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Hemang Desai

Hemang Desai: From Translation to Transnational

Painting by Priyadarshi Patnaik; Aswamedha Series

From Translation to Transnational: A Journey beyond Poetics and Politics

Vagarthaviv Sampruktau Vagartha Pratipattaye
Jagatah Pitarau Vande Parvati Parameshwarau

Inseparable as Word and Meaning Parvati and Lord Shiva are
Bless me, O cosmic parents, with the knowledge and use of that unity.

The invocational verse, the great Sanskrit dramatist Kalidâsa recites at the inception of his timeless epic Raghuvansham, states very succinctly what the Western civilization took centuries to cogitate and crystallize. The verse emphasizes the fact that Word (vak) is inextricably bound up with Meaning (arth) and any attempt at separating the two would lead to distortion, miscomprehension and miscommunication which is precisely what a translator audaciously sets out to do. 

In his seminal treatise “The Diversity of Human Language - Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind” (1836) Wilhem Von Humboldt hypothesizes that languages tend to shape the thoughts of the people who use them. He remarks, “Man lived with objects [around him] mainly or rather – as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects – exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him.”2 Language by adding meaning to the world of objects helps its users to make sense of the world in its own peculiar and restrictive way. Consequently, linguistic diversity across the world plays a significant part in the maintenance of corresponding differences and diversities in culture and mentality amongst the people of various regions. This idea was carried forward by Edward Sapir who firmly believed that languages are enmeshed in their cultural contexts and so the scientific study of language could not be separated from anthropology and psychology. In his view “No languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live, are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached…we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

Elaborating upon the statements of Sapir his own disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf gave the “linguistic relativity principle”, known popularly as “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, according to which “users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation and hence are not equivalent as observers.”4 Thus, in Whorfian perspective translation from one language into another is problematic and sometimes impossible because when even within a single language any reformulation of words has implications for meaning, however slight and subtle, aspiring for inter-lingual synonymy is far too elusive and overambitious. Consensus has been established among thinkers on the fact that any human communication involves translation of a sort. Thus, any textual formulation has implications for a ‘change of meaning’ as meaning does not reside in a text but is generated by interpretation. 

This paradigmatic shift brings us to an ever-enlarging diversity of structuralist and poststructuralist theoretical perspectives elaborating on the notions like text, context and subtext all of which collectively further problematize the nature of translational practice. Locating polemically their discursive formulation on the substratum of the postulation that no text can mean what it ostensibly seems to mean, the theorists have radically interrogated, undermined and at times tried to subvert, though for good, ( as Jorge Luis Borges says the original is unfaithful to the translation) the validity of translation enterprise. While deconstructionist critics attribute the impossibility of arriving at determinate, stable, coherent and present meaning to the endless play of differential internal forces within the linguistic system, the psychoanalytic as well as the social analysts of discourse view the ‘manifest’ meanings in a textual formulation as merely disguise or a mask for the hidden meanings which, according them, are suppressed because of various psychosexual, ideological and discursive compulsions. 

The claims of (un)translatability gain stronger leverage when it comes to translating literary or metaphysical writings where meanings are absolutely dependent upon the particular form of words, which is not the case with more pragmatic or less expressive writings. Any act of translation as such has its own problems and literary translation adds to it the problems of art. Connotative nature of a literary text makes it incumbent upon the translator to bring out the moral, allegorical, ideological, sensuous and stylistic features of the source language text in his translation. As Bradley observes, “And this identity of content and form …is no accident; it is of the essence of poetry in so far as it is poetry. Just as there is in music not sound on one side and a meaning on the other, but expressive sound…so in a poem the true content and the true form neither exist nor can be imagined apart…”5. That a literary artist exploits the sensuous aspect of words in order to accomplish extra-linguistic semantic purpose, that notion of ‘polysemy’ or meaning in its intellectual, emotive, associative and tonal shades embodied by individual words poses intricate and daunting problems to the translator are some of the objections against literary translation. 

