I am often asked the question: How can you translate from a regional Indian language into English knowing that it is impossible to capture the nuances of the source language, its idioms and its cultural connotations? I do not attempt an answer, since I am not sure I would be able to find one. However, I do ask myself: how can a person who desires to read a text written in a language he or she does not read or understand do so except as a translated version?
Translation has been a regular activity in India for over a millennium, much before it was actually recognised as translation. Ancient Sanskrit texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were repeatedly translated into many other Indian languages, often getting subtly transformed in the process of retelling. Thus, the master narrative branched out like a great tree. These translated texts were the only ones accessible to the majority of our people, since Sanskrit was a monopoly of the privileged few. As a child, I listened to stories and folktales narrated by grandmothers, aunts, or even someone seated next to me in the audience while I watched a Kathakali or Ottamthullal performance that I could not quite follow. Most of these narrators of our childhood had lively imaginations: they would recreate, embellish, elaborate, and what we heard were free and magical translations of stories that we actually read and recognised years later.
Again, as children, we had no idea that stories by Grimm, Andersen, Aesop or the author of The Arabian Nights had not originally been written in English (in spite of the fact that the title of the last should have been a give-away!).
When I stumbled into translation in the eighties, I was not at all sure where I was headed. Translations from regional languages into English were not popular at the time and, if I was going to attempt one, I had no idea how I would be able to get it published. Fortunately for me, V. Abdulla of Orient Longman in Chennai decided to publish a small collection of translations of novels from Indian languages and he requested me to work on a Malayalam novel. That collection, called Sangam Books, did not do well. A whole decade was to go by before translation into English would achieve a measure of recognition and acceptance. During that dismal decade, a novel I had chosen to translate because I liked it very much languished successively in two well-known publishing houses, four years in one and three in the other, before the manuscript was returned to me for unexplained reasons.
Another question I am constantly asked is: for whom do I translate? This time, I think I have an answer. Essentially, I translate for a reader to whom the text is not accessible in the language in which it is originally written. Since the only Indian language I know is Malayalam, I certainly cannot attempt a translation from Malayalam into any other Indian language, much as I would have liked to do so. Therefore I translate into English, a language I have read and studied from the time I was a child. And the reader I have in mind is Indian like me, a person who I imagine would like to explore the literature of an Indian regional language that he or she does not speak or understand. For that is how I was able to learn what little I know of literature in other languages, unless translations from such languages were available to me in Malayalam.
I do not believe a translation can ever be perfect. Nor can it ever be complete. After multiple drafts, each of them chopped and changed, sometimes altered beyond recognition, by the translator, by readers and friends who have helped along the way, by editors, a moment arrives when the current draft has to go to press. Either because the time is up or because it is insane to go on any longer. No translator chooses this critical moment willingly, for the activity of translation goes on ceaselessly within the mind. Having handed in that last draft, I begin to be haunted by that other word I might have used or that near-perfect phrase which had obstinately eluded me. In the end, when the first copy of the translation reaches me, I am too afraid to look at it, so I leave it unopened for days.
A word about reviews. An editor-friend of mine once tried an experiment on reviews of translations. The translation of a novel was sent simultaneously to two reviewers, one of whom could read the source language, while the other could access it only in English. The reader who went through the English translation was delighted with it: it seemed to have opened a window for him onto an undiscovered world. The reviewer who knew the source language highlighted innumerable shortcomings in the translation and felt that it failed to capture the spirit of the original. Both might have been right. But what of the translator, who has to tread the perilous ground between the two reviews?
(The writer is an award-winning translator)