Two words, two worlds

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on September 11, 2020

Way off the mark: Most modern-day critics consider Tagore’s English translations florid and overwritten mutations of the original Bangla text   -  KR DEEPAK

Several major writers — Tagore, Nabokov and Beckett, among others — translated their works to English, but not all met with the same measure of success

* Most modern-day critics agree that Tagore’s English translations are a fair distance away from being satisfactory

* Self-translation brings with it the problem of the perpetual edit

For poet-author Rabindranath Tagore, necessity spurred the process of translation. In 1912, the Bengali writer set sail for England, carrying English translations of over a hundred of his poems (from the collection Gitanjali). The idea was to introduce his work to friends and publishers; and to facilitate that, he translated the poems himself. The sequence of events following Tagore’s arrival in England is well-known: He met Irish poet WB Yeats, who was impressed with Gitanjali. The following year, Macmillan published Tagore’s translation, with a foreword by Yeats; and in November 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Tagore’s career is an interesting study in self-translation. On one hand, the decision to translate himself paid almost immediate dividends. The Nobel brought with it international fame and translations in several other languages. It put Tagore on the global literary map overnight. On the other hand, most modern-day critics agree that Tagore’s English translations are a fair distance away from being satisfactory; the translations are even perceived as florid, overwritten mutations of the original Bangla text. As journalist and writer Ian Jack wrote in a 2011 essay for The Guardian, “Is his poetry any good? The answer for anyone who can’t read Bengali must be: don’t know. No translation (according to Bengalis) lives up to the job, and at their worst, they can read like In Memoriam notices.”

Down the years, there have been other major writers who’ve translated their own works — Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett immediately come to mind. Among contemporary writers, we have Nancy Huston, Ariel Dorfman, André Brink and, closer home, Girish Karnad and Kamala Das. Most recently, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi translated his Urdu books into English. None of their translations falls as obviously short of the mark as Tagore’s English version of Gitanjali — but the choice to self-translate remains a difficult, often controversial one.

Retro-active editing

Third telling: Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas was, in fact, the third rendition of the novel


According to Daisy Rockwell, who has translated iconic Hindi writers such as Krishna Sobti and Upendranath Ashk into English, self-translation brings with it the problem of the perpetual edit. “When an author of a work sets out to translate it, they cannot resist the urge to continue to edit,” Rockwell tells BLink. “What you end up with is a very different work in the new rendering; it may have artistic merit in its own right but it bears little resemblance to the original text. Another problem is that the author might be bilingual, but their command of the two languages might be quite different. There is also a tendency to second-guess what the readers in the target language will be able to comprehend or tolerate.”

Rockwell explains the latter part of her argument by citing a couple of examples: Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire, the English-language version of her Urdu novel Aag ka Darya, and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas. Rockwell’s translation of Tamas was, in fact, the third rendition — Sahni’s was the second and it came about after the author realised the limitations of the first done by a prolific translator. But, as Rockwell points out, Sahni’s English was “quite formal, and did not match the simplicity of the Hindi text”. Similarly, in River of Fire, Hyder softened the critical tone she takes with the novel’s British characters, seemingly afraid of offending her white readers. Fears such as these are not entirely irrational: In 2016, Chinese writer Feng Tang’s Stray Birds, his translation of some of Tagore’s poems, was pulled from Chinese bookstores as the translations were deemed too racy (and hence “disrespectful” of Tagore).

Besides, there is solid historical precedent for what Rockwell is saying. Nabokov wrote a number of Russian-language novels in his early career before making the switch to English. Among them was Kamera Obskura, translated into English by Winifred Roy in 1935. When Nabokov read the translation, he realised that it contained major errors and that he wanted a do-over. However, when Laughter in the Dark (the English title) finally saw the light of day, it was a very different beast. Nabokov had changed a lot of things: He added an extended early scene that works as a foreshadowing of the ending, he changed the circumstances in which hero meets villain, he even changed all the character names and the age of the heroine (in Roy’s version, it’s “18 or 17”; Nabokov changed it to 16).

In the introduction to Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, the author wrote, “If someday I make a dictionary of definitions wanting single words to head them, a cherished entry will be “To abridge, expand, or otherwise alter or cause to be altered, for the sake of belated improvement, one’s own writings in translation.” In that vein, Nabokov also translated his English novel Conclusive Evidence into Russian himself, since he felt that the English version contained “imperfections”.

