Trapped in translation

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.


11 thoughts on “Trapped in translation

  1. gaizabonts says:

    Very interesting Amit, I recently addressed this in a wishful way. (Link below). The only other point that gets lost in translation is the cultural context. What makes a Kolhapuri, Konkani, and a Solapuri (and thefore a Spanish, an Austrian or a German) speak in a particular fashion is also the cultural context – which in the original tongue, is assumed. A translation (especially translated for someone out of the context), however good it is, misses that key assumption.

    Yet, translations are useful (if only) because they at least make available the literature to a larger audience.

    Very well put! 🙂

  2. Vivek Sharma says:

    Asuph miyan,

    Translation is perhaps always a mapping where an elephant in one space becomes an big pig with a trunk in another. Being an impromtu attempt, I posted it (or rather typed it) as I read your poem, which is breaking the first rule of translation. So when I re-read it later that day, I wished I had atleast sat over it:) but I guess I had it there so I left it without further work. Maybe if I were you I will shout out too, and my sincere apology for doing a shabby job of it. There should never be bad writing and no excuse is a valid excuse for bad art.

    Yet I insist, your poem in English felt like a stream of thoughts that had flown from another language: thats why after reading first stanza itself I started typing the corresponding Hindi transversion (something we ought not do, and of course, I should be smacked for this:)!). Maybe, you, in your spare time, could see how you could have written it in Hindi.

    The mixing of Hindi and Urdu, or rather tatsam (from Sanskrit origin) and from Persian origin is an accusation I will have to defend all my life. Spoken language mixes them, and so must the writers if they wish to reach everyone. Writers at the same time need to select the right words which may not be commonly used words on streets, and hence I shall always have some so called pure Hindi or pure Urdu words. But this discussion is different, and perhaps the faults this caused can be fixed more easily, than the aspects that were translated badly or can’t be translated.

    Thanks much for posting this.

  3. Gaurav says:

    Very true. Translation can never do full justice to PuLa’s writing. For instance, how is it possible to translate “Tashi Maharashtraat shekdo gaav aahet. Pan jyapudhe karey jodaavi ashi gaavey teenach – Pune Mumbai aani Nagpur” without losing the priceless pun in there.

    Yet, he was such a great writer that even after losing so much in translation, his stuff is still worth reading. That’s the reason behind my humble attempts to translate Punekar.. and Chitale Master.

  4. asuph says:


    very good point. in a way that’s what i wanted to say. thanks for visiting…


    🙂 apologies accepted. believe me i’m more disappointed than pissed. disappointed, beacuse i know how good you can be.

    well about writing it in hindi, my hindi sucks. i can’t re-write it in hindi. urdu either. marathi, i can think about, but then i don’t know if i’ve that much of patience.

    re mixing, you know i’m no purist. quite the opposite. the only thing is, with poetry, if it jars, it is more painful..


    good to see you’ve taken it in the right spirit. i liked your translation on its own merit. i really did. and to be fair, i’m translating a marathi book myself, so know how hard it is. and pu la’s writing is nuanced in so many ways that like u said, it’s almost impossible to translate it.

    but then because of your translation at least some guys would get a glimpse of pu la. and that itself is a bigger contribution to the larger cause than my cribbings 😉


  5. Mayuresh says:

    Had to comment on this 🙂

    IMO, A work of literature has multiple facets. The use of the subtelities of the language in which the work is written is one of the facets. And this facet is bound to be lost while translating from language to another.

    Other facets like the thoughts that the writer wants to express, the story that the writer wants to tell, the point that the writer wants to get across can be retained in translation.

    If a translator avoids the pit falls of trying to translate from one language to another and tries to express the core of a literary piece in another language it would give better results.

    A case in point is the hindi movie “Omkara” which is a translation of “Othello” an English play by Shakespeare. The essential ingredients of Othello are maintained while setting the story in a totally different context.

    Pu.La. extensively uses the subtelities of the Marathi language and hence presents a big challange for translators.

  6. asuph says:


    Poetry is a different ballgame because many times poems are very obscure. So this whole “story” a writer wants to tell is itself not easily decidable in that domain.

    This “translating the core” is exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned Eco. Only there is an element of getting carried away there, thus compromising the fidelity of the translation.

    Othello for instance is not a translation, it’s an adaptation. Adaptations are more of “derivative works” in the patent terminology ;-). But then Omkara is NOT shakespearan work, and those who wanted to read the original but couldn’t because of language problem wouldn’t exactly have read Shakespear if they have read Omkara’s script. You get the drift? Omkara is a work in its own right.

    With Pu.La also, it’s not just nuances of language but heavy binding to the local culture which creates problems while translating.


  7. Merryweather says:

    I suppose the konkani greetings aren’t so alien in our part of the world- often friends address each other thus: “you alive?”… Oh & even my fiance often inquires: “dead?” heh 😀

    By the way, I have an English translation of poetry by an awe-inspiring (and that word is an understatement; but I can’t think of another better, befitting word for now :S) … an awe-inspiring Marathi Poet- TUKARAM. You read him? Here’s one:

    From Tukaram’s Letter to Vitthal

    With the saints who are going on a pilgrimage to Pandharpur I send Him this message:

    “Your servant
    Beseeches You:
    Do not forget me.

    “At Your great gate
    I remain
    Your everlasting

    “My mind
    And my body
    Fit Your feet
    As shoes.

    “My mouth is open
    Like a spittoon
    For You
    To spit in
    Betel-leaf juice.

    “I offer
    My body
    As a pot
    To receive
    O Lord
    Your shit.

    “I am
    The soil
    Touched by
    Your feet.

    “Says Tuka-
    O Lord of Pandharpur
    Do not ever
    Treat me
    As anything

  8. asuph says:

    m/w: Tukaram is a saint poet belonging to the bhakti tradition. When I read the translation I shuddered again, because Tuka is such a great poet to read. the translation sounds almost like explaining word for word, although i’m not aware of the original (now i’ll have to hunt for it). but then the fact that you found even the translation awe-inspiring speaks volumes, and that in itself is a reason enough to translate…


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