Over the past 30 years, literary translation from Indian languages into English has seen tremendous growth, marked by a steady rise in the number of titles published each year. Translated texts are discussed with keen interest and some “vernacular” authors have come to occupy a central place in the national literary landscape as a result.

However, the increase in attention and readership has not been accompanied by a deeper appreciation of the process of translation, its distinct achievements and limitations. It is largely in this spirit that I propose to undertake a critical scrutiny of this article by the well-known Tamil writer Ambai, which was published here last month. Several collections of short stories by Ambai have been published in English translation, with at least three of them winning prestigious prizes in India. Translators of Ambai’s fiction include the late Lakshmi Holmstrom, Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Gita Subramanian, CT Indra and GJV Prasad, accomplished translators all. As far as I know, Ambai has not published any work of literary translation herself in English.

A framework for translation

Here are some basic concepts about translation meant to provide a framework for the critical remarks that would follow. Essentially, literary translation is the (re)writing of a given literary text in the source language into literary text in the target language. The translator must first interpret the original, see what effect it has on them, then try to represent that effect in a language and culture not the author’s own. And how do translators do it?

To paraphrase Mark Polizzotti, author of Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translator’s Manifesto (2018), they achieve it through a combination of empathy for what they are translating, resourcefulness with language, and instinctive choices at each instance to convey in each instance a particular blend of tone, sense, sensibility, music, information, emotion, and rhythm. The translated text is shaped for the most part by the cumulative effect of a translator’s choices.

The notion that a translation is in the service of the source text, and that the translator should attempt to find an exact equivalence with the original is an outmoded idea. As Walter Benjamin wisely said, “Translation is a provisional means of coming to terms with the foreignness of a text.” The core value of a translation is that it is a part of the literary corpus in the target language.

So, while translating, the translator must not only do justice to the source text, but also produce a text in the target language that is comprehensible and affords literary pleasure to the reader. The translator is always balancing these two requirements with their skill and ingenuity.

Now we turn to Ambai’s ideas on translation and translators.

Illusions of inadequacy

As someone who has translated and published a fair amount over the years, I don’t think translating from an Indian language into English comes anywhere close to “piercing a mustard seed to let in the seven oceans”. The hyperbole may seem true of Kural because of the brevity of the two-line couplets that make up this ancient Tamil classic, and the distilled language of poetry. Such a conceit cannot come easily to an author of contemporary prose fiction or their translators.

Ambai’s complaints about the inadequacy of translation in the rest of the article are far from convincing. For starters, the two instances she cites to establish the inherent limitation of translation across cultures – narrating an Indian story to an American child and the interpretation of a Puranic tableau by an American cultural anthropologist – do not pertain to translation of a literary text. By its very nature, literary translation is more anchored and disciplined, with its own purpose and methods.

Ambai seems to imply further that the experience of reading a translation must be very nearly the same as reading the source text; else, much is lost through the enterprise of translation. This is to miss the inexorable reality of the translation process. Because it happens through a translator’s reading and interpretation of the original, a translation is a representation, not a reproduction, of the original. It is a different text, and not necessarily a lesser one for the difference, because both are literary texts created, each in its own way, through an intense engagement with words and meanings..

Similarly, if there are words in, say, Tamil for which there are no equivalent words in English, it can be a source of pride and joy for some, but it is no tragedy if the translator uses other means to convey the meaning of such words. Language is a system of signification, and translation from one language to another happens at the level of the signified; or, as Benjamin puts it, from “the language beyond languages.”

If a stream flows chalachala in Tamil, it’s a gurgling stream in English. If woman laughs galagala in Tamil, she breaks into peals of laughter in English. This act of “carrying across” cannot be construed as a diminution of the source language without undermining translation itself.

Of languages and cultures

There is another sound reason for not fetishising the language of the source text. Translation happens not only between cultures, but also between two time periods within the same language. That’s why, across the world, ancient and medieval texts are translated into contemporary language over and over again.

The obvious reason is that none of us can understand the language of the past easily, even if it be our own. So, if the past is another country and we make allowances within our own culture for the foreignness of its language, it makes perfect sense to do the same for our foreignness with respect to another culture.

