The translator and her place | Literacy

EEven before a literary work has been translated, the birth of a literary work in its first language is, to some extent, an act of translation – from the idea (or ideas) to the written word(s) . Thus the debate on the hierarchy of a literary work in its original language vs. the translated language is full of complexities. Of course, there would have been no translation(s) if the work had not been produced in its first language at the outset. Can a translated work equal or exceed the original? If so, on rare occasions, then should the importance or respect of the translator equal or exceed that of the author? Are the translators of Dostoivsky’s work, for example into Urdu or Bengali, worthy of recognition?

Jennifer Croft, the famous translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, raised a similar question regarding the recognition a translator deserves. It’s having your name printed next to the author on the cover of a book. That seems fair enough to me. One could, if one wanted, quibble about the size of the fonts granted to the writer and the translator, but it is no small feat that Croft managed to put his name on the new edition of Tokarczuk’s novel. Jacob’s Books. The issues of respect, recognition and love are not the same, but sometimes they can be rolled into one. Croft, with author support, will also receive royalties from the book. Should this be a standard? Should a translator’s name always appear on the first page, regardless of the quality of the translation? What mechanisms are in place to judge quality and, of course, fidelity? There are good and/or faithful translations just as there are good and bad literary works. The phenomenon of translation is based on the assumption that a chosen job is worth the effort for a translation project. There are several factors at play. The strength of academia, literacy and literary culture and the market are the main forces.

The South Asian context is quite specific. There are reasons why South Asian countries lack, on the whole, the above ingredients, with an exception here and there. There is a system, kept in place by design, which privileges a colonial heritage of education and linguistic hierarchy, which perpetuates the colonial mentality. Having a personal relationship with Urdu and Punjabi writers, I can say from experience that there is a certain respect, even admiration, for translated work, but often this respect and admiration does not fully extend to the translator. Translation is often seen as a necessary element if Urdu or Punjabi literature is to improve or reach any international standard. It is accepted as a significant foreign injection into the native vein of a South Asian language. The translator, literary moreover, is considered a tool, although respected only in a restricted circle of scholars.

Just because one speaks good English, one often falls victim to the illusion that one can also translate to or from it..

Professor Memon was an exception. Every time he visited Pakistan, an interview or two appeared in major Pakistani newspapers. Even he felt deterred, a feeling he shared with me privately, by a prominent Urdu author whose fame had been pushed beyond the borders of Pakistan, he believed, by his translations. He also clashed with a Moroccan-American author because the Urdu translation of his novel had been published in Pakistan without her permission. He agreed to destroy all printed copies.

On another occasion, I found it depressing when a well-known Urdu author, having translated the classic Chinua Achebe When things fall apart in Urdu, had nothing to say about the Nigerian author, his work, the translation or the process. He told me frankly that he had accepted the task because he needed the money. I also had conversations with a reputable translator of Pakistani origin who was unconvinced of the importance of knowing the original language to pursue a translation. Due to weak academic and literary traditions, little discussion takes place about the importance of having expertise in the native language. Often a translated work is considered sufficient for further translation.

Our colonial heritage can also act as a curse; or a two-headed monster. First, the overemphasis on translation to and from English is undermining the organic growth of translation into non-European South Asian languages; second, just because one speaks good English, one often falls victim to the illusion that one can also translate to or from it. I recently came across a translation that I proofread where the translator had confused bad ro (sewer) with Badru (abbreviation of the name Badr). During my only visit to India, I heard an Indian translator defend his universally recognized poor translations as an act of defiance of a colonial blockade.

We have the case of Tagore deliberately diluting his poetry in translations from Bengali for a Western audience and belatedly and reluctantly admitting his folly to his friends in two letters. To Edward Thompson he wrote: “In my translations I timidly avoid all difficulties, which has the effect of making them smooth and fine. I know that I misrepresent myself as a poet to Western readers. But when I started this career of falsifying my own plays, I did it while playing. Now I am beginning to fear its enormity and am ready to confess my wrongdoing and retreat to my original calling as a simple Bengali poet.

In short, while translations, both of classic and contemporary works, are essential for the development of South Asian literatures, the translator and the public must meet halfway. The South Asian translator must first strive to love another language and then master it before undertaking the daunting task of translating a literary work. (Translating a literary work is not the same as translating a computer manual into Urdu using software.) It is by learning a new language that one aspires to find, acquire and read literature modern published in that language. This further expands the scope of his own modern literature. I was encouraged to have a long chat with Punjabi author Javed Boota who undertook the arduous task of translating Yashmal’s book Jhoota Sach, a two-volume essay covering two thousand pages. To that end he gave up reading Gurmukhi for a while so he could immerse himself in Hindi and before he could even start working on Yashpal’s magnum opus he translated about 20 short stories into Hindi . Such stories give hope.

A conversation should be started in South Asian literary journals and literary columns in newspapers, television, radio and electronic media about the historical significance of translations. Then there is the issue of credibility. A publisher, large or small, must have the mechanism and the means to assess the merit of the translation submitted, the expertise to decide whether the manuscript in hand has followed an appropriate process, that it is indeed a careful translation, faithful in its essence, not an afterthought full of careless choices made in haste. These efforts will determine, over time, the respect that should be accorded to a translator. Currently, to speak freely, the conditions are not in place for a native Jennifer Croft to exert influence on publishers or readership. But it would be nice to have a few like her someday in the near future.

The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Café Le Putain and other stories. He blogs at