The Art of Translation

A good translation is no less great as the original work. In fact, it is much more a formidable task for the translator, as he has to deal with the intricacies of two languages — the matrix and target languages, as the translation theorists call them these days.

Translation is as old as the language itself. ‘Translation’ from its Latin root, meaning, ‘leading across to the other side’, a sort of guide that brings into view new visions of thoughts and ideas obtained in a different cultural landscape, which are now seen and experienced by a native speaker from the vantage position of her/his own territory. In this broad perspective, a translation is not merely a reproduction but an enlightening transmitter.

This process has been in existence in India right from the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. We know how these two epics have been rendered, reclaimed and retold by the various Indian languages to mark their own distinctive cultural identity and thereby, establishing this fact that Indian Literature is a synthetic fabric of many coloured threads, each different from the other and yet, inseparable from the whole.

Each region in India has its own version of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata -in classical and folk forms- that retells these immortal stories not as literal renderings but in conformity with its own regional culture and that, which makes the originals forever contemporary and relevant. In the West, when they brought out the translations of Homer and Virgil in the modern European languages, the yardstick that was used to consider the quality of these translations was their total fidelity to the original in form and content whereas, in the Indian context, our cultural tradition conceded a certain amount of literary freedom for the translator, who was invariably a great poet in his own right, to trans-create the original story without offending its intrinsic essence.

Kamban, the great Tamil poet, following Valmiki several centuries later, has rendered the Ramayana in Tamil ‘influenced and inspired’, as he claims, by the original work. He faithfully follows Valmiki by narrating the story in sequential order but makes subtle and sophisticated changes in the portrayal of characters, by introducing new events and incidents to justify these changes and all within the framework and structure of the original. If a classic like Valmiki’s Ramayana is forever modern in the sense that it is relevant to any period in which it is read, its rendering in another language should also stand the test of time. It is true that a faithful translation of a renowned classic may fail to extend its life beyond its time, just for the simple reason it is much too faithful and literal.

Don Quixote by that Spanish genius Cervantes, belonging to the 17th century is considered to be the best novel ever written. It is farcical, serious and philosophical at the same time, a satire on orthodoxy, truth, veracity, and nationalism. It reads refreshingly modern in any era it is read. It has several translations in English, starting from Thomas Shelton’s, the author’s contemporary and perhaps his friend, down to the recent Edith Grossman’s version. The reason for several translations for every succeeding period is, as some translation theorists argue, any translation in a given period is contemporary and it rarely endures, whereas, the original classic is forever green and modern and calls for fresh rendering to suit the needs of the time.

I do not subscribe to this view and in my opinion, if the translator is as good a writer as the original author and his involvement with the original work is total, as was in the case of Kamban, his transcreation is bound to be as lasting forever as the original. It is, therefore, a necessary requisite for the translator to assimilate the original to reflect successfully what is said and left unsaid in it.


The translator must be in one way or the other close to the writer by being Tamil with his works to get a comprehensive understanding of him and his ways, which would go a long way in his ability to project his work in the target language. Before translation became an academic and professional exercise, we find that translation had always been a labour of love. An eminent writer translated the work he liked most in his own tongue. The best translation of some of the brilliant articles of Rabindranath Tagore on culture was done by no less a famous poet in Tamil, Subramanya Bharati. One of the founding fathers of the Modernist Movement in Literature, Ezra Pound was so immensely absorbed with the early Chinese Poetry that he had translated and published some of them with a critical introduction. Fitzgerald’s translation of Rubaiyat, again ‘a labour of love’, though initially a publishing failure when it came out in 1859, later, became a roaring success, introducing, as it did, the 11th-century obscure Persian astronomer and poet to the literary world. Fitzgerald’s was not a literal translation of this great work, but it was interpretative, an outcome of total assimilation and critical selection. Translation of classics from foreign languages was done in the 19th century and early twentieth century in Europe and in India by established authors with a vivid interest in literature, but with no linguistic training to speak of.

