February 19, 2020
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Politics Of Translation

What exactly is regional fiction?

Politics Of Translation
Visions-Revisions 2: Katha Regional Fiction
By Keerti Ramachandra
Katha Rs 150, Pages: 169
THE creation of linguistic states," wrote B.R. Ambedkar in 1955, "is the burning question of the day." Half a century later, we are reminded by Ms Jayalalitha's recent demand that Tamil, and the other 19 languages, be treated as national tongues on par with Hindi and English, that language is still a bargaining, if not quite a burning, issue. Prima facie, the suggestion seems reasonable enough. After all, why should a Malayali or Mizo speaker in Parliament not have access to the facility of translation if he chooses to represent his people's interests in his mother tongue? If, as our Constitution guarantees, being illiterate is not a disqualification in the democratic electoral stakes, surely it is a little contrary to demand that an MP should hold forth in either English or Hindi?

Indeed, if what one might call the Jayalalitha doctrine on matters linguistic is accepted in principle, it would certainly herald a field day for translators. Translation would be on its way not only to being, but to asserting its 'supremacy' as, one of the major intellectual industries in the country. Katha, a publishing enterprise with a specialist focus on translation, represents one of the success stories of the last decade in this regard.

In particular, Katha was in early on the 'regional' trend within cultural studies that Jayalalitha expresses with such vigour in politics. Indeed, this volume from Katha is glossed as "regional fiction". But what is regional fiction? Obviously, it would be vacuous just to maintain that these stories derive from some geographical location or other on the subcontinent, since this pretty much has to be the case. So is the adjective 'regional' to be equated with the idea that it emanates from a political entity known as 'the linguistic state'? It would appear so. Yet, even here, classificatory difficulties show up. For instance, the last story in this collection is an enjoyable modern fable in Urdu about a property dispute among four brothers. The theme is both culturally specific in that it uses the Arabian motif of the khawab (dream) and at the same time universal, but in what sense is it regional?

Of course, one could forget such nagging intellectual conundrums and simply lie back and enjoy the fiction. And there is much to enjoy. Nandita, a Bengali story by Bani Basu and translated with finesse by Jaya Banerji, explores the psyche of a young woman whose charm lies precisely in the fact that she feels everything so deeply that it hurts—not only herself but others. How does society deal with people whose only 'flaw' is their depth of feeling? This 'burning question' that Nandita raises is asked more obliquely in the three very moving stories that have children as their main protagonists—Burden, in Marathi by Prakash Sant and translated by Kamal Sanyal; Pabi Maina, translated from the Punjabi of Gurbaksh Singh by Githa Sagar; and Our Teacher by Sundara Ramaswamy translated from the Tamil by Malini Mathur. M.T. Vasudevan Nair's Sherlock is marked by that poignant humour that is his hallmark; while a grim and rather showy satire characterises Pratibha Ray's Oriya morality tale.

Judged in terms of readability and variety, therefore, this volume undoubtedly rewards the casual browser. However, it strikes me that if Katha is to go beyond its own benchmark now, it has to attend to the more problematic sociopolitical aspects of linguistic pluralism that Ambedkar struggled with. Blithely providing 'quality' translations without an accompanying debate on matters of regionalism and linguistic power is to neglect to build foundations for the important project of literary translation. "We want," declared Ambedkar, "linguistic states for two reasons: to make easy the way to democracy and to remove racial and cultural tensions." Visions-Revisions shows that Katha has the vision to sustain its translations. One hopes that, in the complicated political years ahead, Katha will also be flexible enough to revision its goals when required so that, as Ambedkar once envisaged, the 'regional' processes of translation serve the wider 'national' purpose of reducing cultural tension and enhancing the democratic ethos.

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