My Experiences in the field of translation
Prof. G. Poornachandran
[This article is to be presented in the Translators' Meet to be held on 27th August 2017 by the Sahitya Akademi, in Chandigarh.]
As a teacher of literature in Tamil, I know the smallest deviations in interpreting a text results in huge differences in the meaning of the text. While teaching literature, we interpret a text to children of our own language. While doing a translation, we interpret a text to the people of another language and culture. Hence in my experience, teaching and translating is one and the same act, but done to different kinds of audience. But in translation we have to be more careful; it involves interpreting the text to another people on one hand; and, if found with flaws, it will not deliver the correct ‘thing’ to those people who have not read it; and it will degrade the quality of the interpreter (and hence his own community) to the people outside his culture. Because of this responsibility translators have a huge task, and they must take into consideration various factors to deliver the intended meaning of the author.
When I started translating a long ago, it took a long time even to translate a small book, of say, 200 pages. I had no idea how to manage my time, and how much work I shall do in a given time. But now, as an experienced translator, I know how many number of chapters and even how many words I can translate in a given time to present a credible narrative in my own language, even when I had only a first look of the book. Usually there is no time to read the whole book before starting translation, but it helps at least read a few chapters.
I took to translating books only after my retirement of professorship, though I had done one or two books before. When I was a teacher, my students were the most important to me. My aim as a teacher was to make my students think for themself on any matter. Now my readers, whoever they are, are the most important. I have translated more than thirty books (not so thin, almost every book containing 150 to 900 pages) in various subjects. I have made it a point not to translate literature alone. I had a B.Sc degree with Physics as main subject, and mathematics and chemistry as ancillaries. I had also studied some logic and world history during my Pre-university time. These all, and whatever knowledge I acquired during my work as a teacher, helped me in my translation work, without doubt. As I translated in many fields, I could create, use and contribute many technical terms in Tamil anew. They are being used now. I am happy in that.
I like to translate a book which is considered mostly difficult for translation by others. I can say that I had some good translation practice when I wrote about theories of structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism in Tamil. That is why I translated books on Nietzche, Western music, Globalisation, and quiet a few books on medicine. Many people told me it is difficult to translate a post-modernist book like Salmon Rushdie’s Midnights’ Children and I took the challenge.
Before retirement, I was known as a critic of literature rather than as a translator. But I was among one of the persons who introduced foreign theories of literature into Tamil, around 1983. I wrote a book on the History of Tamil Literary Criticism in that year from 1900 to 1980. Because of writing scuh books, though my name was afloat in the Tamil literary field, I did not gain any popularity, I should say. The same happened with translation also, because it has taken some ten years at least, for me to gain the notice of an Institution like Sahitya Akademi. The defect may lie on my side also; I have not publicized about myself i.e. made people talk about me much. I should say here, if I had got this prize before ten years, it would have given me more encouragement in this kind of work. But I am happy that at least now, I have got it.
Altogether I cannot say I was neglected by the community, because in 2011 I got the Ananda Vikatan (a popular Tamil magazine) award for best translation work in Tamil that year, and I have received the same Ananda Vikatan award for this year also. For translating Salmon Rushdie’s book, I got a cash prize and certificate from a literary association from Namakkal.
And it is my conviction to write till my death, whether I gain any honour or not. I strongly feel I should do something for my community as one of its members.
I did not set myself for translating literay works only, for the simple reason mentioned above. That I should do something useful, in the field of knowledge, for my community, that too as soon as possible. Because nowadays time changes fast, and with that our ideas and ideologies, technologies and living conditions too. What I write today may be relevant today, but it might become irrelevant after a period of time. My concern on society led me to translating about people who are down-trodden and suffering. I translated ‘Captive Imagination’ by Varavara Rao, ‘Curfewed Night’ by Basharat Peer, and the ‘Broken Republic’ by Arudhati Roy only on this count.
The Sahitya Akademi has given the award for my translation of Manu Joseph’s novel ‘Serious men’. This novel is also about a man who comes from a downtrodden community. Not only it is a novel based on some scientific concepts (about NASA’s favourite theme, the Aliens on Earth), but also it is about how a Dalit plays in his son’s life. His characterization is totally different in this novel from that of Tamil novels. In most of the Indian novels I have read on Dalits, Dalits underwent untold sufferings, wept, could do nothing to change the society’s attitude toward them. But the protagonist of this novel, Ayyan Mani is not like that. He subtly wounds the dominating people’s pride and wins among them. And he feels very happy in his acts, though they are sly.
I have told about the importance of interpretation above, and one of the best remedies for not going mostly wrong, according to my experience, is a counter-translation. That should go within your mind; you need not put it down on paper. If need be, you might consult a friend.
For example, when I was translating the novel by Manu Joseph, translating the title itself was very difficult. The equivalent words used in Tamil for SERIOUS show always an aggravating attitude. But I had to remove that feeling. Hence I translated the title as ‘Poruppu mikka Manithargal’ (literally RESPONSIBLE MEN in English, in the opposite way). Sometimes we have to use other kinds of tactics also. For example, You all know how difficult it is to translate a pun from another language. When I was translating ‘Midnight’s Children’, I found the title of a chapter itself is ‘buddha’. The author means both the Buddha (the visionary) and also buddha – the word denoting an old man in Hindi. How to reconcile these two contradictory meanings in a word? I used the word ‘Buddhak-kizhavan’ as the heading for that chapter. (If I translate it in the opposite direction, it shall mean ‘The Old Man who is (like) Buddha’.) There is no other way, you see!
I have not taken much of poetry for translation, as I am a firm believer in Robert Frost’s dictum that Poetry cannot be translated.
Lastly, many people have asked me why only I translate from English to Tamil. “Why at least, could you not translate important books from Tamil to English?” There are two reasons: One, modern languages of India, like Tamil, need more knowledge from other languages, especially English; I think this is more important than translating Tamil works in English or any other language. Second, I feel that mostly a translator should belong to the target language (exceptions are there: like Prof. A. K. Ramanujan, who translated elegantly from Tamil to English). If he is an expert in the source language alone, he might not understand and express the shades and nuances of meaning in the other language.
Mostly, I choose the books for my translation: first of all, my publishers select a few books according to my temperament and send them for my consideration. I choose one among them and go forward. I verify whether they have already got the copyright for the book and undertake the venture.
Now, my friends had asked me (for the past ten years or so) to finish off my first book – ‘The History of Literay Criticism in Tamil’ taking the whole of the 20th century into account. But I could not do so. I was maimed due to an accident many years before, and my eyesight has failed due to retinal problems. To write a history, You know I have to refer to many books on the subject and attach proper notes etc. For the above reasons, I could not visit any library or read physically. Hence I have taken to translation work more nowadays.