Saturday, July 4, 2009

Readability as Conformity: The Politics and the Commerce of English Translations from the Indian Languages

One of the substantive differences between a serious literary publication and a commercial one is the attitude it has towards its readers. What separates a serious literary publication from other types is whether it merely caters to its own idea of `what the readers want’ or it considers its readers as intelligent discriminating people willing to explore various alternatives. It refuses to take the reader for granted. The other essential difference lies in its attitude to the writers and their writings. Both these aspects are of course interrelated. The question is of the commercial facet of publication. The question here is regarding certain extremely prestigious publications professing serious literary concerns while they are actually interested only in their calculations of profit and loss. The issue becomes very striking in the context of publishing literary translations from Indian languages. It revives the long-familiar deliberations about politics of English in India, but in the context of `marketing’ these translations.

The editors of these prestigious English-language publications recklessly impose `stylistic modifications’ on the translations from the ‘regional languages’ of India so as to make them more `suitable’ for their readers. Interestingly, these editors have hardly any knowledge of the source languages or the processes of translation, or even of the aesthetics of literary genres. They feel that they are making translations more `readable’. However, what one means by `readable’ or `natural’ is the question not many of these editors would like to pursue. Linguistically, whether there is such a thing as a single `natural’ English register even where English is the first language is a question that one would like to ask before asking whether there is a single universal `natural’ English register in the world. Today, when we are talking of Englishes rather than a single `English English’, asking for conforming to one subjective perception of `natural English’ is nothing more than neo-colonial arrogance. While I admit that editors have the right to proofread the text for grammatical `errors’ (a question equally vexed) or point out (not change but suggest changes) the existence of clich├ęs and idiomatic oddities, I believe that changing the imagery, syntax, lexis, paragraph sequences, descriptive passages without any knowledge of the source text and the aesthetics of form is nothing less than the perpetuating of a tyrannical colonial mindset by the twenty-first century brown sahibs and memsahibs. I believe English is very much an Indian language but the Indians who speak English have yet to learn how to treat the other languages as equals.

However, there is another side to this story as well. As every translator of Indian literature into English knows, a great many writers in Indian languages, though they may be vehemently opposed to the oppressive presence of English in India are, in fact, exceedingly eager to get their works into English. The thirst for instant fame and the desire for some sort of `international’ recognition make many of the writers submit to this editorial colonialism. After all, exploitation is a two handed game. Very few writers are willing to stand up and resist the editor’s policy of such a `back-seat’ translating. However, not every writer is so timid as to compromise with his or her art. And the case of Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla becomes particularly significant in this context.

Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla are two young and brilliant Gujarati fiction writers. They are marginalized in Gujarat not only because they belong to the minorities in Gujarat but also because what they are doing is something radically new in the Gujarati literary context. Both these writers are exceptionally meticulous about their craft and aesthetics of the form of fiction. They give great importance to literary and stylistic aspects of their craft such as imagery, symbolism, paragraph sequences, and the structure of their stories. Both these writers are remarkable in their artistic use of locale, dialects, and their knowledge of subcultures. Nazir writes about a small fishermen community in Diu and Mona writes about the Parsis and the interior villages like Vasda in South Gujarat. Though their stories are mythopoetic, they are extremely realistic in their descriptive style. They write with deep knowledge about the rural areas and their stories have a very indigenous texture to them. Though both of them are influenced by some version of nativism, they are thoroughly modernist in their treatment of their themes. They are also postmodern in the sense that they are aware of the shortcomings of Indian modernism and move beyond it. Their stories reveal their aesthetic employment of myths, symbolism, and archetypes without ever losing their realistic mode. They are extremely bold in their depiction of the existential dimension of sexuality. Homosexuality, obsessive desires, and illicit relationship often come under their lenses. Both these writers use cinematography-like devices in their narrative technique. A good reader is able to identify layers and layers of mythical, historical, and existential meanings in their texts. No wonder they are marginalized in Gujarat. Translating these writers is a great challenge even for a native speaker of Gujarati. These stories are very difficult for the urbanized Gujaratis as well as those who have no knowledge of the archetypal and symbolic modes of narrative fiction. I have managed to translate these writers merely because I was lucky to have them beside me. While translating these writers, I tried very hard to retain all the things mentioned above like technique, aesthetics, native textures, and dialects and so on in some form.

