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On Translation And What's Lost
Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy', and Almodovar's 'All About My Mother' tell a story of what it means to translate, and what it loses instead.
Translation is radical, and reductive. Radical because it requires choice; you cannot be wishy-washy. You either retain the rhyme, or retain the exactness of meaning. You either retain brevity, or you retain charm. You either retain clarity, or you retain adverbs. And reductive, because so much is always lost in translation. (This explains why Jhumpa Lahiri refused to translate her own work originally written in Italian, into English. Murakami, himself a translator of Fitzgerald, Irving, and Capote, refused to translate his Japanese work into English. Why would you want to be the one reducing your own work?) Just think of the act of speaking or writing, which itself is translating the visceral human chaos within, into neatly stringed and structured sentences. Human thought is not meant to be structured. Human conversation is. So much is lost between the two.
In Normal People one of the most heartbreaking moments is when Connell wants to ask Marianne if he can stay with her over the summer, for he cannot afford the rent; he has been laid off. But he is afraid of imposing on her, afraid she doesn’t feel love for him in the way he does for her. They just stare at each other across the kitchen. Connel’s thoughts are of love and doubt. This translates to silence. He moves back to his hometown. What’s lost is a summer of love.
But the traditional act of translation- from one language to another- is tricky too.
(The act of translating can be beautiful, even with its inadequacies. There is a whole universe of characters and lives being lived that we could not have had access to had it not been for translation; subtitles, recipes, and poetry. Only 3% of world’s literature is translated into English.)
I had watched Pedro Almodovar’s All About Mother a few months ago. (My editor first told me about Almodovar’s film showing at the local film festival. I had never heard of him. I took a friend and stood in line for two hours. It was Pain And Glory. The friend and I, dumbstruck, gut-punched, sat outside, near the cigarette stall after, puffing, and he promised he would download all of Almodovar’s films. He had promised himself he would stop smoking, but here he was, but this was a different, less imposing, more probable kind of promise. I bought a hard drive to house them all.)
The film follows a mother who used to act in a local Spanish production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In the end of the play, the lover, Stella, with child, leaves her abusive husband. The mother who played Stella takes cue and leaves her lover, heading to Madrid with her unborn child. Art can inform life. She weeps every time she sees a staging of the play. But then recently, I watched The National Theater’s streaming of The Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson, and I was struck. The play never ended with Stella leaving her abusive husband, it ended in his embrace of her, and an unsaid promise for more love, and more hurt!
What happened, I wondered? Then, read.
While reading a blog, I stumbled upon Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, where he quotes the German philosopher-poet-writer Rudolf Pannwitz
Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works… the basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own, he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.
Note that this quote itself is a translation from German, so I am not sure if the pronoun “he” was originally a neuter third-person pronoun of just masculine, assuming the translator will always be male.
Now, just think of it. Had the translation been literal, ending with Stella remaining, shackled, but loved, would the mother have escaped to Madrid? So when one says that The Streetcar Named Desire was so potent that playing Stella made her leave her husband, what we are actually saying is watching the Spanish translation of The Streetcar Named Desire yada yada. Translation is an act of expanding one’s own vocabulary. Rejecting elements of the ur-text is also translation, a deviant kind, but translation nonetheless.
I was thinking a lot about translation recently, when watching BBC’s breezy A Suitable Boy, which might be one of the more warped acts of translation. (I’ll write more about this the coming few weeks. I have 500 pages left.) The book is written entirely in English. Even when we as readers are told that two characters are conversing in Urdu, the transcript we are reading is in English. That’s one translation that has happened. Then BBC is adapting it, which is another translation; Andrew Davies rewriting the 1500 page Indian novel into a 6 part series. (He did the same with the Russian Anna Karenina, and the French Les Miserables- both also 6 part series.) Some of the English that was supposed to be Urdu becomes Urdu, some remains English. This uneasy relationship between the languages is obvious. What is lost is naturalism, everything felt staged, like actors reading lines in a theatrical show, which incidentally, is where the series is heading.
The translation here has the additional burden of being accommodating to the Western ear. So it’s not enough for Indians to speak English, the diction needs to not jar. If you notice when you speak, you often chop off the last syllable and connect it to the first syllable of the next word for continuity. (Tamil takes this to another level where even in spellings they are joined, the first syllable and last syllable written together.) Here, the last syllable is stressed, so it hears easier, but to a ear attuned to Indians speaking English, this feels accommodating at best, and agonizing at worst. I mean, of course the British broadcasting service is distributing it, so I am not surprised. This is the first all person of colour cast that BBC has brought out- it’s a proud moment. I am just under-whelmed, realizing that translation can also be a conscious, political act, with real aesthetic implications.
One of my first writing assignments was to review The (Indian) Office. The joys of watching it was to see how they would translate some of the American quirks to the Indian context. So Dwight’s puritan militancy becomes TP’s anti-Romeo squad. The beat farm becomes an akhara. The good-looking intern is not just good looking, but also a privileged product of nepotism interning at his family business. Angela’s cats become Anjali’s parrots to whom she teaches the Gayatri Mantra, pizza on a rooftop becomes baingan and lauki. Book cricket, stapler-kabaddi, and the office boy (also used for running personal errands for the boss) prayerfully filling out lottery forms were all wonderfully refreshing elements. (But there were also the bad ones. Michael Scott’s ‘that’s what she said’ becomes ‘baby bhi yehi boli’ which…) But I also noted how the larger setup was unchanged, merely reproduced.
The office space remains the same. The relationship between the boss and subordinates, boss and boss’ boss remains the same. Maybe this speaks to the contemporary idea of replicating infrastructure- both social and physical- across countries, where you are unable to distinguish an Indian corporate space from an Arab corporate space from an American one. The differences that each culture brings about is in the details. Or maybe it’s just lazy production. I would like to believe it is the former.
Translation can be wonderfully insightful, but like Pannwitz says, if you only think about the language you’re working for, and not the language you’re working from, you’re bound to lose perspective.
Another thing about translating that I never paid much heed to is the focus on the “essence” of the ur-text. But no one realizes the ‘essence’ becomes the ‘essence’ because of the peripherals attached to it. The moment you strip off the peripherals, what you’re left is not the essence, but only a seed, and not all seeds sprout.