Most of the pre-colonial translations were what Gianfranco Folena would call “vertical translations” where “the source language has prestige and value which transcends that of the target language”. The translator here often feels humbled by the superior power of the original forcing, for example, Jnaneswar who translated Bhagavad Gita into Marathi, to compare himself to a tiny titibha bird trying to sound the ocean’s depth.

“Horizontal translation” on the other hand is what happens “between languages of a similar structure and strong cultural affinity”. In this case there is no apparent hierarchy; the languages are considered equal. This is what happens between modern Indian languages, though even here translation to a less known or recognised language, like Bhili, Santhali, Garo or Gammit, may involve a power-relationship.

Sisirkumar Das observes that there were only a handful of translations from one Indian language to another at the beginning of the nineteenth century, produced mainly to meet the demands of pedagogy. There were plenty of translations from Bengali into many other Indian languages.

Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas found an Urdu translation and the first Marathi novel, Yamunaparyatan was translated to Kannada. Das also notes that geographically contiguous literatures were translated to one another more often like Kannada into Marathi or Marathi into Gujarati; he also says South Indian languages got translated more to one another than into the languages of the North. But this is not always true, as for example, Malayalam has more works translated from Bengali and Hindi than from Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.

The entry of English

The translation scenario in India underwent a major transformation with English entering India’s linguistic landscape. Three areas of translation prospered during the colonial times: translation of Indian literary texts into English; translation of English language texts (as also the European language texts available in English versions) into Indian languages and finally translation from one Indian language to another.

Tejaswini Niranjana in Siting Translation has studied the working of the colonial ideology in the translations done during the period. Translations of texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Manusmriti and Arthashastra were mainly meant to help the British understand the Hindu ethos and practices while old literary texts like Abhijnana Shakuntalam, besides being excellent literature, also satisfied their orientalist mind-set with its conceptual landscape of the wild, exotic East and its coy, vulnerable and beautiful women (see Romila Thapar, Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories wherein she contrasts Kalidasa’s frail heroine with the brave and independent Sakuntala of the Mahabharata) in the West.

If first the translations were made by Western scholars like William Jones, by the late nineteenth century, Indian scholars like Romesh Chandra Dutt (Lays of Ancient India in 1894, Mahabharata in 1899 and Ramayana in 1902) also joined the effort, sometimes with the noble intention of correcting Western perceptions of Indian texts.

This has continued as a living tradition as we realise from the practices of P Lal, AK Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Velcheru Narayana Rao, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Arshia Sattar, HS Shivaprakash, Ranjit Hoskote, Vijay Nambisan, Bibek Debroy and several other poets and scholars. The translation between Indian languages during the period of the freedom struggle was no more just a literary exercise; it helped in the building of a nation.

These translations during the late colonial period and the early years of independence were not profit-oriented; dedicated translators emerged in many languages making a Tagore, a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee or a Premchand household names across the country.

Institutionalising translations

Translation came to be institutionalised in independent India as a consequence of the State’s perception that integration of India on an emotional level would be possible only through the arts and literature had a major role to play here. The idea of translation thus got linked all the more to the idea of the “nation”. If the “nation”, as Benedict Anderson says, is an “imagined community”, literature plays a role in forging and sustaining that community. India’s linguistic economy underwent a change after 1947 and one’s mother-tongue was perceived to be the chief marker of identity and carrier of tradition.

Inter-language translation continues to be one of the chief activities of the Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust, two public institutions created in the times of Jawaharlal Nehru’s liberal and progressive regime. Today, we also have other national projects, like the National Translation Mission, meant to translate knowledge-texts from English into Indian languages (and hopefully vice-versa) and Indian Literature Abroad meant to make significant Indian literary texts available in foreign languages.

Inter-language translations have played a major role in creating movements across linguistic territories. Horizontal translations of patriotic and social-reformist work during the Independence movement played a role in shaping our national consciousness. The same is also true of Progressive writing where the translations of the likes of Premchand, Manto, Krishan Chander, Amrita Pritam, Jayakantan and Thakazhi played a pivotal role, encouraging an egalitarian ethos.

This flourishing of translations was repeated during the Modernist movement, wherein the works of Mardhekar, Muktibodh, Gopalakrishna Adiga, Nakulan, Dilip Chitre, UR Anantamurthy, Nirmal Verma and other regional writers were translated into Malayalam during the 1960s. Today, this phenomenon recurs, contributing to Dalit and feminist literary movements in many languages. The translations of Marathi Dalit writing have been crucial in the creation of a similar body of literature in other languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati. Many of these languages discovered the existence of early Dalit writing in their own language. Translations have also played a role in the creation of genres in languages where they had not originally existed.

Excerpted with permission from the essay ‘Do You Understand Me? The Culture Of Translation in India’, K Satchidanandan, from Translating India, Reading India, edited by Neeta Gupta, Yatra Books.