“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.”

— George Steiner

It has become customary, at literary festivals in these troubled times to speak of translation in its myriad, metamorphic dimensions as something of a panacea for the world’s ills. Shall we blame the hyperbole on an inherent contrariness of trends in the world of letters, tending perversely to be afflicted with hope in the worst of times, and cynicism in the best? Or could it be that, rooted in some peculiar, deep-seated malaise of our age, there is cause for aggrandising what was deemed a second-rate, “para”-literary activity until fairly recently? Lekhana, Bangalore’s “literary weekend” feted in the last week of April this year, offered an opportunity to investigate.

That guerrilla frisson

The 2017 edition of the city’s four-year-old annual litfest drew the usual crowd of casual readers, occasional writers, and idle or curious passers-by, in addition to mixed panels of celebrity authors, translators and publishers, and served up the usual fare on mother tongues and subalternity as accompaniments to the focal issue of literary translation. The line-up couldn’t have been more predictable. And yet, the mood was oddly, edgily jubilant, shot through with an eve-of-the-battle frisson of nervous excitement.

You wondered, at first, what all the fuss was about. Especially if you’re wary of excessive talk or theorising of a literary activity which the pundits themselves concede to be a half-impossible act of alchemy (whereof we cannot speak, thereof we mustn’t chatter, etcetera), let alone tall claims of translator-superheroes saving civilisation from certain death by feats of intersemiotic bravery. It didn’t help my scepticism that, in the introductory sessions, much was being said along these lines – about the politics of translation, translation as a political act, and the subversive wealth of the subaltern bhasha.

But as the panels warmed up and discussions unfolded, I was reminded (rather incongruously, I thought at first) of something Umberto Eco once said about the movie Casablanca in an essay on American popular culture: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Associating the scene at Lekhana with Eco’s pop culture “reunion”, I was reminded afresh that we live in an age so saturated with information that the most unsettling truths, with repetition, take on the garb of threadbare clichés. Literary gatherings, at the very least, provide a space for these “clichés” to converse, and perhaps once again to move us, by reloading the semantic cannon of over-circulated truths, reminding us in this case of the vibrant and increasingly vulnerable contexts these literatures in translation represent.

And as the sessions wore on, I sensed it again more than once – that guerrilla frisson, as if to signal a muster, or murmur, of incipient strategies against a gathering darkness.

All vernaculars face extinction

What is the nature of this darkness, or silence, that literary translators today find themselves arrayed against, transforming their activity into an ethical and political imperative in our times? Ganesh Narayan Devy, critic, activist and founder director of Bhasha Publication and Research Centre in Vadodara, reached into the heart of this question with his opening remarks for a panel titled “Speaking in Tongues”.

In a lecture that seamlessly sutured a history of ideas, philosophy of history, demography, neuroscience and statistics, Devy spoke of the fragmentation of knowledge, the absence of ideology and the death of languages in our times. It was a veritable mission statement for writers and translators in the bleak, post-linguistic scenario of a future that is almost upon us. And one that urges us to look beyond the literal and “literary” aspects of translation, to recognise it as more than a purely textual intervention in dominant narrativisations of the world.

Drawing on a lifetime of work that spans and melds domains as diverse as socio-linguistic survey and documentation, tribal activism and literary criticism, Devy warned that all vernaculars face extinction in the market-driven, globalised world of the 21st century. Among these, thousands of living tongues will disappear in under 30 years. In India, the most fragile linguistic communities are those living on the fringes of society – denotified, nomadic and scheduled tribes whose “unofficial” languages the state deems unworthy of inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution. Ironic, Devy pointed out, when you consider that the “modern” Indian languages evolved from erstwhile subaltern tongues, while “classical” Sanskrit and Persian, lingo of the pundits and the courts, faded out from living contexts.

How does literary translation become a means of cultural resistance and activism, forging counter-discourses to the sinister ideologies of power inherent in these linguistic erasures and oppressions? In a characteristic shift from prophecy to collective memory, Devy drew on a pivotal moment from the translational history of India’s middle ages – the 13th century poet Jnanesvar’s polemical Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. The Jnanesvari, acclaimed for its independent philosophical interpretation of the spirit (rather than the letter) of its source text, challenged a medieval Brahminical hegemony authorised chiefly by its monopoly of Sanskrit scriptural scholarship.

