FRONTISPIECE - Re-creation: From words to words : Ranjita Biswas

There are numerous technical matters to be handled by a translator, particularly one from the region, finds Ranjita Biswas

Ever since Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation (2003) set in Japan earned critical acclaim, the title has often been used while referring to a branch in literary work, though the view has been in circulation in sections of the academia for quite some time.  In short, the belief that a creative work in translation loses something in the process from the original, that the act of translation, or transliteration if you may, gives the reader a bastardised version of the writer’s work. There is, of course, the other view, and honestly more accepted today, that without the act of translation, readers worldwide would have been deprived of appreciation of some of the greatest works of the world. Coming nearer home, with so many listed regional languages recognised under the Constitution, only translation into English, or another language from the source, say Assamese-Hindi or vice-versa, could introduce the booklover to the literature of the ‘other’.

As Vanamala Viswanatha has said: “Translation is above all a dialogic process, one that pre-supposes cultural exchange and transfer. Whether necessitated by trade, propelled by propaganda or activated by an interest in intra/inter-cultural dialogue, translation activity remains a phenomenon that cut across culture, sociology, linguistics, anthropology and literature” (Routes: Representations of the West in Short Fiction from South India in Translation). She goes on to say: “As an ‘interfield’, to borrow a term from cultural ties, translation allows all of these seemingly separate disciplines to interface and gain new dimensions.”

Talking about literature from the Northeast, it is undeniable that most of the works in translation have been from the Brahmaputra Valley, though, of late, talented writers from other states have taken up writing, translaing and, most importantly, weaving the oral traditions which figure majorly in tribal societies into the stories.

In Mamang Dai’s The Legends of Pensam the stories of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh that encompass myths and oral histories do not seem to be translated but echo in the present as if they have been flowing seamlessly from time immemorial to this day. The word pensam means ‘in-between’ — a middle ground — “but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows.”

Most of the works in translation have been
from the Brahmaputra Valley, though
of late writers from other states have
taken up writing, translating and
weaving oral traditions into the stories
One realises that traditions reflecting a community’s values and beliefs, whether in direct translation or transcreated into the narrative, give readers a glimpse of a tiny corner of a world and also preserve, in print, nuggets of oral history. Temsula Ao of Nagaland also blends the oral and the written sensitively in her stories. In her poem The Old Story Teller, Ao seems to say the same:

I have lived my life believing
storytelling was my proud legacy
The ones I inherited
From grandfather became
My primary treasure
And the ones I garnered
From other chronicles
Added to the lore.

Lately, Assamese short stories have been increasingly finding a forum in their translated versions. Like the oral stories getting translated into English, in Assamese, too, the challenge remains how to bring out the essence of the local culture but at the same time not hinder the text. Today some publishers do not italicise the Indian words in English, letting the words flow along and even avoid footnotes. Whether it is a hindrance to a foreign reader or to those unfamiliar with the nuances even within the country is debatable.

But  translators can try to bring out the flavour of the source material by adding qualifiers subtly:  “Like her, a couple of others also sit by the roadside, hawking vegetables such as baah ganj — tender shoots of bamboo, dhekia fronds and kosu tubers” (Guilt, Harekrishna Deka, translated by Mitra Phukan).

However, there are moments when a choice has to be made while translating local idioms. In the story “Crows, Crows and Crows” (Kawri, Kawri, Kawri by Bhupendra Narayan Bhattacharya which the writer translated) there is a place where the character called Crow, on seeing his boss just when he was preparing to take French leave from the office uses the local idiom: jote baghar bhoy, tate rati hoy, which roughly translates to ‘night falls at a place where you know tigers abound’. Instead of making it too long-winded, disturbing the flow of the story, it was translated thus: “I suppose it always happens like this. What you fear most will always take place.”

But sometimes it reads better if some sentences are kept intact from original because a translation may even spoil the mood of the story. For example, Harendra Kumar Bhuyan’s Assamese story Rainmaker translated by Apratim Barua, begins with the line “Allah megh de, paani de.”

Another problem a translator may encounter especially is when it involves doing it from Indian regional languages into English or other foreign languages sans the social formalities we practice. For example, address forms. In an Indian language such an expression can establish a relationship: a peha is not the same as khura in Assamese. So blanketing it as ‘uncle’ does not bring out the same essence and it may not even be contextual. This is also true of address forms like a tumi and aapuni as ‘you’ does not very well bring in the subtle difference. 
Arunava Sinha, whose translation of Bengali novel Chowringhee by Shankar has been a huge hit at home and abroad, tackles this problem neatly by adding non-intrusive explanations as in his new translation A Tale of the Times from Buddhadeva Bose’s Tithidore:

‘You..’ . Using the formal aapni the professor noticed the books in Swati’s hands. Pausing abruptly – and avoiding both the formal aapni and the less formal tumi — he mumbled ‘From college?’

Finding evocative words for local abusive words is not easy either because some of them are so rooted in the land and culture that it simply is not possible to create the same impact while in translation. 

But then these are options one has to juggle with constantly and come out with the best possible representation. This constant looking for solutions by a translator is inevitable after all and the rewards are rich.

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