The creation of taste (or) Why I translate – an Indian writer’s translation manifesto

There was a recent back and forth between Tamil writer Ambai and translator N.Kalyan Raman in Scroll. Ambai had written about her perception of certain inadequacies in literary translation from an Indian language like Tamil into English. Her protests were a writer’s, and despite some generalizations that I couldn’t entirely get behind, I could sympathize with her writer’s need to be well-represented, her apprehensions about certain perceptions of a hierarchy between English and Tamil – consequently, the translator and the writer – and the demands of the market.

N.Kalyan Raman’s response, from a translator’s perspective, was to clarify the practices in contemporary translation. That is, translation is not finding an exact equivalence of the source text in the other language – it is not in the ‘service’ of the source text – but rather, it an act of creating a negotiated text that does justice to the source text while creating a literary piece in the target language. This is important, for we have so few literary translators around us, and hardly any discussions of their craft, either in print or in literary festivals or otherwise. This ties to what I perceive as a general lack of critical discourse in the larger English-driven Indian literature space.

As both a writer, writing in Tamil, and a translator working between Tamil and English, and thus perhaps as someone who understands both sides of this debate, I have a few things to say on this matter.

Samvada, samanvaya

My understanding of translation is more in line with Kalyan Raman’s perspective than Ambai’s, perhaps because I am a practicing translator. No, translation is certainly not in the ‘service’ of the source text. Nor are the writer and translator in competition.Translator, traitor is a well-worn phrase, but I think it is an idea that comes out of a culture that sees literature, and everything else, as the product of agon. On the other hand I feel that translation is moulded, quite intuitively, by samvada and samanyava, harmony and integration.

The sensitive, skilled literary translator is no traitor, either to the writer or the reader. Sensitivity is its own kind of skill in this enterprise, as the skill in translation is necessarily expanding one’s sensitivity to rhythms of language, meaning and expression in both languages – really, in the languageless zone that underlies both.

Translation is quite simply an act of bringing in harmony and balance. It is an act of tact and grace. The harmony really exists within the translator, for it exists in the languageless zone. Everything else is simply its expression, an expression negotiated with the writer and reader through the text. The translator embraces both the speaker-writer and the listener-reader within themselves and then proceeds to create a nuanced, lengthy dialogue with them both. Often, within the translator, they are both the same person, the translator themselves, now acting as one, now as the other. It is this self-talking, this internal monologue posturing as dialogue, that the reader reads as the translated text.

Where precisely is the harmony achieved? In language, in expression, in meaning.

The facility of reading should be unimpeded in the other language – if possible, creating the same kinds of rhythms and waves and swings in the mind as the original did. This is harmony of language.

The translator should never interpret the text, or try to minimize the interpretive influence, they should adopt the veils and masks of the writer in keeping the erotics of the text, its bhavana, intact. This is harmony of expression.

The translated text should evoke the same kinds of emotions and resonances in the reader, in the same order, to the same extent, with the same overall striking effect as the source. This is harmony of meaning.

Reader, writer, translator

The success of the translated text perhaps lies in how much the reader identifies with the reader within the translator. Or how much the translator is able to persuade the reader of this identification. The writer, when she writes, simply does not think of any reader – she just writes, moulding instinct into form. But the translator always carries the reader within herself too. It is inescapable.

What I can report from experience as a translator is, the most one can do is simply accept the internal reader for who she is and write for her – not obsess too much about the reader ‘out there’. It is simply an instinct, much like the writer’s instinct for form. It is the knowledge, the intuitive certainty within oneself, that “I am an ideal reader, and if it satisfies me, it will satisfy them too”.

The writer, of course, is a very important person in this negotiation – but arguably, not as important as the text, or the reader is. The presence of the writer in the room as the translator works is onerous and intrusive. I cannot imagine encountering the writer in flesh and blood as I translate – it is frankly horrifying to imagine the writer sitting on the translator’s shoulders like a vethalam whispering instructions into her ear as she works.

