...I am not a translation theorist. I document my experiences as a translator from a region comparatively little known or discussed in multiple discourses on India, including translation studies. Based on my dual identities (if they can be seen as such), as a writer in English and a translator from Assamese into English, I bring...the expansive meanings of a source language I encounter in the process of translation. Also, as a writer who writes from India’s North East, but not in one of the “mother tongues”, I have had certain explanations to make.

In spite of being very much an Assamese, I write in English that is even today considered to be “elitist” and “irrelevant” in most parts of Assam. It is still not seen to be an Indian language by many of the “intelligentsia” in my state, though not by the readers of my works. To write in English is viewed with suspicion by the former, as though there is an agenda behind it, as though I am writing for a market that will bring in benefits to me that writing in Assamese would not. A wider market, perhaps, because English is perceived to have a “reach” that Assamese does not.

The premise is that Assamese writers who work in English – and there are quite a few of us now – are doing something somewhat reprehensible. Because we write in English, the inevitable corollary is that we know nothing much about the state or its people, and certainly not about its languages, never mind all the evidence to the contrary. Also, then, because this region has not figured extensively in the Indian writings in English so far, there is a feeling that we are getting away by merely exoticising the locale and the customs and lives for a readership which is not yet familiar with these.

It does not matter that my fiction and other writings, and indeed the writings of most of the other Assamese writers who write in English, are solidly “Assamese”, that is, from the state of Assam. It also does not matter to those who critique our choice of language by reasoning that we write in this language because it is, for us, the language we are most comfortable in writing, though we may be equally or even more comfortable speaking in one of the several other languages most of us know, while talking to others, in different situations,

Strangely, though (or perhaps not so strangely, after all), these suspicions and antagonisms do not come into play in my role as translator. Without exception, my translation work is viewed as something that is beneficial to the language and the literature of Assam as a whole, and this is completely independent of the quality of the work. That is, translations into English are totally acceptable, though original writings in that language are viewed with suspicion.

The two are binaries with the translation into English deemed to be a “patriotic” activity, but the original writing in English being seen as faintly a betrayal of the mother tongue, almost a traitorous activity. The reverse is true too, that is, translations from English into Assamese, and indeed into one of the several languages of Assam, is looked upon as being beneficial.

For various reasons, historical and social, the same situation does not occur in much of the rest of the North East, besides Assam. In the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya, particularly, the equations are different. These states have a strong oral tradition of literature, but till the Christian missionaries introduced the Roman script, there was not much written literature. For a while, books were written in the Assamese script, but after the introduction of the slightly modified Roman script, it ended. It is therefore much more acceptable in these states to write in English, given that the script is almost the same, anyway. The status of English is much higher in these other states. In Nagaland, it is the official language. In Assam, though, there is an uneasiness – a love–hate relationship between the “literati” and the language.

Is it possible to be only and exclusively an English writer in a multilingual environment, untouched as it were, by my Assamese? Simultaneously, as a translator from Assamese, I ask whether the source language is always Assamese. In short, my reflections demonstrate a linguistic continuum rather than discretely placed languages, which complicate the institution of translation. The reflections as well as the examples are drawn from texts I have been involved with, and also a few others.

Actually, none of the languages we speak or write in exists in a vacuum. No language operates in isolation. My work as a translator certainly spills over into the language in which I write fiction. The cadences of Assamese, the source language of my translations, certainly manifest themselves in the rhythms of the dialogues that my characters speak in when I write in English. Mamang Dai, writing her The Legends of Pensam in English, nevertheless retains a flavour of her own language Adi in the cadences, as indeed do many others who write in English from this region.

Since I exist in a multilingual environment, words, sentences, and phrases from one language often cross over into another. Indeed, while writing fiction in English, or while translating into one target language, that is English again, I have often regretted that it is not really possible to have this same fluidity in our work as well.

