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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Found In Translation

Apart from a loose Indian connection, there seems to be no specific guiding principle behind the nominees for the English Fiction category of the 2005 Hutch Crossword Book Awards announced last evening. The contenders are: The Tiger's Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin, Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, Surface by Siddhartha Deb, The Radiance of Ashes by Cyrus Mistry, Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul and Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie. (By the way, Magic Seeds was published in 2004, so one wonders what it's doing on a 2005 shortlist.)

Be that as it may, what's heartening is the Indian Language Fiction Translation category, in which the nominees are: A Dying Banyan by Manzoor Ahtesham (translator Kuldip Singh), Sangati by Bama (translator Lakshmi Holmstrom), After Kurukshetra by Mahasweta Devi (translator Anjum Katyal), The Unspoken Curse by V K Madhavan Kutty (translator Prema Jaya Kumar), The Survivors by Gurudial Singh (translator Rana Nayar) and The Heart Has Its Reasons by Krishna Sobti (translator Reema Anand and Meenakshi Swami).

The above translators need all the support and publicity they can get; in this country, especially, their art is often a thankless one. In the West, of late, we've had David Remnick wax eloquent on the work of Pevear and Volokhonsky, and their role in rescuing Russian literature from the likes of Constance Garnett. We've seen Edith Grossman's spanking new version of Don Quixote. (She's also translated Vargas Llosa and Marquez, among others.) And, of course, authors such as Ismail Kadare, Sandor Marai and Imre Kertesz are increasingly being introduced to the English-speaking world through some fine translations. (While on Kadare, click here to read his The Successor being slammed by Steven Schwartz, who calls him "a Communist hack" and the translation "missing references and nuances present in a foreign idiom".)

Despite this, it does seem as though there's still a long way to go. In a recent critique of the political and cultural implications of translated works and the role of the translator, Erica Johnson Debeljak writes:

"If the translator's job is well done, as was the case with Peter Kussi's translation of Immortality, his intervention all but disappears on the page. The work of author and the work of translator meld into one smooth artistic utterance for which the author is given the lion's share of credit. If, on the other hand, obvious errors or infelicities enter the translation, the translator is pilloried. In either case, from the perspective of his nursery school age son, he is destined to appear a meek and unimpressive figure.

"...Just as the dilemma between domestication and foreignization in translation long predated postmodernism and even modernism, so too does the more troubling issue of using foreign literature and translation as a method of extending (or denying) cultural influence.

"...The publishing industry, on the other hand, has adopted a more insidious model. By not even bothering to translate, much less assimilate, foreign works, American cultural interests conquer foreign literature simply by ignoring it. A steep price is paid on both sides of this cultural equation. Smaller cultures suffer because their literature does not circulate, but ironically the conqueror may pay the even higher price: stuffiness and parochialism in the sphere of domestic literary creation, and the deprivation of the potential stimulus needed to trigger a great age of literature. All of the squabbles in academia about good and bad translations, faithful and beautiful translations, domesticating and foreignizing translations are interesting, but in the current cultural battle, they are finally beside the point."


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