The writer, too, cannot evaluate a translation wholly impartially, even if they are a reader in the other language. This is understandable. It is a part of the creative process. The writer may perhaps provide feedback on words grossly mistranslated, but any intent or meaning from the text is best left to the judgment of the translator, if there is trust.

And no good translator, no translator who understands translation as an act of harmonizing, will allow overt influence of the writer on the aesthetics of the translated text – it is really too much of a disharmonizing influence. Almost like an intrusive parent trying to clean your room. And my sense is most writers understand this, for there is an equally subtle creative process at play here. It is this trust – between writer and translator, that one will dip and draw out of the great languageless zone just as instinctively as the other did, that matters.

The writer can trust in the text, and the competence of the translator to read them as them. If there is no trust, certainly it is better to withdraw permission. Perhaps an even better thing would be to only entrust translation into those hands and eyes that one implicitly, instinctively trusts.

So this is what I have to say about the act of translation itself, and the relationship and trust that is necessary between writer and translation.


Next, on questions of a hierarchy in translation, and the role of the market.

I feel that right at the outset, there is an important distinction to be made. In talking of the ‘market’, the translator is made out to be something of a stooge of the capitalist structure. This is egregious, there is even something insulting about it. This places the translator in the service of the publishing industry, and implies that what is translated is what is in demand in the market.

Perhaps this happens, but I believe strongly that the translator should categorically not be a linguistic mechanic for hire, but a literary initiator (I am translating the Tamil phrase இலக்கிய முன்னெடுப்பாளர்). We may be living through the freest markets of them all, but the translator, as a literary initiator – must still allow himself to be free of even that. For the translator is the crucible of language. In him the language of the poets breaks down, rebuilds, morphs, extends.

The translator as literary initiator

The translator as a literary initiator is a very important role. I predict that this will become particularly important in the coming century in India – or it should, if we feel it is important to transmit some semblance of culture. For we are fast becoming a country where most people are not proficient even in reading, writing and speaking one language, let alone two. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the young people are comfortable with neither Tamil nor English but with Tanglish – a patois that is neither Tamil nor English, composed of a stilted, repetitive vocabulary that is adequate for their communicative needs. Even machine translation allows for easy exchange of predictable lines of text, but they fail in the face of linguistic expressions like poetry which exist at the bleeding edge of language and represent crucial advances of the human mind.

Language is meaning, ideas are often absorbed first as language itself. Translation is the expanding of ideaspace in that language. Cultural transmission needs vocabulary for new ideas, and that will need a linguistic proficiency that can create flexibly back and forth in the space between languages, perhaps even creating new meanings that transcends both. So even as the common man might move towards a small, compact language with a standardized script, the literary initiator in India will be an individual who has proficiency in multiple Indian and foreign languages, particularly classic languages, who can think in multiple languages, who will stand at the crossroads of ideas like the Buddhist stupas of old used to.

This was always the case. In modern India, Tagore, Bharati and Pudhumaipithan come to mind immediately. Even as standardized prose evolved in the journals and newspapers, these literary masters pushed the boundaries of language and introduced new linguistic and expressive ideas. They read widely and translated even as they wrote – absorbing, reproducing, rewriting. They were writers, poets, but their role as literary initiators owed much to their constant experiments in translation.

The translator as curator

The ideal translator is also a curator. He is a person who collects and transmits ideas through language that he, personally, finds important in time, exciting enough to express and expand on. Thus the translator’s work as a literary initiator lies in the creation of taste, the setting-up of standards.

A literary initiator should only be guided by his own taste, his own standards, irrespective of what the market demands. If the translator envisions of themselves as not simply a language-mechanic, but a literary and cultural initiator, then the demands of the market will cease to become meaningful to them in any way. If the popular press will not publish them, they then seek out small presses, niche presses, or better yet, simply do it online where there is more than enough real estate to go around.

