Thursday, December 27, 2012

Translating Creative and Critical Texts: Theorizing the Difference

As a practicing poet, critic and translator, I feel that though these are distinct activities, all of them have elements of creativity, critical thinking and intercultural aspects common to them. These elements of course vary in proportion. Creative writing involves critical labour, as Eliot pointed out. Critical writings involve creativity of reading and creativity of presentation. Both these activities have intercultural dimensions. Translation involves a high degree of creativity, critical sense and intercultural awareness, probably more than the other two activities. However, this does not mean that they are indistinct or homogenous activities. I think of them, in Wittgensteinian way, as being different ‘language games’ with only a faint ‘family resemblance’ to one another.

As a translator of Gujarati literature, I have translated short stories of noted writers like Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla and poetry of Narsinh Mehta apart from the contemporary poets like Mangal Rathod, Rajesh Pandya, Rajendra Patel and Jaidev Shukla. I have translated a good amount of contemporary Marathi poetry.

However, my experience of translating critical prose is fairly limited. Thanks to persuasion of Prof Rakesh Desai, I translated two articles on Narmad by Bhagwatikumar Sharma and Gulabdas Broker. I have also translated an essay by Ashok Vajpai into Marathi titled ‘Kavita Main Kya Hota hai’. In short I have some experience of translating both the kinds of texts: creative and critical texts.

Whether translation of critical prose differs substantially from creative writing ultimately depends upon whether you conceive of critical writing as being distinct from creative one. What I have to say here is in no way new or original. In fact, for many who are not conversant with the implications of literary theories, what I say may sound obvious. However, the postmodern theory has radically questioned what we have taken for granted or taken for obvious and hence, I have framed this discussion around the theoretically assumptions of poststructuralist theory. 

In the present paper, I argue that the abstract postmodernist and poststructuralist theories of literature which seek to erase the distinction between the literary and the non-literary or critical are of little use to me as a translator working with concrete texts. It is ironical how often the poststructuralist theoreticians who celebrate contradiction and difference are only too willing to erase the distinction between the artistic and the non-artistic. This impulse probably owes something to the postmodern condition which has played a crucial role in establishment of poststructuralist theory.

The formalist view of literary text as self-referential and autonomous, and the poststructuralist view texts as essentially intertextual seem theoretically irreconcilable. One is left in a theoretical aporia as the literary text seems to be paradoxically both: a self referential and autonomous order, AND an intextual entity.

However, I believe that this paradoxical and self-contradictory nature of the literary texts sets it apart from the non-literary ones.  This means though the literary texts are intertextual, they are primarily self-referential and self-sufficient. They are primarily about themselves. On the other hand critical texts are primarily about other texts. This is other way of saying what is traditionally believed of the difference between literature and criticism: literature is ‘autotelic’ and autonomous, criticism is parasitic, depending on literary texts for sustenance.

However, though the distinction is theoretically a contentious one, it is still a useful one empirically.  At least, in the context of the texts I have translated.

Consider, for instance a passage from Mona Patrawalla short story ‘The Clasps’:

It was not yet midnight; even then the village was dead silent. In the dark and cold Margshirsh night, the village stood as if, frozen, amid the dense sag, mahuda and bamboo forest. On the Valsad-Billimora highway, trucks laden with timber stolen from the outskirts of the village droned occasionally, honking and quaking the whole village. After they were gone and there was the immense silence again. Plains surrounded the village and then the Sahyadri valleys and mountains enfolded it.  These hills seemed to embrace the village full of small mud huts with their roofs of paddy straw. Bamboo groves surrounded the entire village as if they were ubiquitous bhungara cacti. It was a large village. Soon after nightfall, the village guards would light and hang up the lanterns on the poles. Then the whole village fell silent.  If one had not seen the lanterns hanging or bells ringing behind the chippa carts bound to the hatwada, he would be terrified to death at the sight of lone lantern approaching in the night. Besides, there was the crematory near the river Kavery behind the village. Many people lost their lives by drowning in the depths of this river. So the horror of ghosts, spirits or chudels would make the villagers peer into the darkness.  The needle of suspicion, however, would all the time point towards Kanta, the witch.

In spite of intertextual allusions to things like Margashirsh and stories of ghosts, the passage is designed to create a self sufficient world in which the narrative occurs. The primary purpose of such a passage is to evoke an aesthetic response to a sinister and dark world of Kanta.

