Translation

Translation: A cultural transfer

After tens of thousands of years of evolution through which language was fundamental for the development of mankind, we have reached the age of globalization. Though, today, there are few borders left that have not been breached by the internet, electronic mail and telecommunication, language may still be a barrier in communication and translation is necessary for successful communication.

A language postulates in itself a model of reality and a phonic association with the universe it describes, so we cannot separate language from culture. Both linguistic equivalence and cultural transfer are at stake when translating. Translation is a cultural fact that means necessarily cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

The translator’s purpose is not just to translate a printed literary text into another language but to be the mediator who could initiate and even induce the reader to internalize the representative text of an alien culture.

I remember A K Ramanujan, who while translating U R Ananthamurthy’s Novel Samskara opined, “A translator hopes not only to translate a text but hopes to translate a non-native reader into a native one. This statement of Ramanujan’s “to translate a non-native reader into a native one” very simply but powerfully introduces the crucial notion of cultural translation. So, through translations of creative writing, cultural bridges of understanding are securely constructed.

Early Translations

In the early centuries of Christian era, Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese and later into Tibetan. In the 11th century, Sanskrit texts began to be translated into Assamese, Kannada, Marathi, Telugu etc. At the same time translation began to be done in the Persian language too.

Zain ul Abidin (1420 -1470), the ruler of Kashmir, established a bureau for bilateral renderings between Sanskrit and Persian. Dara Shikoh’s Persian translations of the Upanishads and Mulla Ahmed Kashmiri’s rendition of Mahabharata are among the major landmarks along this stream.

In the 17th -18th century, the great Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh set up a bureau and had a large number of Sanskrit texts translated into Punjabi.

In 18th century, major universities in Europe had chairs in Sanskrit and Sanskrit studies had come to enjoy immense prestige. As the century progressed, Sanskrit studies immensely shaped the European mind. All the major European minds of the 19th century were either Sanskritists or by their own admission had been deeply involved in Indian thought –Humboldt, Fichte, Hegel, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Schelling, Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson.

Translations in the British period

The British phase of translation into English culminated in William Jone’s translation of Kalidasa’s Abhigyana Shakuntalam.

The late nineteen eighties and nineties was an exciting period for the discipline of translation studies in India. Seminal writings like G N Devy, In Another Tongue: Essays on Indian English Literature (1993), Sujit Mukherjees’s Translation as Discovery and Other Essays on Indian Literature in English Translation (1994), Tejaswani Niranjana, Siting Translation: History, Post Strucuralism and the Colonial Context (1995), and many anthologies like Pramod Talgeri and Verman S.B (Editors) Literature in Translation from Cultural Transference to Metonymic Displacement (1988), A K Singh Edited, Translation: Its theory and Practice (1996), Dingwaney, Anuradha and Carol Maier (Editors) Between Language and Cultures: Translations and Cross Cultural Texts (1996), Tutun Mukherjee (Edited)Translation : From Periphery to Centre Stage (1998) and Susan Bassnett and Trivedi (Editors) Post Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice (1999) burst into the scene.

Translation of Malayalam works in English

The very foundation of Indian Literature is based on translations. India is a multilingual country. According to scholar G N Devy there are 780 languages spoken in India.

Translation builds bridges and opens the door for those who would not otherwise have access to the original and thereby unite different cultures. The literary works of different Indian languages especially Bengali literature were translated into Malayalam during the early seventies. Premchand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paulo Coelho and Mario Vargas Llosa have come into Malayalam via English translations and found great readership.

Translation has been gaining ground as an important discipline in literary field and has been growing rapidly in the multicultural world. Translation is an important tool to disseminate regional literatures, to make them go beyond the territories of their native domain and reach global readership. Translation is a creative process which involves two languages. It involves critical thinking and evaluation. Translation should be as far as possible close to the original in language, style and content.

Be it the case of Indian languages or foreign languages, the cultural elements are in danger, while translations are done. Given the fact that Malayalam language is culturally rich with its traditional customs, beliefs and practices, translation of literary works from Malayalam to English becomes a challenge for the translator, as I mentioned above, the translator has to bring a non-native reader into a native one.

