Celebrating 10 Years of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Rahul Nair, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


The act of documenting facts, ideas, creativity and emotions has gradually led human intelligence to break out of the limits of memory space in our brains, and onto external recording devices. From stone engravings, papyrus scrolls and cave paintings, to wikipedia, quora, youtube, hard drives and the cloud, all the way to literature as we know it today.

There are currently over 6000 languages in the world. Specific sounds and movements over time became words and symbols, and slowly, patterns took shape to form different languages. Language has led to literature, and since no one can possibly know how to read, write and speak all 6000 languages, there is a great need for translation in literature.

In fact, translating literature is perhaps as old as literature itself: it is what led to the intermingling of cultures, ideas, rites and rituals, places, spaces and people throughout history. Translations are what enable a Marathi boy to read Keralan stories in Marathi; they are what aided the Vatican to spread its message all over the world; they are what make stories and poems, history and politics available to all people, without losing the context of their original tongue.


Yet it’s one of life’s paradoxes that language, the very thing that helps us humans come closer to each other, is also the very thing that creates so many rifts and divides between us. Every language has its own nuances, its subtleties, phrases and idioms, all of which will make little to no sense in another language. This is what puts the sensibilities of any translator to test, perhaps making them as important as the authors themselves.

For example, the French have this phrase, ‘tomber dans les pommes’ which literally translates as ‘falling into the apples’ in English. However, that is not what the phrase aims to convey. What it really means is ‘for one to become unconscious’. The phrase evolved when people were saying goodnight to fall into their beds after a long night.

This is just one example of how the art of translation goes far beyond drawing a literal parallel. A poem or a prose piece combines many such local phrases and idioms, often specific to where the character or the writer comes from, and perhaps they do not have available equivalents in any other tongue. As such, if incorrectly approached in translation, the life within a piece of literature quite simply dies.

Personally, although l have read Che Guevera, Chekov, Manto and other authors in English, I can only throw some light on the translational works where I have an idea about the languages on both sides of the spectrum. Like M Mukundan’s works. M Mukundan is a Malayali writer, whose stories I inherited from my parents, then later through cinema, in the original language in which they were written. It was later still that I read them in English translation. The original works are like intricately woven spider webs; the words fill your olfactory lobes with the fishy smell of the river; the wet, grainy sand finds its way between your fingers and toes, creaking as it rubs against your skin. One of M Mukundan’s stories, entitled Daivathinde Vikruthikal, translates as God’s Mischief. This is a common phrase in Malayali, used by priests in churches local to the author, as a humorous twist on life’s seriousness, implying it’s all a test from God.

Since word-to-word translation cannot transmit the original work’s idiosyncracies and atmospheres, the act of translation is really a process of rewriting as much as reproducing, evolving the work into something new. As such, it is imperative that the translator understands the pulse of the work, to know what the story is, and who is going to read these stories. It must pass through a different set of spoken phrases, variables and symbols. The genes are mutated as it were, and new life is born.

In another way, translation is akin to building a bridge between people. Though humans are one of the most populated species on the planet, we are aloof when it comes to knowing one another collectively, in terms of being able to take mass decisions together.
We tend to exclude each other, eliminate each other, race past against each other, because we don’t know who the other is. The sensibility to see humanity on a grander scale is still in the process of being developed. Many of the world’s problems would be solved if we could build stronger cultural bridges.


Perhaps this is the hope of the age of information revolution. There are now apps that translate instantaneously: you can speak into a phone and it opens the other side of the bridge for you. Search engines are available in a number of languages, which is ever increasing as more people join. Slowly but surely, people all over the world, in all kinds of languages, are being able to access the information they want to.

We are moving towards a state of fluid, effortless, seamless translation. A world in which divisions of language – and thus divisions of culture and empathy – could cease to exist. The implications are thrilling.

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