Most translated fiction published in India is meant for the Indian/South Asian market. Very few of these translations have been published abroad. We mostly translate for an Indian readership. So, there has been no need to “pander” to the global North with footnotes. Even better, footnotes went out of fashion quite a while ago because they were perceived as causing disruptions to the narrative flow.

Signposting untranslatable culture-specific terms and providing a glossary at the end are the strategies employed by translators to deal with terms that are not directly translatable, and not through footnotes. Glossaries stem from a simple need to address cultural differences and a desire to be understood by readers others than those from our own culture.

For example, two Tamil novels set in a subaltern landscape, Poomani’s Piraku, about a community of the oppressed, and Joe D’Cruz’s Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, describing the trajectory of a fishing community, both featured glossaries for the benefit of readers used to standardised Tamil. From the same perspective, translators are not guilty of self-abasement in resorting to such practices in their work.

Why translation is essential

Is English translation a superfluous, distorting and demeaning crypto-colonial imposition on Indian language literatures and authors, as Ambai seems to imply in this article? Hardly. There are three reasons we should unconditionally value the production of English translations.

First: It provides Indians who know only their mother tongue along with English, or only English, access to literatures in many Indian languages, a very important contribution to the evolution of contemporary literary culture in India.

Second: Since people who have literary competence in two or more Indian languages have become a rare species, translation into Indian languages, and indeed several foreign languages, have begun to happen through English translations. Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur) is a good example. Several other examples can be cited where English translations have provided the vital link to other Indian and foreign languages.

Third: English translations help to showcase these literatures across the country and the world. They enable Indian language authors to participate in domestic and international literary communities, opening doors to conferences, residencies, festivals and workshops, all the way from Brooklyn to Borobudur, with Bellagio in between. The benefits to individual authors as well as the cause of literature cannot be overstated. Without English translation, Indian language authors would be condemned, in George Steiner’s words, to “a life in their own province, bordered by silences.”

Ambai’s proposition that there is a hierarchy between the translator and the translated is absurd. It is true that for Indian language writers, being translated into English seems like a privilege, at least party because good translators are in short supply. However, beyond their freedom to choose the works/authors to translate and functional autonomy during the process of translation, translators are hardly in a position to pull rank on the authors they translate.

Without some kind of “real estate” and the networking/favour-trading capacity it enables, translators have precisely zero clout in the milieu. It’s baffling why Ambai would dream up a hierarchy that doesn’t exist in reality. In the words of a senior colleague, “the implication seems to be that translators are somehow powerful and celebrated. As any translator knows, translation is a largely thankless task: solitary, poorly remunerated, and if successful, ignored in reviews.”

Ambai’s comments on the type of books selected for translation are equally baffling. Commercial prospects for literary translations have always remained low. Literary translation is supported by publishers and cultural institutions more as an essential facet of cultural production than with the expectation of sizeable profits.

A large proportion of the translation titles produced over the last 30 years are works of unimpeachable literary merit and by authors celebrated in their own community. It can hardly be argued that the market has skewed the selection of texts for translation in favour of the unworthy.

Finally, we take up a couple of negative comments made by Ambai on translators: that “they alter the original story from what it actually stands for and they unravel a story in ways in which it was never intended” and that “stories hide elements and emotions in a way that they reveal things in a manner totally different from what the translator can conceive.”

Speaking as a translator, I must say that it is impossible to alter the original story, distort its intention or give away its mysteries merely by the act of translating the text, word for word, sentence for sentence. However, a translator is a reader first, and no author can abridge a reader’s autonomy through authorial assertions over and beyond what is contained in the text.

Contrary to Ambai’s assertion, translation is indeed done from the source text and not from the author’s exegesis. Again, Ambai’s ideas of how a text is received and translated are outmoded and hinge on the presumption of an author’s authority over their translator(s). Unfortunately, there is no reasonable basis for such a presumption.

Knowledge of any art rests primarily with its practitioners. Translation is no different. It is perhaps time for translators to speak up on behalf of their own art, not only to obviate any possible misconception by other stakeholders, but also to inform the reading public, including critics, of the nuances of their work. The milieu can only be enriched by such a development.

(With inputs from Daisy Rockwell.)