Beckett, however (like Tagore), was also driven to translate his works by more pragmatic concerns. Although he had started writing by the late 1920s, Beckett achieved large-scale success only after he translated Waiting for Godot (which was originally written in French, En attendant Godot) into English in 1952. The following year, the play was performed in English for the first time. It remains a classic today, one of the most frequently staged theatrical productions of all time. The 1987 anthology Beckett Translating/ Translating Beckett (edited by Alan Warren Friedman, Charles Rossman and Dina Sherzer) is a collection of essays about how Beckett was a highly experimental translator, how his felicity with both English and French led to a number of inter-textual linkages in his work, and so on.

There are two basic differences in the practices of Nabokov and Beckett — while the former started creating English-language works after moving to the US, Beckett’s adoption of French was entirely voluntary. Also, while Nabokov only ever wrote a handful of Russian-language texts (all of them early career books), Beckett’s eventual bibliography was a 50-50 split between English and French works. What he wrote in one language was immediately translated to the other (from the 1940s, this was done exclusively by Beckett himself).

Bilingual basics

And yet, there are several authors today who write professionally in English as well as an Indian language. Among them is Pratyaksha Sinha, who has published books in both Hindi and English. Sinha began her career with a pair of Hindi short story collections — Jungle Ka Jadoo Til-Til (2009) and Pahar Dopahar Thumri (2011) before publishing the English-language volume Rainsong (2014), in which she translated a selection of her Hindi stories. Sinha was awarded the Krishna Baldev Vaid Fellowship for 2013-14 — a fitting prize, for Vaid (who passed away in February) also translated two of his Hindi books into English.

Sinha explains how she came to translate her Hindi work. “HarperCollins had published my Hindi stories, the collection Pahar Dopahar Thumri, and my editor Minakshi wanted an English version, too. So I started working with a translator. Eventually, there was so much work I had to do while correcting the errors that I thought I should translate it myself.”

She agrees with Rockwell’s observation about writers ‘editing in real time’ while self-translating — but according to her, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “When you’re ‘transcreating’, so to speak, writing your own Hindi story all over again in English, there are a hundred little things you can improve in the text, at the presentation level. Maybe 98 per cent of the narrative will be the same, but the improved 2 per cent makes the act of ‘transcreation’ fun. Otherwise, translation (especially self-translation) can be a bit of a clerical task.”

Tanuj Solanki, author of the short story collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, which won a Yuva Sahitya Akademi award last year, has been writing in English for about eight years now. He also makes a case for more writers translating themselves. “There’s no doubt that if you’re translating yourself, further editing will happen,” Solanki says. “But this can be used to your advantage as a writer. I recently read a short story by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi — the original Urdu as well as the English version. The English version diverged from the source text frequently but it was done so well that it was really tough not to appreciate it. He (Faruqi) should certainly keep translating himself.”

There are certain obvious parallels to be drawn between Sinha and Solanki’s careers. They both live in Gurugram and have corporate jobs. She grew up in Ranchi, Jharkhand (earlier, the undivided Bihar), while he’s from Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh — both of their works are part of a small club of English-language stories that capture something essential about life in these parts of the country, far away from the metros.

Would Solanki ever consider translating his own works, then, like Sinha did so well? “I did start translating a couple of my stories into Hindi a while back,” Solanki clarifies. “I don’t think my Hindi is up to the task — not yet anyway. But this translation project and creating an original work in Hindi are both definitely on the agenda.”

With more writers looking to go the self-translation way, perhaps it’s also a good time for publishers to experiment with, for instance , books that use both English and Hindi scripts on the same page — India now has many writers and artists (and, more importantly, readers) who are comfortable with both languages. Why not give it a shot and gauge the market’s appetite for something like this? ‘Hinglish’ is now de rigueur in mainstream Bollywood films (and those guys have a lot more money on the line than publishers, one might add) anyway.

Just imagine — a series of how-to books for young Indian translators, written and published in English and a bunch of Indian languages, each version complete with a classic original literary text and its English translation. It would be perfect for a country like India, where the number of bilingual readers is increasing rapidly. It would help both early-career translators, as well as professional writers such as Solanki, who are seriously attempting self-translation. And then, perhaps, we won’t have to make do with subpar translations, like that of Tagore’s, which Ian Jack had to labour through.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on September 10, 2020

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