On the other hand consider a critical text on Narmad by Bhagwatikumar Sharma:

The disposition for social reformation and for combating social evils of the age was so deeply ingrained and powerful in the poet Narmad that he could not remain content with literary compositions, essays and lectures. Hence it was inevitable that he would enter the field of journalism. In fact, it would have been surprising had Narmad not turned out to be a journalist.

The germs of journalistic temperament are extensively found in Narmad’s nature, in his activities and in his prose style. He was by nature a person of ‘Josso’- the irrepressible spirit. He was by innate nature given to opposing social evils and to promoting social reforms. He was often impulsive, impatient, decisive and completely unafraid. These are considered to be essential qualifications of a true journalist and so these traits molded the journalist in him.

Though there is a narrative side to this discourse, the intention is not to create a seemingly autonomous world as can been found in the earlier discourse.

Even when there is quaint sort of archaic rhetoric in Gulabdas Broker’s essay ‘Narmad: The Renaissance Man’, the rhetoric is not exactly ‘poetic’:

Narmad was undoubtedly a poet. He might not have polished much of his writing, but even then he was a poet. There wasn’t much possibility of doing so in those times. Though many of his poems are definitely uncouth, there can be no denying the fact that he was a poet.

He was a dauntless man- though he may have been conceited at times, and often he might have fought the battles which were not his, yet one cannot deny the fact that whenever time came to fight, he was not the one to run away.

Though he might not be much of a scholar in the true sense of the word, but he was unquestionably a complete connoisseur of knowledge. As he was working with scarce resources of his times, it was difficult to do sound scholarly work in the up-coming field of literary studies.  Yet whatever work that he did, like preparing the dictionary, writing about prosody, studying the  folklore, researching the old poetry, reflecting upon history and so on, it was not possible to do these things without deep interest, passion and understanding of these subjects.

One notices that the literary and the critical are two distinctive discourses, differing in the form, content and function from each other and can be marked by distinct rhetorical strategies. The translator has to be aware of the distinct nature of rhetoricity of two kinds of discourses. The literary texts are far more artistically complex and self-sufficient than the critical ones. In Jakobson’s terminology (1960), the critical discourses privilege the ‘referential function’ of language while the poetic use of language focuses on ‘the message for its own sake’.

Having said this let me add that there are many kinds of creative texts and there are many kinds of critical texts and translator has to be aware of these differences within the categories. There is no need to point out that translating a Ulysses or Finnegan’s’ Wake is more difficult than translating Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy, or that translating Harold Bloom or Jacques Derrida would be obviously more difficult than translating Gulabdas Broker or Bhagwatikumar Sharma. The strategies and devices of the translator also vary from text to text.

My personal belief is that the translators of literary texts have to be creative writers in the first place. Though this may sound dogmatic, very often, the translator who has no experience of creative writing has no idea why and how literary devices are employed and what is the significance of those devices. The non-literary translator may not need to know how symbolism, archetypal patterns, or metaphors function in poetry or how narrative techniques of flashback or  foreshadowing function in fictional work or what is the significance of such devices in the totality of the literary text. However, such a knowledge is prerequisite for the literary translators. Hence, one can expect a bilingual short story writer to translate short story more effectively than the translator who has no experience in writing short stories. One can expect a bilingual poet to be a better translator of poetry than a person who has no experience of writing poetry.

This means a literary translator ought to have literary competence, that is, not just the knowledge of literary devices, their function and significance in the totality of a text but also the knowledge of how to use them in an appropriate ways. After all, he is writing a new short story, novel or a poem. It implies that the literary translator ought to be much more than a critic.

The theoretical question whether the literary and the non-literary discourses and consequently the literary and the non-literary translation are essentially different can be conceived of in a Wittgensteinian way. The literary and the critical discourses may not be ‘essentially’ different from each other, but are two different ‘language games’. The similarity within the categories of the literary and the non-literary can be explained in the terms of ‘family resemblances’ (Wittgenstein, 1958:31) rather than essences.  

If literary and non-literary translations are two different language games, it means that there is an element of dexterity and skill involved in playing those games and some players are more skilled than others.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation. Trans. GEM Anscombe, 2nd ed, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958
Roman Jakobson Closing statements: Linguistics and Poetics, Style in language, T.A. Sebeok, New-York, 1960.
T.A. Sebeok.  Style in language, New-York, 1960.

(Published in 'Between the Self and the Other: Translation as Praxis' ed. Rakesh Desai, New Delhi: Saroop Book Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2013)

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