Being an avid Indian reader, and constantly searching for new and interesting authors, I have periodically tried to read Indian language writers in translation. At the outset, I must confess, that although I can converse/understand a few of the Indian languages, my reading skills are limited and certainly inadequate for any serious reading. So, I have to resort to English translations and therein lies the problem…
I often pick up books while browsing a bookstore and Sivakami’s ‘Taming of women’ was one such. I had read great things about this Dalit Tamil writer and also seen a positive review of the English translation.
I have struggled through the first 100 pages and gave up. The story, if at all there is one, revolves around the women around the life of Periyannan and the power equations between him and the many generations of women who live in his house – wife, mother, daughters, sister etc… I have a superficial and distant view of the language and culture of the region. I can glimpse as though, through a dense fog, that the descriptions in the original Tamil must be strong and evocative – but the scenes, characters and dialogue does nothing for me as I read it in English. And then this morning I read the article by K Satchidnand in the Hindu Literary supplement, and it reenforced my feelings.
The desire to read the vast literature in our languages is strong and sporadically I have made the attempt. I have tried to read at various times Mahashweta Devi, Tagore, Premchand, Thakzhi Sivasankara Pillai, Kalki, Indira Goswami and others. Some books I finished (Thekazhi’s Chemeen for instance), while many like Sivakmai, I could not. Among the author I have read in English translation and enjoyed tremendously has been Sankar. Mani Shankar Mukherjee (who wrote as Sankar) was a popular Bengali writer of the 50s and 60s, and the translations of his ‘Chowringhee’, ‘Middleman’ and ‘Thakkeray Mansion’ over these last 4-5 years has got him a huge following.
So why do some translations work while others do not? Of course, I am sure the quality of the translation matters – but for me it is the nature of the discourse. The very culturally specific, local narratives come out stilted in English. And then I think that I have read and enjoyed Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Reinhart, Remarque and so many others in translation in the past. Is it that a younger me was less perceptive or were the names and their reputation overwhelming? But I suspect, that a “Les Miserables’ or “War and Peace’ would survive any translation – substance has to tower over the style I guess!! I wonder how I would feel if I re-read them!! And, I must admit that more recently I did feel the weight of the translation while reading Orhan Pamuk. And maybe Sankar worked, because the tales wove around the urban milieu of Calcutta of the 50s – where the cultural context is almost English!!
Since I don’t see myself mastering an Indian language at this age, I am hoping that the quality of the translation will improve and many, like me can enjoy the talent in our many writers across may languages.