Words like pooram, padayani, koithu pattu, palliyodam, kanji, appam etc…reflect the cultural aspects of Keralites which may not necessarily be found in the target language into which the source text is translated, especially in English. Hence translation is not a mere linguistic substitution, it’s a cultural transfer. The translator has to facilitate the message, meaning and cultural elements from one language to another and create an equivalent response from the receivers.

When one talks of Malayalam works in English the titles that comes to mind quickly are Basheer’s Ente Uppupakoru Ana Undayirunnu, Thakazhi’s Chemmeen, S K Pottekkat’s Oru Deshathinte Katha and M T’s Randamoozham.

Of late, there has been an increase in translation of Malayalam fiction into English. Benyamin’s Aadu Jeevitham was translated as Goat Days by Joseph Koyipally and Subhash Chandran’s Manushyanu Oru Aamukham translated as Preface to Man by Fathima E V, K R Meera’s Aarachaar translated as Hangwoman by J Devika, T D Ramakrishnan’s Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki and Francis Itty Kora translated with the same names by Priya K Nair, Othapu by Sara Joseph translated as Othappuby Valson Thampu have made Malayalam fiction more visible internationally.

The Indian literary scene has witnessed a great change as far as translation is considered in the last decade. Crossword awards have changed the translation scenario in India. Beginning with fiction and then adding on translation awards in its scheme of things have resulted in more and more Indian language fiction being translated into English.

It’s noteworthy that Malayalam fiction has made its presence over the years. The list also includes among others, On the banks of Mayyazhi by M Mukundan- translated by Gita Krishnankutty, Kesavan’s Lamentations translated by Gita Krishnankutty, P Sachidanandan’ Govardhan’s travels translated by Gita Krishnankutty, Narayan’s Kocharethi: The Araya Woman translated by Catherine Thankamma, and Benyamin’s Jasmine Days translated by Shahnaz Habib

The Juggernaut published Swarga, the English translation of Enmakaje by Ambikasuthan Mangad. Translated by J Devika, it qualifies to be a miserable exercise. I am citing an example here: in the Malayalam original, the sentence reads “Vanaprasthan mare pole kaatil kazhiyunna namukku ee kurish ottum cherukayilla.” (Pg 18)

The English translation reads: “This cross doesn’t suit us who live in the forest, who seek a life of contemplation in the wilderness.” The author meant that the child is a burden to them who are living in the wilderness. Devika’s translation “this cross doesn’t suit us” is way off the mark. Likewise, other errors have crept in. The end result is that, the Malayalam novel which has 18 reprints so far, while being introduced into English, got lost in translation.

A translator can enhance the original work or mess it up.

Everyone familiar with translation, theory and practice is aware that translation no longer entails linguistic substitution or mere code– switching, but is regarded as a “cultural transfer.”

Linguist Eugene Nida states that the role of the translator is to facilitate the transfer of message, meaning and cultural elements from one language to another and to create an equivalent response from the receivers i.e. the primary responsibility of the translators is to recreate in the target language the reader responses that the text in the source language had created. The ideal translation should therefore be accurate, natural and communicative.
All said and done, translation is an attempt to introduce a literary work from one language to another. We have had access to world literature and Indian Literature because of translations.

A gifted translator is a creator. He can remain close to the text and then render it creatively and bring the source language alive in the target language. Translation is a creative approximation of the original. The original and the translation must play in harmony, like jugalbandi. It’s here that translation becomes an art.

Santhosh Alex
Dr Santosh Alex is a Poet, Translator and Poetry Curator. He is the author of 35 books including poetry, criticism and translations.

Perspective

Beyond the Gulf Dream— Malayali writers investigate the lives of immigrant workers

What is the Gulf dream?

