Setting the Bones of Language
When his emotions shattered his vocabulary, a senior manager would windmill his arms about and say, 'Theees thaaat , thaaat theees.' His subordinates understood what his near wordlessness meant. I thought I saw a similar broken wall and tried to go through it while reading the widely discussed literary find, The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz . Either the translation defeated my understanding ('Down every alleyway at least one good heart expressed disbelief ' on page 1 and 'How do you let yourself do that?' on page 27) or I simply couldn't recognize the social signposts in these stories, (for instance, references to the Head of the Quarter.) What was it, I wondered, gloomily admitting that some things were simply untranslatable and instead of clarifying, merely added to our mutual incomprehension? Much as we long to understand one another, there is always something slightly out of reach in a film from another country. It might be in the rules to do with rites or hierarchies or the do's and don'ts of social behavior that a viewer from outside the culture will always miss.
I was reminded of a prolonged exchange earlier last year, when an elderly European friend who, impressed by the news of the JCB winner Moustache, asked me to recommend stories by Indian writers in order to get 'an idea of India.'
I set her on a bridge of English built by Indians who had succeeded well enough in India. Here was the interested but uninformed foreign reader who we always hope will experience our country by proxy. Telling myself that she was in for a literary treat, and confident that I could supply this digest of our writings carrying the sights and sounds, the colours and complexities of our lives, I turned to a readymade package of Indian savouries and sweets: for four years I had been selecting translated stories for a news magazine. Those stories, all by famous regional language writers, and translated into English, would be my friend's literary gateway to India.
The first story I sent her was Ismat Chughtai's 'Kafir' (Urdu) about children-- a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl. Their attachment based on fights and reconciliations over the years while growing up in a shared geographic space but in separate religious cultures, called for an understanding of different customs and festivals among Hindus and Muslims. Each taunts the other about food habits and appearance. A week later I learnt that the charm of the selection had been completely lost on my reader who had used encyclopedias and dictionaries to penetrate the story--- and failed.
My friend complained about the number of people in the Urdu story so I selected one with just three characters : Chandrasekhar Rath's 'The Emperor' (Odia) which describes the descent of a celebrated theatre star into dementia and gloom while recalling his role as Karna ('The seas roared…the skies opened. Karna glowed like the sun). Since my friend was armed with reference books I thought she would grasp the pathos of the ageing actor who lives his Karna role intensely but cannot bear his tawdry stage costumes. Again, failure.
'Please send me a Hindi story' she wrote, so I looked at the Premchand selection I had made, 'A Special Holi' set in pre-Independence India with its layers and levels of a rich man's rebellious staff who get drunk and dance on his dining table. By then I had become cautious. No. My reader would never understand the irony of the ending in which the merchant who had lived to serve the British, raises his voice against British rule. Ajay Navaria's 'New Custom'? Too many understated references to caste both oblique and frontal.
'What about a woman writer ?' came the next query. On hand was one of Sarah Joseph's 'Ramayana' stories (Malayalam) about Kaikeyi. I knew it was impossible even for an Indian without a strong grasp of the epic to enjoy its nuances. Then there was Ambai's story (Tamil) about a teenager who daydreams about writing and wakes to a larger than life stand-off between a maidservant and her brutal husband; but there were too many references to Carnatic music in the telling.
I turned to Ashapurna Debi's story (Bangla) about a father -in- law who quietly intercepts his daughter in law's letters to safeguard his family. Again, too many characters and kinship terms. Telugu - sweetest of languages-to the rescue! P Satyavathi's bitter humour about womenfolk (both mistress and housemaid) bearing the brunt of their respective husbands' religious austerities in a story called 'Palanquin'. The rituals and compulsions that had all slid comfortably into native readership were a complete no-no for my reader.
My next ambassador for Indian writing was Damodar Mouzo. 'The Red Nissan' (Konkani), about a modern Indian family was a moderate success but thereafter an awkward silence fell between me and my eager but uncomprehending reader. Should I offer something about caste and risk a tirade? I sent 'Just One Word' by Bama explaining as well as I could the questions boiling around reservation and affirmative action. 'Are your government offices really like this? With people appointed just to carry files from table to table?' The story which describes the appointment of a Dalit as the head of an office and the resentment it fuels amidst upper caste clerks struck home. ' Ha! I too have felt like Maadasamy,' she emailed me.
She had understood the universal pain of rejection. She grew more confident as did I till she asked, 'Why can't your writers write like RK Narayan?' Why not, I thought. Because they were not in his Malgudi. They were themselves in their own spaces.
If, as Orhan Pamuk (and Maureen Freely, his translator) said, writing is like breaking the bones of language, translation is like re-setting them. It might not always work but when it does, it crosses oceans and continents.
(The writer coordinates a translation programme for the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Education Services Corporation)