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A Tricky Job: Literary Translation
by Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B. Bookmark and Share
 

Sometimes a very small thing sparks quick and impassioned activity and one feels like sharing some knowledge and/ or information. Here is the poem that ignited the little.

Zibginew Herbert (1924-98), a widely translated post-war Polish poet, wrote this poem which I felt about translation. Herbert’ poem is a dig at a literary translator’s work. But its importance cannot really be under estimated.

Like an awkward bumble-bee
he lands on the flower;
the delicate stem bends
he pushes his way between rows of petals
which are like dictionary pages and he tries to get in
where the scent and the sweetness are
and although he has a cold
and no taste
he perseveres
until his head bangs
against a yellow pistil
but here it ends
one simply cannot reach
through the head of a flower
to its roots
so the bumble-bee gets out
very proud
humming loudly:
I have been inside
And to those who don?t quite believe him
he shows his nose
yellow with pollen

(Quoted by P. Lal The Mahabharata of Vyasa, Viking, New Delhi 1980 p.51)

The meaning, roughly, is this. A clumsy bumble bee falls on a flower like leaning on a tender twig. He barges in through petals like lexicons. Though with a bad cold and unable to smell or taste, tenacious, without let up, he rushes to sweetness and fragrance. He goes to the flower top with a bump on his head and stops. It is easy for any to reach the flower top but not so to go to the root. He coons with pride, gets out and shows those, who believe him, his nose tinged with pollen. The flower and the bee are tropes for the poem and the translator.

Generally speaking, contemporaries look down upon present-day translations, more so if they know the practitioners personally. The reasons are three. Numero uno: the belief that translators are those who fail in the art of creative writing. The second: the vicious (perhaps unintentional) remark that translators are traitors. The qualification to the statement made above, perhaps, needs an explanation. Generality is not without noble exceptions. The third: that for those who speak the language of the source text, normally no translation appears to be totally good or excellent.

I feel that detractors of individual literary translations are given to looking a gift horse in the mouth, not accepting that they are always meant to be gifts. I remember a controversy in newspapers about a sponsored translation of a Telugu classic. The Telugu newspaper had to put a lid on the discussion saying, “Further correspondence on the subject is closed.” The practitioner should have a measure of aggressiveness if only for mere survival; what with the spirit of our times!

Let me start off in right earnest with a personal experience. A widely revered former Vice Chancellor of a prestigious university (one whom I counted an elderly friend too) introduced me to a friend of his, pointing at me: “Here is an aggressive translator”. It did not sound a compliment then and even today I keep wondering. Looking back, I am glad about the choice of his adjective, for a practitioner needs to be so.

In Bharat epics were written first in Sanskrit. For the benefit of those who did not have the necessary equipment to read and understand Sanskrit, imaginative and enthusiastic litterateurs translated the artefacts into the language the readers knew and won the admiration of the delighted readers.

Translation via a link language like English is a possibility, which can be successfully explored. Telugu and Malayalam are cognate languages and through English I rendered my friend Ayyapa Panicker’s long poems Kurukshestra and Gotrayanam into Telugu in a record time. This was very easy for many reasons. We knew each other personally for decades. He sent me his voice renderings, which I listened to many times along with friends whose mother tongue was Malayalam. The exegeses of the literary critics and texts in English rendering by Chitra Paniker were helpful with the finer points, which I could have missed. The live voice of the poet intoning his writing with gusto did work wonders. It is best for our poets too to help the rendering of their texts by arrangement with their friends, whose mother tongue could be any other cognate language, via English.

In the years 2006 and 2007 there was a Symposium by Mail in a web journal www.languageinindia.com which went on for about fourteen months on “Practicing Literary Translation”. More than sixty practitioners participated both from our country and abroad operating in Indian and European languages. I present below some valid points, which may be viewed not as high sounding prolegomena but as home truths in the practice.

Basic Points to Ponder

  1. Literary translation is a unique field of activity. It is distinct from translating an ordinary text, say of an Instruction Manual or an informative piece of writing. In fact translation is an activity with diverse objectives and, for the complete fulfilment of specific objectives, task-specific strategies have to be evolved.

