There are at least two (likely more) common criticisms that are made of translations. The first and perennial one is that translation necessarily betrays the original, that it fails in a fated, deep way to honour the unique problem that meanings created in one language cannot cross the Lakshman Rekha into the alien and threatening universe of another. The second and perhaps equally vexing one is that when dealing with non-European languages, where more than one translation of a text is highly unlikely, a translation that makes a mistake is unforgiveable. As a result, the first translation bears the double burden of not only translating correctly but also of representing singularly. Translations, then, doubly threaten literary heritage: they risk polluting the canon’s bloodline and they generate literary orphans and perhaps even bastards.
This is partly the reason so many reviews of translations spend so much attention focusing not on the translation, its style, its rhythms, its idiosyncrasies, but rather on the original. Look at almost any review of a translation and it will read like a missing introduction to the original text. This is both understandable and completely unreasonable at the same time. Because the original is unavailable (presumably) to readers in the translated language, the assumption is that readers will have no reason to pick it up if they do not know something about the author, the context of the original, its significance and so on. (Such reviews are also notorious for pointing out the failings of a translation in the last paragraph or two and reminding us that the reviewer is perhaps the better translator).
We should, however, be wary (and weary) of such reviews, because they misunderstand what translation is, how it works, the craft involved in it, and most importantly the humanistic and ethical impulse behind them. Translations are neither grammar exercises nor the literary equivalents of Lonely Planet’s guide to an exotic locale. They are, first and foremost, exercises in linguistic and literary openness, attempts to stretch and grow beyond the limits of boundaries, to demonstrate the frailties of our own current understandings and the wonders that are possible when we are pressed to overcome them. As such, translations must be read not as pale facsimiles of the original to which only the select Brahmins have access, but as self-contained units whose novelty bursts our conception of such stale categories as the ‘real’ and the ‘faithful’. Salman Rushdie gets many things incorrect about South Asian literature, but about this, he is insightful: ‘It is normally supposed that something gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.’
Here is where any reading of Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Bhisham Sahni’s 1974 novel Tamas ought to begin, with a sense that the task of the critic is to point out and draw attention to what is novel, inventive, and insightful. If the novel is well known as the classic tale of the riots that overtook South Asia at the moment of Partition/Independence in 1947 (in part because of Govind Nihalani’s televised film of the same name in 1988), what is less understood is the intellectual problem with which it has to contend. Is religious chauvinism and rioting something that can be understood within the bounds of our hopes for tolerance—so that rioting is a mistake, a conspiracy, a lapse—or does it exceed all the bounds of sociological explanation? If the novel in English has been successful in describing the madness of the individual, it has been markedly afraid of dealing with the problem of limitless irrationality.
Take for instance the opening paragraph of Rockwell’s Tamas: ‘The lamp in the alcove flickered. There was a hole in the wall above it, near the ceiling, where two bricks had been removed. Every time a puff of breeze came through the hole, the lamp flame guttered and shadows swayed across the walls. In a moment, the flame would straighten up again, as would the line of smoke that rose and licked above the alcove. Nathu was breathing hard, like a bellows, and he felt as though it was his breath that was causing the flame to flicker.’
The simplicity of the prose is deceptive, particularly as it feels as if we have encountered it all before. But here, the generic conventions that are well known in English (the narrative beginning in media res, the delayed decoding of the opening image, the pathetic fallacy of the environmental description, the start of the extended metaphor that will bleed throughout the text) are pressed to do something beyond the liberal impulse of most literary output in English, where the narrative voice shelters the reader from the omnipresence of the violence in the description. There is not a novel in English that has contended with this problem of the contagion of communal sentiment, especially at the point where the irrational is no longer a feature of the individual but a seeming disorder of the society in its entirety. It is that same irrationality that emerges in this figure of a low-caste man doing the unwitting bidding of a wealthy, Right-Wing Muslim and setting off a violent spark that becomes impossible to contain. Consider that this is not the way that novels about race riots, fascism, or ethnic violence are written in English: the narrative voice is always one of the successes of liberal civil society. Here the omniscient narrator must contend with the problem that the character’s actions exceed the bounds of understanding: are we sure we know why the lamp flickers?
The problem that Rockwell’s translation so deftly addresses is one that the critical history of the original has been unable or unwilling to take seriously. When it comes to communal riots in India, the difference between friend and foe, concern and conspiracy, humanism and hatred is so small that it challenges all of our theories of representation and responsibility. Sahni’s Tamas is seen as reportage more often than it is seen as fiction, mostly because the traumas of Partition were submerged in the enthusiastic, celebratory tide of Independence. So Sahni’s treatment of it is almost always regarded as recuperative. But recuperative of what, exactly? The fact that Tamas was written four years after the riots in Bhiwandi (1970), that Nihalani’s film was produced four years after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi (1984), that Sahni’s own English translation of the novel was published nine years after the Babri Masjid demolition (1992), and that Rockwell’s translation comes more than a decade after the riots in Ahmedabad (2002) means that the novel is both timely and historical. This pattern of riot-reflection-writing-riot means that translation is not merely an incidental feature of the book. It is built into the very DNA of the novel.
Here is Rockwell at her best, translating the penultimate episode of the novel, in the relief camps:
‘Every single person wandering though the Relief Office courtyard had come bringing his own special expertise. But no one had the skill to assess those experiences, to evaluate them, to extract their essence. Nobody could think of anything to do besides staring into the void, shaking his head, listening to what everyone had to say. Whenever there was a rumour, the people in the courtyard would gather to hear it. No one knew what they were supposed to do, or where they should go. No one had the faintest idea what would happen next. They felt an inexorable cycle of events moving forward, over which they had no control at all. There was no one in charge of making decisions, no one was in control, no one possessed the skills to control anything. They all moved about like puppets: If they were hungry they’d eat what they could; if they remembered something, they’d weep; and they just listened intently from morning to evening to what the people told them.’
The clarity of the prose works athwart the chaos described; realism here confronts its own limitations. Where the interiority of characters is resisted, the realist narrator has recourse to the surface of objects, but here even that is made impossible. The novel of the communal riot becomes the warrant, then, for translation, demanding of us that we sift through the detritus—of bodies, of memories, of stories, of language—and reconstruct a pathway back towards humanism from its wreckage. What Rockwell’s translation does so marvellously is that it not only reminds us that we need to consider Sahni’s novel anew, but that we need to take the imperative to translate seriously. In a world cleaved by communal forces, we need to let a thousand translations bloom.
Snehal A Shingavi is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas, Austin. He has translated Munshi Premchand’s Sevasadan, the Urdu short-story collection Angaaray, Bhisham Sahni’s memoirs Today’s Past, and Agyeya’s Shekhar: Ek Jivani and is working on a translation of Joginder Paul’s Ek Boond Lahu Ki (A Drop of Blood).