Found in translation

Word for word: the translator’s temptations and the pleasure of sinning

Preserving the language, spirit and storyline is a tall order – sometimes, straying is recommended.

The primary force that drives me as a translator is the joy of sharing. I’ve read something wonderful, and I think there are a lot of people out there who might enjoy reading it too, but they can’t because they don’t read and understand the language. Hell, I’m going to translate it for them, in a language that they can understand. That is it, that has always been it. And I love doing it.

I love the idea that language is not a constraint anymore, and that it’s finally what it’s supposed to be – an enabler. But like everything else, this comes with its own share of difficulties, heartburns, loopholes, and believe it or not – paradoxes.

At war with words

You may have often heard people say – literal translation is not always a good idea, translation should be done in spirit – so much so that it’s almost become a cliché now. The spirit of words is often marinated in the milieu they come from, and (this is something that is not often talked about) this is true for BOTH the original as well as the translated words.

A church-going middle-aged American farmer making a living in the southern states will refer to his wife as “mother” and a traditional Bengali clerk will refer to his daughter as “maa”. Literal translations don’t help here, but translations in spirit? Do they suffice? I doubt it.

The truth is this – sometimes a word in a given language carries a lot of information within itself. The word “mujahid” in Urdu may mean one of many things, depending on the context, as may the word “mon” in Bengali. Even translations in spirit fail miserably sometimes, because our assumption of the existence of a word or even a phrase in one’s own language for every word in another language is implausible.

I have known of at least one example, where, in order to convey the true meaning of a single word, I have been tempted to introduce a whole subplot within a story. That is the “inclusive” solution. The other solution, which is more often preferred these days, and is considered safe, is to simply drop the original word, and with it, the message.

Whose story is it?

The other problem that translators face is that of being faithful to the original. Seems like a piece of cake, doesn’t it? It’s “ethical”. Non-interfering. Almost like a dictum: Thou shalt not change the story that you are translating in any way.

But to be very honest, there are parts in a magnum opus by even some of the greatest writers in literature where I have felt – “I wish (s)he could have written this differently”, or “This would have been so much lovelier if it would have been said that way”. It’s a dilemma we translators often face, what we do about it is a matter of personal choice, but we do face it, there’s no denying that.

In my opinion, it would be unfair to say that it is a sacrilege to even think about it. No, because just like the translator has a duty towards the original piece, she also has a solemn duty towards her readers. My own take on the matter, and I know it may seem radical and controversial, is that the translator has to strike a fine balance.

Let us admit, the translator is not a machine, he is made of flesh and blood, and has the right to create something that he believes in. Had he been a machine, perhaps readers would not have enjoyed any of his works. His work is open to criticism, much as the original work is, but he does have the right to refuse to write something that he thinks is a blot that stands out and tarnishes an otherwise beautiful picture.

Why we don’t translate enough

I have often heard publishers say – “The market for translations is very small.” Why, I wonder? That’s not true about cuisine. People do want to experience new cuisine, people do like to discover new things, people generally like to explore. Or is it because eating out, in general, has become rare? Whatever be the reason, in an industry where it is not easy to create a sustainable profession out of writing alone, it is virtually impossible to survive simply by translating stories and novels, plays and poetry. Which is why translation is a dying art. The few people that are involved in this seriously all have alternate professions. And if the market continues to shrink at this rate, a time will soon come when no one will translate any more, making the walls between different cultures insurmountable and impenetrable.

Amidst all this, it is very heartening to see that several publishing houses have taken matters into cognisance and have created special imprints specifically for translation works. I think this is a marvellous and important first step in the direction of a scenario where we get an opportunity to discover a whole new world of literature, where the ingredients of the food may be the same, but the flavours differ.

As a noted Bengali author once said to me – “it is sad that we look up at the sky and strive to know so much about stars and planets billions of light years away, and yet we know so little of the person standing next to us.”

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include the anthology 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his novels include the forthcoming whodunit Penumbra.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.