“Many shall run to and fro

And knowledge shall be increased” (Daniel,12 : 4)

- The Old Testament 1611

“Many will be at their wit’s end

And punishment will be heavy”  (Daniel, 12: 4)

-The Old Testament 1970

Every time someone asks me to write or speak about translation I panic and read about a thousand pages on the subject and come up with nearly the same ideas as before and perhaps a few new quotations. But now I’m wondering whether to Uncle Sam or John Bull it because being Indian and casually polyglottal, I’m from a gene pool which provides the world with its greatest mimics.

Though we haven’t yet reached the point where we transpose the two (like the French publishers of Susan Sontag’s book did when they printed the words “traduit de l’ American” on their title page) I will warn my readers that I’m going to say something about what happens when languages that have no capital letters are put into a tunnel called Translation and  extruded at the other end in the shape of a third language: not the Indian native, not the English native but a phantom creature which, like English itself (on the subcontinent) has no geographic base and for that reason floats free of regional barriers.

This creature blithely enters (for instance) the Oriya consciousness without wholly leaving its natal home in (for instance) coastal Karnataka.

Capital letters are just one of the many problems (a carelessly prepared glossary will say Dosa and Dasaratha thereby giving them equal status) but first take a look at the two quotations at the top of this article. Both from the best printed, most translated, and most widely sold book in the world: the Bible—itself a translation of a translation of a translation—in two kinds of English from two printings separated by four centuries.

Don’t they make you wish you knew the original text? Can we be sure that this is what the original writer or writers had in mind? No. We cannot be sure.

And that brings us to the edge of the abyss: how much can we trust these slippery customers, our translators? Didn’t Karl Marx say that sailors, thieves and translators built empires?

Translation is about trust, it is about cracking the code and manipulating secret understandings. No wonder, then, that at the top of the pyramid of translated texts are mankind’s sacred literatures and esoteric writings.

The map of translation is also the path of the crucial but often invisible intersections in world culture which, like the tracks in a rail-junction, show a crisscross movement of ideas, words and forms. Since it isn’t possible for everyone to remember everything, two little history lessons: One, India created ties with the Mediterranean in the 6th century BC and medical theories found in Greek thinkers like Plato and Galen originated from India, and two, in the 9th and 10th century Baghdad, the scientific and philosophical works of ancient Greece were translated into Arabic by groups of Syrians, Greeks, Persians, Jews, Hindus and Armenians.

Ancient empires kept a close eye on each others’ library acquisitions and competed for scholar-translators in the world-mart exactly like universities the world over woo the best scientists today. Under the early Abbasid and later Umayyad Caliphs the best translators were paid their weight in gold. Literally.

You can research this statement if you like but get this straight: Translation is not only about Omar Khayyam singing in the wilderness. (By the way he was a mathematician not a full-time poet). Nor is it only about demons flying through the skies, nor even Ulysses’ voyage home after he set Troy on fire. Translation is about science, astronomy, engineering, the pyramids and aqueducts and yes, even road-building. Translation made all this possible.

So here’s the score.

No translators=no translations=no translocations of knowledge. Not even recipes for food/beauty concoctions.

Let’s remember that all intellectual transfers since the ancient Phoenicians, Chinese and Persians had to cross boundaries of land and barriers of language. And that is why one of the first things a conqueror did (and still does) is to control communication in the region he vanquishes, forcing its local languages to go underground. Schools, newspapers, and worship in those languages are banned or savagely controlled.

Which brings us to something typically human. Since information systems have always been sources of power any translation/transfer threatens someone. The priests, the kings, the medicine men, (down to the dubashes who helped sell India to invaders) all guarded their scrolls and secrets jealously.

During the time of the Bible translations some 10 centuries ago, it was certainly dangerous to be engaged in its translation. When William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible didn’t suit Henry VIII who decided there could be only one version of the Holy Book, he was strangled and burned in Antwerp in 1536. Ten years later, Etienne Dolet, an advocate of reading the Scriptures in non-Latin languages, had to die because his French translations carried a few words that were not in the original, a horror that his judges could not bear to leave unpunished.

See what I mean?

In 1940, the German translator of Proust, Walter Benjamin, a great writer and theorist committed suicide in the washroom of a railway station, and in 1991, Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death by the author’s religious detractors.

By now you’ve guessed that one more item has slid into this article besides the need-to-know basis of suppression of information and that is the anxiety of authenticity which haunts monolingual cultures, namely, “Is this what the original actually said”?