  2. It is futile waiting for a valid theory of literary translation, universally acceptable and always followed with absolute obedience. The best way for one aspiring to be a practitioner is to roll up his sleeves and sit down to work. With enthusiasm half the battle is won, and with patience and perseverance the other half too. After all, one has to perfect one’s own theory to follow it with tenacity.

  3.  There is no readily available theory for literary translation as such. It is not a science but an art involving skills and an understanding of the languages with which the practitioner has to work. Knowing the nature of the two - the source and the target languages - and a flair for literary nuances in both would be helpful. A study of translated texts alongside the originals would help the practitioner equip himself with his own insights. The best school, which teaches literary translation, is the work table itself and outputs of the practitioners.

  4. The prime requirement for a practitioner of this art is enthusiasm for the literary text, deep understanding and love of the language into which he wishes to import the literary excellence / achievement in the original. This can be done only to the extent possible. Literary translation is undertaken as a labour of love: it is in itself the reward. A prize or an award is fortuitous and none ever undertook the task with a ‘reward’ in mind. A literary translator volunteers to undertake the task, quite prepared with self-effacement.

  5. Practitioners also differ in the degree of freedom each has taken with the original text, for each has his own way of presentation of what he construes to be the essence. The individual practitioner has to decide the limits of freedom and accordingly cultivate fidelity to the original. The most important thing is that the rendering has to be reader friendly. It is the practitioner who contributes to the glory of the writer in another language.

  6. There may be any number of renderings of a given literary text, each justified and each having a right to exist as any other rendering, for each practitioner might have given a focus to certain nuances / suggestions etc. No translation is permanent when it comes to a literary text. A translation can be in currency only till the appearance of a new / better rendering. Theoreticians make much of “losses” in translation but in literary translation compensation and gains for the target language are never recognized.

  7. Applied Linguistics with its concepts of equivalence, nature of language, etc., has been an ever-expanding science involving rigour and discipline. A study of Applied Linguistics does not by itself supply the student with conclusions immediately applicable to policy. This does in no way purport to denigrate the study of Applied Linguistics. The study of science surely helps the practitioner to draw his own inferences while performing his tasks. There is not much evidence that all practitioners of literary translation have undergone rigorous training in the science of Applied Linguistics.

  8. Theoreticians make much of “losses” in translation but in literary translation compensation and gains for the target language are not usually recognized by avid readers.

Recent Translation Activity

Translation activity received considerable, tangible recognition by our national academy of letters, the Sahitya Akademi. The Akademi came up with an excellent compilation Masterpieces of Indian Literature edited by K.M.George around 1980. This included all bhashas and the translations were assigned to established practitioners. In 1999 the institution published Medieval Indian Literature, a stupendous work in four volumes edited by Ayyappa Panicker. Now it is said, Modern Indian Literature is under preparation, again in four volumes. All these volumes are worth their weight in gold, as the saying goes, since they provide a miniature canvas of the fabulous weave of the Indian imaginative achievement.

Coming to Telugu literature in translation, there are a few novels from Telugu whose translation into English were commissioned by the Akademi. The bulk is not comparable to those from other bhashas. The reasons are many, our own backwardness and lack of self-assertion not being the least. In poetry the case is far from being gloomy. Poetry anthologies in English translation by diverse hands appeared first as Tense Time, edited and published by Vegunta Mohan Prasad some time in 1978. It was a brave new adventure at that time considering the expense involved. Next came S.S.Prabhakar’s Post Independence Telugu Poetry, sponsored by Writers’ Workshop, a widely inclusive collection, in 1992. In 1994 came a publication of the Freeverse Front of the renowned Kundurti entitled Down to the Earth edited by Seela Veerraju and Kundurti Satya Murty. The year 2000 saw two volumes of Telugu free verse, compiled edited and translated by V.V.B.Rama Rao, a totally self-financed project. Voices on the Wing and More Voices on the Wing together contained about two hundred fifty poets who published their poems between 1985-1995. The latest publication of Telugu verse in English translation, Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry, is again a self-financed project, compiled and translated by Syamala Kallury.

