It was a sheer coincidence that I had so much to do with the idea of translation the whole of last week. First, a translator-friend of mine asked me to read an excerpt from Edith Grossmman's Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010); I got a copy of Translation as Growth by Uday Narayana Singh (Pearson, 2010); I shared the anxieties of an elder who was reviewing the rendering of the 12th century Kannada 'Vachanas' into Punjabi; then, there was a wonderful interaction with Prof. Sheldon Pollock, recently named general editor of the Murthy Classical Library at the Harvard University, which will publish English translations of classical literature in Indian languages. But, the most provocative engagement I had with the idea was when I read a fascinating short essay in Maathukathe, the quarterly newsletter of Ninasam, a cultural centre and a repertory company in Karnataka's Heggodu.
The essay titled 'Bashebashegala Naduve Ullanghaneya Darigalu' by K V Akshara (roughly 'Paths of Transgression between Languages') takes an overview of many important theories, past and present, that have been formulated on the idea of translation and comes to a conclusion that the word 'translation' is severely limiting to connote the complex process of exchange that takes place between languages and cultures and in its place we should use the word 'transgression'. The word 'transgression' may sound a bit clinical, but the Kannada word that Akshara uses - 'Ullanghane' has greater energy and cultural resonance attached to it. It would mean 'to leap over,' like in the act of Hanuman over the Lankan seas to reach Sita.
In fact, sometime back, renowned linguist D N Shankar Bhat had suggested a blander and straightforward word like 'Nudimarike,' literally meaning 'changing or exchanging language', instead of words that we ordinarily use for translation in Kannada - 'Bhaashantara,' 'Anuvaada' or 'Tarjume.' While for Shankar Bhat recoining the word is part of his historical project to disentangle Kannada from its Sanskrit links and give it an independent identity, for Akshara, the renaming is about getting closer to the recreation or the transference of experience that takes place between languages during translation.
The most interesting part of the essay is when Akshara tells us what inspired him to decide on the word 'ullanghane' or 'transgression' for 'translation' in Kannada. He refers to a conversation that legendary Kannada writer D V Gundappa recounts having with a friend while writing on the Kishkinda episode in the 'Ramayana'. Let me translate the Q&A. The man giving out the answer is Gundappa and the one questioning is his friend:
Q: In which language did Rama and Hunuman converse with each other when they met?
Q: On what basis do you say so?
A: The proof is in Ramayana itself. The epic says that Rama and Hanuman met in Kishkinda and since Kishkinda is in Kannada territory they spoke in Kannada.
Q: So you mean to say Rama could speak Kannada?
A: Yes, I think so.
Q: But sir Rama was born in Ayodhya and did they speak Kannada in Ayodhya?
A: There was no Kannada in Ayodhya, but Rama must have learnt Kannada. What do you say?
Q: It is wise to presume that Rama knew Sanskrit. If we say that both of them conversed in Sanskrit, then we'll have to assume that Hanuman knew Sanskrit. Isn't it?
A: That's fine. I am always willing to assume that Hanuman knew Sanskrit!
Q: What is this sir? These things don't tally. It is fine to assume that Rama knew Sanskrit, but Hanuman was an ape. How can we attribute Sanksrit to him?
A: You seem to have forgotten Hanuman was an ape who leapt over the sea. Yours is one perspective. But the other point of view is that Rama and Hanuman were created by an element of God and for such people does learning a language pose a big challenge? Not only Kannada and Sanskrit. They also had the ability to learn Hindi and English too. They could also easily learn Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Gujarati.
Q: So what is your conclusion?
A: The conclusion is this: That the two spoke to each other in a language that they could mutually follow. It is not important for us in which language they spoke, but what they spoke. The question of language here is absurd.
Akshara says the real strength of this conversation is in its ability to internalise various kinds of transgressions or 'ullanghane'. First, it seems to suggest that a man who could leap over the sea is also capable of leaping between languages. Second, the belief that Rama may have learnt Kannada although that was not the language of Ayodhya and that Rama and Hanuman could pick up any language is indicative of not just their divine self, but also the leaps possible between and beyond languages. Third, by saying 'language here is absurd,' the conversation problematises the perception of the Ramayana narrative within the limits of the modern day idea of 'translation' or 'bhashantara'. That is, it cannot be seen as a mere translation of an epic from one language into another, but needs to be viewed as a leap of imagination from one language into another, where it gets reconstructed and moulded in an entirely different way. Any creative translation is therefore a transgression.
There is also a discussion in the essay about the modern day idea of a 'faithful translation.' While most pre-modern texts in Kannada (or for that matter most Indian languages) like Kumaravyasa's 'Mahabharata' or Pampa's rendering of the epic were not translation as we understand it today, but magnificent transgressions where their local benefactors became heroes and there was suffusion of fresh creative energies to recast the scenes and paint new shades into the characters. That made the work not a duplication of the epic, but an eminently independent one. There was nothing called translation in the pre-modern period. Same is the case with Kamban's 'Ramayana,' which is classified as an independent Tamil epic and which Prof. Pollock is getting translated in its entirety for the first time. In almost a similar fashion, across the seas, Greek tales transgressed to become wonderful plays of Shakespeare.
There is yet another interesting transgression in the above conversation that Akshara points out and that has to do with the assumption that Kishkinda is in the Kannada territory. He says this is an interesting cultural process where people try to spatially fix the events of the epic on a modern map. It is not about a lack of geographical sense or superstition, but about a certain kind of localisation and appropriation; about giving one's own linguistic community a role in the epic that spans across a vast territory. Perhaps this is the process by which it becomes an entire nation's epic. Texts like the 'Ramayana' and the 'Mahabharata,' Akshara suggests, are a site of great many transgressions that continuously happen between history and mythology, past and present, surreal and the real. An extension of this argument, which Akshara does not make, is that it is in transgressions like these that the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy can be situated. Political parties have a way of exploiting these innocent transgressions that take place in the minds of people.
Now cut, from this essay, to what Edith Grossman says in Why Translation Matters and you'll find her to be on the same page as Akshara about the independence of a translated work, albeit she proposes it in an entirely different context: "I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves -- forgive me, I mean ourselves -- as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so... The undeniable reality is that the work becomes the translator's as we transmute it into second language. Perhaps transmute is a wrong verb; what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but a result of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism."