Translation or Transference: The Problematic of Cultural Specifics

by Dr. S.S. Prabhakar Rao. 

Allen Tate has once observed, “Translation is for ever impossible and for ever necessary.” Down the centuries there have been unending debates about loyalty to and freedom from the original in a translation – ‘formal equivalence’ vs ‘dynamic equivalence.’ Whether a translation should read like a translation or like an original is still debated passionately. But it is possible to surmise that one should pursue the middle path agreeing on “maximum readability and feasible fidelity.” The other problem relates to the carrying across of cultural specifics from the Source Language to the Target Language. Terms, which have no equivalents in the TL, the author argues, may be transferred and expressions may even be literally translated so that optimum feel and flavor of the native culture can be re-created. He has cited the practice of Raja Rao in his path-breaking novel Kanthapura, in which he boldly translated Kannada expressions as well as transferred certain terms. The author devoted the second section of the paper to the problems he faced in his translation of short stories, classical poetry, a novel and a classical epic from Telugu into English and the tentative solutions he could arrive at. The author hopes that, despite the multiplicity of problems and the lack of encouragement and recognition, the tribe of translators will increase and contribute to much-needed cultural synthesis in the world torn apart by fissiparous forces.   

 Translation has ever been a tantalizing literary activity. It has been observed that translation is for ever impossible and for ever necessary. There is a term in the Italian, traducer, which means both a translator and a traitor and the activity is often considered the great betrayal. But for the much-needed cultural and emotional synthesis in a country like India torn by linguistic and regional fissiparous pulls, translation assumes paramount significance. Among the three streams/waves of Indian writing – the Anglo Indian, the Indo-Anglian (or Indian Writing in English: Prof K R Srinivasa Iyengar’s preferred terminology) and Indo-English Literature (Prof V K Gokak’s term) – the last one seems to be gaining ascendancy in the literary hierarchy in recent ties. The only Nobel Prize to be won by an “Indian” writer happens to relate to this wave: Tagore’s Gitanjali, which is a translation into English from the original Bengalee.  Without exaggeration, it can be stated that it is in the rich and vibrant literatures in the regional languages of India that one can find the real soul of the country. And to discover or unravel that soul translation is a necessary activity.

The term translation is derived from the Latin term translatio (to carry across.) It is kin to the Greek terms – “Metaphrase” and “Paraphrase” – which indicate the major problems a translator faces. Metaphrase refers to literal, verbatim (verbum pro verbo: word-to-word) translation, while Paraphrase (later used by Dryden) refers to “saying in other words.” The need for equivalence between the text in the Source Language and the final version in the Target Language is admitted but the problematic, should it be merely “formal equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence,” the terms used by Eugene Nida, has been debated for long. For long there has been an implicit view of master-servant relationship between the writer and the translator, who cannot afford to be creative. The 19th century British poet D G Rosetti observed that the work of a translator involved “self-denial and repression of his own creative impulses.” But it has not been so with gifted translators. Edward Fitzgerald, who gave us the immortal rendering of the Rubayat of Omar Khayam, was among the first who took liberties with the original in his creative translation.  He declared, “It is an amusement to me to take what liberties I like with the Persians, who, I think, were not poets enough to frighten me from such excursions.” And the end product is an eminently readable fluent rendering. But one wonders still, is it a translation from the Persian original or what Dryden called a “Parallel Text.”

In the colonial period the relationship was more of servility with the SL text author as a sort of feudal lord, ordering implicit loyalty to his text. Such an attitude led to treating translation as craft by Eric Jacobsen, while Theodore Savory considers it an art. Horst Frenz clinches the issue by declaring, “It is neither a creative art nor an imitative art but stands somewhere between the two.” The challenge before the translator is, on the one hand, to transfer the semantic constructs and the formal contours of the original and on the other, to re-create the spectrum of aesthetic/cultural features inherent in the SL text. Implicit fidelity to the original words has been largely discouraged. As Dryden noted, “when words appear literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since what is beautiful in one language is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit the translator to the narrow campus of his author’s words.” It is where creativity or even what the Indian alamkarists (aestheticians) call pratibha comes in. The corresponding proper words may occur to the translator in a flash, very like the best words in the best order in the original work. Perhaps, the possible solution lies in pursuing the middle path of maintaining “maximum readability within the confines of faithful rendering.”

The attempts of linguists to offer a scientific base for this activity have occasionally added to the confusion. While Roman Jakobson categorically declared, “Poetry by definition is untranslatable” he also discussed three types of translation: Intra-lingual (re-wording or interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs; Inter-lingual (translation through verbal symbols in another language); and Inter-Semiotic (transmutation of verbal signs by means of non-verbal signs). But except the second type, the other two bear no relationship with translation proper.

Believing that the process of translation involves a little of creativity, a translator like Prof P. Lal uses the term, “transcreation.” In the Indian languages, translation is called anuvaada, literally to toe the line of thinking/argument of another. To reflect the element of creativity, I coined the term, anusrijana, to create in the fashion of another. Prof C D Narasimhaiah in an evocative way considers the original Udbhavamurty and the translation Utsavamurty as all original writing is composed in antar hridaya akasa. The need for close relationship of the translation to the original is generally admitted. Prof K. Viswanatham, a scholar, who was also a translator stated, “a translator’s first and last duty is doglike devotion to the original. .. If one is not faithful to the original, one is not faithful to the spirit.” Adopting a diametrically opposite stance, KY M Patanjali, who translated his own novella, declares, “there need be no relation whatsoever between the original and the translated text.” A K Ramanujan, the distinguished translator, whose translation of the Kannada poems of Goaplakrishna Adiga, published by Writers Workshop, inspired me to translate the Telugu poems of Devarakonda Balagangadhara Tilak, Song of the Cosmos & Other Poems, also published by Writers Workshop, takes the middle path, when he noted, “A translator must be true to the translation, no less than to the original.”

There is another issue which needs to be considered. How should a translation read? Should it read like a translation or like an original text? As early as 1791, Alexander Tytler, while admitting the impossibility of both form and content in a translation, still lays down in his three ‘laws of translation,’ that “a translation should contain all the original ideas, the style should be the same as that found in the original and the translation should read like an original.” (Italics mine). But during the 19th century, largely under the influence of Victor Hugo’s dictum in his “Prologue to the Translation of Shakespeare’s Works”: ‘Une traduction est presque toujours regardée tout d’abord par le peuple à qui on la donne comme une violence qu’on lui fait. […] Une langue dans laquelle on transvase de la sorte un autre idiome fait ce qu’elle peut pour refuser’ the general belief was that a translation should read like a translation. But even a diehard ‘loyalist’ like Friedrich Schleirmacher could not overlook the inevitability of transparent reading when he included in “The Different Methods of Translation” (1823) the method that moves the writer towards the reader.

All along there have been spirited efforts to domesticate a SL text by bringing in the native/local flavor. During the 17th century, French translators attempted to Gallicize the Greek texts. Even Dryden tried to make Virgil speak in words that as he would probably have written if he were living as an English man. While stylistic equivalence could be the ideal, the imperative of ease of reading cannot be sacrificed. Coming closer to India, we notice that even in the translation of epics like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana translators did not hesitate to introduce local elements. Tikkana, who translated a large part of The Mahabharata into Telugu, introduced a few marriage customs and social activities prevalent in the Nellore region of Andhra, in his rendering of the Sanskrit original. The tendency of several translators has been to ‘domesticate’ rather than ‘foreignize’ the original. But care has been taken, by and large, not to distort.

My main concern in this paper is the problematic of “cultural specifics” in a translation from one language into another language when they are culturally unconnected. It is well known that any language is deeply steeped in its culture and to translate such cultural ethos into an ‘alien’ language calls for considerable resourcefulness and even inevitable compromises and sacrifices.

In most Indian languages, the elders are addressed in plural. In Hindi we have aap, while in Telugu we have meeru. But in English there is only you universally applied to all. Such cultural load is impossible to be carried across. By common consent, it might be possible to choose the archaic form thou for aap and thy for aapka and so on. But in several cases such improvisation may not be possible.

II

Now, I wish to present the problems I faced in translation efforts and the tentative – far from wholly satisfactory – solutions I came up with.

During the sixties I was deeply impressed by the work of Srirangam Srinivasa Rao (Sri Sri), the pioneer of progressive poetry in Telugu, and wanted to introduce a short poem to non-Telugu readers of a special issue of Caravan on Andhra Pradesh. The title of the poem in Telugu is Avatali Gattu (literally, the shore on the other side). It would be downright clumsy to resort to literal translation of the title. I thought about it for a whole six hours in the night and in the small hours in a flash it occurred to me: the title, “The Shore Beyond.”  In instances like these the play of what poets call “happy chance” or “vital reason” in the work of translator is not qualitatively different from that in the poet’s original work. It was relatively an easier task for me to translate the surrealist poems of Sri Sri in his later work Khadga Srishti (Forging the Weapon), when I was invited to translate a few poems from his collection by the Bharateeya Jnana Peeth Awards Committee for considering his work for the award, though finally he did not make it! The fluent style, akin to English idiom, in his longish poem, Sarat Chandrika (Moon Ray of Sarat), was a joy to translate.

The problem of culture specificity arose when I translated a short story by Tripuraneni Gopichand, who is steeped in rural culture, for Illustrated Weekly of India. The title of the intensely poignant story a villager was Dharma Vaddi, a kind of nominal interest charged in the villages, when one is not likely to get back the money lent, with the stipulated interest. Here again literal translation of Dharma Vaddi would not serve the purpose. I had to resort to an idiomatic translation as “The Nominal Interest.” The real problem was rendering the dialogues of the rural people and I made them sound neutral – not Telugu-specific, yet resisting the temptation to make the characters speak like the inhabitants of a Californian ranch or the Okies of The Grapes of Wrath.    

Some years ago, when the 400th birth day of the great Telugu poet Bammera Potana was celebrated, I was invited to translate a few poems selected by me from his immensely poetic Srimad Bhagavatam. The lilting cadences and the sweet melodies of the original are certainly untranslatable, but I made a brave attempt to approximate the translated version to the original mostly in the area of thought-content and tried to carry across a little of the poet’s profound devotion.  I attempted to retain a few verbal repetitions in a manner natural to English. Here are a few examples:

The maid of poesy, tender

Like the shoots of mango young,

Would a true poet surrender

To the meretricious mortal?

And eat of that morsel immoral?

Again,

The hand in the service of the Lotus-eyed

Alone are the hands;

The tongue praying to the Lord of Wealth

Alone is the tongue;

The eyes espying the Protector of Gods

Alone are the eyes ….

Central Sahitya Akademi had an ambitious project to take a few good short stories from Telugu to a larger national/international awareness and arranged a Workshop on Translation and at the workshop it was generally agreed that a few culture specific terms relating to social and familial relationships, religious customs and ritual may be transferred into English for providing the reader a feel and flavor of the original. For example, in a village a person belonging to a lower status addresses the one of a higher status, Ayya, and to translate the address as “Sir!” would be preposterous and would be tantamount to perpetrating cultural violence. It would be preferable to retain the Telugu term. The present writer argued that a writer like Chinua Achebe brought in much-needed cultural transfer in his novels by using terms, like chi. From the context the foreign reader would be able to guess the meaning or he may consult the glossary at the end of the work, without impairing the natural flow of reading. The discussions finally resulted in the publication of thirty short stories of well-known Telugu writers translated into English and published under the title, Golden Nuggets.  In my translation of Palagummi Padmarju’s Telugu original Padava Prayanam (“The Boat Moves On”), I freely retained Telugu expressions, like maridi (brother-in-law, husband’s brother), babayya (a respectful way of addressing an elderly or superior , in status, person) and Ammo (a cry of agony) to present the rustic passionate love of Enki for her stealing, abusive lover with her rustic speech. But when I translated Chalam’s O Puvvu Pusindi (“A Flower Blossoms”), it was a sheer joy to translate the poetic, highly symbolic language of Chalam, who was indeed a poet at heart, though he was known mostly for his prose. I wish to offer a few samples of his poetic prose:

A flower blossomed in the woods. Looking around at the encircling     darkness she cries out in fear. The surrounding leaves draw her to them, reassure her and comfort her.

The bliss of tender night, the touch of soft grass, the soft blue of the sky, the strength of tree-branches, the piteous notes of the koel, the playfulness of the breeze, the ceaseless sap of the roots – all flow into her.

