Literary translation is the most difficult art in the realm of writing in any language. It is an art because it involves transposing the soul of a particular culture into another. To do so, the translator must possess completely—or as completely as is humanly possible—the craft or the nitty-gritty, the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of not one language but two, the original and the one into which it is to be translated.

This apart, he or she must be sensitive to the cultural ambience of the source material and have the necessary skill and intuition to express it in another language. This act involves trans-creation or remoulding the given text in one language into another, without losing its psychological underpinnings and cultural moorings.

This task is indeed difficult but can become somewhat easier if, for instance, a novel, short-story, play or essay is translated from English into French, German, Russian or Italian because of the commonality of religions and experiences emanating from this exchange, despite the divisions within the Christian faith over centuries and the various orders and churches resulting from these schisms.

But it does not mean the “coolie labour” of recreating the world of a French writer into English is reduced in any way. It is hard enough to recreate a writer’s world in one language in another, but to do it memorably requires as a great a literary gift as the person being translated.

Manya Harari’s translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago from Russian into English made him famous in the Anglo-Saxon world and among those conversant with the language in the Indian subcontinent. It would be pointless to argue whether she succeeded in recreating the world of Zhivago/Pasternak faithfully for readers in English. The fact is that Harari’s translation is alive and vivid. There is no chance that her imagination could have distorted facts in an objectionable manner for the sake of literary colour, as is often the case while translating from an alien language.

One has encountered on occasion people who have read Doctor Zhivago in the original who smile superciliously and say Harari’s translation is “all right” but it lacks Pasternak’s intrinsic poetic quality.

The fact is that Harari’s translation reads beautifully and recreates a lost world, that of a czarist Russia crumbling before the Bolshevik Revolution just before 1920, and the consequences faced by characters such as Yuri Alexandrovich Zhivago, his beloved Lara and her daughter, and the rogue-always-on-the-winning side, Komrovsky, not to forget Zhivago’s wife and her parents, Lara’s husband, and Zhivago’s half-brother, the General.

The novel, or Harari’s trans-creation of it, manages to bring alive the tragedy of certain individuals caught in the vortex of a massive historical upheaval that upturns the lives of millions of innocents forever.

Translation at the best of times is a tricky business. One has read—like millions of others, contemporaries and predecessors—excellent translations of the Russian and French masters, the great Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes and, of course, the most emblematic of all Italians, Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy. The quality of these translations makes one wonder why comparable quality is not achieved when fiction from any Indian language is translated into English.

Khushwant Singh’s translation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada is, to put it mildly, indifferent. The novel may not have had great literary merit but it was an important record of the lives of the singing and dancing courtesans of Awadh in Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s time and the first war of independence in 1857 that the ruling British of the East India Company called the Sepoy Mutiny.

Courtesans in those days and their successors until about 1950 in independent India were trained in the nuances of Hindustani music, that is, khayaltaranatappa, and in light classical forms like thumridadrachaiti and ghazal. Many were even schooled in Kathak and specialised in “bhava batana” or explaining the meaning of the lyrics being sung through subtle mime. Khushwant Singh did a literal translation of the tawaif Umrao Jaan Ada’s world but could not capture its spirit. Was it because he was unable to enter a world unfamiliar to him, and any attempt to unravel its mysteries in a language not his own, English, was bound to fail?

The biggest literary casualty of translation from an Indian language into English is Rabindranath Tagore. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, translated Gitanjali, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The poems, with the celebration of nature and the spirituality associated with such an exercise, were a novelty in the West, which had already lost its religious and spiritual moorings. Tagore’s work, inspired by the Upanishads, was new. The core inspiration somehow managed to survive a just about passable translation but the quality of the effort came in for severe criticism in the next hundred years.

Read in the Bengali original, Tagore’s poetry is indeed formidable, and his range of experience—both at the concrete level as a life lived through a varied series of ups and downs, and at the abstract level of conceptualising these happenings as a part of the lifecycle—puts him amongst the great poets anywhere.

His anti-materialist—or should one say in today’s context, anti-consumerist—stand has made him a bit “old-fashioned”. He is not T. S. Eliot who speaks of “The Waste Land” that modern life has become, but he is most eloquent about the sweep of time and how it fragments and impinges upon lived human experience.