My Personal Experience

Ismail has been a well-known poet of the recent years in Telugu. In 1982 he wrote a poem on Balusutippa, a tiny hamlet surrounded by the river Godavari. Some years later in collaboration with the poet himself a friend of mine, a reputed translator, translated it. Since it is very short it can as well be given here in its entirety:

The Godavari at Balusutippa

Endless sheet of the river
endless stretch of the sky
which is the river
and which the sky?
The solitary fisherman?s barge-pole
Divides the sky by the river
Leaving a reminder (sic)
Of cosmic O
Q.E.D.

I was not aware of the above translation till very recently. In November 1996 the place was in the news for the havoc wrought by the river and I faxed my translation of the same poem done before the flood to the Literary Supplement of a newspaper:

Endless is the river
Endless is the sky
Which is the river
And which is the sky?
The lone fisherman’s oar
Divides the sky by a river a
Leaving as a reminder
A zero, the size of a universe.

It is not my intention to go into the individual merits of the two versions. This, I thought, would give an illustration from my personal experience. In a published poem the poet has said what he wanted to say. It is perhaps only a translator who can unveil further beauties in another language without necessarily adding anything to the original text.

It is unfortunate that there is not much initiative from institutions like universities or the government constituted Cultural Councils to sponsor good translations in a substantial manner, from Telugu into English. Translation into English is the only way to give readers insights into our cultural, intellectual life and imaginative achievement. By translating into English we are aiming not so much to send our wares to England or America as to our own countrymen not knowing Telugu. We lack the initiatives of States like Kerala where writers’ unions find favour with wealthy and powerful men in industry and politics too. At least a beginning must be made now. Translation and its practitioners have received varied and fairly interesting observations in the symposium cited above.

Views on Translation and Some Strong Impressions

  1.  “Translators are traitors” - an Italian proverb.

  2.  (Literary) Translation is a mistress: if she is faithful she is not beautiful and if beautiful she is not faithful. (This statement need not be taken seriously.)

  3. It is absolutely necessary to be faithful to the original. There was an instance of a translator (in the distant past though) getting hanged for not being faithful to the original text.

  4. A person who knows the Source Language and Target Language very well would make a good judge of a translated text. But then he should never seek to be a hangman. Sahridaya is the basic quality needed by critics and reviewers.

  5. Literary Translation is a sacred sin. (This is a practitioner’s apologia.)

  6. Only failed ‘writers’ or those who cannot ‘write’ take to translation. (Not always true.)

  7. Translation is an easy way to success. (Not true at all.)

  8. It is too much to expect to be remembered as a translator. (True.)

There is no single totally acceptable and exhaustive theory of Literary Translation which can be applied to literary translations into all languages and all categories of the activity. After debates and discussions in the various forums and having read many books on the subject, by way of ascertaining the attitudes and experiences of a variety of practitioners of this largely thankless activity, an effort is made to come to certain conclusions, which are presented here, if only to enthuse the newcomers into this field.

Literary Translation is a unique field of activity. It is distinct from translating an ordinary text, say of an Instruction Manual or an informative piece of writing. In fact Translation is an activity with diverse objectives and for the fulfilment of specific objectives task-specific strategies have to be devised.

A study of Applied Linguistics does not by itself supply the student with conclusions immediately applicable to his practice. This does in no way purport to denigrate the study of Applied Linguistics. Study of this science surely helps the practitioner to draw his own inferences while performing his task ahead.

There is no readily available theory for Literary Translation as such. It is not a science but an art involving skills and an understanding the languages with which the practitioner has to work.

A study of translated texts alongside the originals would help the practitioner equip himself with his own insights. The best school, which teaches literary translation, is the work table/ outputs of the practitioners themselves.

There is not much evidence that all practitioners of literary translation have undergone rigorous training in the science of Applied Linguistics.

The prime requirement for a practitioner of this art is enthusiasm for the literary text, deep understanding and love of the language into which he wishes to import the literary excellence/achievement in the original to the extent possible.

No translation is permanent when it comes to a literary text. A translation can be in currency only till the appearance of a new/better rendering.