In spite of these theoretical objections and misgivings, translations are undertaken across the globe quite qualmlessly because in the postmodern world marked unequivocally by socio-cultural mixing consequent upon ever-blossoming cyberspaces, aspiring global economy, technology and mediascape, man can no more sit complacently and contentedly within the four-walled privacy of his habitat and has to develop ‘translating consciousness’- a phenomenal human forte at translating the ‘brave new world’ in his own terms and adapting his personal world to it. It is by dint of his unmistakable willingness and competence to translate and get translated well that man is able to widen his horizons beyond the cartographic demarcations imposed upon him by culture and society in its medieval and parochial sense. In a nation like India, with its ‘multi’ realities - lingual, cultural, religious, ethnic -, in a nation that has a microcosmic relevance to post-modernese worldview, the need for translation is urgently felt as it is one of the few efficacious ways through which an integrated mix of identities and assorted realities could be accomplished. Translation activity is indispensable in India as a means to build cross-cultural bridges amongst a large variety of linguistically diverse locality and to accomplish emotional and intellectual as well as cultural and national solidarity. If India as a multilingual nation-state has to boast of anything similar to representative national literature it has to sincerely resort to incessant translation practice. When religion, which could have served as a broad-based national integrating force, has become a disintegrating and degenerating factor for the country, translation remains only way to create a ‘third space’, to borrow Homi Bhabha’a phrase, which offers a hybridity of cultures, a space where differences are valued and respected. 

Specified below are the problems and challenges that beset a translator who grapples with the task of rendering texts from Gujarati into English though many of them are generic in nature and applies to all translations into English from native Indian languages. Translation of literary works from a native Indian language into English involves not only challenges pertinent to linguistic makeover but also to that of cultural one. ‘Paradigm shift’ or the ‘Cultural turn’ in the discipline of translation theory has drawn translation increasingly away from the problematic notion of finding just verbal equivalents to a matter of transferring certain contexts or cultural patterns which do not belong to the target language culture. Literature, to the scholars subscribing to this non-essentialist perspective in the realm of translation, is a sub-system of the cultural semiotic system and since it is “correlated with other cultural systems and embedded in the ideological and socio-economic structures of society, its dynamism is far from mechanistic”6 Far from being an independent and self-sufficient body, it operates in a broader social and cultural framework, as influencing and being influenced by multifarious social, political, economic “signifying practices” that manoeuvre in the same socio-cultural framework. 

The primary task of a translator is to interpret a text encoded in one semiotic system with the aid of another. The enterprise of translation thus undertakes a conversion of texts from one type of poetics into a totally different one. Therefore, the difficulties in translation need to be dealt with not only in terms of formal linguistics, but also in terms of culture, history, politics, and metaphysics and so on. The semiotic formulation of the notion of ‘intertexuality’ is significant here in as much as it views any signifying system as already consisting of other modes of cultural signification. Thus, a text would implicate not only other verbal texts but also other modes of signification like myths, fashion, indigenous medicinal system, food, metaphysical structure, other literary texts, literary genres and devices and other symbolic structures. The degree of translatability depends on the similarity of the cultural structures of source and target languages. The more remote and disparate these structures are, the more problematical the translation becomes. The translator rendering native Indian texts into English runs a risk of ending up with a mistranslation, wittingly or unwittingly, because in his case the source language and target language are not only separated by space and time but also share a relationship of the colonized and the colonizer. Diachronic study of translation in India has been a witness to the fact that translation has often been wielded as a polemical weapon to subvert the hierarchical relationship between the linguistic and cultural worlds represented by the source text and the target text. 

