Translation is a slippery act. A new voice tip-toes into the private literary universe created by an author, tells the same story in a language different from what it was written in, overcomes cultural and language barriers, or at least attempts to, and then exits without making a noise. In translation, the new ink evaporates the moment it is written with, the words chosen from a foreign lexicon resemble the existing words so closely that it seems they were always written in this language.
“Translation is a deeply creative act, like writing. And yet there is one huge difference—translators never have to face that mute expanse of the blank page. The map is drawn…I feel like the words are mine but the rhythms are hers,” translator Jessica Moore, who was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016 for her translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, writes in art magazine Canadian Art on the act of translation.
The year 2018 has largely been about these new words strung together by an already composed rhythm. It began with Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, on May 22. Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, translated from Kannada to English by Tejaswini Niranjana, has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize, and Benyamin’s novel Jasmine Days — a political fable narrating the life of a young woman in a city whose life changes as the hopeful promise of a revolution turn sour— translated from Malayalam to English by Shahnaz Habib, bagged the JCB Prize for Literature.
In an e-mail conversation with indianexpress.com, both Benyamin and Habib, from their perspectives, shed light on the process of translation, on the slippage that occurs while doing it and answered if translators can be considered as co-creators of a novel.
Excerpts from Benyamin’s interview:
Theoretician and translator Gayatri Spivak had said,”translation is both necessary and impossible.” As an author who has read his translated work, do you agree with the statement? Is there any instance where you thought a word or a turn of phrase had not been translated well or had lost its essence in the process?
Theoretically, it may be correct. But without a translation how could we read all major works in world literature? It’s true that sometimes titles, phrases, idioms and colloquial words lose their original beauty and meaning they contain. For example ‘Aadujeevitham’ is much meaningful and beautiful than ‘Goat Days’. ‘Manja Veyil Maranangal’ is translated as “Yellow Lights of Death’. Lights never stand for veyil. Veyil is much more poetic than light. But there is no option for the translator.
For somebody who writes in Malayalam, do you think translation is able to overcome the cultural barriers while keeping the grammar intact?
To some extent. That’s all I can say now. Word by word the translation will kill the original work. To communicate well, a translator must take some freedom to explain or expand the original work. Especially if it is a regional subject.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez had famously said that Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude had made it superior. Have you ever felt the same for any one of your translated works?
He is correct. Some translations become much beautiful and elegant than original work. I too felt the same with Jasmine Days. Shahnaz Habib has done a wonderful job.
Do you think translators are co-creators of a novel?
No doubt. For that, the writer must give enough freedom to the translator. What I say, if original work is water, the translation is only steam. Both are that much far related. The theme is there, idea is there, language and style is there but at the same time, it is entirely different.
Has there ever been any instance when you have incorporated feedback from a translator? Is there anything you particularly remember?
Many areas. In Goat Days, on the translator’s suggestion, the novel was eventually divided into four parts. The original work had no divisions. And in Jasmine Days there was a Google Buzz chat history and as Google Buzz does not exist, we changed it to Facebook chats. There were several such corrections.
How will you describe an author-translator relationship?
I never interfere with the process. If the translator has any doubt, I will clear or explain it. But I will not accept any major changes that will affect the plot. My Marathi translator for Goat Days asked me to change the native place of the protagonist. But I denied.
Excerpts from Habib’s interview:
While translating Jasmine Days, was there a point when you encountered a turn of phrase or a word that you found difficult to translate in English?
Yes, of course. Maybe on every page? Jasmine Days is my first translation ever, so maybe this happened because I was over thinking. (Or maybe because it’s so much fun to sit and think about one word for hours!)
While translating, did you ever feel that the act might render a given situation or the complexity in the novel reductive? Since ambiguity is essential to any work, how do you preserve it while narrating the story in a different language? Do you follow the author’s lead or you come up with your own rules?