But when we come to India, which is Bharat, we enter the translator’s paradise because no Tower of Babel myth plagues multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural India. Our plurality (five language families unknown elsewhere in the world and 14 major writing systems) shields us from the idea of “the original” and “the copy”. Nothing and no one is that unmixed or that pure.

After all, wasn’t Valmiki an SC/ST hunter? His Ravana gripped Sita by the shoulder as he lifted her into his flying chariot; Kamban’s Ravana doesn’t dare to even touch Sita, he (ouch) pulls her off the ground by her hair.

Tulsidas, bowing to upper castes and begging their pardon before even beginning his sketch of Rama’s character and history, is even more respectful. His Ravana scoops up the very earth on which Sita stands and deposits her beside him before pounding off through the air to Lanka.

What original? What copy ?

And then came Macaulay, with his imperial plan to civilise and educate Indians (1835). Seeing the upward mobility potential of English and the no-go situation of studying the classical languages of India some of our social leaders and do-gooders collaborated, and what do you know! The study of English Literature was institutionalised in India before it was in England, where it was still considered inferior to Latin and Greek.

Yes! You could get a BA Honours in English Literature from the University of Calcutta 35 years before you could in Oxford (1894).

But what does this have to do with us on this page and why should we want to translate ourselves into English? Why am I perspiring to explain why Mahalakshmi sits comfortably in the middle of a lotus with elephants and food and gold coins and Saraswati on a rock?

Because in 1913 literary superstardom visited India in the form of a Nobel Prize in Literature for an imperfectly self-translated work.

Gitanjali pushed Rabindranath Tagore into such unmatched fame in the Anglophone world that ever since, our writers in the other regional languages have thought to themselves “Hmmh....I could tolerate English if it means being more widely read.”

However, another two questions boil around us and that is: since literary translation is about translating the small percentage of books worth reading—or should we say rereading—who are the gatekeepers who make the list of books that need to be translocated from a tropical garden to a cold temperate one? And who are the people who are going carry this killing load and take that leap of faith to get to the other side of what can only be called the linguistic chasm?

The answer is editors and publishers who believe in the narrative of a nation and see it as part of their historical duty to scaffold the cultural capital of their country weaving both politics and social trends into their choices. And translators who are not just bilingual, but also bicultural, with an evangelical drive and enormous self-belief and stamina to get through months of drafting, redrafting and consultations with both author and translator. If the author is no more, then responsibility simply deepens further.

A land in which the majority of people believe in rebirth is a great place for me to say that translation is a type of rebith. But this rebirth is frame-worked by specifics of culture, metaphysics, politics, and the social institutions of the linguistic community.

The idea of “madi” or ritual purity, the problem of caste (not just untouchability but the whole range of castes and sub-castes by which nearly everyone is in some way not touchable by someone else), tribal beliefs, and not to mention the case of Indian Christians who changed their faith but not their culture, make for scripts instantly recognisable to a certain community but not to anyone else without explanations.

“Ramrathi clasped my feet like a bride leaving her father’s house in a folk-play” (Phaneeshwarnath Renu translated by Satti Khanna).

For whom are we translating? Surely, first and foremost for ourselves before creating a make-believe world for the non-Indian.

How to woo the non-native reader of a text and make him or her fall in love with the chosen work is a hard task. How to transmit the style of a particular author to suit the taste and experience of the target-language reader? How to translate jokes and insults? We have to be acutely conscious when we translate Punjabi or Marathi into English that we are introducing a regional culture to a more powerful national or Indian one and when this translation is made available to a readership outside India, we are introducing a national culture to a still more powerful international culture, which is in effect a western one.

The translator tries to retain the “pepper in the vada” (Ranga Rao, 1998) not domesticating the language nor homogenising it too much, casting it into a “universalist” mode because that is very tempting to do.

“Leaf –plate” or “dining leaf”? Consider the difficulties of translating the Siva Purana which carries a line describing Lord Murugan—saying, (roughly) that the light he emanated was so intense that he brightened his very surroundings; a famous scholar translated the word “mahaadhikrthe” as “a boy of great deeds”. Might he have tried harder? Is it any wonder that someone called translation the graveyard of great books?

Let’s look at a successful translation and see how the translator is just a single breath behind the author as he conveys the authorial voice in a language which  is his second language…a double feat of creativity, like jumping a wall facing away from it

“Da, aren’t you the son of that Theredya?”  The Vicar asked Manikyan when he was in the seventh standard and had gone to the parsonage along with the children who were to receive their first communion. The request that he too be allowed to receive the communion died on his quivering lips.