Subscribing to the “assimilative or subversive” politics of translation, Govind Mishra reworked Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) into Oriya as Athara So Satara (Eighteen Hundred Seventeen) which categorically asserted his anti-colonial, anti-English stance. The translation of Anatole France's Thais by Premchand was distinctly a political act in the sense that it selected a text which was not part of the literature of the colonial power and that it attempted a sort of liberation of Indian literature from the tutelage of the imperially-inducted master literature, English.7 The post-colonial writing defines itself “by seizing the language of the centre and re-placing it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place.”8 This anti-colonial self-assertive stance, in our present context, is likely to drive the translator to foreignize his translation to extent of marring its readability and lucidity. A translator, regardless of the languages he translates from and into, should bear it very clearly in his mind that his primary duty is to impart the target language text a distinctive and autonomous identity, the identity of being a literary text in its own right and not just that of a botched-up copy of the original. Foreignizing the translation for the sake of doing it or as a part of subversive politics in this postmodern world of interconnected differences, which it (translation) further seeks to wipe out, would be self-contradictory and hypocritical. To put this in nutshell, a translator has to do a balancing act between arrogance and obsequiousness as he translates. 

Mythological allusions and characters, articles of dress and daily use, native kitchenware, food items, native musical instruments as well as medicines, rituals and religious specifics are distinctively identifiable with a specific culture and so are untranslatable. They should be retained in transliteration and should be acclimatized in the target culture by way of glossary as their equivalents are impossible to be found in English domestic tradition. Sometimes these native referents have a metaphorical function in the larger narrative scheme and resultantly are so well tessellated into the overall semantic structure of the story that any attempt at replacing or paraphrasing them would deal a shattering blow to its symmetrical build. For example, to refer to the cloth which covers a woman’s breasts Gujarati writers use a variety of terms like ‘moliyo’, ‘kâpadun’, ‘katori’ which are nearly akin to the English ‘bodice’. However, such a replacement would sound quite facile and unduly simplistic, as it would connive at all the erotic and sensuous overtones (in Indian aesthetics) that the original terms carry. Similarly, when it comes to translating popular beliefs, omens and superstitions, the translator experiences a torrid time. Omens like “a cat walking across somebody’s way”, decorous formalities like “women pulling a veil over face in the presence of elders like father-in-law”, superstitions like “pouring a handful of water on head before entering a holy river” to pay homage to it and “putting out an oil lamp with the flap of a cloth” (and never with a blow of breath) are extremely culture specific and the translator has to resort to over-simplification and paraphrasing while translating them. Again a community address, that is, a noun derived from the name of a particular caste or community by adding suffixes like ‘o’, ‘an’ and ‘i’ to it, certainly sounds quite bizarre and weird to the Western reader who is not conversant with the hierarchical hereditary divisions established among the Hindus on the Indian subcontinent under the banner of jati, varna or caste. Therefore, addresses like loovâno, ghânchan, vâniyan, vâghri, bhangiyo, bhangadi, kâcchiyo, thâkore, patel etc. should be transliterated and explained in the glossary. The same is the case with certain conventional societal addresses, traditional kinship terms and conventional stereotypes. These are extremely culture-specific terms, loaded with emotional exuberance and convey sentiments of esteem, dignity, intimacy towards the person addressed. In a Gujarati poem titled ‘Chal’ written by ‘Sundaram’, the gopi sings,

