“Many shall run to
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.