Alluding to the indispensability and inimitability of the medium of translation, German author and Nobel Laureate Günter Grass said, “translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”, A piece of literature translated in a sangfroid fashion invests in the reader a lambent sense of perception – perception that is vital and acute. The reader is transported towards worlds unseen and finds herself to be an intrigued spectator witnessing events unimagined. Translation is also the perfect antidote to the pernicious feeling of helplessness. An inability to visit places, converse in multiple languages and to assimilate the sights and sounds of a myriad cultures is to an acceptable extent mitigated by the power of translation. Thus, translation to a great degree is the perfect window that provides a fascinating peek into a melting pot of customs, conventions and culture.
Without the spellbinding effort of Margaret Jull Costa, there is no avenue for a reader to experience the teeming, throbbing and tantalizing culture of Lisbon as enthrallingly laid out by the late Italian author Anotonio Tabucchi. Even while seated within the confines of a living room that is located a thousand miles away from Lisbon, the reader is an able and willing ally to the lament of a character in the novel who bemoans the mushrooming of monstrous pieces of architecture that constitutes a very blotch on an otherwise azure landscape.
Similarly there is no Haruki Murakami without either Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel. Translators are hidden heroes who work their magic from the sidelines and in the shadows. But make no mistake about it, at times the shadow, even though inadvertent, becomes lengthier than the substance. It is a thankless job this translation and no one knows it better than Günter Grass. As the phrase set out at the beginning of this piece illustrates, the quintessential attribute of any translation is to preserve the original while yet altering it. This paradox poses the most vexatious challenge for any translator plying his wares in the world of literature. Whilst he is accommodated with the license to let his imagination roam, he is also hemmed in by dictates that stand guard against liberties that may possess the undesirable outcome of diluting the very essence of the original. So a translator who manages to pull off such a feat can afford a well deserved pat on his back. Interestingly, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once admitted that his masterpiece of fictional realism, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was better in the English translation, than in his original Spanish! High praise indeed from one of the greatest authors of all time. The multigenerational story of the Buendia family set in the fictitious town of Macondo might have been lost for millions across the world if not for the adroitness and genius of Gregory Rabassa.
In an open letter to the Editor of Paragone in 1963, Italian author Italo Calvino declared that one really only reads a text when one translates it, or when one compares the original with a translation. The implicit fact that culture is a pre-cursor to language, results in an inextricable link between the two and entwines translation into an unavoidable trifecta. A translator needs to be thoroughly mindful about the zeitgeists, taboos, values and schadenfreude that is preternatural to every culture. A hapless translator who was unfamiliar with translating English into Polish found himself on the wrong side of the media when he made a hash of President Carter’s talk when the latter visited Poland in 1972. Thus what was meant to be “when I left the United States”, embarrassingly turned out to mean “when I abandoned the United States” , and “your desires for the future” took on a peculiar carnal hue when Carter ended up saying “your lusts for the future” in Polish.
One of the best ever translators, Deborah Smith, who has translated the works of Booker Prize winning South Korean author Han Kang does an unparalleled service to her readers by providing a fascinating insight into a culture that places immense priority on external looks and physical attributes. Smith’s translation resonated with me when I experienced the tremors and turbulence of a culture obsessed with the external. A visit to Seoul found me occupying a budget hotel with cramped rooms. Every time I took the lifts, I was accosted and accompanied by a multitude of women draped in white bandages spread across their anatomy. Some of them in fact provided an impression that they were participants in a reality show that was reenacting the history and peculiarity of the Mummies in Egypt. Upon closer examination, I realised that the hotel was specially set up to cater to the accommodation requirements of patients who went under the scalpel willingly to embellish their visage in a specialist cosmetic surgery clinic adjacent to the hotel. I could relate with a chilling immediacy, the intersection of translation with culture.
“Lost in translation” is such a cliched phrase, that more often than not its use is not just inappropriate but irrelevant as well. Instead of employing this term in a manner analogous to flogging a dead horse, we would need to transition towards the “gains” from translation. The literary world is fortunate to have been bestowed with a segment of intrepid human beings who deem it their life’s avowed objective to bring to the living rooms of the unsuspecting, the paradoxes and pleasures of cultures which, they otherwise would never be able to experience and enjoy. While nothing substitutes the actual experience of feeling, touching, smelling and absorbing an ‘alien’ culture firsthand, the next best alternative is experiencing the same, courtesy a stirring translation.
The gains of translation have ensured that works of notable importance are dispersed far and wide, touching the popular and the obscure, the magnanimous and the miserly. It is simply because of the gains of translation that the world has been, and still continues to enjoy Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. This innocuous book for children has been translated into a whopping 260 languages.
Translated Literature does more than opening windows to hidden worlds. It also serves as a diligent handmaiden to history itself.