Gained In Translation

From the time I started teaching myself English in fifth standard by using the brilliant four-part translation manual by Odia educator Bainkunthanath Acharya – called ‘Structural Approach to Translation’ – I realized that ‘I’ exists only in translation – across languages, geographies and time-scapes. After learning the basics of the new language, I soon started translating bits and pieces of texts between Odia and English for fun. What started as play in childhood has continued with me till now as a source of joy and solace.

Over the last three decades, amongst other stuff, I have translated 18th century fiction and 20th century poetry, from Odia into English. I have also translated essays by Arundhati Roy, the educational classic ‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich, stray academic essays that have been important landmarks in my journey as a thinking and writing being, and quite a bit of poetry from across the world into Odia.

Recently, in an act of, what seems as hubris, I translated 60 story cards for children produced by Rajalakshmi Srinivasan Memorial Foundation, from Hindi to Odia. This was my first translation ‘assignment’. Just before I started work on these story cards, I had begun translating Hindi poems into Odia. Most of my translation practice has never resulted in publications; it has not given me any monetary compensation either. So, why do I do it?

First, it is a very effective way of learning languages by increasing intimacy with them. It is only by translating that one really understands languages, by occupying the tiny crevices and toeholds that ultimately prop up the soaring structures of their vast architectures. Just one example here will suffice. Say, you are translating a word as simple as ‘free’ into Hindi. It’s simple. Isn’t it?

No; it is not. The word ‘free’ in English collapses two meanings into one utterance, that need two very different Hindi words to be captured with accuracy. One meaning of ‘free’ is getting something without giving anything in exchange, as exemplified by the cliché: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” This meaning of the word ‘free’ has to be rendered in Hindi as ‘muft’. The other meaning of ‘free’ refers to the idea of being without restraints and constraints – ‘azad’ in Hindi.

I don’t know about you, but unless I am translating, I tend to gloss over such nuances while reading and speaking. And as a result, the intimacy borne through translation alerts you to the ideological framework embodied in languages as well. Why on earth, for example, would English conflate ‘muft’ and ‘azad’ in one word? What does it tell us about the world as ‘English’ sees it?

Apart from learning a language, there are often many ‘gains’ through translation. I read ‘Nirbasita ra Bilapa’ by poet Madhusudan Rao (1853-1912), an Odia rendering of William Cowper’s ‘The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk’, much before I read the original in English. To my mind, and I might be wrong here, the Odia version is an improvement over Cowper’s poem. One can give many more examples. But hopefully this single one will suffice for the time being to illustrate that much is often ‘gained in translation’ as is indeed lost.

A third reason, why I translate, without any apparent material rewards, is to spend quality time with minds often dead and long buried/burnt, that are immensely and immeasurably superior to mine. I feel humbled when I translate their works. But at the same time, I also feel deeply ennobled. This process is, what in many Indian traditions, called satsang. Satsang originally means association with the ‘true’/’truth’, and by extension with the beneficial/Shiva and beautiful/Sundara. It is not the noisy mockery that has come to be called by this name in this cacophonous century.

Thus, every act of translation is a process of strange alchemy, that transmutes not only the two languages that are now joined by a bridge, or for that matter the text that stands renewed with new flesh, bones and blood, but the very being of the translator himself. I am a mean, conceited and trivial individual; but I know I’d have been far more insufferable if translation had not shaped me.


[Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are personal and do not necessarily represent that of the website]

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