The Vicar’s question and tone hurt Manikyan.

“My mother’s name is Thresia”

“Pha! You upstart! Thresia? Since when has a convert started calling herself Thresia?”

The Vicar believed it was not for converts to use the names of upper-caste Christians. Not Thresia, but Theredya. Not Ousep, but Athuppu. Not Devassi, but Dehathi. As Manikyan was about to climb the flight of steps with the other children for their first communion, the Vicar stopped him.

“You just wait there. Don’t come up and defile the place.”

That day Manikyan, son of Theredya decided that one day he would dash up those very steps, join the seminary, study theology and become a priest.

(Sarah Joseph tr Valson Thampu)

What are the A-B-Cs on which an Indian translator might break a toe having begun with a-aa,e-ee,oo-ooo? What  might the translator effectively say? “She took care not to touch the puja items because she was in her period” is what a writer in English would have to say.

In a regional language text the second half of the sentence would not be present at all because not a single Indian, no matter what his or her religion, would need the explanation. The discreet “she is out of doors” is really too stuffy today though if the chronology of the text calls for it you will simply have to say she was out of doors.

One says “tuft” to translate the priest’s kudumi; not queue or ponytail. The translator has to continuously make decisions about two or three things. Should she say “sire” or “my lord” or “ayya”?

Because reading a translation is like going to a foreign country,  are you going to give your reader “idli” or “steamed rice cake”? And of course there are no easy substitutes for “dharma” which quite often means different things depending on the context. What about “shaligrama” of which there are 23 different kinds and no direct translation?

Now to turn to sounds from the place that pays for our breakfasts and breaks in summer— the Market.

I’m sure there will always be a group of people who will buy books no matter what, even missing a meal to cover the price of a book but there is a second lot that has to be wooed with visibility tags on what is worth reading and who compares notes and chases the latest award-winning book or short-listed books.

It is this segment that matters when it comes to lifting a book from the frying pan and transporting it to the table! In this mall for books there is a small cloud. It is the tension between writers of Indian origin who write (and can write) only in English, and those who write in their regional languages and are dependent on translators and editors to take their work to the platform from which they might be offered for sale to the same reading public as the first group.

Naturally, when there is a struggle for survival (a book gets about two seconds of a browser’s attention), the question or sense of who is more worthy becomes a sizzler. Who is more worthy of being read? Whose intrinsic worth is greater? Who is easier to read? Who is the better entertainer?

Let’s be honest about why people read books that they don’t need to absorb to get their promotions or get through an exam. Who gets the publicity? Who is more sassy and communicates well with an English speaking and writing media? Resentments grow and are fed by a delighted audience who would like nothing better than a literary war.

A word about such words… The House of Blue Mangoes has some of the best opening pages I’ve ever read but if David Davidar got his geography wrong and had the south-east monsoon blowing through South India (p 54), I suppose editors who have never lived in South India could be forgiven for letting Esthappen and Rahel enter a village temple in Kerala  (God of Small Things, p 228).

Would Christians have entered a temple in small-town Kerala where everybody knew everybody else? Rahel leans against a pillar so she went well past the compound.

There are lots of other examples but since I don’t want to park myself on someone’s  permanent hit list I will stop with just these two and try to put out this fire by quoting Salman Rushdie, “Both drink at the same well. India that great horn of plenty nourishes us all.”

Translation is not only necessary but also emotionally an important means of maintaining a common culture because language is about identity and what can be psychologically more important than that? Can we hope to understand the world if we do not understand ourselves? Loss of language is loss of heritage, loss of memory, loss of history, and finally a loss of self.

An interesting bit of information supplied by the National Translation Mission is that of the eight major languages researched, the best hosts for works in English are Hindi and Bengali and the most translated Indian language into other Indian languages is Bengali.

Equally interesting is that the maximum number of entries for the Nobel Prize in Literature are from India.

I will end by presenting the colossal nerve of William Buck describing Hanuman’s jump to Lanka:

Hanuman stood on the hilltop. He held his breath and sucked in his stomach. He frisked his tail and raised it a little at the end. He bent his knees and swung back his arms. On one finger gleamed Rama’s gold ring. Then without pausing to think he drew in his neck, laid back his ears and jumped.

Buck knew no Indian language but read every translation he could and wrote his own Ramayana in English (1986).