We might be familiar with the expression ‘breaking the ice’. It naturally doesn’t mean that you take a pestle from the kitchen and break your ice tray. But if you translate it word for word in some other language, such as Marathi, you run the risk of confusing others thoroughly. Vastly different cultural contexts make literary translation a challenging field. And there are few who work hard at making foreign literature available in Indian languages. One such person is Sunanda Mahajan, co-founder and editor of Kelyane Bhashantar, a tri-monthly magazine that publishes short stories in Marathi translated from various foreign languages.
Also the Head of the Foreign Languages Department at Pune University, Mrs. Mahajan speaks to BnP about the exciting world of literary translation and the brain-twisters therein, while sharing tips for aspiring literary translators.
Kelyane Bhashantar is undoubtedly one of the most unique magazines in India. Please tell us how it came about.
In 1998, at a translation workshop in Hyderabad, I met several language professionals who translated from various foreign languages into Marathi. That sparked in us the idea of creating a unique platform for translators which would help us provide the Marathi-speaking audience with rich content from across the world. After a lot of meetings over the year, we launched the first edition of Kelyane Bhashantar in January 1999. Till date, we have had more than 75 translators contributing to the magazine. Since Pune has a high percentage of European language learners, you’ll mostly see stories from European languages in the magazine.
Kelyane Bhashantar translates directly from foreign languages, without falling back on English translations. What is the significance in doing so?
Usually when you translate a literary text from one language into another, some context is always lost. If we use the English translation, it would be a translation of a translation. To remain faithful to the original text, we translate directly from the source language into Marathi.
Tell us about a translation project that you really enjoyed working on.
For Kelyane Bhashantar, I thoroughly enjoyed translating a novelette by Stefan Zweig called ‘Schachnovelle’ into Marathi (Buddhibalachi Goshta). It is about a war-time prisoner who finds a book of past masters’ chess games and becomes consumed with it, almost beating the world champion of that time and fighting insanity.
I also enjoyed translating the work of Elfriede Jelinek, a Nobel Prize winner. She uses a proverb like a proverb, and then uses it in the literal sense, creating linguistic acrobatics with the connotative and denotative meaning. It was challenging to translate that.
This brings us to the fact that cultural references are not always be easy to translate, since they differ from region to region. So how do you go about it?
Geographical differences make a huge impact on language, and they also give rise to diverse cultural contexts. So, to answer your question, you simply need to have domain knowledge. Occasionally, you might find that you are unsatisfied with what you have translated, but there is no other option than to paraphrase and use the closest equivalent words, instead of trying to find the exact expression, simply because it does not exist. This is all the more true when it comes to weather, culinary and clothing references.
In literary texts, should you stay as faithful as possible to the original text or add certain elements to make it relevant for a regional audience?
Both. And the proportion of it differs from text to text. Especially when it comes to poetry, the meaning needs to be conveyed correctly, and the rhyme scheme needs to be intact as well, which is the most challenging part.
Besides, syntactic structures differ from language to language. If I construct a Marathi sentence using German syntax, it would be garbled text. You need to stay true to the syntax. Moreover, translations also help bring various forgotten words of a particular language into use again.
How do you get people interested in literary translations when reading as a habit is struggling to find place amidst TV soaps and other media?
Reading is a habit that needs to be cultivated consciously. That said, there are various ways in which you can encourage people to read. For example, we conducted a dramatised reading event called ‘Tikdun Alelya Goshti’. Eminent artists like Atul Kulkarni, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Ila Bhate, among others, narrated translated texts. We held shows all over Maharashtra, and that greatly encouraged people to read literary translations.
Coming to a very existential question of this field, why do you think people should read literary translations today?
Not everyone knows foreign languages, or English for that matter. If you want to learn about foreign cultures, you do it through literary translations. Indian authors writing about foreign cultures will have a different impact as their perspectives would be different. Literary translations, on the other hand, help you see things from the point of view of native authors. Moving beyond classics, global exposure has led a lot of people today to seek translations of contemporary literature.
The choice of content that people prefer to read can differ from region to region. How then do you decide what the Marathi audience would find interesting?
Good literature appeals to all, irrespective of their social and educational backgrounds. At Kelyane Bhashantar, we experimented with themes such as pre-war and post-war, but then it doesn’t work for every issue since we get contributions from all kinds of genres. So, we decided to have the last issue of every year dedicated to a compilation of already published texts under a common theme, such as travel, mythology, urban spaces, etc. and that has had a terrific response.
Do you have any tips for aspiring literary translators?
First and foremost, you need to select an appropriate text and know why you have selected it, be it with regard to the audience or the subject matter. Secondly, you need to go through the text multiple times very carefully. When you translate, you might end up with more than one version of the text. At the end, you need to check if you are conveying the meaning of the original text while keeping the syntax of your own language intact.
Besides that, I would advise aspiring translators to read available translations and analyse the choices made by the translator. Also, domain knowledge remains as important in literary translation as in technical.