Monday, January 11, 2010

Other Languages in Translation - Why Not?

In his article in The National, Indian novelist and literary critic Chandrahas Choudhury speaks of the need to translate the various Indian languages into English to make the country's extremely rich literature available to the world. It is an informative article, and I strongly encourage people to read it before it disappears.

As a translator of Arabic works myself, one paragraph in the whole article struck me as the problem of translating not just Indian, but any non-English literature into that "global language". And the further the language is from England and the US (followed by Europe) the harder it is to get it done:

"When these tantalising benefits are in everyone’s sights, why hasn’t translation from India’s many vernacular languages into English flourished? Several reasons might be advanced. First, although most Indians are bilingual or trilingual, they are usually so in an instrumental and not a literary way, and lack the acute cross-linguistic sensitivity to registers and cadences on which translation depends. Distressingly, even Indian writers who read literature in two languages typically work only in one. Second, until very recently, publishers generally reasoned that since the market for literary fiction written in English was not particularly large, the audience for translations into English would be even smaller and less profitable. Finally, the heterogeneity of India’s linguistic landscape is itself inimical to the development of a nationwide culture of translation: it is difficult for a translator from language X, however talented, to say anything meaningful about a peer’s translation from language Y. Only in the last few years have there been concerted efforts to bring translators from different languages together to exchange ideas about their craft. All this had led to the flawed understanding (perpetrated most prominently by Salman Rushdie in his influential 1997 anthology of Indian literature, Mirrorwork) that Indian writing in English is the richest and most vigorous of Indian literatures, and that works in translation are to be read only out of duty, as a democratic concession to less competent spirits."

How true. Where are Polish masterpieces by Prus, Sienkiewicz, Slowacki, Reymont, etc. in English? Where are the complete works of Karl May? What about Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian or Romanian writers? Should I even bother mentioning languages such as Khmer or Thai? What about the myth that Arabs don't write, promulgated by the absolute disinclination of US and UK publishers to print anything that is not related to the breaking of "social taboos", while tons of literary heritage materials are waiting for a scholar to bring them to light? Oh, but who is going to read it??

A few weirdos like me. And since they are of no financial value to anyone, maybe weirdos like me should be allowed to translate them and put them online as a part of some literary world heritage website, maybe funded by UNESCO - but minus the dirty politics of what is fit to print? We would all end up understanding each other better?

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