Theoreticians make much of “losses” in translation but in literary translation ‘compensation’ and gains for the target language are never given their due emphasis.

Knowing the nature of the two, the source and the target languages and a flair for literary nuances in both would be helpful.

Imaginative expression has been oral to begin with. When writing began imaginative expression became literary and literature emerged. Literary translation is a distinctive offshoot of literature to convey the expression in one language into another.

Literary Translation is undertaken as a labour of love: it is in itself the reward. A prize or an award is fortuitous and none ever undertook the task with any material ‘reward’ in mind. A literary translator volunteers to undertake the task, quite prepared for self-effacement.

There may be any number of renderings of a given literary text, each justified and each having a right to exist as any other rendering, for each practitioner might have given a focus to certain nuances/ suggestions etc. Multiple translations of a text into one target language enable discerning readers draw conclusions about the merits in the different versions.

Practitioners also differ in the degrees of freedom each has taken with the original text, for each has his own way of presentation of what he construes to be the essence. The individual practitioner has to decide the limits of freedom and accordingly cultivate fidelity to the original. The most important thing is that the rendering has to be reader friendly. It is the practitioner who enhances to the glory of the writer in another language.

Literary Translation is a unique field of activity. It is distinct from translating an ordinary text, say of an Instruction manual or an informative piece of writing. In fact Translation is an activity with diverse objectives and for the full fulfilment of specific objectives task-specific strategies have to be evolved.

Valid and always universally acceptable theories of literary translation as of now do not exist.

It is futile waiting for a valid theory of literary translation, universally acceptable and universally followed with absolute obedience. The best way for one aspiring to be practitioner is to roll up his sleeves and sit down to work. With enthusiasm half the battle is one and with patience and with perseverance the other half. After all one has to perfect one’s own theory for one’s own self to follow it with tenacity. Applied Linguistics with its concepts of equivalence, nature of language etc has been an ever-expanding science involving rigor and discipline. Theoreticians make much of “losses” in translation but in literary translation compensation and the gains for the target language are never given their due emphasis. A study of Applied Linguistics does not by itself supply the student with conclusions immediately applicable to policy. This does in no way purport to denigrate the study of Applied Linguistics. The study of science surely helps the practitioner to draw his own inferences while performing his task ahead. There is no readily available theory. There is not much evidence that all practitioners of literary translation have undergone rigorous training in the science of Applied Linguistics.

A study of translated texts alongside the originals would help the practitioner equip himself with his own insights. The best school, which teaches translation is the work of literary texts is the table/ outputs of the practitioners themselves. The prime requirement for a practitioner of this art is enthusiasm for the literary text, deep understanding and love of the language into which he wishes to import the literary excellence/achievement in the original to the extent possible. Knowing the nature of the two, the source and the target languages and a flair for literary nuances in both would be helpful.

No translation is permanent when it comes to a literary text. A translation can be in currency only till the appearance of a new/better rendering. Literary Translation is undertaken as a labour of love: it is in itself the reward. A prize or an award is fortuitous and none ever undertook the task with the ‘reward’ in mind. A literary translator volunteers to undertake the task, quite prepared for self-effacement. There may be any number of renderings of a given literary text, each justified and each having a right to exist as any other rendering, for each practitioner might have given a focus to certain nuances/ suggestions etc.

Practitioners also differ in the degrees of freedom each has taken with the original text, for each has his own way of presentation of what he construes to the essence. The individual practitioner has to decide the limits of freedom and accordingly cultivate fidelity to the original. The most important thing is that the rendering has to be reader friendly. It is the practitioner who contributes to the glory of the writer in another language.

Works cited
Primary sources:

  • Rama RaoV.V,B, Insights into Literary Translation and Language in Distinctive Use, Authorspress, New Dehi, 2009
  • Rama Rao V.V.B, Prologomena and Transformative Articles on Literary Translation, Authorspress, New Delhi, 2015
  • Rama Rao V.V.B, Universe-sized Zero, AP Times Literary Supplement, Oct 6, 2002.
5-Feb-2017
More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.
 
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