The translator and her place

April 24, 2022

The South Asian translator must strive to love another language first, then master it before taking on the arduous task of translating a literary work

The translator and her place


ven before a work of literature has been translated, the birth of a literary piece in its primary language is to a certain extent an act of translation – from the idea(s) to the written word(s). So the debate about the hierarchy of a literary work in its original language vs the translated language is rife with complexities. Of course, there would be no translation(s) if the work had not been produced in its primary language to begin with. Does or can, one may ask, a translated work rise equal to or above the original? If it does indeed, on rare occasions, then, does the translator’s importance or respect should equal or rise above that of the author? Are the translators of Dostoyvsky’s work, say, in Urdu or Bengali, worthy of acknowledgement?

Jennifer Croft, the famed translator of the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, has raised a similar issue regarding recognition a translator earns. That is to have her name printed alongside the author on the cover of a book. That seems fair enough to me. One could, if one wanted to, quibble about the size of the fonts accorded to the writer and the translator, but it’s no small feat that Croft managed to get her name on the new edition of Tokarczuk’s novel The Books of Jacob. Issues of respect, recognition and love are not the same, but sometimes they can be rolled into one. Croft, with the author’s support, will also receive royalties on the book. Should this be a standard? Should a translator’s name always appear on the front page regardless of the quality of the translation? What are the mechanisms in place to judge the quality and, of course, fidelity? There are good and/ or faithful translations as there are good and bad works of literature. The phenomenon of translation works on the assumption that a chosen work is worth the effort for a translation project. There are several factors at play. The strength of academia, literacy and literary culture and the market are the main forces.

The South Asian context is rather peculiar. There are reasons why South Asian countries lack, by and large, the above ingredients with an exception here and there. There’s a system, kept in place on purpose, that privileges a colonial legacy of education and language hierarchy, which perpetuates colonial mentality. Having a personal relationship with the Urdu and Punjabi writers, I can tell from experience that there is a certain respect, even awe, of the translated work, but often that respect and awe does not fully extend to the translator. Translation is often viewed as a necessary item if Urdu or Punjabi literature desires to improve or rise to an international standard, whatever that may be. It is accepted as an important foreign injection into the native vein of a South Asian language. The translator, a literary one at that, on the other hand, is viewed as a tool, though respected only within a tight circle of the literati.

Just because one speaks English well one often falls victim to the delusion that they can also translate into or from it.

Prof Memon was an exception. Every time he visited Pakistan, an interview or two would appear in leading Pakistani newspapers. Even he felt dissed, a feeling he shared with me privately, by a leading Urdu author whose fame was pushed beyond the borders of Pakistan, he believed, by his translations. He also ran afoul of a Moroccan American author because the translation of her novel into Urdu had been published in Pakistan without her permission. He agreed to destroy all the printed copies.

On a different occasion, I found it depressing when a noted Urdu author, having translated Chinua Achebe’s classic When Things Fall Apart into Urdu, had nothing to say about the Nigerian author, his work, the translation or the process. He candidly told me that he took up the task because he needed the money. I have also had conversations with a noted translator of Pakistani origin who was not convinced of the importance of knowing the original language in order to pursue a translation. Due to weak academic and literary traditions, not much discussion takes place about the importance of having expertise in the original language. Often a translated work is seen enough for a further translation.

Our colonial legacy can also act as a curse; or a two-headed monster. First, the over-emphasis on translating into and from English scuttles the organic growth of translation across South Asia’s non-European languages; second, just because one speaks English well one often falls victim to the delusion that they can also translate into or from it. I recently came across a translation I proof-read where the translator had confused bad-ro (sewer) with Badru (short for the name Badr). On my only visit to India, I heard an Indian translator defending his universally acknowledged mediocre translations as an act of defying a colonial hang-up.

We have the case of Tagore purposefully diluting his poetry in translations from the Bengali for Western audiences and admitting, belatedly and regretfully, his folly to his friends in two letters. To Edward Thompson, he wrote: “In my translations I timidly avoid all difficulties, which has the effect of making them smooth and thin. I know I am misrepresenting myself as a poet to the Western readers. But when I began this career of falsifying my own coins I did it in play. Now I am becoming frightened of its enormity and I am willing to make a confession of my misdeeds and withdraw into my original vocation as a mere Bengali poet.”

To cut a long story short, while translations, both from classical works and contemporary, are essential for the growth of South Asian literatures, the translator and the audience have to meet halfway. The South Asian translator must strive to love another language first, then master it before taking on the arduous take of translating a literary work. (Translating a literary work is not the same as translating a computer textbook into Urdu with the aid of a software.) It is by learning a new language that one craves to find, acquire and read modern literature being published in that language. That further broadens the scope of one’s own modern literature. I was heartened to have a long conversation with the Punjabi author Javed Boota who took on the arduous task of translating   Yashpal’s Jhoota Sach, a two volume endeavour spanning two thousand pages. For that purpose, he gave up reading Gurmukhi for a while so he could immerse himself in Hindi and before he could even start work on Yashpal’s magnum opus, he translated some 20 Hindi short stories. Such stories give one hope.

A conversation should be initiated in South Asian literary magazines and newspapers’ literature columns, TV, radio and electronic media about the historical importance of translations. Then there is the issue of credibility. A publisher, small or big, has to have the mechanism and means to evaluate the merit of the submitted translation, expertise to decide whether the manuscript in hand has gone through a proper process, that it is indeed a polished translation faithful in essence, not an afterthought laden with careless choices made in a hurry. Those efforts will, in time, decide how much respect should be accorded to a translator. Currently, speaking loosely, the conditions do not exist for a native Jennifer Croft to exert her influence on the publishers or the readership. But it would be nice to have a few like her one day in the near future.

The writer is a   librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at

The translator and her place