Before Independence, the translation movement in Tamil was full of energy and dynamism. For the first time in the history of this country, the concept of nationalism came into existence thanks to the freedom struggle and this led to the study of languages in the other regions of the country. Literary exchanges became common and I had read while I was in the school and college, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati novels, written by Bankim Chandra, Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Munshi Premchand, V. S. Kantekar and a host of such eminent authors translated into Tamil by competent writers in my language. They did this in a spirit of dedication and total involvement with the concept of literature. They were not linguistic scholars well versed in the translation theories but the only provocation that led them to do it, was their intense love for their own language which they wanted to enrich by such translations. The emphasis was not so much on linguistic equivalents, which, perhaps, is the ruling principle today thanks to the art having been reduced to an academic professional exercise, but rather on eclectic affinities between the two writers in dialogue, the translated and the translating. So it would be desirable, a translator is also a writer or with the instincts and drives that go to make a writer. I am afraid a strict professional and academic training in the field of translation may produce good technician if one thinks the translation is a science but not an aesthetically satisfying translator if one considers translation as an art.


A writer has twin responsibilities to the reader and to himself but the translator's is threefold. His third client is the author whose work he is translating if both the writer and translator are contemporaries. Writing itself is the first process of translation, translating thoughts and ideas into language and it is quite possible, a good writer will have lingering doubts whether what he has written does adequate justice to what he had actually felt. Louis Borges, the Latin American writer, once told his translator Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, to translate what he (the author) was trying to say, not what he had actually said. This is possible only if the translator has a total intellectual comprehension of the author’s other writings and his personality.

Unfortunately, in a professional world, where books are treated as commodities meant for selling, the commissioned translations of the classics may be accurate but they fail to deliver the spirit of the original. The translator should be acquainted with the literary history and culture of both languages, the translating and the translated to do a satisfying job. There may be subtle literary allusions reflecting the past in the original. The translator should be well equipped to grasp their significance and endowed with the necessary skill to convey them in an easy, natural and readable style in the target language. Also the cultural idioms, especially in the spoken language, in the original work may pose some challenges for the translator. It is much more so if the languages belong to two different cultural backgrounds like English and Tamil.

Let me illustrate this. In Tamil Nadu, and in the other parts of South India, only unmarried and married girls are privileged to decorate their hair with flowers. Widows are denied this honour. Also, those days, a widowed girl should return to her parents’ home after the death of her husband.

In one of my stories, a period story, an old rural woman, looking at a child widow, says (I am translating it literally), ‘Poor girl! One does not know from which shop she had been buying flowers, she came back home one month after her wedding’. In Tamil, it reflects the poetry of the spoken language of the rural women. But, when literally translated in English, unless one is familiar with the culture and customs of Tamil Nadu, this would make no sense.

There are three ways of solving this problem. Translate it literally and give a footnote. I am personally against footnotes; it would read like a thesis. Or, translate in a way that would convey the meaning, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the original text and losing, of course, the poetry part of the speech. Like: ‘Curse be on the shop that used to sell her flowers, she lost the privilege of having them on her head soon after her wedding! Why? Poor girl, she became a widow!’

The third solution is skipping it totally and introducing the girl as a young widow.

It is also quite possible that what will read natural and not unusual in the original text, when translated in a language, belonging to a differ-ent cultural landscape, may sound exotic, which is likely to give a different focus far from the intention of the author.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has said that the English translation of his novel The Green House gave an exotic tone and colour to the atmosphere, whereas, for a Peruvian reader it was just commonplace.

What is a good translation? When I read a thing in Tamil and appreciate the style in which it is written, my admiration is not, in fact, for the style of the original text, as I do not know that language, but for the beautiful translation that conveys the text. But it is a sad thing even a good reader fails to recognise the significant role of the translator in the international success of a good novel.

The literary Universe would have been much smaller but for the translators. May their tribe increase!