Translators: Centre Stage


Arunava Sinha and Deborah Smith in conversation with Neeta Gupta


Rahul Nair, Official Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger


Language binds us and language is what that sets us free. Artistic endeavors are universal salutes. They cut across all limitations and make themselves accessible to those who wish to revel in them. In the case of literature, translations enable stories to be unconfined by the boundaries of language.

Arunava Sinha, translator of over 35 Bangladeshi and Indian texts from Bengali into English, and Deborah Smith, Man Booker prize winning translator of Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, recalled their initiation into the sphere of translation. Both revealed that it had been a matter of sheer luck. Sinha recalled how in 2006 he received a call from a representative at Penguin asking him permission to publish a Bengali short story that he had rendered way back in 1992 in Calcutta. In contrast, Smith’s first stint with the translation of her award-winning book proved fruitless, but a year later, life presented her with the opportunity to get back to it again, and as they say, the rest is history. ‘There is an excitement for translations today,’ Smith remarked on the ‘cool, indie’ status that translations have attained in recent years.

However, despite this, translation work is still not very lucrative. Second prints are rare, and fewer and fewer people are reading literary fiction. Popular romances and books by award winning authors are more in demand, leaving a negligible market for translation.  Sinha and Smith concurred that ‘Nobody is making money. The publisher isn’t, the author isn’t, and the translator isn’t.’ Translations, hence, becomes an exercise for the self.

‘Worldwide, the practice is to translate to the mother tongue, but India is going the other way,’ Jaipur BookMark Director Neeta Gupta observed. Maintaining the integrity of both languages is the high priority. Sinha reflected how ‘most Indians understand the nuances of their mother tongues better,’ but are comfortable using English for everyday communication. As a result, Indian English lacks panache. He asserted that India’s diverse heritage makes it imperative to ‘bridge the gap between ‘Indian schools and Indian Literature‘ and translations can help this happen.

Smith recounts that she used her college studies and online dictionaries whilst working on The Vegetarian. In the end, the task became her ‘nemesis’, with every word and sentence sounding the same. Furthermore, Korean has different levels of politeness, which she had to honour. Added to this, the fact that Korea is a massive book industry, where ‘the writer is God,’ only added to the pressure she felt. ‘Everything is untranslatable but we still try to do it anyway,’ chuckled Sinha.

Contrary to the prevalent belief about troubled relationships between writers and their translators, neither Smith nor Sinha had any problems with the original authors. Sinha joked that ‘all the authors I have translated, most of them are fortunately dead’, but emphasized that the relationship must always be laid on foundations of mutual respect. Smith revealed she always wrote her first draft without consulting the author, to be able to find her own relationship with the content before moving into the contextual considerations with the author for the second draft. Ultimately, translations are pivotal in allowing stories to reach out to people beyond a particular cultural sphere. As such, ‘the more translations, the better,’ noted Sinha.

It is important that people know each other’s lives, cultures, festivals, emotions, villages, cities and all the tiny and enormous details that make up a culture, because that is what helps us know each other better, and that is what will help peace prevail on Earth.


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor



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