My earliest memories of stories are of my mother reading Asterix (as-tay-rix as she called it) to my sister and me in bed. We were a middle-class family with cultural capital that stood for “merit” in the semi-rural environment we lived in. These hand-me-downs from urban relatives or “books”, formed by carefully collecting and binding the weekly full-page comic section from The Week, were our windows to the world of imagination, and history, and mythology, and geography – and translation.

After all, not many works are such true epitomes of translation as the Asterix comics are. The fact that we Indian Anglophones enjoy the puns and the biblical and literary references in them, though originally written in French, as much as the French do is purely thanks to the ingenuity of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. We were too young and too busy laughing our heads off at the “teet for tat” and the “boar boring?” and the “what a knows” to know how much of translating skill had gone into keeping the spirit of the original puns alive.

But thirty years down the line, as a translator myself, I marvel at the love these translators had for language and literature – for love is what it takes to translate well – which enabled them to bring these stories alive in a new language.

Hybridity of the mother tongue and the handiness of English

My relationship with my language is strangely indirect. I don’t have the excuse of being an expat to claim the lack of early bonding with Kannada. On the contrary, it has been my first language and continues to be what I speak with some of the closest people in my life. But the Kannada I speak is not the Kannada that is considered the “standard” in literature. Although some very prominent writers, including Da Ra Bendre, have written in the linguistic nuance of my region, the Sanskritised Kannada of most books remains a second-cousin-twice-removed of my version’s, which has a fair amount of Marathi and Urdu intonation, if not actual words. A hospital, for me, will remain a “davakhana”, and the world, “duniya” (versus the “aspatre” and “jagattu” of the books), a shambhar – hundred – percent.

Hence, while the language of literature in Kannada seemed alien, English, thanks to its position as a second language, did not have an additional dimension in its strangeness. Also, the caste/class implications of colonial complications ensured that there was no awkwardness to the cultural distance it posed. It wasn’t mine, and hence mine for the taking – and for moulding. It also helped that there was good children’s literature available in English that our parents and grandparents could read to us.

But when the speed with which they read proved to be inadequate for my hunger for stories, I must have willed myself to learn to read so I could do away with the interlocutor. The language of Enid Blyton and Hans Christian Anderson and Hergé, Goscinny and Uderzo (in translation, of course) and of Uncle Pai, and later, of PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Salman Rushdie and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in translation, of course) must have sunk in subliminally, affording me an ease and comfort with English that later facilitated my translation endeavors.

My decision to translate wasn’t driven by any great ambition to take the stories in my language to the world. On the contrary, it was to read them for myself that I wanted to translate Kannada works into English. And this has greatly improved my relationship with Kannada.

Beginning translations

The first time I did a translation that was used by anyone in a worthwhile way was at university in Hyderabad. I was part of a film studies course where we studied Indian cinema of the 1950s, during which we watched a film every week and discussed the theory around it. We had watched several films in various Indian languages, but the only Kannada film in the syllabus had no subtitles. Since there weren’t any other Kannada speakers in the class, our teacher suggested we drop it.

I suppose I was driven by some latent linguistic pride when I offered to write the subtitles myself. When I began doing it, I realised it was easier said than done, as speech needs tactful handling in translation, lest it become literal and dowdy. I learnt a lot during this exercise and it was a proud moment when the class watched the film and understood it.

The lessons I learnt working on the subtitles came in handy when two of my other teachers, Susie Tharu and K Satyanarayana, asked me to translate several stories for a book of contemporary dalit literature that they were editing, titled Steel Nibs are Sprouting. Since then, I translated a story here, an essay there, for journals and other publications.

The next big translation I did was HS Shivaprakash’s plays for the Sahitya Akademi. Manteswami Katha Prasanga, a modern musical based on a dalit oral saga, was the most difficult work of translation I have done so far. It taught me the most, as it had several dialects that gave it the richness of layers. The linguistic maneuverings I experimented with to recreate the layers gave me great confidence as a translator.

A handful of retrospection

I think literary translation has to be a combination of free, semantic, and faithful translations with the aim of achieving idiomatic fidelity. Every translator’s subjectivity varies in deciding what goes where – and her sense of discernment shows in the smoothness of the outcome. However, during the process, one mustn’t concern oneself with this terminology and categorisation, and must simply concentrate on being true to the spirit of the context.

“…having now subscribed to the Samyukta Karnataka newspaper, he was able to talk authoritatively on any current topic of anyone’s choice. Rains and gains, harvests and produce, Gubbi Veeranna, Shanta Apte, the War, Hitler, Congress, the freedom struggle, Gandhi-Jinnah, Japan, divorce, Churchill, the hermits that gathered for the four-month holy period of Chaturmaas – you name it, and he could hold forth eloquently on any subject. And neither he nor his audience were too particular that he speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, moreover, which aided his eloquence.”

This instance in the novel containing a description of the protagonist’s wastrel of a son demonstrates this combination. “Rains and gains” (originally “mali-byali” which is literally “rains and crops”) is an idiomatic translation as I wanted to retain the rhyme in the original while re-producing the intent. As an agrarian people, the characters refer to “rains and crops” as a sign of well-being; “gains” stands in for crops and conveys the same meaning while recreating the aesthetic of the utterance. The other kinds are apparent.

“‘Luccha-lafang!’ he yelled, ‘paji badmashhalkatphajal...labad…’ having emptied the Marathi vocabulary in calling him a lout, wastrel, rascal and scoundrel, he continued with a few choice curses in broken Kannada about his mother’s questionable morals and his diet – which he insinuated was catered to by the wrong end of a cow – and warned him against stepping into the house. People set aside their important tasks to gather for the show.”

This instance of a man’s tirade against his eloping employee when he returns with his brand new wife veers largely towards a free translation. As he yells at him in a combination of Marathi and Kannada, I thought it important to retain the sounds of some of the swear-words in order to convey the guttural intensity of his anger. Some of it is annotation, which I felt was necessary to bring out the humour of the situation.

I resisted reading translation theory before I translated as I didn’t want to be inhibited by notions that could curtail the creativity of my judgement. This is not to discount the importance of theory to practical translation – on the contrary it is to uphold an inductive approach to theoretical generalisations, which, I believe, is best as an individual path of discovery, even if it is not an original one. I insist that translation theory must be studied only after one has had a tangible experience of practical translation.

Today, I am thankful that I have made it this far. All I want now is to live in the flux of my love for words, true to the spirit of the last lines of Kuvempu’s famous lyrical poem, “O Nanna Chetana”, that I translate as follows:

“The endless treads past all ends
And with the eternal does he blend,
As is becoming of becoming, 
Limitless, limit not your ascent”