Empty out your pitchers though full of water
Don’t heed sâsu’s injunctions

Here sâsu in simple terms means the mother-in-law. But such a replacement would strip the term of the whole bulge of connotations that it invariably carries in Indian culture. In Bhakti tradition of writing, sâsu is looked upon as a severe taskmaster who in collusion with her daughter, the nanand, the sister-in-law, keeps a strict vigil over the activities of her daughter-in-law, the gopi. Thus, sâsu and nanand represent oppressive stereotypes in Indian familial system. Allegorically they connote the social norms and constricting dictates of the mundane world, which hamper the spiritual growth of a devotee. In the same way, kinship terms like bhâbhi, brother’s wife or the wife of the husband’s elder brother and vahu, daughter-in-law, are loaded terms. In India, bhâbhi and nanand share a playful, lively and good-humored relationship. Both of them, if approximately of the same age, are not just legally bonded relations but intimate friends so much so that a nanand divulges to her bhâbhi all her secrets and discusses with her the issues which she hesitates to discuss with her mother. If the age difference between them is greater, bhâbhi becomes a motherly figure to the young nanand apart from being a friend. In a Gujarati story by ‘Sundaram’ titled ‘Kholki’ (You blockhead), the father-in-law calls out for his vahu, to bring water for guests. Here the term daughter-in-law would have sounded too formal and drab as it fails to convey the feeling of the awe, respect and security on the part of the vahu and a distant and yet fatherly attitude on the part of the father-in-law that characterize their relationship. This becomes manifest in yet another story by the same writer ‘Mâne Khole’(In the Lap of Mother), where Shabu, the protagonist, pulls a veil over her face out of propriety and decorum in the presence of her father-in-law. A translator can overcome these cultural hitches by relying upon all kinds of innovative devices such as borrowing, substitution, literal translation, neologism, omission, addition and paraphrasing.

If the problems relating to cultural transference are vexing, the structure of the language poses no less a dilemma to the translator. There is a great difference in the syntactical and lexical organization between Gujarati (or Hindi) and English. For example, English language has sentences with rigorous word order of Subject + Verb + Object, which is unmistakably maintained in all structures except in passive constructions. But most Indian languages has got more flexible word order and greater possibility for inflections, sentence structures are more assimilative in nature than their English counterparts. Attempts at translating a long-winded native Indian description running through a single sentence into an equally long- drawn-out English one prove to be futile and feckless. Apart from sounding jarring and stiff, such an attempt causes the problem of determining the noun, which the referential sub-clause refers to. At the lexical level too the distinction between second person pronouns of address in Gujarati like honorific ‘tamey’(aap) and familiar ‘tu’(tum) can not be rendered into English. Again, determining the gender of certain nouns, proper or common, like sun, moon, nation, rivers and mountains become problematic because while English tradition treats them as having feminine or neuter gender, many of them have masculine gender in Indian religious and mythographic systems. In such cases, a translator has to take into consideration the contextual, figurative and metaphorical significance of the noun before bestowing it with an appropriate gender. For example, in the story titled ‘Ambâ Bhavâni’ by ‘Sundaram’, moon is shown to be viewing the mesmerizing beauty of Ambâ, the heroine, and her lovemaking with Amro, the hero, from above. Moon, which has feminine gender in English, possesses a masculine gender in Gujarati and Hindi. But this act of secret viewing alludes to the same act performed by Lord Krishna in Vrindâvana. It may also refer to the mythical tale of Indra, the heavenly king of Gods, being bewitched by the ravishing beauty of Ahalyâ who lived on the earth. In the light of these two mythical significations, I thought it fit to inflect the noun with suffix - god and give ‘moon-god’ a masculine gender. Furthermore, in Gujarati and Hindi a verb is inflected according to the gender of the subject, even when the subject is as genderless as the first person. But English verbs are gender-neutral in nature and so when it came to translating the bhakti song ‘Mere Piyâ’ the English verb failed to convey the fact that a woman or a gopi is addressing the song to her lover or Krishna. Thus, while the original reads like,

Mai to chup chup chah rahi

The translation reads,

Covertly have I kept on doting

Furthermore, most Indian languages double words like adjectives, adverbs, and even verbs either to intensify their meaning or to indicate the boringly or annoyingly repetitive aspect of the action. This comes out very lamely in English. For example in the above given verse chup chup has to be rendered as just ‘covertly’. Serious problems in translation arise when a signifier has more than one unequivocal signified, that is, polyvalence or ambiguity in the meaning of a word or a phrase makes it difficult for the translator to reproduce all the semantic possibilities in the translation. In Sundaram’s poem ‘Mere Piyâ’ the beloved is singing the glory and supernal exhilaration bestowed upon her by her loving husband. The poem can also be read as a song by gopi addressed to her divine lover, Lord Krishna. The interesting play on the words chup chup in the poem produces more than one meaning. The first stanza is,

“O my love I don’t know anything
Covertly have I kept on doting.”

