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Translation is About Conveying The Sense of Culture That Original Story is Set In, Not at All About Accuracy of Literal Word Meanings

Moving away from the constant attention on the Covid 19 pandemic, let’s talk about translation and its various layers. Why talk about translation? Mostly because there seems to be a notion especially among those picking up Manipuri translation work into English that being well versed in the later is all it takes to do the job. This is far from the truth for translation is a long drawn out process and varies for the medium it is presented in. Thus, translating dialogues for films in a native language to be used as subtitle text in English would be a different approach than translating text for a novel/short story. For films, the basic thumb rule to follow is to keep the translated version short and crisp, devoid of any long description as the visuals of the actors emoting often adds to what transpires on screen. Additionally, cluttering the screen with long subtitle text makes it difficult for viewers to follow what is being said. This does not mean that corners can be cut when it comes to translating for sub titles as the process would still involve an understanding of cinematic expression and language, apart from knowing and feeling both the languages involved.

As Anthony Burgess, an English novelist, critic, translator and linguist said, “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” Let’s take the word ‘Samurai’ and how to ‘translate’ it for films and literature to an audience that knows English but no Japanese. For both there is no absolute need to translate the word for it is a socio cultural practice and belief system of the Japanese world. To use words like ‘warrior’ ‘chief’ ‘overlord’ etc would be way off mark not to mention turning one’s back from accepting the Japanese socio cultural ethos. What happens then is that the word remains as it is and the context is given: for films, the there will be a mention of it in the synopsis while for literary texts, the glossary or annotation will explain the term. And because this is indeed done, ‘Samurai’ is something that is known beyond the realm of Japan.

Yet, translators do tend to translate for every term that has a specific cultural or social identity or context. Some years back, someone asked me to rework the translated text done by another person of the Manipuri folk tale, ‘Hanuba Hanubi Paan thaaba’. Asked why the reworking was necessary, pat came the reply – you will know when you read it yourself. The translated text given to me was full of contemporary terms – for instance, the word ‘Kharung chaphu’ had been translated as ‘container’ and so on. In the part where the old couple farts inside the Kharung chaphu, the expression ‘bom laona pokhai’ was being translated as ‘the sound was like a bomb going off.’ In the translated version that I did, the word ‘Kharung Chaphu’ was used with an annotation giving a brief description as ‘thick earthen pot used for storage of water or grains’, the older form of expression ‘passing wind’ was used instead of the more contemporary ‘fart’. Here, someone who does not know the story of the old couple as a folk story of Manipur will fail to locate it in that context due to the use of contemporary words if the first translation was used.

Given that a lot of Manipuri literature and writing remains unknown outside the state, there is a need for translations to English. Why English? Because that is one common language today that binds the country and the world at large. Hence we come to some important questions that need to be critically assessed: Who can translate? What skills are required? What makes a good translation? To answer the first question: a translator has to be able to feel, comprehend and express oneself in the native language as well as English besides a knowledge and inclination towards literary expression.

According to Sophie Lewis, award winning literary editor and translator from French and Portuguese into English, a good translation is ‘about a near-magical balance being struck between channeling the translator’s perceived idea of the text’s original sound and intention and its re-enactment through the translator’s own voice, the way they personally would express these styles and ideas. It’s about the careful and always considerate mingling of these two impulses or perceptions which means, you can’t always tell that you’re reading a good translation!’

As with everything else, there are pitfalls that need to be avoided when taking up translation. None says it better than Vladimir Nobokov who wrote in both English and Russian: “There are three grades of translation evils: errors, slips and willful reshaping.” Errors and slips come into the picture due to lack of skills or sheer laziness but willful reshaping is a problematic aspect when a translator subverts the original text to play to the gallery or cater to certain selling points. It is a dangerous path for a translator to embark on for not only is there an element of misrepresentation but removing the voice and intent of the original author. If adding contexts to original work is the intent of a translator, perhaps he/she needs to do his/her version of the text, like an adaptation perhaps and not say it is a translation.

The intent of translation from one’s native language to another is to not just convey what the text holds but to stay true to it and to transfer one’s socio cultural ethos. Which is why certain words need to stay in the native language instead of using a second best ‘western’ or ‘accepted’ word in its place. People often say that a lot can be lost in translation but I dare say, a lot can be found in translation as well.

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