The debate around Indian translation is not just about cultural loss, it’s the role languages play in the field of translation & the hierarchy they fall under.
In Bangla, the term ‘babu’ is a term of respect, politeness, and a title all combined into one. But in literature, it can also be used as a taunt against the upper-class Bhadralok. When translated in English, it is difficult to find a word that can wholly encompass the cultural depth that this one word holds in Bangla.
This is the fundamental yet “interesting” challenge of translating literature, says author and translator Arunava Sinha, who has translated numerous Bengali texts to English. Literature comes from varying contexts within a particular language and while translating these, it is difficult to capture the particular “flavour” of the language that a novel imbibes, he says.
But the real crisis in Indian translation is not cultural loss, it’s the role that languages play in the field of translation, and the hierarchy that they fall under.
We all know India is home to a lot of languages and dialects — some peg the number at 400, others at 600. But the official number recognized by the Indian government stands at 22.
Within these, some have always enjoyed a privileged position of being widely translated. Languages such as Bangla, Malayalam and Tamil have been at the apex of this pyramid and continue to be. According to Sinha, Malayalam is perhaps the language that is being translated to English the most at the moment. But now, there are other emerging contenders and languages like Marathi and Kannada have also gained a lot of prominence in translation circuits.
But even though all of these are already widely spoken and well-known languages, with rich histories of literature and theatre, they still have the ‘emerging’ tag beside them. Therefore, a natural question to ask is when will the time come for languages like Western Pahari, whose script Tankri is considered one of the oldest written forms in South Asia. Or any of the several dialects spoken in the Northeast, which accounts for more than 200 literary traditions of the Tibeto-Burman language group. Will it ever come?
A cultural hierarchy
Sahitya Akademi, which is widely considered the top literary body in the country, hands out translation prizes every year — but only for India’s official 22 languages. In this scenario, it is hard not to see why some translations are more prominent than others.
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I looked through 27 published issues of Translation Today, a biannual peer-reviewed journal by the National Translation Mission, Central Institute of Indian Languages, which began in 2004. My search included the latest issue that was published in 2020. In the few issues that carried translations, the texts were primarily from, you guessed it right, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bangla and Marathi.
Even my own experience as a student of English Literature is testament to this hierarchy. The translations that I studied as an undergraduate and postgraduate were mostly in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi. I had one short story in Odia, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Rebati (a lovely read), and another interesting text was The Untouchable Spring by Dalit author Kalyan Rao, originally translated from Telugu. Notably, it was the latter two texts that had the least amount of research done on them. Compared to the likes of Amrita Pritam, Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, the critical engagement with these texts were extremely limited.
As Daisy Rockwell, an American translator who translated Hats and Doctors, a collection of short stories by Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk, explained, “In the power balances of the world, not all languages are equal, nor are their histories, nor are their pairings.”
And if there exists a language hierarchy, it is directly related to an unspoken hierarchy of cultures and states. For instance, ‘big cultures’ like Bangla and Punjabi are more likely to get recognition compared to others. This is not to say that lesser-known cultures do not have robust literature of their own. Then why this linguistic hierarchy?
According to Aruni Kashyap, assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, who is also a prominent Assamese translator, this ‘crisis’ in Indian literary translation — if one calls it that — is arguably a postcolonial one.
“Hindi and Bengali have widely spoken South Asian languages and surely will have more power inherent in them. This is natural, and I have no problem with that. It would be foolish to grudge that there are around 250 million Bengali speakers as opposed to only 20 million Assamese speakers or 3 million Bodo speakers. But this becomes a problem if people in positions of power refuse to treat all languages equally,” he tells me.
According to Kashyap, there is also a strong publishing nexus that contributes to this disparity. “Publishers and agents must make a conscious effort to make translations readily available. Not just from Assamese, but any language and especially works from underrepresented literary cultures.” He explains that the main challenge is that literary works from these languages are not seen as ‘valuable’ or ‘commercially viable’.
“Publishers say without shame that they can’t ‘sell’ when it is their job to find a way to sell works with literary merit.”
Corporate capitalism is pretty much the same everywhere, even when it comes to art and literature, and this proves it.
Dearth of translators
But, as Arunava Sinha points out, this disparity in Indian languages that are translated may have less to do with hierarchical notions of the language and more with a lack of translators from many of these languages. One of the reasons that Bangla and Malayalam have so many translations is because of the abundance of skilled, well-established translators.
Even Dr K. Sreenivasarao, secretary of Sahitya Akademi, in an interview, talked about how this lack of translators leads to a lack of exposure for regional writers.
And this is still in the field of translations from regional languages to English. When it comes to translations in different languages within India, Sinha says it’s more a function of local publishers in the states. And with the publishing industry being so unstable, especially with the pandemic, it is not hard to see why there isn’t as much initiative.