What was transferred from the Sanskrit to the vernacular in this case was not a single text, but the very category and discourse of the spiritual which became available to the laity in their everyday tongue. Here, said Devy, was a work of translation that combated darkness in more senses than one – illuminating both the meanings of the original text and the mind of the lay reader it sought to educate. And evidence that literary translation has, for centuries, been at the forefront of intellectual resistance against exclusionary “knowledges” rooted in tyrannical orthodoxies.

Poet and translator EV Ramakrishnan, writing about translation as resistance in the context of Malayalam, named as its most vital function the articulation of “that which is latent in a culture but for which no vocabulary, discourse, image or metaphor is available”, creating “a script for that which is hitherto unexpressed and invisible.” Thus understood, the choice of what to translate, and when, acquires an urgent political dimension that cannot be disowned. Particularly in contexts where free thought and expression, in diverse forms, is criminalised as a treasonous, shape-shifting public enemy, provoking “righteous” acts of state-backed majoritarian violence – rationalists murdered at point-blank range in broad daylight, universities locked down by curfew, writers gagged by caste politics, journalists “edited” by the long arm of corporate giants, and cultural events stage-managed by reactionary goons.

If state oppression is an index of how much a nation needs its translators, the latter must surely find their highest calling in our country today. For what we are witnessing is a systematic strangulation of liberal and academic spaces, literary platforms and intellectual communities by a police state which, Devy declared, is antithetical to the older, collective idea of India as a civilization that “recognises and respects life in matter, mind in the non-human, and speech in silence.” As a gesture of solidarity with this ideal, the Bhasha Centre has launched a massive project to translate progressive thought in 144 Indian languages, in English and all the other bhashas involved in the initiative.

Some languages are privileged over others

Discussions around translation as a political act, particularly in multilingual contexts, must account for the politics of translation – hierarchies of source and target languages, monolingual/bilingual hegemonies in publishing industries, and the vagaries of economic support for translated texts. Markedly, in societies where several vernaculars are used side by side, and multiple public spheres, centres of power, imagination and resistance, coexist in a creative dynamic despite tensions of a continuous contest for cultural space.

At Lekhana, Goan Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo pointed out the need of the hour is bhasha to bhasha translation. While the rendering of vernacular texts in “official” languages enables them to access a wider readership, and Hindi and English function as effective and even essential “filters” in this context, the work of translation should not cease there, Mauzo emphasized.

His frame of reference is the intricately polyglossic texture of quotidian life in many Indian communities on the west coast, and Goa in particular, where both readers and writers have always been multilingual. The default privileging of Hindi and English as target languages by state-sponsored translation perpetuates the monolingual structure imposed by colonisation on societies of the subcontinent that have for centuries conversed, traded and dreamed in many tongues. And, by extension, a perilous monolingualism of the imagination, on the variegated life-worlds of these peoples.

Both Mauzo and fellow panelist S Diwakar, Kannada critic, translator and writer, concurred in their views on state agencies of literary translation – the central and regional Sahitya Akademis, the National Book Trust and the National Translation Mission, among others. While these institutions are prolific translators, annually curating, publishing and awarding numerous translated titles from 23 languages (including English), the production value and literary quality of their publications – notably in the case of translation between vernaculars – leave much to be desired.

For Diwakar, this is symptomatic of the humdrum business of state-funded translation wherein texts are assigned to their translators, not chosen by them, taking the love out of the labour. He insists that a work of literary translation must be an affective choice: a translator must choose his text, and have specific reasons for wanting to render it in another tongue. Transporting the formal integrity, stylistic nuances and intellectual wealth of the source text is of the essence, as exposure to writing in other vernaculars is a formative factor in the growth of each bhasha.

Modern Kannada literature was shaped by translation, Diwakar observed: the form of the novel which came into its own in the 1980s, for instance, was an import from Bangla and Marathi literatures. A translation must therefore carry the literary nutrients to replenish the very life-blood of its target language. Diwakar’s account of his own experiences as a translator gave force to these claims: his struggles with “the serpentine sentence of Faulkner”, and how its recreation in the soundscape of Kannada called for the invention of a new syntax altogether.

Expanding frontiers

A panel on independent publishing at Lekhana introduced the vital third element in the political continuum traced by discussions at such festivals – that of writing, translation and publishing as resistance. The questions addressed were topical, and framed within the binary of what Devy succinctly termed “swachhata” and “sahitya”: when the idea of civil liberties is replaced by a narrow, literal notion of civic cleanliness, sanity by sanitisation, where lies the political and moral path of those who hold in their palms the germs of potential dissent?