Tagore’s poetry cannot be properly translated into English. His novels and short stories, despite the cultural hurdles they pose for the translator, have fared better; though nowhere as good as the original, they do give a reasonable idea about the artistic quality of his writing, beautiful and full of humanism, a trait now virtually lost to literature everywhere.

As a reader of popular but substantial fiction in English, it would be difficult to imagine a bookshelf at home without the works of that crazy Belgian master, Georges Simenon, who wrote well over 200 works, many involving the deeply perceptive and compassionate French police detective Maigret, whose entire professional career he follows in a series of existential novels that chronicle life’s everyday tragedies.

In a Maigret novel, the murder-mystery is secondary; the writer is more interested in the ordinary people who are suddenly caught in a moral, ethical crisis often of their own making. One would have been lost without brilliant French-to-English translators like Jean Stewart and Eileen Ellenbogen, among a host of others, who have brought to pulsating life Simenon’s writings for readers who have only English. Need one add that Simenon continues to be widely read? He was that exception: a powerful, insightful writer who became a huge hit.

Let us come back to the Indian subcontinent. Two great writers, Phanishwar Nath Renu and Saadat Hasan Manto, will perhaps never be really well-translated into English. The major reasons for this failure are two: Renu and Manto belong to cultures not only different from each other’s but also far removed from the Anglo-Saxon world, indeed the Occidental world as such. In the hands of a goodish translator, they would come off as quaint, charming writers who dealt with conflicting worlds within the parameters of good old humanism.

Renu, like Manto, dealt largely with deprived, even marginalised people. But his touch was profoundly lyrical. He was a trenchant social critic who maintained a distance from the people responsible for creating social ills while maintaining an intimacy with the characters who suffered the consequences.

Even during his lifetime he was sidelined as an aanchalik or regional writer by other Hindi writers who lived in cities. It is virtually impossible to render his turn of phrase into English. His Hindi belongs to rural Purnea and is redolent of the sights, sounds and smells that make the place what it is. His wondrous mixture of lived experience of pain, sadness, laughter and fleeting happiness is caught in local dialect. It cannot be transferred to another foreign language, another world.

Manto was a different kettle of fish. He wrote in Urdu. His language was lively, often with liberal doses of colloquialisms, but had an inward elegance. He liberated Urdu and brought it into the bazaar. Writing mostly about prostitutes, pimps and other marginalised characters, he threw in an eccentric millionaire’s son like Babu Gopinath for good measure.

Partition and the creation of Pakistan brought out the best in the writer and destroyed the person. Like the Bengali writer-filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak who followed after him, his stories are about people not just economically beggared by history but spiritually bankrupted by it. He does not hesitate to record man’s insane brutality towards man without flinching or affecting the profoundly compassionate tone of his writing.

Manto, despite his sweeping humanity, suffers at the hands of his translators who try to render his culture-specific world into English prose. His nephew Khalid Hasan, a brave and gallant gentleman, despite the purity of his intentions, simply cannot render his world into English with any degree of artistic conviction.

The problems of translating from any Indian language are addressed by Ira Pande, an excellent translator from Hindi to English. She accepts a manuscript only if she is comfortable with its milieu and is attentive to the patterns of speech that make the original work.

Daughter of Shivani, the well-known Hindi writer, she translated her mother’s stories into English after she passed away to make them accessible to her friends, many of whom were English-speaking Indians. Her experiment paid off. She managed to do seamless translations of the stories from Hindi to English. She remembers, “I was able to do it because I was familiar with my mother’s language, her personality.”

She feels it is tough translating fiction from Hindi to English because you recreate from a matrix of one language into another. “It is easier to translate non-fiction than fiction,” she says. “Hindi is very onomatopoeic. It is based on oral traditions … the human voice with all its inflections, sounds and smells that are a part of a given environment: these are very difficult to translate (from Hindi into English).

“There is no problem in translating from Hindi to Bangla or Hindi to Gujarati because the musicality of one language translates very easily into another.”

Pande was complimented for her English translation of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s Ta Ta Professor, set in a small village in Kumaon, Uttaranchal. “I was able to do it because Manohar Shyam Joshi wrote in Kumaoni Hindi like my mother did. I was on firm ground. One must be sensitive to the time and place while tackling a period piece. Using modern English to convey the nuances of a story set in an earlier time will just not work. You have to choose your words with care, and structure your sentences keeping the timeframe in mind.”

