Trapped in translation
Conventional wisdom tells you not to blow your trumpet, but then I was never conventional, and rarely had any wisdom to speak of. So yes, this all (this as in this thought process) started when Vivek posted a Translation of my poem A Death Foretold. Vivek is a gifted poet (note, I’m not saying also :D), and normally the narcissist in me would be happy that my poem is being translated. Incidentally someone had posted a translation of one ghazal I wrote long back, on Sulekha. I cannot recall who, and which ghazal, even. But then I sort of didn’t think much about it. This time around, since I know Vivek and how good he’s at poetry, I was kind of disappointed with the translation.
There are different factors why it’s probably not effective, IMO. One is, as identified by a friend, the mixing of Urdu and high-brow shuddh Hindi, which doesn’t gel well. But that apart, it’s the inherent tone, and I think this is where Vivek has was constrained by the language, and not by his ability. The original has this dry, ironic, third-person tone (note not pov, but tone), where as the translation has a first person tone (and pov). The irony is almost lost in translation — the poet using poem against itself, or even himself. Not that this cannot be done in Hindi, but I doubt if it will need a complete rewrite, rather than a translation? What Eco calls translating the meaning and not the words…
I remembered the whole thing again in context of some breakfast time conversation. My (late) grandfather, who grew up in Ratnagiri, Konkan (the coastal area of Maharashtra) had this habit of greeting old friends with a “are wa, aahat ka ajun!”, which translated means: “oh excellent, you’re still there” (as in still alive). It was ironic, in the sense that the guys would be typically years younger to him. People who don’t know the konkani culture well would frown at such a greeting. Even people who know Marathi might not get the feelings behind such an outrageous greeting, imagine it being translated into English! He’d typically end the meetings with, “Punha bhetu, aapaN doghehi aslo tar” (we’ll meet again, if both of us are alive the next time). Not particularly great parting words, eh? But that’s Konakani, and to some extent, curiously, Solapuri (my home town) culture for you. Another very good friend of mine, who’s done his PHD from IIT, routinely uses phrases like, “are to xyz jivant aahe ki gachakala? (is xyz alive or did he die — that’s very rough literal translation) he’s not responding to my mails”. That even shocked my wife, who’s raised in Mumbai, another informal cultural pot.
“Antu Barva”, a character sketch (literal translation of vyakti-chitra, or is it the other way round?) in celebrated Marathi author P.L. Deshpande’s book “Vyakti aNi Valli” (People and Characters, again a literal translation — characters as in, “he’s a character!”), is an excellent stereotype of the konkani people. I shudder to translate that piece into English (or most of P.L. Deshpande’s writings for that matter). It will be a complete mess, however hard I might try. Maybe someone else will do (or has already done) a decent job, but I’m skeptical. I was reading Gaurav Sabnis’s translation of another P.L. classic. It can be found here. Although it’s a pretty good translation, I think it doesn’t do justice to the original P.L. piece. Again, not the translator’s problem, but the inherent pitfalls of translation. For the record, although I’ve attempted to translate a few Marathi poems, I’ve never been happy about them either. Although I got positive comments, none of them have read the Marathi originals. And I fear if someone who’s read them reads those translations, they will be appalled.
So does this mean translating is futile? Surely not. I mean I’ve read Eco, Pamuk, Camus … all translated. Without translations Neruda would be lost to most of us, so would be Marquez! So it’s a necessary evil. And while we’re at at, we must think a lot about them, to make sure we don’t destroy the essence, although compromise we will, however well we do. I cannot get my hands on an Eco article/interview where he discusses some of these perils of translation, but that was a very useful piece. Will put up a link if I find it.