Lost in Translation


Deborah Smith, Paulo Lemos Horta, Radha Chakravarty and Sholeh Wolpé in conversation with Adam Thirlwell

Presented by Harvard University Press


By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


With increasing discussion on the significance of world literature and the need for giving marginalized voices a bigger platform, the role of literary translators has gained more importance than ever. However, opinions differ on whether translation does a service to the original work by taking it to a wider readership, or destroys its very essence in the process. The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival welcomed a diverse panel of translators from around the world as they shared their experience and take on the matter.

‘I found the focus on English at university and in the UK in general a little sad and boring,’ remarked Deborah Smith, who won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 for her translation of Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. While speaking of her interest in Korean literature, she revealed that she had learnt Korean, which she only started at the age of 23, ‘specifically to be a literary translator. I am good at writing sentences, not at thinking of plots and characters.’ Smith added that she was aware of the responsibility she was taking on: ‘I knew that for most readers, my work would be their first interaction with Korean culture.’

Radha Chakravarty, whose oeuvre includes English translations of several works by Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, revealed that she ended up becoming a translator ‘almost by accident’ following her dissatisfaction with the quality of the translations of her own work. Looking back at her journey with satisfaction, Chakravarty shared the joy of ‘connecting readers of one language to a foreign culture’ through translation. Iranian-American poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé seconded the thought: ‘Only literature, art and music can bridge the gap between cultures. To that effect, it is our moral duty to translate.’

But literature does not enjoy the same universality as art and music. ‘The essence of literature is language, which is usually specific to nations,’ making literature from a foreign culture much harder to appreciate, observed British novelist Adam Thirlwell. Addressing the point in the context of poetry, Wolpé said that poetry could only be recreated and not translated. She elucidated her idea with a beautiful metaphor: ‘The original work is the sky and the translation its reflection in water.’

Speaking on the creative liberty taken in reinventing an original work, world literature scholar Paulo Lemos Horta shed light on the ‘infidelity’ of the 18th century translations of Arabian Nights, The Ramayana, and Homer’s works: ‘They were beautiful, yet unfaithful… Translators felt that they could stamp their authority and become the author. Such translations will be less tolerated today.’ Citing the Hindi words for translation anuvaad, which means ‘coming after’, and rupaantar, which means ‘change of form,’ Chakravarty emphasized that translations need to be recreated in order to acquire a new life: ‘Fidelity, therefore, is not the primary credo of the translator.’

The debate about the allowance for creative liberty in translation often overlooks the challenges in exercising it. Sharing her experience of translating books from Korean to English, Smith observed that while ‘Korean gets its idea of beauty from repetition and ambiguity, English prefers concision and precision.’ She added that Korean similes, when translated word-to-word, sound ‘annoyingly vague’ in English. ‘The challenge is to get readers to appreciate the translated work as much as the praise garnered by the original work.’

In a beautiful conclusion to the session, Chakravarty shared that Rabindranath Tagore preferred the Hindi term vishwa sahitya for world literature. ‘Sahitya means ‘literature’ but it is derived from the word sahit which means ‘bringing together.’ Vishwa sahitya or world literature is meant to bring the world closer.’


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor



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