Those of us who have only English to fall back on must feel indebted to the great translators who have brought us masterpieces from Chinese, Japanese and European literature.

Let us begin by thanking the Edwardian era couple Constance and Edward Garnett who translated the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev from Russian into English just before the First World War (1914-18). Even today their translations are regarded by those who know both Russian and English as being authentic and full of local flavour. There are of course detractors who feel that the translations by the Garnetts were a wee bit too poetic and lacked the necessary rigour. But then opinions are bound to differ. Reading the Garnett’s’ interpretations’ of the great Russians in English, can still be an enjoyable experience.

Marcel Proust, the great French writer and aesthete whose magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past took the literary world by storm in France, was brought to the notice of readers of English through Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s accurate yet poetic translation. The first volume was published in 1922. The multi-volume memoir by Proust played freely with time and dwelt on minutiae of things, people and places. Proust’s choice of details was precise and very evocative. Moncrieff’s translation was highly evocative.

Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a sharp, accurate but sympathetic portrait of a mid-19th century provincial French doctor’s wife committing adultery out of sheer boredom and then paying a terrible price is brought vividly alive into English by Mildred Murmur, and before that Paul de Man, whose work is based on the Eleanor Marx Aveling translation.

In Victorian England, Edward Fitzgerald translated The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khaiyyam, which went into 55 editions in the next 75 years, that is, till just before the Second World War or 1939. Omar Khayyam was a Persian mathematician and poet in medieval times. So adroit was Fitzgerald’s translation that it was considered to be the genuine article, a fact that came to be challenged post-1950. Literary bickering aside, Fitzgerald’s translation still reads very well.

No discussion on translations into English from other European languages would be complete without the mention of North’s translation from Greek of Plutarch’s Lives, an author reputed to have provided William Shakespeare with plots for many of his plays. Shakespeare, like his illustrious 20th century successor Bertolt Brecht, German playwright and poet, was happy to work on story material provided by others and turn them into memorable plays.

Returning to India and translations from Indian languages into English, the picture is bleak though there is the occasional room for hope. Tara Joshi is a well regarded translator. She translates from English to Hindi. She became a translator many years ago in London where her husband was posted. She translated Ruskin Bond’s Flight of Pigeons as Parwaz, and did a collection of Bond’s stories that was called Patangwala Aur Anya Kahaniyan.

has also translated Yann Martel’s problematic novel Life of Pi, calling it Pi Patel Ki Ajab Dastan. Joshi has done Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag as Firozsha Baag Ke Kissey. Her latest translation from English is Milestones, the autobiography of Indrani Jagjivan Ram.

Joshi’s approach is pragmatic. “If I don’t like the content (of a manuscript) I don’t accept the offer. I have to be emotionally involved with the story or the novel to be translated.”

She believes translation is about conveying “meaning and emotion with fidelity from one language into another. You have to choose the right word. Words have different connotations.”

She is equally fluent in English and Hindi, and is an adept user of dictionaries. While translating one of the manuscripts by the distinguished Sanskritist professor G. C. Pande, her elder brother, she used a Sanskrit-Hindi dictionary to advantage. Like Ira Pande, Tara Joshi is not a translator by profession. She does not earn her living by it and so is free to accept only material that interests her.

To come back to the joys of reading masters from other languages in English, Gregory Rabassa deserves our eternal gratitude for translating the spirit of Gabriel García Márquez’s stories and novels in Spanish with such verve and feeling. They include One Hundred Years of Solitude, Leaf Storm, Chronicles of a Death Foretold, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in the Labyrinth, and Living to Tell the Tale, the last an autobiography.

No account of this business is complete without a mention of the numerous unsung Indian translators working in Indian languages. Bangla writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and others were read in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat with great pleasure, something impossible without the labors of these terribly underpaid men and women.

A judge at the first Jnanpith literary awards, Shankar was paid the princely sum of Rs. 50 rupees for his labours. He returned the cheque saying that if the Sahu-Jain group of companies wished to pay then they ought to give him one per cent of the award fees: Rs. 1000. The reply came promptly that due to budgetary restrictions, etc. … ! So much for translators and their lot.