For Lekhana panelist Urvashi Butalia, founder publisher of Zubaan Books, Indie publishers provide “the experimentation and the oxygen” in the publishing world, for there is “no neutrality, or pretence of it in the choices (they) make”. Hence, the responsibility and involvement of publishers extends beyond the contract into the lives (both political and personal) of their authors. The practical challenge is to run this “mission” as a business, and plan for long-term survival in the field.

Indira Chandrashekhar, editor of Out of Print, observed that publishing choices today – for an online literary magazine that curates new voices in short fiction – tread a fine, shifting line between the writer’s freedom of expression and public or political sentiments that constantly reset the boundaries between criminal libel and free speech. Negotiating a platform for the “new” under this radar is proving a dangerous game, for both – free expression and censorship – are protean, unknown quantities in this climate. Vivek Shanbhag, writer and founder of the (now defunct) Kannada quarterly Desha Kaala, believes it is precisely this occupational hazard that publishers of independent literary journals must relish and turn to their advantage, exercising greater freedom than their mainstream counterparts to determine the aesthetic and ideological content of their publications, regardless of dangers.

Both Shanbag and Naveen Kishore, founder publisher of Seagull Books, find that disseminating literature in translation expanded their own notions of the “literary”, revising their views of the world. For the latter, being an independent publisher means, simply, the ability to translate one’s wishlist into one’s publishing list. Not content with regional distribution rights like the majority of Indian publishers, Seagull chose to take on the “unequal halves” of the publishing world and radically altered its map, securing rights to sell world literature across the globe. Today Naveen Kishore’s “wishlist”, which he modestly describes as “a vision only in retrospect”, has grown to a formidable body of translated titles, second only to that of AmazonCrossing, the largest publisher of literature in translation in the world.

Pushing back

Intermittently the world of books, often foreshadowing its real counterpart, suffers more or less strategic lapses of memory or attention, “vanishing” some citizens, denying audience to others. In this capricious market, it falls to independent publishers to keep the “ledger of the disappeared” and the forgotten. When Kannan Sundaram founded his publishing company Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, many modern Tamil classics were out of print or poorly produced. Kalachuvadu’s earliest initiative was to bring these works back into circulation with a keen eye to detail and production value, soon busting a range of pessimistic myths about the decline of Tamil readership and the saleability of Tamil literature. In addition, their vibrant translation programme channelled a fresh stream of translated masterpieces – from other Indian languages, European and English literature – to the Tamil reading public.

But Kalachuvadu has called out more grimly orchestrated silences through its intrepid patronage of radical new voices in Tamil Nadu. Praised for his unflinching support of writer Perumal Murugan (Kalachuvadu is Murugan’s publisher) through the controversy that raged around his novel Madhorubhagan (when other publishers have capitulated to similar pressures), Sundaram advocated equanimity in the face of threats, at least until dangers actually materialise. However, he conceded, publishers face widely different challenges depending on the socio-political location of the work they publish in a particular language, culture or region.

The most tragic corollary of writing in a climate of reactionary surveillance, for Sundaram, is that the culture of fear begins to infiltrate the writer’s voice and choice of content: “They are censoring themselves even as they write.” Where do publishers stand in relation to “controversial” texts, in a scenario where censorship laws and regressive mores have redefined the notions of blasphemy, obscenity and sedition within an absurdly broad “anti-national” rubric? Sundaram believes that once a work is published, the publisher is no less ethically obliged than the author to face the consequences of its reception in the public domain.

On the subject of combating the self-censorship of writers, Naveen Kishore recommended that publishers rethink the language of their legal contracts with authors, and work to make it a “warmer, friendlier” document. Seagull has taken a step in this direction by replacing the indemnity clause in their publishing contract with an arbitration clause. For the independent publisher, after all, the goal must be to discourage fear and sustain dialogue rather than to minimise or transfer risk.

The notion, mooted at “translation” festivals in these dark times, of writers, literary translators and independent publishers forming a united front of political resistance, is hardly a new one. Rescuing such discussions from mere lip service and redrafting them on occasion as radical manifestos that speak in tongues, are the urgent living contexts they can only perhaps half-translate: the precarious, throbbing worlds beyond silent borders patrolled by the thought police, or by the limits of our own understanding; that irreducible residue of the “untranslatable” which, in the words of Serbian poet Dejan Stojanovic “can only be dreamed of and touched.”