Why Translation is Integral to Indian Literary Life

In News by Dennis Abrams

IndiaBy Dennis Abrams

Writing for, K. Satchidanandan notes that “With India’s plurilingual heritage, translation, with its accretions, adaptations and substitutions, was often a reinterpretation of the ‘original.’ It continues to be a way of having a living dialogue with our past and between our different cultures.”

India is, it seems, a nation meant for translation, a land where “it is difficult to come across monolinguals,” a nation whose “literature is founded on direct or free translations since the various Ramayanas, Mahabharatas and Bhagavatas in different languages, including tribal and folk versions and performative improvisations, have been the very foundations of our rich literatures.” And even when the short story and modern novel came to India, “these epic, magical fables and folktales served as indigenous models for storytelling.”

In fact, Satchidanandan points out (in an interesting aside), it is because of those classic epics that “magical realism and allegory have been natural to the Indian narrative imagination, and we were practicing them much before we began to hear of the Latin American ‘magic realists’ like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, the fantasies of the Italian writer Italo Calvino or the allegories of Franz Kafka.” Indeed it was translations of the Arabian Nights into the various Indian languages that “reinforced this oriental tradition of fantasy and magic.” Curiously, she points out, “It was realism that was more Western than these tendencies.”

But if translation has always been an essential part of Indian literature, it is perhaps even more so now:

The West looks at multilingualism as a problem to be tackled, while for India it has been a vital source of creative abundance…

“The new eagerness among writers and readers in India to know what is happening in languages other than their own can chiefly be attributed to the recent spurt in translations. Translations have begun to appear recently even from tribal languages that had so far been completely neglected, thanks to the initiative taken by Sahitya Akademi and the interest of scholars like Ganesh Devy. We certainly need more translations of folk and tribal lore, wherein lie the solid foundations of our literatures…Perhaps, mutual translations among Indian languages are on the wane today because of a lack of competent bilingual scholars with the necessary skills and sensibility, except between some language pairs. But this has been compensated to some extent by the increase in the translations into English, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust, along with the new interest shown by private publishers like Oxford University Press, Penguin, Katha, Orient Longman, Macmillan, East West, HarperCollins, Rupa, and many committed little publishing houses like Navayana.”

But even more intriguing, as Satchidanandan notes, is the difference in how the “West” and India views translation:

“The West has a tendency to look at multilingualism as a problem to be tackled, while for India it has been a vital source of creative abundance…India has lived with her plurilingual heritage for centuries…translation is a daily act with us, essential and intimate. We have also learnt to admire deviation in translations as we have a long tradition of adaptations, especially of the epics, where the events and characters are localized, episodes omitted, transformed or newly added, metaphors and similes refreshed, and even the whole text reconceived.

“Authenticity to the Western scholars often meant literality, a concept close to the Platonic Mimesis, an attempt to resituate the original through close imitation. India has no martyrs to the cause of translation like Etienne Dolet, the 16th century French translator of Plato, sentenced to death for the freedoms he took with the original text. If we had followed this example, we would have ended up executing most of our epic and bhakti poets, who took every kind of freedom with their original/texts in Sanskrit. Perhaps the idea of the ‘original’ text is not so strong with us because of our strong oral tradition that had only changing texts, where substitutions and attritions were a common rule.

“While colonial Europe found in the translation of exotic ‘Oriental’ texts a way to contain and dominate their creators, India sought through translation a living dialogue between its own cultural past and present as also between its cultures and the cultures of other lands…Translation to us today is a way of retrieving our people’s histories and recording their past and present.”

Read the article in its entirety here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.