch of Indian literature, with a high profile throughout India and even abroad.

There was renewed interest in translation of Indian literary works into English from the late 1980s, and this genre has continued to flourish ever since. Translation of select works from other Indian languages and world literatures into the local languages has also continued apace, based on local initiatives and support.

Within each major language, too, the subaltern classes have begun to participate and make their mark in the literary culture of that language. In a sense, they have been ‘translating’ themselves into a pre-existing literary culture. Their contribution to the local literatures has been robust and refreshing.

Hierarchy in translations

At this point, we must turn our attention to the role hierarchy plays in how translations are received. We see it everywhere. For instance, the publishing industry in the west has been paying far more attention to literary translations into English of works from European languages than from any other part of the world. We speak of Tomb of Sand, the English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi, as having breached an important barrier by winning the International Booker Prize this year. We are rudely reminded that apart from everything else it may purport to be, translation is also a way of seeking accommodation in other people’s homes, and the way translations can aspire to function is crucially dependent on the conditions that shape their reception.

Such hierarchies are present and active in India as well. In Indian language literatures, works dealing with subaltern life have made their advent only after a time lag and are still not treated on par with the so-called ‘mainstream’ works. Yet, there is space in those cultures for discourses on these works, for the claims and contentiousness of an ongoing political project. A main enabling factor is that the mainstream and the margins share the same political space within the state; hence the hierarchical order will always be challenged.

In the realm of English translations, it can be said in fairness that despite a steady output over thirty years, this genre has not managed to engender the serious engagement it deserves. The deeper understanding and empathy with the other cultures that English translations make possible has not resulted in the forging of solidarities across language barriers or even in the mitigation of hierarchical conditions that are common across our language communities.

Literary translations as a mode of social intervention

The evident reasons are the absence of serious discourses on the source texts in their own contexts, and lack of support for this activity (space, funds, attention) as well personnel who are sufficiently equipped to perform this challenging task (which is again a function of support). Obviously, the conditions that would facilitate such discourses and support are not present.

It would seem from the above discussion that literary translations as a mode of social intervention can work only in the presence of a conducive political climate and only if they are supported and received in an environment that eschews traditional hierarchies and divisions.

In contemporary India, literary translations can hardly serve the cause of propagating an overarching paradigm across different cultures, which is more easily achieved through mass market art forms like popular cinema. Instead, they contain the potential for solidarities and co-existence, with due respect for differences between cultures, for different ways of life. Realisation of that potential is crucially dependent on the political direction of our society. It is not solely the burden of those who produce and publish translations.

This is a revised and expanded version of a presentation made at a panel discussion on ‘Uniting Cultures through Translation’ at Unmesha, the International Literature Festival held by Sahitya Akademi in Shimla during June 16-18, 2022.