Then, the translator as literary initiator initiates and guides discussion on the literatures he reads and translates, and also the literatures he reads and does not choose to translate. The translator is the lynchpin of the human literary ecosystem, borrowing, lending, expanding, language and meanings, continuously expanding our cultural boundaries.

There is a difference between how a writer translates and how a professional translator translates. A writer or poet often translates from other languages into the language they write to train their mind on the rhythms of the other language expressed in theirs, to discover new ways of expression and style. These, too, are acts of literary initiation, often finding fruition in the original work of those writers and poets. But translators who don’t write originally can also function as readers, appreciators, guides and critics, and help the general reader see what they are translating and why, which writers may or may not want to spend time articulating.

Now that we have a picture of what a translator as literary initiator and curator might look like, we come back to Ambai’s concerns, about hierarchies in translation today, and demands of the market.


Hierarchies in translation

Is there a hierarchy in translation? Is publication in English considered a prestige in and of itself?

Yes, there is certainly a prestige associated with publication of vernacular work in English. There are far more readers in English, and then there is the fame that is accorded to writing that appears in English that cannot be compared to the fame of the vernacular writer, except maybe in languages with a thriving literary culture like Malayalam and Bengali. There are networks available to the writer who is recognized by the English speaking academy that a vernacular writer cannot access. An English-language text is likely to be noticed by international readers, and all writers like to be read, especially be people as different from them as possible. There is also the prestige associated with being internationally known.

But most of the perception of prestige, I feel, is because of a paucity of true literary culture in the vernacular. If a writer has enough readers in the language she writes in, enough engagement, discourse and criticism, then that provides the writer with a great dose of health and courage. She would not care so much about translation into English as a language of special status. It might be just as well for the writer for the work to be translated into other Indian languages, for they might find shared-heart readers in greater numbers well within the country.

And then we have this strange state of affairs where a writer with international fame is suddenly discovered in his own country, hoisted on shoulders and hailed – as if international fame inherently is any arbiter of quality. This is because, quite frankly, we don’t have enough readers and translators and critics in our own country to talk fiercely and passionately about what they feel is ‘good’. Ambai’s concerns have some merit to them in this regard – what is translated and ‘taken over’ to the west, is oftentimes what the west wants to see, or what we want the west to see. There is a reason why Mathorubaagan is read in the west, and Aazhi Soozh Ulagu is not. This is not to take anything away from Perumal Murugan, but simply to stress that a robust literary culture will place both works in front of a wide audience of readers, and talk back and forth about the merits of each work, giving the western readers something to think about, allowing them to listen, to expand their literary horizons and values. Indeed, the work of any true literary culture is to mould the taste of its readers, expand their horizons, no matter what the colour of their skin is. They shouldn’t be telling us what is good in our libraries. We should be telling them, and then inviting them to discuss. When there will be enough such voices, the recognition from an international audience will take its proper place, as the acceptance of yet another section of readership, with its own preoccupations and mental slants.

Building such a true literary culture rests on the back of readers. But translators have a role too. A culture with many, good, translators will be a culture where literature exists in all the spaces within and between languages. There will be so many works translated back and forth, so many presses and online portals publishing them, that there would be no fear of niche publishing houses and interest groups deciding “what will be translated”. That will not be a decision left to them, if that is what writers like Ambai fear – that will be a decision made by the translators themselves.

This is particularly true in the international stage. Novels from India, by Indians, about India, tend to be rather similar, and as a matter of personal taste, bland. A robust literary culture within the country will certainly change our dealings with literatures of other nations. There is so much talk on ‘opening up the canon’ – which is fair – but then they place Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy in the Indian canon when we have Ilango and Kalidasa and Vyasan and Kamban. Who else will question this, but a translator, who can simply ‘speak’ Ilango to those readers? Surely we have our sahridayas there.

