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Jul 15, 2013

Translation And Its Role In Indian Literature

Questions such as, ‘what is translation…wherein lies its complexity?’ have been asked ever since literature stopped being restricted to one target readership and moved beyond the boundaries of language. The term translation technically connotes the art of recomposing a work in another language without losing its original flavour, or of finding an analogous substitute.

Its complexity lies in it being like the transfer of perfume from one bottle to another. As careful as you are, some fragrance is lost but the challenge remains to capture the essence. All things in nature are subject to change – and so is all cultural matter. Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between the two types of cultural matter.

India is a linguistic galaxy of unparalleled richness. Few contexts could be better suited than the Indian for a discussion of the processes of translation within a spectacular stellar setting. How does one common ‘idea of India’ make itself available to a Bengali, Tamil or a Marathi in any way save that of translation? Translation provides a cognitive map of India’s linguistic world in all its interrelatedness as well as estrangement. All texts and all readers are both monolingual and multilingual. A text, obviously written literally in one language in a given manifestation faces a multi lingual reader and thus reaches out to a much larger base, unifying experiences and opinions as it expands.

English has to be admitted as a vast reservoir of translation in contemporary India. It may no longer be a colonial language, but it is increasingly a conduit language. This ‘filter language’, as Khubchandani terms it, has today a certain inescapable presence. More English translating have been published in India in recent times than ever before, but our awareness of the need to ensure quality in translation has not heightened the same extent. Who should judge a translation – somebody who can read the original or somebody who cannot? A person who was able to read the language, and enjoyed the original may find no translation satisfactory, whereas someone who cannot is likely to regard readability in English is the prime requisite. It seems unarguable that the only way in which the ideology of ‘unity’ can be explored in a multilingual society like ours is by accepting both the need for, and the problems of, translation.



The Sanskritised term we currently use for ‘translation’ in many Indian languages is anuvada – which literally means ‘after speech’ so it seems wrong in the first place to discuss it in an ‘Introduction’. It also stands in contrast to anukaran, which implies aping or slavish imitation, but there ought to be a more to the word than just the suggestion that it could involve creative license of a kind?


Any discussion of translation leads automatically to the question: who is an ideal translator? The writer himself, or someone who has not been involved in the primary creative art? The task of the translator is to unfreeze the shapes that thought took in one language and refreeze them into another. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but cultural. Translators, even when trying to give us the flavor of the language, are in fact modernizing the source. As far as translators in India are concerned, most Indians who grow up in urban conditions and go to school and college tackle shifts from one language to another so often and so comfortably that translation seems second nature to them.



The Pedagogy of Translation by Vanamala Viswanatha
Translation Studies is a young discipline still in the process of mapping its territory. Attempts have been made to define its boundaries and develop its terrain by scholars working in disciplines as varied as Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Culture Studies, Linguistics and Literary Theory.

Viewing translation as a transaction between two languages, the dominant linguistic paradigm has treated it merely as a matter of transfer from the Source Language to the Target Language.
There can be two ways of translating: Transliteration and Transcreation.

Transliteration or literal translation is word-to-word, phrase-to-phrase or sentence-to-sentence carrying over from the Source Text into the Target Text. This means that the words and terminologies would either require exact equivalents in the Target Language or would have to be put as it is into the Target Text. It may be ideal for texts falling under technical registers. But they would prove extremely difficult when done on cultural texts. The aim of the translation is to reproduce meanings of the Source Text and the immediate effect it produces on the native audience for the readers and audience of another culture in whose language the text is to be translated. But, say, every Hindi word cannot have a counterpart in English because of its vast language and cultural differences in certain connotations and structures. Hence, the ‘literal’ translation of cultural/literary works would be like forsaking the duty of a translator.


On the other hand, transcreation or cultural translation means a partial or complete freedom to the translator in dealing with the Source Text. The translator has to render the Source Text in a recreated form in the Target Language. It involves reading every word and sentence carefully, but it is not only or simply a literal rendering.


Another step in translation is termed as ‘Transfer’. It is the stage in which the analysed material is transferred in the mind of the translator from the Source Text to the Target Text. The final stage is ‘restructuring’ the transferred material. The basic structural elements have to be transferred to the Target Language. It has to be ensured in the process of transformation that the same effect the Source Text had should be achieved for the Target Text for its readers. When the translation produces the same effect as on the original audience then the translation can be considered equivalent to the Source Text.

The translator has to deal with the problem of finding equivalent words and expressions in the Target Language, which though cannot be substitutes for the expressions in the Source Language, but can come close to it, can raise similar feelings and attitudes in the readers and audiences of the Target Text.

Literary and cultural texts suggest rather than describe meanings. Cultural meanings are very specific and their connotations vary with words in other languages. Therefore, it is really difficult to expect equivalence between the texts of two languages separated by two different cultures. The translator has to interpret and analyse the connotative and suggestive of the Source Text and on the basis of his knowledge of the culture of the Target Text; he has to recreate the meanings in the new language.

Figures of speech, extended metaphors, idioms, proverbs and allegories pose a great challenge to the translator. Even translating dialogues, forms of dressing, different kinds of food can be difficult when it has strong cultural roots. For example, words like ‘saree’, ‘churidar’, ‘pan’, ‘pallu’ cannot have an English counterpart. In India, there is a specific word for every familial relationship. For instance, ‘chacha’, ‘mama’, ‘phupha’, ‘tauji’ are all called ‘uncle’ in English, similarly ‘nana-nani’ and ‘dada-dadi’  are simply ‘grandparents’. Also, the suggested meanings of these relationships can never be translated into any other language.


