Translation Builds Bridges For Exchanging Ideas & Values, Enriching Cultures

What do Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Pratibha Ray have in common? They are acclaimed writers whose works became accessible to a wider readership because some scholars thought of translating them into English and other languages from the original language that the books and poems were written in.

Acknowledging the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development, the United Nations General Assembly, on May 24, 2017, declared September 30 as International Translation Day. It’s the day of the feast of St Jerome, who, having translated the Bible into Latin, is celebrated as the patron saint of Biblical scholars, librarians and translators.

Translators brought about globalization long before that word came into being. Translation has been an effective tool of exchange among different cultures since antiquity, as the story of Panchatantra’s travels around the Globe demonstrates.

It begins with Persian poet Firdausi’s epic Shahnama (written between 977 CE and 1010 CE) in which there is a curious tale about the sixth century Persian emperor Khushro, who hears about a magical herb called Sanjeevani, which can reportedly bring the dead back to life. His trusted ministers told him that the herb and its potion can be found only in the remote land of India.

The emperor, driven by the desire to become immortal, sent his physician Burzoe to India. After having searched the length and breadth of India for magical herb, Burzoe was on the verge of returning empty-handed when he came across a wise sage, who told him that the elixir is neither a potion nor a plant, It is a book called Panchatantra, which is rich in repository of knowledge and hence a source of immortality.

Burzoe took a copy of the Panchatantra to Persia where it was translated into the Pahlavi language as Kalileh wa Dimneh. The names Kalileh and Dimneh are the Persian version of Damanaka and Karataka, the two jackals in the famous Panchatantra story about conniving friends. In Shahnama, Firdausi celebrates this story in a chapter titled ‘Burzoe brings the book of Kalileh and Dimneh from India’.

This translation of the Panchatantra turned out to be immensely popular in Persia. So much so that  princes in ancient Persia were taught the Panchatantra for its ability  to convey complex lessons of state craft and good governance through stories. Subsequently the Pahlavi edition was translated into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew.

Thereafter from Hebrew into Latin, from Latin into Italian and from Italian into English. Sir Thomas North, a British judge and translator, introduced the stories of Panchatantra to the English-speaking world in 1570. This came much before Orientalists like William Jones or Charles Wilkins started translating seminal Sanskrit texts into English in the 18th century.

Written in 200 BCE (Before Common Era), the Panchatantra belong to the tradition of Nitishastra – a book advising us on wise conduct. It teaches us how to win friends, how to overcome difficulties, how to deal with foes and above all, how to live in peace and harmony. Perhaps it is the ability of the Panchatantra to explain complex notions through simple stories that has fascinated readers down the ages and inspired many translations.

Incidentally, during his maiden visit to Iran, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a manuscript copy of Kalileh wa Dimneh  to commemorate the ancient cultural ties between the two countries.

In these fractured times, we need translators more than ever before. Gone are the days when a translator was seen as a poor cousin of the author. There are thousands of texts in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages which are waiting to be translated into English for readers worldwide. At the same time, there are important English books that are still not available for non-English readers. Translation can not only play a pivotal role in facilitating cultural exchange, but can also help save the humanities from losing relevance.

So the Draft National Education Policy 2019 proposal to set up an Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI) comes as a good decision. The aim of the institute would be to carry out high quality translations of materials of importance between various Indian languages as well as between foreign languages and Indian languages. The institute will have the task of strengthening and continuing the commendable job being done by the Sahitya Akademi and the National Translation Mission over the years.

In contemporary times, translation is the Sanjeevani Booti which can revive our shared sense of humanity and rejuvenate us, We will always need a Premchand to translate Tolstoy into Hindi and a Gandhi to translate Tukaram into English.

(With inputs from report published in The Hindu by Lalit Kumar, who teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi)

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