Friday, August 19, 2011

Found in Translation

As I scanned my bookshelf and ticked off in my mind the books I had finished reading, it struck me that works in translation comprised about 80 percent of my list last year. I don't consciously look for translated work, other than those by writers in Indian languages (being handicapped by my relative inability to fully appreciate the written word in the Indian languages I am familiar with) but it turns out that many of the non-Indian writers I had read last year were also in translation. Allowing works of imagination (and information of course) to travel across linguistic and cultural boundaries leads to a wonderful movement of ideas, creating connections in a relatively effortless manner. Of course, I completely appreciate that the act of translation is certainly not without effort, in fact requires a special talent that is able to transfer mood and meaning to an alien language in a way that leaves no sense of a "foreign tongue" in a reader's head. The best translations are fluent transmissions of meaning, in which you are able to appreciate the context/content of the original without being hindered by an unfamiliar idiom.

Our reading lives are enriched by work in translation, right from short stories by Tagore in our sixth grade "non-detailed" books to the passages from Homer in high school or college. And we don't even notice that they are meanings twice-born (respectful apologies to the late Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee who used the term "twice born" to describe Indian writing in English), first in the author's mind and then in the translator's.

Of the wonderful twice born books I have read these last few months, the one that is almost definitely top of the list is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The translation carries the light elegance that must have defined the original. The story of an unlikely but beautiful friendship between a concierge, a precocious thirteen year old who discovers the concierge's carefully hidden intelligence,  and a Japanese widower with  a heightened aesthetic awareness. And then, a single copy hidden amongst the best sellers I found another translated work, this time from the Portuguese, Night Train to Lisbon. This provided a slightly bumpier ride through the story but gave me plenty of contextual information in case I need to take that train ride myself.

The past year also saw me venturing into more recent works from Indian writers in translation. The hour past midnight by Salma took me on a journey into the kind of Tamil home that I have not have the privilege of entering, while the translated edition of Sivasankari's "Palangal" (Bridges in English) gives me the opportunity to match my impressions with my mother's reading of the same novel in the original.

I'm grateful to these translators, these painstaking purveyors of other people's stories, these men and women who undertake to retell in a manner that gives you entry to worlds that would otherwise be walled off by language. My world would be poorer without them, as would that of many others who cherish stories of a million tongues.

1 comment:

sree said...

Where can bridges be bought? Any shop or site that sells??