How I became a translator (Translating India-9)

(ATTN EDITORS: This is the ninth in a 10-part "Translating India" series where noted translators -- in articles written exclusively for IANS -- share their experiences of translating from their respective languages.)

By Keerti Ramachandra

Did I always want to be a translator? No.

I became a translator by default. When asked if I could translate Jayant Kaikini's short story "Amrithaballi Kashaya", I said, of course!

I know Kannada, my command over English is good, I can easily do it.

So, what if I had never translated anything before!

Shock number one -- reading Kannada is very different from speaking Kannada.

Some words and phrases Kaikini had used were alien to me since I was familiar with Dharwar Kannada. But I knew Mumbai, and the kind of life people led in its chawls and suburbs. So, armed with Rev. Kittel's Kannada-to-English dictionary, I set off on a journey with Gangadhar and Mayee, Vicki and Bandya and The Golden Frame Works.

Soon I was deeply involved in their lives, they haunted me until I finished my work.

The editor stepped in, made changes, leaving me fretting, fuming, ranting. How can she do this? She doesn't know Kannada, that's not how the author says it... I protested. Today I know better. Editing is very much a part of the process of translation.

In 1996, I was commissioned by Vishwas Patil to translate his Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel "Jhadajhadati" into English on a common friend's recommendation.

He knew nothing about me, except that I spoke Marathi well, but that I had never studied Marathi, nor did I have even a nodding acquaintance with Marathi (or for that matter Kannada) literature! I knew nothing about him either.

(So much for those who say one must be familiar with everything about the author and his work!)

Agreeing to translate "Jhadajhadati" ("A Dirge for the Dammed") seemed like an act of utter foolhardiness.

While I knew the customs, rituals, superstitions and beliefs of the people, I was half Maharashtrian after all, everything else was unfamiliar.

The setting was rural, much of the dialogue in a dialect, the topography I could not visualise. Serious research was required before I actually started translating. Long telephonic conversations with the author helped. And a fortuitous visit to a farm in rural Maharashtra halfway through the work lent a little more credibility to my effort.

"Jhadajhadati" is a novel I haven't been able to get out of my system.

It had integrity, sincerity, empathy, even sentimentality. It was a harsh, cruel reality Patil had portrayed. I knew then that I would always be a heart driven translator. The editor in me would later prune, refine and ground it. The challenges the novel presented were innumerable, but all translators encounter them. But unique to this work was the dialect, a "legitimate" variety of Marathi. There were folk songs and very local idioms and proverbs.

Sometimes the original laboured a point, the emotions were excessive, the situations cliched.

All of those were perfectly acceptable in Marathi, but in English they sounded repetitive, exaggerated and excessive.

Deciding what to abridge, what to modify, when to take liberties and when to be faithful, was tough. In my attempt to be accurate I chose to retain many Marathi words, which some critics objected to. Some literal translations of idiomatic expressions and proverbs were appreciated. As one reviewer said, such literal translations "enrich the target language". He was not Indian!

After this novel about displacement and rehabilitation, came Patil's fictionalised biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, with its own set of demands.

The primary research was in English, the novel was in Marathi and now translated into English. How did one make the Japanese and the Germans not sound like Indians speaking English? In the original, they all spoke the same brand of Marathi!

As a translator, I set great store by dialogue because I feel how a character speaks indicates much more than the mere words she/he utters.

Using casual terms of address, the plural for "we" for oneself, the pronunciation of certain words, all indicate the background, the attitude, the relationship of the speaker with the others.

To hear these variations, I need a good "ear", especially because I translate from more than one language.

The cadences, rhythm, lilt and melody of Marathi Gadgil differs from that of Kannada Bolwar and Hindi/Urdu Joginder Paul.

Also, does Mr Gadgil's voice differ from Mrs Vijaya Rajadhyaksha's? How do I, using the one standard English, ensure that all these writers do not sound like Keerti Ramachandra speaking in English?

I often wonder what my relationship with the author and with the text is.

Am I intimidated by the author? Yes. Translation is therefore a huge responsibility to ensure no damage is done to the author's reputation.

Am I daunted by the text? Sometimes. Is that why I tend to anchor the translation in the original? Can I set it free without making it my own? Should I?

After 25 years as a translator I find myself asking more questions than I did before.

I read something I liked and immediately put pen to paper. Ah, those days of innocence. But I will continue to translate, to ask questions and hope those who have found the answers will share them with me.

(Keerti Ramachandra has many years of editing, writing, teaching and translating.

She can be contacted at



Source: IANS