Mona Patrawala very spiritedly rejected a very prestigious award for translated Indian fiction in English because the editors insisted on sticking to their `version of the story’ though they had absolutely no idea of the source text and they hardly understood what is meant by the aesthetics of narrative. Thanks to their own class, regional, and caste location, they wanted the story to be more `urbanized’ and `urbane’, something that these stories are definitely not. What they meant by `natural’ English was, I suspect, some metropolitan variety of Indian English, irrespective of the fact whether this idiom represented the source text in some form or not. They insisted on this sort of idiom because they thought their readers are like them: ignorant of the other interior Indias and ignorant of artistic aspects of the narrative mode. Mona Patrawalla and her nominator for the award, Nazir Mansuri, threw away the award because the version they wanted to see published was not the one their editors wanted to publish---something that other Indian writers in regional languages rarely do. This experience was repeated when another smart-looking metropolitan `literary’ journal published a tampered and doctored translation of Mona’s story. When she and Nazir, who also had contributed his story, protested and demanded that the other stories should be published with doctoring, they received a curt reply from the memsahib saying that the magazine has rights (given to them by the ex-rulers of the British Raj, I suppose) to make `necessary stylistic modifications’ in the interest of the readers. To an extent, they may be right, for they may be thinking of their readers as belonging to the same location and ability as readers of Ms. Shobha De.

New Quest, on the other hand, is publishing two stories, one by Mona Patrawala---the version which she finds acceptable, and a story by Nazir Mansuri, because it has faith in the intelligence and ability of its readers. Mona Patrawalla has rejected the earlier draft of the same story that appeared in another magazine.

Before concluding, I would like to comment as a translator and a theorist on certain theoretical issues involved in this question. As a literary translator, I believe that my editors should have reasonably good knowledge of aesthetics, literary devices, and ideological debates and so on and if they do not know the source language and the text, they should have faith in what I am doing. As a translator, I aim for approximate equivalence not at the level of word but at the level of poetics. I believe these editors are simply ignorant of such things.

I also recommend two ideas for serious consideration by the editors of so-called literary publications. The first is Professor Lawrence Venuti’s radical position as propounded in Translator's Invisibility (1995). He critically examines history, politics and economics of the norm of nativization of the translated text in order to make it appear as if it were originally written in the receptor language, to make the translator `invisible' and marginal. He examines historically how the norm of fluency prevailed over other translation strategies to shape the canon of foreign literatures in English. He makes a strong case for `foreignness' and `awkwardness' of the translated text as a positive value in the evaluation of translation.

The other idea that I would like these editors to think about comes from a great German hermenuetician Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). He says that there are two ways of translating: ` Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader towards the writer or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer towards the reader' and favours the first method which emphasizes the idea of drawing out the readers from the linguistic world they inhabit. I believe that the first method is radical and the other one is commercial. Though I am not suggesting that one should publish awkward and unreadable translations, I believe that if the editors do not know the source language and the text, they should have faith in what the translator is doing, however `awkward’ it is, in the interest of the source text. I am also suggesting that in a serious literary work, the things like paragraph sequences, descriptions, imagery, textures, and other artistic aspects of the source work have a very important function in the totality of the target text. If the editors do not know such things then they should stop calling themselves editors of literary publications.


Schleriermacher, F. 'from "On the Different Methods of Translating" Translated by Waltraund Bartscht.' in R.Schulte and J.Biguenet (eds.) 1992.pp.36 -54

Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. (eds.) Theories of Translation: An anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1992.

Venuti, L. The Translator's Invisibility: A history of translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1995

_______ `The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference.' London and New York: Routledge, 1998

This article appeared in New Quest , A quarterly journal of participative inquiry, Mumbai, April June 2005

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