This fluidity that I speak of is more in evidence in some of the works in the Indian languages. The to and fro between tongues, evident in our speech, is reflected to a certain extent in our bhasha writings. However, original writings in English from this country have yet to find a way to completely reflect this fluidity. The same is true of translations as well.

This gives rise to an intriguing situation where multilingual writers translate into or write original works in a language that is not their “mother tongue”, but, can be, and often is their first language. The mother tongue is certainly influenced by the first language. A person whose mother tongue is Assamese can, by virtue of being born and raised in Kolkata, consider her first language to be Bangla. Her mother tongue is definitely heavily influenced by Bangla. But the opposite also holds true. The first language, too, cannot help but be texturised by the mother tongue, in vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure. This is as true for writing as it is for speech.

At a personal level, then, my Assamese is not only Assamese, nor is my English only English. Both these languages are influenced by the tongues I speak and listen to on a daily basis. And these influences certainly spill over into my writings as well, whether translations or fiction. A translator, in this way, can be said to be disturbing two insti- tutions of language.

Besides, the influence of my translation work is certainly a part of the fabric of my own writings. The way I negotiate with the source language, Assamese, is echoed in some of the words I use in my fiction, especially if they, the fictions, whether novels or short stories, are located in this region.

To take an example, in my translation Guilt of Harekrishna Deka’s story Mahisa Mardini, there is mention of the edible greens, dhekia. While contextualising the word, I searched around and realised that they are generally called leaves, plain and simple, in English. Certainly, the word served the purpose, to an extent. But dhekia fronds are not leaves. After several consultations, I contextualised them as “fronds of edible ferns”, for that is what they are. And now, when I use the word dhekia in my own work, this experience of translation comes in handy, and I contextualise this as “edible ferns”.

There are several other intriguing aspects when it comes to translating into English. One of the most debated ones is that of spelling. There are numerous nouns which have the letter “ch”, as it is pronounced when written in the Devanagari and Bangla scripts. However, the letter “ch”, even though it exists and is commonly used in Assamese, is pronounced as “s”.

Therefore, we have words which use the “ch” letter, but are pronounced as “s” in Assamese, frequently used words such as “sador”, the cloth wrap mostly draped over the upper body, and part of the two-piece attire of women, the mekhela sador.

The problem is that these words, with or without minor variations, exist in Bengali and/or Hindi as well. In these other languages, the letter is pronounced “ch”. So, we have “chador” in Bengali, or “chaddar” in Hindi.

There is today an intriguing situation when words that have this letter are translated into Assamese. The path of the spelling goes, as it were, “via” Bengali, which was commonly known till about a generation or so ago. Traditionally, the translated spelling of words using the “ch” letter has been to put in the spelling as it would exist in Bengali. So, in the past, words such as chador, and chari (meaning four, chaar), and luchi have used this spelling when written in English.

However, over the past few years, in the original works of writers who work in English from Assam, the tendency is to use the “s” sound to approximate how the word is actually pronounced. Hence, people such as Jahnavi Barua, and also this writer, would spell the words in the Roman script as sador, and saari, and lusie.

This has led to quite a raging debate about the way these words should be spelled – via the “historical” route or the phonetic way? Publishing houses in Assam are divided on the issue. The rule in the Assam Tribune, which publishes my columns, is that it should be the historical way. I send in copy which spells the words as “sador” and “saari”. What comes out in print, though, are “chador” and “chaari”. It is an ongoing battle that is not yet resolved either way. Also, when our work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is being brought out by a publishing house based outside the state, the “s” spelling remains.

The intriguing thing is that the two points of view are divided quite firmly. Those translators, who also have original writings in English, seem to favour the phonetic spelling.

There is a rich body of Assamese literature which needs to be translated into other languages, including but not confined to English. It is heartening that several good translators are now doing so. And now, when original writings in English are also coming out from this region and this state, these translations, when they are in English, are expanding the vocabulary and ambit of the target language as well.

Excerpted with permission from “When India’s North-East Is ‘Translated’ into English, by Mitra Phukan, from A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India, edited by Rita Kothari.