Column: A quest for greater authenticity in Malayalam translations

Column: A quest for greater authenticity in Malayalam translations
Representational image: Shutterstock/Chinnapong

The refined reading public of Kerala has a wealth of available international literature thanks to very good translations of books of Russian, English, American, European and South American authors. Unfortunately a lot of the nuances from the original writing get lost in translation when it comes to non-English books. This is simply because a Malayalam translation of a foreign language book is often made from an English translation. There are exceptions, such as the delightful Russian to Malayalam translations by Omana and Moscow Gopalakrishnan.

Great international works written in languages other than English only find their way to Kerala after they become famous in English translation in the United States. Take the example of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His anthology of short stories titled Fictions was produced between 1941 and 1956 and each story in the collection is a work of art. The writer remained relatively unknown outside his native Argentina until the 1960s when an English translation of the stories was published in America. He then got the recognition that he so richly deserved.

This Borges anthology only found its way to Kerala in 1983 when Paridhi Publication released a Malayalam translation by V P Sivakumar, a brilliant short story writer who died young. It was in the mid-1980s that interest in Latin American literature really picked up in the state, but Sivakumar’s translation as well as those of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez were from English.

Importance of translations

Translators are some of the most under-appreciated members of the literary community. Their work is absolutely invaluable, and they have played an immense role in bringing the world together through literature, but even basic recognition is often hard to come by for them.

Borges believed that translators could actually improve a good piece of writing. In his book titled On Writing, Borges says: “As far as I am concerned, I believe in the good translations of literary works (not to mention didactic or speculative works) and am of the opinion that even poetry is translatable.” Borges, who was multi-lingual, assisted translators as they brought his work into several languages.

“The superstition about the inferiority of translations - coined by the well-known Italian adage - is the result of absentmindedness,” Borges said. “There is no good text that does not seem invariable or definitive if we have turned to it a sufficient number of times.” The Italian adage he was referring to is “Traduttore, traditore,” which literally means “Translator, traitor.”

Road ahead for Malayalam translations

As the market for Malayalam translations continues to grow, it’s time to encourage a new generation of Kerala-educated humanities graduates to become specialists in foreign languages with the specific purpose of translating books to Malayalam from the original language of publication. Essentially we would need people with great Malayalam writing skills to develop the ability to understand a foreign language up to the level of reading classical and, more importantly, contemporary literature in the original.

It is not very uncommon to hear of Indians who have attained doctorates in foreign languages in prestigious academic institutions such as Sorbonne University in Paris or Moscow’s Pushkin Institute. Malayalam literature needs someone who has such a mastery of Spanish that she or he could translate Spanish and Latin American literature to Malayalam in a way that the nuances and deeper meanings are not lost.

The ideal candidates for such an endeavour would have to have been raised in Kerala and be well versed in Malayalam literature. For such a person, mastery of a foreign language would also, of course, open several doors in a world where automation and artificial intelligence are bound to kill employment opportunities.

Perhaps Kerala could participate and encourage exchange programs with leading universities where foreign students would be invited to master Malayalam and translate Malayalam books without the need of an English translation? This would open large new markets for literary works in Malayalam, as well as generate a greater amount of interest in the culture of Kerala.

Of course, all this is equally valid for Indian languages that also have a rich literary heritage. Few initiatives would foster greater integration than a pan-Indian movement centred on translating literature without a “middle language.”

(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)

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