Here chup chup, in its most immediate sense, means ‘silently’, ‘quietly’ or ‘without a word’. The stanza seems to import that in love, vocalization of one’s feelings has no place let alone demands and complaints. Love is an ineffable and inexpressible emotion, which is conveyed without the aid of words. This interpretation gains force and authenticity in the second stanza where the poet affirms that in love one remains happily content with whatever one receives from one’s lover.

“O my love how disarming you are
Gratifying is your love’s shower profuse as the rains are
Quietly have I enjoyed bathing.”

But as the poem is written in Gujarati transliteration of Vraj, a dialect of Hindi, one cannot connive at the possible interpretation of chup chup as ‘chupke chupke’ which means ‘secretly’, ‘covertly’ etc. when it suits the semantic context so perfectly. The poet says that in love one has to save oneself from the vigilant and censuring eyes of the world, as it is always intent upon snapping the bond of love and intimacy between lovers. On a figurative level, this interpretation can be imputed to a devotee\gopi who wishes to be one with Lord Krishna in spite of being married. Such a gopi also needs to keep everything about her love affair hushed-up because if the sâsu or nanand, that are a variety of societal codes in the case of a devotee, comes to know about the said contravention, moral and ethical, she will put a stringent check on all the activities of the gopi\devotee. To retain both these apposite nuances I have translated chup chup as ‘covertly’ and ‘quietly’ respectively in the first two stanzas. To put it in a nutshell, the fluctuating relationship between the signifier and the signified poses problems for the translator. Again most Indian languages are sound specific in the sense that many of its descriptive words are highly onomatopoetic and thus almost impossible to render in English. A translator’s task becomes even more troublesome when he is called upon to render the freight of obsolete idiom, historical happenstance and just plain illogicality that every language invariably carries. Proverbs and idiomatic expressions are such adventitious features of language. They are repositories of the cumulative inherited wisdom of the speech community and often comprise proper nouns with historical and cultural significance which cannot be mapped onto another linguistic and cultural space. While dealing with these verbal items a translator has to take care of the pragmatic aspect of the expression and resort to literal as well as paraphrastic way of conversion as just literal translation would be elliptical. 

On the other hand, eclipsing the historical and cultural signifiers of the idiom in favour of paraphrase would be doing injustice to the original text. Sometimes mere paraphrase runs the risk of unwittingly damaging the semantic pattern of the work because the image of the idiom bears a metaphorical relation to a character’s specific persona or is a means to evolve a specific motif in the story. On the top of the heap of above mentioned problems lies the problem of selecting the right idiom for the translation. Theorists and practitioners of translation have tried to explain away the problem of idiom by holding it exclusively relative to the target readership. However, in the case of texts being translated into English which enjoys the status of international language without having a nonpareil character and inimitable identity, the trouble of selecting of idiom together with difficulty of register, collocations, syntactical and lexical symmetry flesh out to a distressing degree. Target readership is often difficult to define because of the fact that English has different idiomatic identity in different countries where it is used as primary or secondary language. 