I don’t agree that there is a hierarchy between the Tamil writer and English translator with the translator on top, as Ambai claims. It’s almost surreal and laughable. In France, or Germany, a person can make a living as a professional literary translator. A translator in India is not paid much, nor recognized, even within the literary community. No one knows names of literary translators in India – who was Premchand’s best translator? Bibhutibhushan’s? Bhyrappa’s? It’s even worse for translators into Tamil from English, or between Indian languages. I am yet to read a piece, an essay, written by any Indian English writer about the translators who translated into English from various Indian languages. AK Ramanujan is the only oft-repeated, famous name. So where is the question of this hierarchy.

As far as I am aware, translators today pull no rank on writers as Ambai claims. For we have very good writers in Tamil and I think most of the translators working today are aware, respectful and admiring of their talent. Translation is immersion, deep reading, prayer. I could never translate an author I didn’t like. And it seems rather silly to have a superiority complex because I type my words in English – particularly, when as a writer still exploring and learning the narrative craft, there is always something I learn from every author I translate.

Indian English – the elephant in the room

Indian literature is not just Indian-writing-in-English literature. But the lay, English-educated reader cannot escape this perception. The elephant in the room, is of course, the privilege this society-world holds over the vernacular writers because of their networks and contacts, their clout in the west because they speak its language, and the almost complete absence of critical discourse within this space in India. This state of affairs may not be because of active malice, or haughtiness on the part of the English writers in India – most individuals are quite nice people. But ignorance or malice or lethargy, this state of affairs needs to change. This is a separate concern in and of itself that I won’t go into in too much detail now, except to make the point that translators translating into English oftentimes become part of this culture, and they have the tools and responsibility to change it, expand its horizons. This is already happening with a new crop of talented translators coming up, but there is more to be done.

A manifesto for literary translation in India

All these preoccupations will cease to matter when we will have a real, honest, robust, multilingual literary and intellectual culture in India. And that is what a young team of Indian translators with a mission and manifesto of this sort will be able to accomplish.

What will the aims of such a manifesto be?

1. The young Indian translator shall be well read in two or more languages, preferably Indian languages, with strong likes and dislikes, a keen ear for language, and with interest in writing as an art and a craft. A familiarity with other arts – music, cinema, visual arts – is always helpful.

2. They will translate fast, and translate much.

3. They will translate well, guided by their own personal sense of what ‘sounds’ right.

4. All their activities will be guided by personal taste alone.

5. Publishing the translations as books or with a leading publishing house will not be their goal. It will be published in some form first, even on a blog. There will be constant interactions about the publish text between readers even then. Publication in book form can come later, if necessary. But it should be no hindrance to dissemination of the work anywhere in the world.

6. Translators shall peer review and edit each others’ work, ideally with a sensitive understanding of their aesthetics.

7. Translators shall facilitate an atmosphere for discourse – about works they themselves picked up for translation, about works they did not choose to translate, and about their process of translation itself.

8. Translators shall open up conversations with readers and potential readers as much as they can. A robust literary culture, indeed, an intellectual culture rests on the back of readers.

Unless we bring up a generation of culturally sensitive readers, who read with their eyes and hearts open, and talk about what they like and what they don’t freely and frankly, we will lose our edge. India will become a country of imitators, unoriginal, stilted, affected, with fake, rehashed opinions and ideas that we repeats endlessly for peer points. Indians will not know how to think. Anyone, anytime, can shape our opinions to their will – and the truth is, we are already probably deep in this crisis, as we so often see with social media. Nationalist rhetoric has already blinded a large number of us. And this is such a great pity, because India was always a country of thinkers, debaters, rhetoricians, critics. Our intellectual heritage lies forgotten in our vaults like diamonds growing cobwebs.

So it is truly, massively important that we raise a generation of readers and thinkers – not just mathematically minded puzzle solvers, but logicians, rhetoricians, connoisseurs, artists, critics. It is important because ideas about egalitarianism and secular harmony come from the intellectual culture. It comes out of facing and thinking about ideas we are not comfortable with, not just withdrawing to our own little bubbles. That is tehzeeb, that largehearted spirit of giving and friendship and space. That can happen only with the exchange of ideas. And that begins with translation.