Translation has helped knit India together as a nation throughout her history. Ideas and concepts like ‘Indian literature’,’Indian culture’,’Indian philosophy’ and ‘Indian knowledge systems’ would have been impossible in the absence of translations with their natural integrationist mission
By K Satchidanandan
The role of translation can hardly be over-emphasised in a multilingual country like India with 22 languages recognised in the eighth schedule of the constitution, 15 different scripts, hundreds of mother-tongues and thousands of dialects. One can very well say that India’s is a translating consciousness and the very circumstances of their real existence and the conditions of their every day communication have turned Indians bilingual if not multilingual. One can even add without exaggeration that India would not have been a nation without translation and we keep translating almost unconsciously from our mother-tongues when we converse with people who use a language different from ours.
Our first writers too were translators. Indian literature is founded on the free translations and adaptations of epics like RaMayana and Mahabharata. Upto the nineteenth century our literature consisted only of translations, adaptations, interpretations and retellings. Translations of literary works as well as knowledge-texts: discourses on medicine, astronomy, metallurgy, travel, ship-building, architecture, philosophy, religion and poetics from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic had kept our cultural scene vibrant and enriched our awareness of the world for long. Most of our ancient writers were multilingual: Kalidasa’s Shakuntala has Sanskrit and Prakrit; poets like Vidyapati, Kabir, Meerabai, Guru Nanak, Namdev and others each composed their songs and poems in more than one language.
Translation has helped knit India together as a nation throughout her history. It brought, and still brings languages closer to one another and introduces to one another diverse modes of imagination and perception and various regional cultures thus linking lands and communities together. Ideas and concepts like ‘Indian literature’, ‘Indian culture’, ‘Indian philosophy’ and ‘Indian knowledge systems’ would have been impossible in the absence of translations with their natural integrationist mission.
Translation also plays a role in extending the scope of language and reframing the boundaries of the sayable. New terms and coinages necessitated by translation create new vocabulary and contribute to greater expressibility. One thus learns not only to understand foreign literature and philosophy through the mother-tongue, but also to speak about modern knowledge, from quantum physics to nano-technology and computer-science to molecular biology in the regional language.
Translation strengthens democracy by establishing equality among different languages and questioning the hegemony of some over the others as it proves that all ideas and experiences can be expressed in all languages and they are exchangeable in spite of their uniqueness. It also enables the weaker sections of the society to be heard as they can speak in their own dialects or languages and then get translated into other languages that are more widely spoken and understood. Thus translation contributes to the empowerment of the marginalised or deprivileged sections like the poor, women, dalits, tribals, minorities, the disabled and others.
Translation also helps fight colonial prejudices. For example, by translating our works of literature and knowledge into English, we prove to the world that the coloniser is in no way superior to us as we too have a long history of great writing and research. The British had translated from India only what suited their taste; but now the empire is writing back , telling them what they have to read to understand our peoples and cultures, thus changing their old ‘orientalist’ conceptions of India.
No doubt translation also promotes the growth of indigenous literature and knowledge by bringing into our languages the great wealth of other literatures and cultures. By translating masterpieces from other Indian languages as also from foreign ones, we enrich our own literatures. Thus we also raise our writing standards: this happens especially when we translate great masters of world literature like Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Vyasa, Valmiki, Kalidasa and Bhasa or more contemporary writers from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, Lorca, Eliot and Thomas Mann to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk, J. M. Coetzee, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and others. These exchanges also create new movements and trends.
We are living in an age of translations and the avenues for translators are constantly expanding. Some of these areas and vocations are indicated below:
Literary translation: There are many institutions here and abroad dedicated to literary translation. Translating foreign literature into Indian languages, Indian literature into foreign languages and Indian literature in one language into other Indian languages are all gainful activities in every sense. Sahitya Akademi, Ntional Book Trust, regional literary associations and publishing houses both in English and the languages are on the lookout for capable translators. There is a new interest in Indian literature abroad as the young non-resident Indians who do not know their languages are eager to read their literatures in translation in the languages they know and also as foreign readers are eager to know what is happening in Indian literature. The recent spate of literary festivals all over the world from Berlin to Jaipur and book fairs like the ones held annually at Frankfurt, Paris, London, Bologna, Abu Dhabi etc have contributed to this rising fascination.
The Government of India has also recently responded to this new interest by launching a new mission, Indian Literature Abroad (ILA). Big Indian publishing concerns like Penguin, Macmillan, Orient Longman, Oxford University Press, Harper-Collins, Hatchett etc as well as smaller houses are encouraging translations of literary and discursive works in a big way.
Our freedom struggle and later democratic struggles for change had received great impetus from the translations of the works of Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Gandhi, Tagore, Emile Zola, Maupassant, Gorky, Premchand, Subramania Bharati
Knowledge Translation: The National Translation Mission, a brain-child of the National Knowledge Commission intends to translate textbooks and classical works in areas like sociology, history, geography, geology, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics, linguistics and political science into the Indian languages in order to raise the standard of education done in mother tongues and to render accessible current and cutting-edge knowledge so far available only in English to the rural poor and the backward sections of the society. The Commission is looking for competent translators from English into all the Indian languages and there is evident scarcity in the area.
Media Translation: The print, electronic, visual and auditory media- newspapers, magazines, radio, television, cinema etc- need plenty of translators from one language into another. Many media houses publish papers and journals or run television channels in several languages at the same time and they need quick yet communicative translations of news, serials, film scripts and programmes. Dubbing and subtitling are other areas.