Even this infrastructural deficit of lack of translators is, I believe, a product of unequal opportunities and lack of pedagogy in most regional languages. A simple frame to measure this would be by looking at the number of English departments in colleges across the country. If I ask you to name a college that offers a degree in English, several names will immediately pop up. But if I ask you the same for Odia or Naga or Garhwali, the recollection is likely to not be as quick.
But changes are afoot, in the past few years, there have been several attempts to recover literature from several endangered and forgotten languages. For instance, recently, short stories from Tulu, an endangered Dravidian language, were translated to English and released by two scholars of the language. Furthermore, last year, Gautam Choubey translated Phoolsunghi, a 1977 Bhojpuri novel by Pandey Kapil, and it was the first novel in the language to be translated into English. Another interesting text is Jenny Bhatt’s translation of the short story collection Ratno Dholi by Gujarati writer Dhumketu, who was a contemporary of Tagore and Premchand.
Evolving role of a translator
Within this complex socio-cultural milieu, an emerging debate that has cropped up has been about the role of a translator.
For instance, there was widespread outrage after a White translator was appointed to translate the poems of Black American author Amanda Gorman, now famous for her performance at US President Joe Biden’s inaugural ceremony, to Dutch. According to critics, Gorman’s poetry should be translated by someone who is more attuned to her context — a Black, feminist, female activist. Yet, others feel that this will severely limit who can translate a particular text.
This signals a shift towards a conventional understanding of a translator as someone who should be an invisible figure. A translator’s presence within a translated text is as important as the source author’s, and this is beginning to be rightly acknowledged.
The three translators I spoke to regarding this had interesting contours to this debate.
Kashyap said that he was more comfortable translating texts within contexts that he was familiar with. “I prefer to translate works only if I have a comfortable working relationship with the author of the original text.”
For Sahni, in an ideal world, a translator will meet the metrics required in terms of the cultural context of a particular text. But we do not inhabit that ideal world and, in India, the question of identity itself is a “complex matrix”. “I would say that translators who don’t have the same experiences should not stop translating, but they can also do their best to find translators who display those qualities.”
Meanwhile, Rockwell maintains that she doesn’t “believe that White translators should never translate the works of authors of colour, or that literature of colonised language should never be translated into coloniser languages”. But she feels these choices should be open to discussion and that some pairings work better than others. “Very often it is the case in India that there are zero to one translators willing to translate a given text, so arguing about the identity of the translator would be a bit absurd.”
At the same time, she also acknowledged the privilege that some translators may have over the other, for instance, a Black translator compared to a White one.
This privilege cuts across gender and caste, most prominently, in India. Yogesh Maitreya’s book Of Oppressor’s Body and Mind talks about how savarna translators have been able to turn a profit by translating Dalit texts. Maitreya, writer and founder of Dalit publishing house Panther’s Paw, looked specifically at translations of Dalit literature in Marathi and noted that savarna translators had converted the demand for Dalit texts into a “saleable commodity” and profit-making venture, without exhibiting any responsibility towards fostering an anti-caste ideology. Listing 11 prominent books translated to English that have become part of literature courses in India and abroad, from Aidan by Urmila Pawar to A Current of Blood by Namdeo Dhasal, Maitreya points out how all the texts by Dalit/Buddhist writers have been translated by Brahmins or savarna translators.
In terms of gender, Rockwell revealed that there is a systemic bias against female authors worldwide. “Women are encouraged to write less, are mentored less, are published less, are translated less. At each step in this sequence, arguments can be made that there are simply fewer women writers.” This inequality, she says, manifests in translation as well, just by virtue of the fact that “there are far more male authors to choose from”, and publishers and translators alike may argue that their choices simply reflect the reality of industry.
In terms of lobbies to possibly address these issues, there is an Indian Translators Association but it seems to be quite defunct — the last update on its website was in 2018.
In 2018 as well, author Jenny Bhatt and a group of writers and translators attempted to establish a ‘Writers’ & Translators’ Association India’ to “ campaign and lobby as a self-governing group for better industry practices to help the overall publishing ecosystem grow and thrive”.
However, the effort fizzled out due to a lack of interest from writers and translators.
The crux of the matter is that translation is a highly complex undertaking and the work and the effort that goes into producing a well-translated text deserve a spot in the open. The common idea of translation being akin to a poor cousin of an ‘original’ text needs to be challenged.
The change in attitude is happening and translations are, in fact, even winning awards. It is gradual, but this fascinating and ever-evolving branch of literature needs to be spoken of more and understood more, for its diversity, complexity, historicity and effort.