As far as I can see, translating preserves ambiguity because the novel is passing through a second filter and is subtly transforming itself. The novel is being rendered into another language for readers who don’t understand the culture of origin, so there are all these invisible question marks littered throughout the translated novel.
Does identifying with characters in the novel, in the case of Jasmine Days with the protagonist Sameera Parvin, help while translating?
Yes, that definitely worked in Jasmine Days, though of course, it is too much to expect from every novel. I found Sameera’s character inspiring and intriguing. She is subversive in ways that I absolutely identify with, and that definitely made me want to translate the novel, made me passionate about getting this story out for a broader audience.
How do you keep the cultural nuances intact while translating? How do you treat a local word or a phrase?
Well, I begin by accepting that some of them will never come across and that’s okay. For instance, there are Malayalam proverbs that would lose all their charm and vitality if rendered into English literally. So you try to find something equivalent in English. Also, there are times when you can just keep the Malayalam word intact (as opposed to translating it literally or finding an English equivalent) — but that was not really an option in Jasmine Days because it is a fictional translation and Malayalam is not Sameera’s mother tongue.
Translator Jessica Moore in an essay on translation had written,“there’s much intimacy to translation”. Since, you are the second reader of the novel, after the author, how much do you engage with the work and later how do you disengage, since ultimately the words are not technically yours. Do you inhabit the world created by the author or just stop by for a while?
Yes, translation is a very intimate engagement with the work. It begins with a slow, meticulous reading which opens up the meanings of the text in ways that ordinary reading doesn’t. The act of putting the text into another language is also a bit of a wrestle between language and meaning, and at some point you accept a certain level of defeat. The words and phrases that will not make it across unbruised; the subtext that a lot of readers will miss. That defeat is a study in intimacy. You can’t walk away from it, you can’t give up, you have to keep engaging even when you are frustrated with the limitations of language, the arbitrariness of grammar.
I certainly felt as if I traveled to the City myself. Now I no longer live in the City but I look for it in the news, in other books, in its people.
Can you shed light on the process of translating? How do the new words take shape over a couple of drafts?
I try to get a first draft out as soon as possible, just word by word, not stopping too much to refine the language. As I work, I highlight passages and words that I want to return to, and when I am done, I return and scrub them. Then, I reread the draft entirely and revise to smooth out elements like tone, narrative voice, pacing, character, all the while following the author’s lead.
Do you believe that translators are co-creators of a novel? What role do you identify yourself with as an attentive second reader or the second author of the work?
I wonder if this depends a lot on the particular author-translator relationship and the translator-book relationship. Benyamin is such a prolific writer who has been translated before, so I knew he understands and respects the translator’s role. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I think of myself as the second author of Jasmine Days. I did not create Sameera and her world. I did not make the choices Benyamin made about her life. Part of the pleasure of translating Jasmine Days, for me, was the pleasure of immersing myself in someone else’s work, in not being the author. Certainly, translation goes beyond attentive reading, but I suppose it’s a line in the sand somewhere between an intimate reader and a second author, and depending on the book and the people involved, the line moves forward and backwards.
Since 2015, The Booker Prize has begun to recognize translated works, has that expanded the horizons for a translator?
It has certainly put translation on the radars of more readers, hasn’t it? I am sure, slowly but inevitably, that will expand horizons for translators. I am excited as a reader of translations. I also wonder if the Booker making this recognition is part of a larger zeitgeist — migration is changing peoplescapes around the world and consequently, there is both a backlash to that as well as curiosity about the lives and stories that are invisible.
Is translating a feasible profession in India? Do you think translators are getting their due credit?
Feasible, as in reliably make a living? Oh God no. Maybe in combination with the usual tricks of the trade: teaching and criticism and living off of family and friends. As for credit, increasingly yes — but I want to also give credit to translation editors, many of whom have been championing translations valiantly to their barely convinced marketing departments. Also, illustrators! It takes a village of people who love stories to create each translated work.