Recently, I have been assigned the pleasant task of translating Dr Vasireddy Seeta Devi’s poignant novel, Matti Manishi (“Man of Soil”), by P S Telugu University. The novel is a delineation of the incursion of urban values and avarice on the rural lives of people. The portrayal of the central character, Sambayya, recalls to one’s mind the powerful, yet whimsical, protagonist Henchard of Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, with his flaw of arrogance and uncompromising stance, even when it wreaks havoc in his life. The Telugu novel set in a small village and then a smallish town in Andhra is region specific and simultaneously the theme of erosion of rural values under the inroads of urban culture (or the lack of it) is of universal and timeless resonance. But the novelist has maintained admirable balance in presenting the rot that is inherent in the rural situation with scheming village accountants, petty but shrewd and unprincipled opportunistic businessmen, haughty and reckless individuals wallowing in false prestige and soon turning into paupers and young women, running after filthy lucre and extra-marital gratification, ending up as physical, financial and moral wrecks. But the rural specificity is the striking feature of the original. There is an abundance of rural, agriculture-related terminology, which needs a close acquaintance with the ethos of the village. It is neither possible nor always desirable equivalents in English. As with short stories, the crux of the problems faced by a translator relates to dialogue, replete with forms of address, expressions of relationships, and so on. The carrying across of the social/religious customs typical of an Andhra village also is a challenge.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a scene of threshing in the farm. One of the farm laborers says, “If ayya garu threshes the first sheaf, there is bound to be harvest of ten puttis.” To retain the feel of the original, I kept the Telugu term and also the tern for measure. The terms used in italics do not present any obstacle for fluent reading by the general reader; only the more keen reader might refer to the appended glossary to get inputs about what the terms stand for. In the same way, expressions, like ayya goru, instead of alien Sir and amma goru, instead of Madam, are preferred. In some cases, an attempt has been made to translate some typical native expressions, like Nee siga tharaga (May your hair be cut off), as long it does not violate the natural expression in the target language. This is a practice made respectable by Raja Rao, in his path-breaking novel Kanthapura, when he translated Kannada Expressions into English, adhering to the Kannada turns of expression, as in “I’ll drop a word in your mouth,’ ‘every squirrel will have his day,’ ‘Moorthy has gone through life like noble cow, ‘stitch up your mouth’ and ‘he wanted me to be his dog’s tail,’ apart from choice Kannada abuses like ‘son of concubine,’ ‘son of a widow’ and ‘I’ll sleep with your wife.’ The narration by Acchakka in folklorish tone is retained by the liberal transfer of native expressions, which succeed investing the tale with an authentic rural flavor. Even Mulk Raj Anand uses several literal translations of Punjabi expressions, apart from transferring terms like Badmash. It is to be noted that R K Narayan tries to evoke a neutral atmosphere – not that of Tamil – by minimizing (even avoiding) the native Tamil terms.

In my translation, I attempted to retain the original ethos by using translations of the Telugu idioms, like: “Will I cross your threshold of your house even if it means my death?” “Waiting like a fox near the pit,” “To remain silent liked crushed lice” and “Where is the comparison between a fox and Naga Loka?” I also transferred words like putti, thumma, bure and gare.

To present the culture specific traditions and rituals, I translated them, as in “applying turmeric to the utthareeyam and dhothi.”  Some of the personal habits are expressed vividly, as in “nod one’s head like a cow,” and the curse, like “Where is the canal? Only his funeral!” is translated – literally. The description of Sambayya, the protagonist, throbs with native vigor:

His nerves, like young serpents’, the muscles turned steel strong under hard labor are like the bowstring pulled full length… his thick-grown hair crawling on to his neck, his nose sharp like a ploughshare – all reveal that Sambayya is a man who trusts land and lives totally on land.

Man of the Soil, p 20

Although the translation may not read like an original novel conceived and composed in the target language – almost a parallel text – it tries to carry across a feel and flavor of the source language.

In another assignment, I was called upon to introduce a classical Telugu prabandha (an  autonomous epic), along with a few free transcreations of the original Telugu poems. With a view to introduce Telugu classics to the non-Telugu readers – even the native Telugu readers, who cannot read Telugu – C P Brown Academy, set up by Alpha Foundation, took upon itself the commendable responsibility of introducing the five classics (panca kavyas) and as part of the project assigned to me the job of introducing Allasani Peddana’s Swarocisha Manusambhavamu (Manu Caritra). The challenge was indeed stupendous.

For this task, I decided to narrate the story of the epic generally in prose, but chose the memorable poetic moments for a free transcreation. As with my efforts to introduce the mellifluent poems of Bammera Potana, here too I had to give up on mellifluent cadences of the source poems and attempted to carry across the thought-content and spirit of the original. I may be permitted to cite a few examples.

In the suggestive invocation to gods/goddesses for blessings, the poet ingeniously suggests/foreshadows the crucial developments in the epic. The case of mistaken identities is pivotal. To suggest this, the poet invokes Ganesa in the following manner:

Ganesa, who, while drinking milk from the breast of Paravati,

On the right side, through his natural childlike act

Searches for the breast on the left side and finds instead

A necklace of serpent and takes it for a lotus stalk.

In his picturesque description of the dwelling place of Pravara, the pious Brahmin, the poet portrays the Brahmins, who are more erudite than even Brahma and so do not praise Him and the Kshatriyas who can challenge Parasurama, he presents

The Vaisyas, who can lend capital even to Kubera;

The sudras can offer alms to the First Mendicant…

Even the tenderest twig there is strong and sturdy.

The appearance of the enticing lady, Varudhini, is presented:

A fragrance of musk, camphor,

Perfume from paan leaves and other aromas

Wafted towards Pravara,

Indicating the presence of a damsel.