Some of the hardest riddles in translating a text from an Indian language into English are the literary tense and the authorial voice. Literary tense is the tense in which narratives are generally written; in English, it is the simple past tense. The story, which is believed to have already happened, is recounted by an authorial voice, which either is a character in the story or an omniscient and omnipresent force. Though in Gujarati (and Hindi) the literary tense is unequivocally simple past, sometimes authors out of their zeal to make the narration sound lively and dramatic purposely switch over to simple present tense. However, a story, which vacillates between present and past tenses in the course of the narrative, is likely to fuddle a reader who is not accustomed to such time fluctuations. Tense causes problems when one attempts to map native tenses onto English ones because the time reference conveyed by both is different. That is why most Indian speakers of English use tenses wrongly, the common errors being using past perfect for simple past and present continuous for simple present. Moreover, in native literature the authorial voice maintains much less distance from the voices of the characters. The omnipresent authorial voice is often intercepted by the thoughts of the character that are meant to be overheard. Such a confusion of mixed-up voices could be understandable to the native reader but to a non-native reader it would be bewildering. No discussion on the problems of translation would be complete without a specific reference to translation of poetry. 

A translator of poetry has to come to terms with the annoying fact that total fidelity to the original text is will-o-the-wispish. He can at best try to attain utmost approximation because the sound of words, their rhythmical relations and all meanings and associations of meanings, which depend upon sound, rhymes and puns, are untranslatable. There is no gainsaying the fact that the beauty of a poem lies in the meticulous word music elicited by means of assonance, alliteration, consonance, internal and end rhymes, repetition, parallelism and refrains, what is called sabdâlamkâr, the ornaments of sound, in Indian aesthetics. Aurobindo rightly remarks, “One is to keep it simply to the manner and the turn of the original [and] the other is to take its spirit, sense and imagery and produce them freely so as to suit the new language.”9 In short the translator of poetry should be focused on rendering as accurately as possible elements like images, similes, metaphors etc. which are drawn from sensory experience. He can explore, improvise and utilize everything that lies within the reach of a translator. He can attempt to reproduce the lyrical quality of the original compositions by reproducing approximately some refrains, repetitions, and some consonances wherever possible.

The above illustrations of hitches and glitches in translation unmistakably underscore the fact that it is very difficult to render the richly suggestive plurivalency of signifiers in another language and that the formal properties of language and culture are usually `lost' in translation. However, translation is possible and even indispensable in a country like India. The Mexican performance artist, Coco Fusco, in her book, English is Broken Here, speaks about the need for a fusion of cultures on the common ground of translated texts. This is very necessary in present times as almost every nation is increasingly becoming multilingual and multicultural. She wants, “…English structures to be subverted …inflected …in finding new possibilities of expression within the English language that English speaking people don’t have.”10 Often it is observed that translators are responsible for a good deal of changes that take place within a language. Foreign terminologies and new coinages of words have enriched the target language into which translation has been done. English with its eclectic tendencies offers the most appropriate example. Moreover, investigating translation may contribute to a better understanding of linguistic, literary and cultural aspects of human activity. 

Works Cited

1. Kalidâsa, Raghuvansham, 2nd revised edition, Motilal Banarasilal Publishers, Delhi: 1987
2. Wilhelm Von Humboldt, The Diversity Of Human Language- Construction And Its Influence On The Mental Development Of Mankind, translated from German by Peter Heathe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 143.
3. Edward Sapir, “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” in David G. (ed.) Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, Berkley: University of California Press, 1949, pp. 207-214.
4. Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Science and Linguistics” in J. B. Carroll (ed.) Language, Thought and Reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Cambridge: Mass MIT Press, p.221. 
5. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry, Macmillan and Co., Reprint 1962, pp.15-19.
6. Theo Hermans, “Translation Studies and A New Paradigm”, in The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation (ed.) Theo Hermans, New York: St.Martin's Press, 1985, p.11.
7. H. C. Trivedi “India, England, France, A (Post-) Colonial Translational Triangle” in S. Ramakrishna (ed.) “Functions of Translation in Post-Colonial India” in Meta XLII 2. 1997, p 407.
8. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: The Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, London: Routledge, 1989, p.38.
9. Sri Aurobindo, The future poetry, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 1953, p.431.
10. Coco Fusco, cited in “Transaltion Tensions” by C. Vimla Rao, Indian Literature, Nov-Dec- 2002, Sahitya Academy, Delhi, pp.139-40.


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