“Perhaps the same stock dreams that 1.4 million Malayalis in the Gulf had when they were in Kerala — a gold watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain.” (Goat Days 38)

The oil boom in the mid-1960’s beckoned to the cheap and unskilled labour and more than a few fleets of ships set course for the Middle East from the coasts of Kerala. Accounts of first-generation Malayalis who reached the Gulf shores on launches and ships are replete with bitter experiences. But the contribution of these expats or pravasis towards improving the standard of living in Kerala is always recounted with pride. Gulf cities and towns are still epicentres of dreams and nightmares for a large section of Malayali diaspora. The narratives around the life of a pravasi have thus become a major theme in the Malayali expatriate writings.

The saying that ‘Malayalis are as ubiquitous in the Gulf as the sandy deserts and shopping malls’, stands true even today. While the skilled and semi-skilled workers still choose to work in the Middle East, majority of migrant workers are unskilled Malayalis belonging to the lower middle-class. They often work without citizenship rights, endure miserable living conditions, and ultimately have to leave the Gulf. The humanitarian crisis of these labourers has managed only a bleak exposure in Indian fiction till now. However, in recent times, a number of novels and travelogues published in the Malayalam ingeniously encapsulate the ordeals of the migrant community.

Writer and author Benyamin’s Malayalam novel, Aadujeevitham (2008) is one such work. The novel gained a wide readership owing to its realistic and heart-wrenching prose, and was translated as Goat Days (2012) by Joseph Koyippally. The novel presents the protagonist, Najeeb’s journey through the desert land, the trials and hardships he undergoes. But more importantly, it draws a picture of the life of an immigrant worker forced into labour in Saudi Arabia. The inability to satisfy his needs from his meagre income and the regulation in sand mining activity in his hometown lures Najeeb to the Gulf.

“When a friend from Karuvatta casually mentioned there was a visa for sale, I felt a yearning I had never experienced before. How long have I been here, diving for a living? How about going abroad for once? Not for long. I am not that greedy. Only long enough to settle for a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis.” (Goat Days 35)

Najeeb’s dreams shatter on receiving an inhuman treatment by his arbab, his employer. He was promised a job in a construction firm but was forced to spend over three years as bonded labourer in a goat farm. Yearning for the homeland and the sheer will of the immigrant labourers to survive the toughest situations form the pith and core of the novel.

Many such accounts of these ‘guest workers’ are remembered, recollected and often written in Malayalam. English translations of these become a window for the non-Malayali reader in to the social, mental and physical sufferings that the forced labourers endure in Gulf countries. Najeeb’s story contrasts our ideas and assumptions of the Gulf life of the expats — the one with fancy perfumes, imported chocolates, dry fruits, and gigantic houses that adorn the streets of Kerala.

Contemporary Malayali writers have explored the lives of underprivileged labourers who sailed to the Middle East, chasing the glittering Gulf dream, but slowly eroding in hard labour. Many travelogues, memoirs and other non-fiction works in the Malayalam, with a focus on the migrant labourer, are now added to the list of brilliant fiction titles in the language. Here, a list of books will give you a peek in to the lives of Indian labourers in the Gulf:

Marubhoomiyude Atmakatha (2008), which translates to ‘the biography of the desert’, is a travelogue by V Musafar Ahammed that won the Sahitya Akademi award in the year 2010. Ahammed’s work acquaints the reader with the slave narratives against the celebrated narratives of the Gulf dream. It was translated in English by PJ Mathew, and was titled, Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia.

Babu Bharadwaj’s Pravasiyude Kurippukal (2010) directly translating to ‘notes of an expat’, is a memoir of life and thoughts of a man in exile. The recurrent themes of love, life and loneliness are weaved into the narrative.

P Manikandhan’s Malayaliyude Swanthwasneshanangal (2010), ‘Malayalis’ search for themselves,’ was the winner of NV Krishna Warrier award for best critical work by Kerala Bhasha literature. It covers subjects from the Gulf migrant workers’ literary endeavours to politics of eco-feminism.

Jasmine Days, 2018 English translation of Benyamin’s Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal (2014) is the story of Sameera Parvin, a young Pakistani woman who works as a radio jockey in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country that is on the verge of revolution.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, is a set of interrelated stories—with a hint of magic realism—on Indian labourers in the Middle East. The book won 2016 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Work cited:
Benyamin. Goat Days. Penguin Random House, 2012. Print.