BITS and Pieces

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Arthur Kooyman

Linguist and Senior Dutch translator

We have all heard of translations of the epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into English. Most of us have also read them at some point of time. But we have seldom heard of these epics being translated into languages like Dutch. Our star guest for the month, Arthur Kooyman, has translated the Mahabharata and the Geetanjali into Dutch and now awaits the launch of the Dutch translation of the Ramayana as well. Join us as we dwell deeper into his unique journey of taking these ancient texts across borders using his “gift of word” as he likes to call it.

Translating all these Indian texts into Dutch is an incredible feat. Could you take us through the journey of how it all began for you?

I was initiated into Indian philosophy, notably that of Sir Aurobindo, after a tragic car crash at the age of nineteen. This also got me writing poetry and I decided to major in the linguistics of the Dutch language. Decades later, all this added up to me being asked by Frank Krishna, member of the Hindu community here, to translate a few Indian texts into Dutch. And honestly, this didn’t come as a great surprise to me. I agreed and began working on the Mahabharata which was the first Indian text I translated.

So had you read the Mahabharata before or was that the first time you encountered the text?

I knew a little about it. I knew it existed. But I had never studied it. And since it was the very first Indian text I was translating, I had troubles getting in the groove. So I moved to the forests, no television, no radio and started researching the epic. I read a lot about it from libraries and from the internet. I also bought some material from the universities in the US. So it was a lengthy process no doubt.

Translators and language professionals always talk about the paramount importance of domain knowledge in technical translations. Do you think it is the same for literary translation?

Not as much as in technical translations, but domain knowledge is indeed important for understanding the text. Translating it is a different matter all together. In the case of the Mahabharata, though, the text is pretty straightforward. There aren’t a lot of technical terms. Only a lot of words and terms specific to the Indian culture.

So how did you tackle such words? Was it always possible to find Dutch equivalents?

No. Certain things were best said in the Indian languages. I couldn’t find exact Dutch equivalents. So I took the brave step of coining new Dutch terms. Like Indian English, I created an Indian Dutch; the Dutch language with a Hindi/Sanskrit touch.

Do you think your background in Dutch linguistics helped you in this coinage of new Dutch terms?

Yes, it most certainly did. My study of the language and its literary texts has also affected my writing style. I am accustomed to using archaic Dutch words which came in handy while translating these ancient texts. It was a perfect match.

You have also translated the Geetanjali written by Tagore. Was that experience the same as that of translating the Mahabharata?

No, not even close. The Geetanjali is poetry and not prose. It is equisyllabic and I had to make sure that the translation into the target language (Dutch) was equisyllabic as well. Translating the Geetanjali was the highest exercise of my linguistic abilities. It was also the reason I was introduced to the Indian ambassador in Holland. One of my greatest successes!

Do you think a certain amount of localisation is important in literary translations as well?

Yes. I like to think of it as a matter of compromise but it is extremely important to take these timeless texts beyond the barriers of language. We translate with a particular target audience in mind. Without localisation, the translation will not be easily accessible to the target audience.

What, according to you is the greatest difference between technical translations and literary translations?

I think technical translations are more about accuracy and the register of the language used while literary ones are about style and cultural nuances. Poetry has rhyme and a metre as well, which becomes all the more challenging. Sounds are important to make the target just as appealing as the source.

As a parting shot, could you tell us how many languages you speak, sir?

Quite a few, actually. I like to believe that I am blessed with the gift of word. And that is what has shaped my life. I speak Greek, Latin, French, German, Medieval Provencal, a little bit of Spanish and Hindi too. I really look forward to improving the last two in the near future when I finally shift base to Sir Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry!

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Sonali Kulkarni - Editor-in-Chief, French-English Translator A novice at adulthood and an ardent disciple of Dan Brown and Ayn Rand, Sonali is a pathological bookworm, a borderline nerdy introvert and a hardcore adventure junkie who cannot live without chocolate. She is currently studying French and manages to speak some Spanish too. Having represented her state in national level Athletics for the better part of a decade, the nomad in her has now given it up to venture into the exciting world of languages, writing and travel.