Remembering September 30

Translation and Modernity

T Vijayendra

September 30 is celebrated as World Translation Day every year. Translators are unsung heroes and heroines of communication. Even while enjoying translations of great works in foreign languages, we rarely notice the names of the translators and it is rarer still, if we do register the names, for us to be interested in or try to know anything about them. So it is a good idea to celebrate at least one day in a year as Translation Day and understand importance of translation in literature, particularly for a developing country.

The father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun, in his famous essay, 'Waiting for a Genius', describes the work of a translator as creating the soil which can nurture a new audience for great literature. He was writing in the early part of the twentieth century and building grounds for the birth of modern literature. He himself, most of his life, translated and helped young authors. Many great modern authors of our sub continent began their literary career by translating.

Translators are doing a great service to their mother tongue. They are creating an appreciation of great literature among their own people and thus paving ground–building soil–for the birth of new and modern literature in their languages.

Simply put, translation means expressing what is said in one language in another. Is it possible? Yes, as Chomsky put it, there is a universal translatability of any language into any other language in the world. Then why do some people say that this cannot be translated or this is a bad translation? Any piece of writing or textual expression of ideas is part of a literary tradition of that language. Now these traditions vary. The variation is more pronounced if the languages exist in distant geographical regions. So the guiding principle for a good translation is that it should be part of the literary tradition of the language into which it is translated. As people exclaim about a good translation that one is not even aware that it is a translation. This also means that a good translator should be a literary person in his/her own language. And of course they should have a fairly good knowledge of the language from which they are translating.

Simply put modernity implies coming out of feudal world into a modern bourgeois world. It also implies a secular world as against a world dominated by religion. For the purpose of this article the birth of modernity in India can be considered to coincide with the arrival of Western influence. In popular perception it is associated with England. In reality we had the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and lastly the English. However only the Portuguese and the English have left significant impacts in the region.

One of the earliest influences of 'modernity' undoubtedly came from the entry of Christianity into India. It's criticism of Hinduism–untouchability, Sati, treatment of widows etc. was a big impetus for reform in India and of Hinduism. The Portuguese influence predates the English and is seen mainly in Goa and in the Konkan region. The Portuguese started the first printing press in India and began to publish in Konkani using the Roman script. The first known translation of any Christian Scripture in an Indian language was in Konkani in 1667 AD by Ignacio Arcamone, an Italian Jesuit. The first translation of the Bible in India was into Tamil. The history of Bible translations into Indian languages commences with the arrival of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg at Tranquebar in 1706. Johann Philipp Fabricius, a German, revised the work of Ziegenbalg and others to produce the standard Tamil version.

The Bible has been translated into all the major Indian languages and many tribal languages. One reference gives about 70 images of the Bible in Indian languages. India is home to hundreds of languages and translation of the Bible remains an ongoing project. As recently as 2016 a translation in one of lesser known Indian languages was published. Paniya is a Southern Dravidian language mainly found in scheduled castes in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Indian Bible Translators (IBT) have translated and published the New Testament in the Paniya language (2016). Thambi Durai and Elizabeth are the translators in Paniya for Indian Bible Translators. Currently IBT is carrying out the translation of Old Testament in Paniya.

Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau etc.
As is well known, Gandhi was very deeply influenced by Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau. In his 1908 book, Hind Swaraj, there are references to the works of these philosophers/authors. Gandhi himself translated on a regular basis for his journal Harijan. These authors have been translated into many Indian languages. However these translations are not very reliable. The translators have used their discretions and attempted to improve readability by simplifying. In the process the text often got diluted. Yet these translations played a great role in popularising Gandhian concepts and ideas and are still very popular as validations of of environmental consciousness and advocacy of voluntary simplicity.

During the independence movement it was often said that 'What Bengal thinks today, rest of India will think tomorrow'. Calcutta was the first capital of British India and so national awakening also came here early. Tagore's Shantiniketan became the hub of Indian renaissance and authors and artists from all over India came and spent a lot of time there. In the process they learned to read and write Bengali and some of them became good translators in their own language. It was more so for Hindi. Calcutta was an important publishing centre for Hindi and several important Hindi authors lived in Calcutta. Contemporary authors like Alka Saraogi was born and lives in Calcutta. A major Hindi author, Agneya translated Gora, Tagore's 500 page novel. Hans Kumar Tiwari in Patna translated all of Sharatchandra's novels. The magazines, Maya and Manohar Kahaniyaan from Allahabad, regularly published Bengali stories in the very next month of their publication in Bengali magazines. Generations of Indian young people in different languages grew up thinking that Sharatchandra was an author in their own language!

After independence, Sahitya Akademy, National Book Trust and Children's Book Trust were created. They are huge multilingual publishing houses and have translated a huge number of books from foreign languages, but mainly from other Indian languages. Gyan Peeth Awards in literature for Indian languages also contributed to the translation of Indian language books mainly in Hindi.

Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Gorky etc.
In retrospect the most significant contribution to modernity undoubtedly came from the translation of Russian works. Modern Indian authors knew Pushkin, Chekhov and Dostoevsky fairly well. Tolstoy of course was world famous in his own life time. A special mention must be made of translations of Gorky's writing. His work is peopled with working class characters and professions. The translator had to undertake special research in his own language to find appropriate words. This increased the vocabulary of literary Indian languages significantly. It is most refreshing to read these books. A friend who read Gorky's Mother in Marathi, told me that nothing like this exists in Marathi literature. The Hindi translator of Mother was Munish Saxena, editor of the Hindi and Urdu editions of Blitz, a premier progressive tabloid in India.

After the second world war and after India's independence, Soviet Publications flooded Indian markets–particularly in Hindi, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam–languages of states that had substantial pro left following. The production was of very good quality and prices were reasonable. Many Indians read great Russian classics in this format.

Recovering the glory of Ancient India was part of the nationalist project. We had to show that ancient India was as great if not greater than Greece and Rome. Asiatic Society played a great role in advancing this cause. Sanskrit manuscripts were available in Mysore and Travancore libraries and Mysore and Pune became major hubs of preparing the standard editions of these manuscripts and translating them into English. Revival of Buddhism in India was a parallel process. Starting with deciphering Pillar inscriptions of Ashoka, translating the Pali classics of Buddhism also became a major project. Harvard Oriental Series played an important role in this.

Ironically English language publishing in India increased vastly, post independence. Today it is the single largest publishing industry in our country which also has a flourishing market for it. Publishing in India proved to be economical for foreign publishing houses like Oxford, Macmillan, Cambridge and Orient Longman (now Orient Black Swan) which have big presence in India. Most of their revenue comes from school books but their publications include academic and literary works many of which are translations of Indian writings.

Tolstoy once said that ordinary people will not be able to read our writings. We need a 'middle' literature to create a reading culture. Sure enough we see trends of a pulp culture in all languages that has engendered a reading public. Good middle literature need not be poor or bad literature. It can have a good language and good contents but it should be readable. Dickens probably was the greatest among authors who grasped this. In India it was of course Sharatchandra. George Simenon, the French mystery writer and creator of Chief Inspector Maigret comes closest to what Tolstoy meant. With 200 novels translated in scores of languages in the world, he has the highest number of books in print.

Every major Indian language has one author like Sharatchandra. However here we are concerned with translations. Crime, thrillers, romance and children's literature are the commonest genres of trans-created literature all over the world. In most major Indian languages we will find adaptations and trans-creations from English. Babu Rao Arnalkar who translated into Marathi is among the prominent names. Even today most of his readers do not know that he trans-created three series from English. He trans-created Sexton Blake, Tinker and Tiger into Dhananjay, Chhotu and Sheru, he transformed Black Shirt to Kalaphaad and Norman Conquest became Jhunjhar. The English landscape was converted into forts, forests and hills of the Deccan and the Western Ghats. He published more than a hundred books.

Children's Literature
Except Bengali, Indian languages do not have a great tradition of children's literature. After independence many publishers translated and retold a large number of world classics of children's literature into Indian languages. They had a ready selection in terms of supplementary readers for English medium schools published by Oxford, Macmillan, Orient Longman etc.

The entry of Soviet children's fiction and non fiction was a huge boost to the generation of reading material for children. Better produced and cheaper than Indian publications, they regaled generations of Indian children and young people both in English and in the vernacular. Even today many publishers continue to translate and republish Soviet children's literature. Suresh Kosaraju of Manchi Pustkam in Hyderabad has done scores of these translations. He has translated Organic farming classics of Fukuoka and Albert Howard and the works of Khalil Gibran and Paulo Coelho as well.

This essay began by saying, 'Translators are doing a great service to their mother tongue. They are creating an appreciation of great literature among their own people and thus paving ground–building soil–for the birth of new and modern literature in their languages.' Paradoxically the most popular trend in India appears to be translating literature into English! This has a cascading effect in increasing market for English language publishing in India. However this does not mean Indian language publishing is diminishing. More importantly a growing number of Indian authors are becoming proficient in English thereby adding an international perspective to their writings. For most serious reading public in India, bilingualism–their mother tongue and English is common. Thus translations have helped Indian languages to become modern both in content and form.

Additionally it has brought more Indians into the fold of bilingualism which automatically results in a larger reading population and consequently a growth in the number of modern rational minds.


Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020