Friday, January 2, 2009

How difficult it is to be faithful!

I've been asked to review a translation of Urmila Pawar's Sahitya Akademi Award winning autobiography, "Aydaan", which I will do; but meanwhile, here is something I'll not have the space for there.

Aydaan is a generic term for all kinds of containers woven out of cane. Practitioners of skills like these belong to particular communities. Urmila Pawar belongs to the Mahar community of Maharashtra, the community from which Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar rose to become a leader of dalits. Pawar grew up in the rugged hills of the Konkan. That is where she begins the story of her life.

I've read the original book in Marathi. It is a powerful narrative that throws the deprivation of Pawar's people in our face in a language that challenges our squeamish sensibilities. The middle-class squirms because it sees its carefully nurtured ideas of what constitutes decency, shredded to bits. Pawar's fellow dalits squirmed when the book was published because a woman had dared to reveal the gender divisions within the community that made women the further exploited amongst the worst exploited of our country. "Untouchable" is not a word or concept that the civilised world finds easy to understand.

It is such a narrative as this that the translator has attempted to present to the non-Marathi reader. The failure of the attempt is what I want to comment on.

Translation is no longer a question of simply doing. It has become a subject of academic study and theorising.I must admit that I have never occupied myself with the study of translation theory. I go by the utterly unacademic principle of trying to convey the voice of the author as well as I possibly can, to a readership that cannot hear it in the original. This is a huge responsibility which takes days and days of struggle with single words, phrases and lines to fulfill. It is not only the dictionary meaning of words that should concern you. You must listen to their sound, comprehend the associations they carry,get a sense of their texture, tone and rhythm. Most importantly, the translator must forget herself. Like an actor does with a character, she must enter the skin of the writer in order to see and feel the way that person sees and feels. That is what keeping faith with the original means.

Constance Garnett who laboured so long and hard over her translations of the Russian greats--we are all indebted to her because it was through her that many of us first discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevski--did them a service which was also a disservice. She sanitised them in order not to offend Victorian sensibilities.

Vladimir Nabokov in his essay "The art of translation", lists three crimes that translators are prone to commit: "The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and is thus excusable. The next step to hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; ...The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion, as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days."

I wouldn't go so far as to recommend such a severe punishement for the translator of "Aydaan" (I consider her translation of the title as "The Weave of my Life", particularly felicitous), but I would say with certainty that she has committed all three crimes Nabakov lists and one more. She has turned a pithy, punchy 271 page book into a 320 page book because she could not find crisp enough equivalents for the Marathi in English.

All of Nabokov's three translation crimes are present in the following sentence, for example, occurring towards the beginning of the book. The line that should have read, "You press on to the top of the Mirjole hill onto the flat plateau where the sky rests, with the tall, massive jambhul tree rising against it", becomes "After climbing atop the hill of Mirjole, we would step onto the plateau, where there was a huge jamun tree, so tall that its top almost touched the sky."

Crime one, inaccuracy. The jambhul tree does not "almost touch the sky". It stands against the sky, indicating, along with the word tall, its impressive height.

Crime two, skipping words, ideas, etc. What happened here to the sky that "rests" on the plateau? That idea has simply disappeared.

Crime three, patting things into a shape that falls in with conventions. The translator replaces the breathless pace of the original with a more sedate pace. Also translating "jambhul" as "jamun" is wrong. There is no equivalent for the Marathi jambhul tree in English. So, in accordance with general practice,the original word should have been retained and, if necessary, explained in a glossary. Why translate the word into another language that is as much Greek and Latin to the intended reader as the original? Does our national language cross international borders when it doesn't even cross those within the country?

As for sanitisation of the text, here is the best example. A line that should read, "Come on you brats. There's one more hill to go. You want to pee or shit, go do it now, or you'll shit your pants climbing." This becomes, "Come on kids, we still have to climb one more hill. If you want to pass water and stuff, do it now. Otherwise you will do it in your knickers while climbing the hill."

"Pass water"? The last time someone did that was probably half a century ago.

The introduction to "The Weave of my life" talks about the empowerment of women. Those who believe in women's empowerment should not themselves deprive women of their language. Language is power. When Urmila Pawar talks of peeing and shitting, she is using the words her people used, knowing full well that they are not seen as "polite" words in "polite" society, particularly when used by women. That she does so, that she shows us her people's lives as they are, without apology, is her power. And she must be allowed to keep it, even in translation.


globalbabble said...

I haven't read much about translation, but have wondered about it. I once tried reading an English translation of a story by Prem Chand - and it seemed so tame, so devoid of the rawness of his prose. I thought perhaps the texture of his writing simply cannot be translated. But after reading your examples, I think it was just a thoughless translation.

shanta said...

Yes, sometimes it is sheer carelessness. Also, the translator knows the original writer isn't proficient in the language of translation and is in any case so thrilled to have her/his work go beyond her/his language that good or bad doesn't matter. So why struggle to do the best possible?

~Nitoo Das~ said...

I followed a link from Blogbharti to reach your blog. My lazy, Republic Day morning was well-spent. Thanks.

Will it be possible to read your 'real' review--the one in which you won't have the space to talk about the things you've written about here?

shanta said...

Thanks Nitoo. But guess what? A journalist is the last person to know when her article has appeared. If it's good somebody calls up to say it was interesting. Then you rush to get the paper (that's if you are an archiver of your own stuff). I've written for the Hindu Literary Mag that appears once a month. That's all I can say.

~Nitoo Das~ said...

Thank you. That's helpful. I'll keep my eyes peeled.