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The IUP Journal of English Studies :
This Tricky Job: Literary Translation

Prospective enthusiasts need a little understanding before practicing literary translation—what it entails and how to go about it for success. A translated literary text in a known language is a gift to a reader who does not know the source language. The reader goes to the translated text hearing about it, feeling that there would be something in it to his taste and appreciation. It is a well-intentioned gift, and it is only a churl who looks a gift horse in the mouth. Any comment on literary translation and the art and craft involved in it is not justified in repelling or undermining the translator.

“Tricky,” the dictionary defines, is a work requiring skill and full of hidden or unexpected difficulties. Sometimes, a very small thing sparks quick and impassioned activity, and one feels like sharing one’s knowledge or some information. Here is a poem, written by Zbigniew Herbert, a widely translated postwar Polish poet, that ignited the little. The poem (quoted in Lal 1980, 51) is a dig at a literary translator’s work. But its importance cannot really be underestimated:

Like an awkward bumblebee
he lands on the flower;
the delicate stem bends
he pushes his way
between rows of petals
which are like dictionary pages
and tries to get in
where the scent and the sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and no taste
he perseveres
until his head bangs
against a yellow pistil
but here it ends
one simply cannot reach
through the head of a flower
to its roots
so the bumblebee gets out
very proud
humming loudly:
I have been inside
And to those
who don’t quite believe him
he shows his nose
yellow with pollen

The meaning, roughly, is this. A clumsy bumblebee falls on a flower like leaning on a tender twig. He barges in through petals like lexicons. Though with a bad cold and unable to smell or taste, tenacious, without letup, he rushes to sweetness and fragrance. He goes to the flower top with a bump on his head and stops. It is easy for any to reach the flower top but not so to go to the root. He coos with pride, gets out, and shows those, who believe him, his nose tinged with pollen. The flower and the bee are tropes for the poem and the translator.

Generally speaking, contemporaries look down upon present-day translations, more so if they know the practitioners personally. The reasons are three. One, the belief that translators are those who have failed in the art of creative writing. Two, the vicious (perhaps unintentional) remark that translators are traitors. The qualification to the statement made above, perhaps, needs an explanation. Generality is not without noble exceptions. Three, for those who speak the language of the source text, normally no translation appears to be totally good or excellent.

I feel that detractors of individual literary translations are given to looking a gift horse in the mouth, not accepting that they are always meant to be gifts. I remember a controversy in newspapers about a sponsored translation of a Telugu classic. The Telugu newspaper had to put a lid on the discussion saying, “Further correspondence on the subject is closed.” The practitioner should have a measure of aggressiveness if only for mere survival, what with the spirit of our times!

In ancient India, epics were written first in Sanskrit. For the benefit of those who did not have the necessary equipment to read and understand Sanskrit, imaginative and enthusiastic litterateurs translated the artifacts into the language the readers knew and won the admiration of the delighted readers.

Translation via a link language like English is a possibility, which can be successfully explored. Telugu and Malayalam are cognate languages, and through English I rendered Ayyapa Panicker’s long poems “Kurukshestra” and “Gotrayanam” into Telugu in record time. This was very easy for many reasons. We knew each other personally for decades. He sent me his voice renderings, which I listened to many times along with friends whose mother tongue was Malayalam. The exegeses of the literary critics and texts in English rendering by Chitra Paniker were helpful with the finer points, which I could have missed. The live voice of the poet intoning his writing with gusto did work wonders. It is best for our poets too to help the rendering of their texts by arrangement with their friends, whose mother tongue could be any other cognate language, via English.

Integrated Approach,Literary Translation,Points to Ponder