February 20, 2020
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Sailing The Catamaran

Translation is hard work;like creative writing, you have to go on fine - combing till you arrive at a true rendering. Taking liberties with the original is unethical.

Sailing The Catamaran
Three presidents for the Indian nation—or is it four?—and a canny prime minister, besides NTR, are only casual contributions from the Andhraites who constitute the second largest linguistic group of the country. But Telugu also has a rich literature, especially vibrant fiction, and few know about it outside the region. Then why are there so few translations in English of Telugu literary works, Professor U.R. Anantha murthy had wanted to know.

Thus instigated, when I did undertake the making of an anthology of Telugu short stories and started translating them (Classic Telugu Short Stories released recently by Penguin India, Rs 150), I realised that there have been few creative writers among the Telugus. Kannada and Oriya have benefited from A.K. Ramanujan and Jayant Mahapatra, and Urdu and Punjabi from Khushwant Singh and Subhash Chandra Narula. Secondly, translating from a vernacular like Telugu has the vexing problem of copyright permissions; all the authors of Classic Telugu Short Stories are dead; and few Telugu anthologies have acknowledged copyright debts. The process of identifying and locating the heirs of the authors and securing permissions from them took a year.

My job was made more difficult by a principle I had adopted for myself. I chose stories with exceptional narrative appeal naturally, and all of them are steeped in the Telugu ethos, some with extreme dialectal ambience. Ethos specifics, such as items of food and costume, terms of familial relationships and endearments are like knots in the wood, liable to blunt the plane, being beyond the scope of the alien language. Translation from one Indian language into another is relatively simple; re-locating Telugu in English is tough: easier to sail the seven seas in a catamaran.

Telugu scholarship has not done much in the field of lexicography; lack of competent dictionaries is a deterrent; a language like Bangla, I am certain, has been better served. Our policy-makers, academic and literary, have failed so far even to recognise the problem. English is our reservoir language in the field of translations and we can begin with producing better vernacular-English dictionaries on the lines of the OED. A government headed by a prime minister who has translated a voluminous Telugu classic into Marathi has not even realised the role of translations as a superb means of national integration. We need a 'technology mission' for translations.

Translation is hard work; like creative writing, you have to go on fine-combing almost endlessly till you arrive at a true rendering. Taking liberties with the original text is unethical. And recent western critical theories—products of modern western history—are hopelessly out of place. After all, the author was dead only in a dying society, as Chinua Achebe might have said.

"We have to evolve our own rules and models," said Professor Sisir Kumar Das, the veteran translator. Fortunately, I had an Indian model before me: A.K. Ramanujan's rendering of Ananthamurthy's Kannada novel, Samskara. I attempted to build on Ramanujan in two ways. Like him, I kept reader-facility as my foremost aim, but I tried to bend the Indian language and vernacularise it as far as possible, without babelising it, by employing three devices: neutralisation, naturalisation and nativisation. Secondly I provided, for the more interested reader, notes at the very end in four areas: biographical, literary, ethos-specific and translational.

But the joy lies in the story.

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