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Issue 8

Translation As Preservation: Understanding the Worlds Within Languages

Pratiti and Ipsa Samaddar

“A work of literature can become the voice of a people through its language.” Through this piece, members of Sandhi, Languages society at Ashoka delve into their process of translation from their mother tongue, Bangla to English.

Translation, for both of us has been an act of transgression. In our pristine Anglophone academic life, it has been a way to discuss and express in other languages, and marvel at the art of expression. We therefore talk about the process and politics of translation between Bangla and English, and think about the idea of preservation in various ways. What is lost in translation? What is gained?

Through months of trying to transport emotions, idioms and punctuation from Bangla to English, we’ve grown closer to our mother language than we’ve ever been. Alongside that familiarity has come the sense of inhabiting a world held only within the cadences and curlicues of this language. But this isn’t a sensation peculiar to Bangla. In every translation session, our classmates have brought metaphors and phrases from their languages that pose annoying, yet delightful, problems of translation. Working through those doubts has always felt like dipping our toes into the waters of a separate, thriving world. Something about these colourful phrases feels very private and intimate. Yet we’re pursued by the need to share the wonderful literature in the languages of the Indian subcontinent; to share the array of emotions each one of these narrative worlds make you feel.

Each language has its own perspective of time and place. These aspects come together to knit the sense of inhabiting a separate world. Both of us have primarily translated from Bangla into English, and can, therefore, only speak of Bangla. It is an experience that comes with doubts at every turn. By the end, we’re always left with two questions: have we done justice to the source text? Does it sound well in English? It’s always hard to reconcile both of them. The conflict mainly comes from the differing nature of both languages. English comes from a family of languages quite different from those spoken in the Indian subcontinent. Naturally, the rules of its grammar, its idioms and banter provide a distinctive way of understanding time and space, which might not always be compatible with those of Indian languages. Underlying this conflict is a colonial history that makes English widely accessible, but also necessitates promoting indigenuous languages. How then do we convey to a wider population what inhabiting the worlds of Indian languages feels like?

One can argue that after several years of being spoken and written in the subcontinent, English has become an Indian language, where the grammar is tweaked and several Indian catchphrases are fondly used in English sentences. This liberty to mould an imported language into something homegrown might simplify the problems of translation. But if this form of English is indeed an Indian version, how wide will be the readership that can understand it? It is a question we’ve argued over to no end.. Often, we’ve stubbornly wanted to retain the roughness and peculiarities of our source languages in our translated texts, protesting that some words are untranslatable, and English readers must work through the difficulties to enter this new world. But does that practice make the text more accessible, or does it further obscure its essence by producing puzzling sentences? 

Along the way, we’ve arrived at a compromise for Bangla. We try to make the translated text sound like a naturally English one, but use sentences that are the closest options for the source text. But the sense of time and space are located further within the structure of Bangla. The time the text is located in is denoted by the tense of the narration. In English, there is a clear demarcation between present and past tense however, in Bangla there is a slippage between both. Narratives are often written in between past and present, and jumps between these two time frames are not uncommon. The sense of time is, therefore, one that we carefully thread as translators of Bangla-English-Bangla.

But time and place aren’t just located in the tense of a text. They are embodied by the characters who live in that environment, and in some ways, that environment lives within them. How, for example, can we translate the banter of two boys living in an ashram in ancient India? Which is the more important question—preserving the archaism of their context, or making them sound like young and defiant adolescents?  

The act of translation is also an act of historical preservation. Translating Bangla texts into English opens up new audiences and new possibilities. A new kind of readership emerges. Translating texts whose publication dates back several decades helps revive its readership, and foster conversations between the changing tastes of readers. But with these possibilities comes the responsibility of representation. A work of literature can become the voice of a people through its language. It is always intimately twined with the emotions and experiences of a community which might be as mundane as lone words and phrases, but hold political undercurrents and the history of a language within them.

The seamless juxtaposition of both is fairly easy to glean for us as Bangalis. But the task of its reproduction inevitably becomes a personal one. Dissatisfaction over translated works probably arises from the intersection of the personal and the political. As translators starting out, we’re far from mastering the rules of the game. But for now, we rely on this intersection to guide us, to help us preserve what the work of literature makes us feel. While we fear losing much along the way, the gains have often been insightful. It is a long process, and often a frustrating one, but one that is exhilarating, leading us down new avenues.

Pratiti and Ipsa are members of Sandhi, an ever-evolving society at Ashoka engaging with language both academically and  otherwise. We are not dedicated to any specific language(s), or only to tangible languages at all. We think about language at various levels— the idea of language itself, the interplay between languages, the nuances within a language and much more. Currently, they are holding the 2021 edition of their flagship event, Bhasha Mash.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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