Translation: Its role and scope in India


Ivor Armstrong Richards had once stated that translation “may probably be the most complex type of event yet produced in the evolution of the cosmos.” In spite of its nomenclature being debated over, that is, whether it should be translation, transference, anukaran, roopantar or recodification; translation acts as an important mediator of socio-cultural, commercial as well as political transactions in a multilingual society like India and the world at large.

The word “translation” is derived from the Latin word “translatio” which means “to bring across”. An Ancient Greek term for “translation” is “metaphrasis”, meaning “to speak across” from which we have derived “metaphrase” in English, connoting “word-for-word” translation. Thus, translation can be defined primarily to be the act of carrying across meaning from a source to a target.

For centuries translation has been used as a tool to serve the political and colonial intentions of different civilizations. This mentality has shaped both the important questions regarding translation i.e. “How to translate?” and “What to translate?”. Hence, translation can be said to be a politically motivated act not only on the part of the writer and the content of the text but also at the level of choice of text for translation and this must raise a question in our minds as to why the other texts are left unaddressed.

Much before the theorization, translation was carried out as early as the Mesopotamian era when around 2500 B.C., clay tablets were used to decipher symbols from Sumerian and Eblaite, a prominent text would be the Epic of Gilgamesh, stories of which were integrated into a longer poem, versions of which survive not only in Akkadian (the Semitic language) but also on tablets written in Hurrian and Hittite (an Indo-European language) . When the stone slab Rosetta Stone belonging to 3000 B.C. was later discovered by Napoleon’s army, hieroglyphics of both of these languages were found in it. George Steiner has divided the entire history of translation into four major periods beginning with Cicero and Horace in Rome to Alexander Fraser Tyler in the first period, translators up to Valery in the second period and from Valery to 1960s formed the third period and the fourth period from 1960s onwards.

The proliferation of translation can be seen in the number of times the Bible has been translated time and again, from the Hebrew, known as Tanakh, to the Septuagint in Greek around the 3rd century B.C. to the Hexapla by Origen sometime before the year 240 C.E. which was basically a comparative study of the word-for-word translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Septuagint translation, six versions of the Old Testament in parallel columns. And let’s not forget why William Tyndale was executed in 1536 (for working on translating the Bible into English). An important break in the tradition of translating religious texts was made by Livius Andronicus when he translated Homer’s Odyssey named Odusia in Latin in 240 B.C. before which no such “literary” text had been translated until the Roman Empire.

So one common catalyst of translation seems to be multilingualism, that is to say the use of more than one language, which may be caused by widespread migrations and split up of the “proto-language” (due to the consideration of a common ancestor language through linguistic and anthropological studies) which gradually became so different from each other for the speakers lived far from one another. Ethnologue: Languages of the World 18 claims to list at list 1% of the 7,472 known languages belonging to different language families in which Indo-European and Dravidian is shown to be comprised of 444 and 85 languages respectively. Multilingualism constitutes our reality yet is an area of contestation, for instance, one has to accept either all texts written in the English language compose a homogeneous language group or there is a difference in Australian English, Indo-English and Afro-English, despite their syntactical unity.

The concept of India as a geographical territory is fluid but that of multilingualism concrete, with each language having its peculiar character and temperament. As stated by Sisir Kumar Das, Kalidas’ famous play Śakuntala itself is a “linguistic mosaic” since Sanskrit, Saurasheni, Marathi and Magadhi have been used in it.

Though similar historical, geographical and cultural backgrounds bred similar ideas, rhetoric and motifs, no language had a Pan-Indian praxis though many of them were distributed over large geo-physical spaces.

Sanskrit continued to be a hegemonic language in the Middle Ages too but multilingualism was beginning to be seen with high esteem and almost necessary with the advent and development of the language of the conquerors- Arabic, Persian and Turkish. As the fear of “contamination” made Sanskrit more and more esoteric, Prakrits prolified and branched into Apabhramshas which in turn gave rise to the Modern Indian languages. The culmination of these influences can be seen in the following examples of the translation of The Mahabharata into Persian at Akbar’s orders by Faizi, brother of Abu’l Fazl, and ‘Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni (c. 1540-1615), named Razmnameh and say the translation of the story of Padmavati by Alaol in Bangla from the Sufi Padumavatwritten by Muhammad Jaisi in 1540 which again was originally written in the Persian Nasta’liq script.

English became a dominant language in the colonial period and the College of Fort William played a significant role in the domain of translation which set the parameters of textual preference, translational negotiation and of constructing knowledge in a formal manner. Translation emerged as an extremely important site of power-play as the Orientalist texts were translated into the “language of power” and vice versa, the most well-known example will be Sir William Jones’, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, translation of the Abhijnanasakuntalam into English in 1789 as Sacontala or The Fatal Ring; descriptions like “rounded hips” and “tapering waist” which were used to portray Śakuntala’s beauty by Kalidasa were excluded as such erotic imagery was not acceptable in the contemporary Victorian era.

The English translation of the Gitanjali by Tagore which was first published in November 1912 by the Indian Society o London played a monumental role in the achievement of the Noble Prize by Rabindranath Tagore and brought forth the idea of attaining international reader’s recognition by writing in English. Perceiving the objective of nation-building to be largely based on the notion of creating a single “Indian Literature”, the task of translating “reputed” literary works was undertaken by the government which led to the establishment of two institutions, the Sahitya Akademi (1954) and the National Book Trust (1957). While the National Book Trust (NBT) aimed to fulfil the scheme of “aadan-pradan” (meaning “give and take”), translating texts from Indian languages into Indian languages, the Sahitya Akademi, proclaimed India’s National Academy of Letters, grew to be a major institution committed to literary activities in 24 Indian languages, including English through publications besides conducting dialogic activities like seminars, lectures and symposia.

Translation enables the inclusion of new coinages and new vocabulary which extends the scope of a language. Translations of litterateurs like Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Vyasa together with the translations of ideas of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Marx among others has permeated and changed the expression of various Indian languages. In the Indian context, it is only through endotropic translation, as opposed to the translation into English, which serves the cultural identity of people speaking in one of the Indian Bhasas as reading in English translation doesn’t much serve even the goal of democratization unless one goes back to the source language. The “transcreation” of Sanskrit canonical texts by Sarala Das in the fifteenth century, such as the Vilanka Ramayana, impacted the Oriya literary language, so did the efforts of Prafulla Das whose small publishing house produced many world classics in Oriya translation.

The National Translation Mission, an initiative by the National Knowledge Commission is a Government of India scheme which establishes translation as an industry meaning to translate textbooks and classical works in areas like sociology, history, geography, geology, medicine, etc. to make the subjects accessible to people reading in their mother-tongues, previously available mostly in English. Today dubbing and subtitling is a flourishing but neglected industry in India which started due to the “Discovery World” because of increasing demand for localized content. This form of translation is practised mostly in some dominant languages like Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bhojpuri with some exceptions like the movie “A Good Day to Die Hard” which was the first Hollywood film to be dubbed in Punjabi as well.

Translation is an extension of creative exercise and it is only recently that Universities and Multinational corporations are realizing it, nonetheless paying them much lesser and their names merely present in books in some shelf covered with dust. The significance of translation is multidimensional especially in our country as it bridges the communication gap and adequate steps must be taken for imparting quality training in the profession and provision of services. Despite the technological advancement, a digital translator does not properly perform its purpose and only a skilled translator can take up the laborious task of finding the right equivalent.

- Simreen Biswas

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Translation: Its role and scope in India Translation: Its role and scope in India Reviewed by EMN on March 10, 2019 Rating: 5

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