After losing his way Pravara asks the damsel to enlighten about the way back to his town, she smartly replies:

You are gifted with wide eyes; why then do you

Seek guidance of others to find your way?

Isn’t it a pretext to talk with women who are alone?

Else, don’t you know the way you have come?

Apart from the portrayal of the infatuation of the damsel with Pravara’s peerless beauty, and the amazing sense of self-discipline of Pravara, who manages to propitiate the God of Fire and get back to his town, the pangs of separation suffered by the lady, the cheating by the gandharwa, who had fallen in love with the lady and was rejected, the story moves on to the birth of Swaroci, his growing up and becoming a king. But the memorable part relates to the hunting expedition, where the poet exhibits his personal knowledge of the details of hunting as well as the names of several animals and birds, which have been transferred into English.

The poet also shows remarkable ability in recording the various customs and rites, especially of the wedding, as, for example, in the presentation of the wedding of Swaroci and Manorama. As there are no equivalents in English for the terms referring to the rites of marriage and the materials, varieties of dress used during weddings, it is inevitable to transfer the terms from Telugu. In fact, the rites presented by Peddana are region and tie specific and do not necessarily relate to the time and region of the marriage described. They are mostly practiced in Andhra during Peddana’s time. The custom of receiving the bride groom by the bride’s party – especially, the father of the bride – is universal, but there are other region-specific rites like offering madhuparka, a drink of curds made from the milk of Kamadhenu (divine cow) or simply cow nowadays, honey and sugar; and holding the curtain between the bride and the bridegroom till the muhurtam are typical wedding practices of Andhra observed even today. The description of the raising of the curtain is evocatively presented by the poet:

As auspicious music was playing,

Elderly women raised the curtain slowly

And the bride Manorama appeared –

Hairdo first, then face, then throat and then bosom –

As though she were goddess Lakshmi rising

From the ocean of milk.

As for the terms related to marriage, terms like kanyadana, akshatalu, tala(m)bralu, tali and asirvacanam have been transferred into English. It is hoped that they lend optimum native color and feel to the translation.

As a modest translator, I strongly believe that there is really no perfect translation nor one perfect solution to the multiplicity of problems a translator has to face in his usually thankless and generally unrecognized job. He has only his passion to sustain him in his missionary activity with the unflinching hope that his tribe will increase and contribute substantially to the much needed “cultural synthesis” in the world ravaged by numerous fissiparous forces.

Works Consulted     

Basnett Susan et al (Ed), Translation Studies, 1988, London, Taylor and Francis

Catford JC, A Linguistic Theory of Translation, 1965, Oxford, OxfordUniversity Press

Hugo Victor, “Prologue to the Translation of Shakespeare’s Works,” quoted by Maria

Teresa Sanchez, “Domesticating the Theorists,” Translation Journal, Vol 11, No 1, (January 2007)

Gokak VK, ‘Introduction,’ The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry, 1978, New Delhi, Central Sahitya Akademi  

Kelly Louis G, The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, 1979, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

Narasimhaiah CD, The Problems of Translation, 1957, Mysore, Dhvanyaloka

Newmark Peter, Approaches to Translation, 1995, Hemel Hampstead, Phoenix ELT

Nida Eugene A and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, 1974,

Leden, EJ Brill

Patanjali KYM, Impish Chronicles and Doggish Dabbler, 2009, Spearhead

Communications, Hyderabad

Prabhakar Rao S S, Golden Bouquet, 2008, Delhi, Authorspress

—                           Man of the Soil, 2009, under print, to be published by Potti SriramuluTeluguUniversity, Hyderabad

—-  Manu Caritra, 2009, being published by C P Brown Academy,

Alpha Foundation, Hyderabad

Ramanujan A K, ‘Translator’s Note,’ Speaking of Siva, 1973, Baltimore, Penguin Books

Robinson Douglas, Western Theory of Translation, 1997, Manchester, St Jerome Publishing   

Tytler Alexander Fraser, Essay on the Principles of Translation, 1791, included in Douglas Robinson’s work cited

Venuti Lawrence, The Translator’s Invisibility, 1995, London, Routledge

Viswanatham K, Essays in Criticism & Comparative Poetics, 1977, Visakhapatnam, AndhraUniversity Press

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(Reprinted, with author’s permission, from ICFAI Journal, Hyderabad, and published on thulika.net, December 2009)


* S S Prabhakar Rao is a Faculty Member, Academic Wing, Icfai University, Hyderabad -500 082; Email: prabhakar.sivudu@gmail.com