To show how the differences in cultural facts can cause difficulties in the translation of metaphors we may look at the symbolic meanings of certain words in different cultures. ‘Owl’ in English is the symbol of wisdom whereas it symbolizes ‘ill-fortune’ in Persian and is associated to superstitious beliefs in India. Also, ‘pig’, ‘hog’ and ‘swine’ are different words for the same animal but these small variations can create big differences in metaphorical meanings:

Sam is a pig.
Sam is a hog.
Sam is a swine.

The languages which do not have separate words for these different categories would fail to represent the difference between the discoursal value of the above metaphors. Thus, a literal translation may lead to Target Language metaphors with different and sometimes completely opposite discoursal values. 



We are now going to talk about a few writers who have brought out very vividly the different cultures of India through their writing in vernacular languages. The languages we are going to focus upon are Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil and Kannada. It is the voice of this marginalized section writing in vernacular languages, especially of the women regional writers, which needs to be heard. This is possible only through translation, which gives them recognition all over the world.


Tagore was the first Indian Nobel Laureate. He won the Nobel Prize for his translation of the Gitanjali.

His best known works are Gora and Ghare Baire. His works – verse, short stories and novels – are acclaimed for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism and contemplation. Of Tagore’s prose, his short stories are perhaps most highly regarded indeed he is credited with originating the Bengali language version of the genre. His short stories mostly borrow from the deceptively simple subject matter: common people. The translation of his works into various languages has given people across cultures a glimpse of the world of the Bengali common man.
Given below is Robi Dutta’s translation of his poem ‘Urvashi’:

No mother thou, no daughter thou
Thou art no bride,
O maiden fair and free
O inhabitant of Nandan


Sampooran Singh Kalra better known as Gulzar is an Indian poet, lyricist and director. Gulzar primarily works in Hindi-Urdu and also works in Punjabi, several dialects of Hindi like braj bhasha, khadi boli, Haryanvi and Marwari. Gulzar has received many awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Academy Award for his song "Jai Ho".

He has been widely translated into English and other languages. During the Jaipur Literary Festival, Pawan Varma, an eminent IFS officer who has translated Gulzar’s poetry, said that he faced a difficulty translating phrases like ‘tip tip’ and ‘tap tap’ and Gulzar replied “abhi to humne kabutar ki gutar goon shuru bhi nahi ki hai”.

Sunjoy Shekhar, who has also translated Gulzar calls himself a “smuggler trying to surreptitiously smuggle the feelings evoked by Gulzar’s lyrics across an impermissible, alien wordscape.” To give a flavor of the translation of his poetry, given below is a song of his along with its translation:


basa cand kraoD,aoM saalaaoM maoM
saUrja kI Aaga bauJaogaI jaba
AaOr rak, ]D,ogaI saUrja sao
jaba kao[- caaMd na DUbaogaa
AaOr kao[- ja,maIM na ]BarogaI
tba zMDa bauJaa [k kaoyalaa saa
TukD,a yao ja,maIM ka GaUmaogaa
BaTka BaTka
mawma Kiksa~I raoSanaI maoM
maOM saaocata hUM ]sa va@t
Aga,r kaga,ja, po ilaKI hu[- naj,ma
khIM ]D,to ]D,to saUrja maoM igaro
tao saUrja ifr saoo jalanao lagao


In a billion years when
The sun’s fire dwindles
And ash blows across its surface
Then the moon will no longer wane
And the land not rise
When like a cold, burnt out piece of coal
This earth revolves
Lost in its gyre
Trailing a dying, sepia glow
I think then
If a poem written on a piece of paper was to waft along
And perchance land on the sun
The sun would ignite again.


C. S. Lakshmi was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu in 1944. Some of her works - A Purple Sea and In A Forest, A Deer (2006) - have been translated English by Lakshmi Holmström. In 2006, she (along with Lakshmi Holmström) won the Vodafone-Crossword prize. For her contributions to Tamil literature, she received the 2008 Iyal Virudhu. Her work is characterized by her feminism, an eye for detail, and a sense of irony. Exploration of space, silence, coming to terms with one's body or sexuality, and the importance of communication are some of the recurring themes in her works.


Vijaydan Detha also known as Bijji is a noted writer from Rajasthan and a recipient of Padma Shri award(2007). He has also received several other awards such as Sahitya Akademi Award and Sahitya Chudamani Award.

He has more than 800 short stories to his credit, which are translated into English and other languages. He is co-founder of Rupayan Sansthan with late Komal Kothari, an institute that documents Rajasthani folk-lore, arts and music. His literary works include Bataan ri Phulwari (garden of tales), a fourteen volume collection of stories that draws on folk-lore and spoken dialects of Rajasthan. His stories and novels have been adapted for many plays and movies including Habib Tanvir's Charandas Chor and Amol Palekar’s Paheli.

He once said "If you do not want to be a mediocre writer, you should return to your village and write in Rajasthani."



Born in 1968 in Tamil Nadu, Salma’s first poetry collection shocked conservative society where women are supposed to remain silent. In 2003, Salma along with three other Tamil women poets faced obscenity charges and violent threats. Salma is now head of the panchayat (local level government body) of Thuvarankurichi, near Trichi in Tamil Nadu. The government of Tamil Nadu has appointed her Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board. 

Her novel, translated as Midnight Tales focuses on the inner world of Muslim women in the conservative society of Tamil Nadu in south India. It gives us an insight into what actually goes on in the households of this section of the society and brings it out very effectively. The novel was also long-listed for the Man Asian Prize of 2007.


Translating these texts into more widely spoken languages like Hindi and English has taken their voice to a much wider range of readers.


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