English Translations of Telugu stories

Recently, there was a question why Telugu stories in translation have not captured the attention of global audience. Here are some of my thoughts. Readers are welcome to comment.

Two days back I posted a request on Facebook, asking to “Suggest two Telugu translators who in your opinion have done a good job.”

That was actually a follow up of an article published in Sakshi, September 12, 2014 in which a question was raised regarding the English translations of Telugu stories. ( http://www.sakshi.com/news/opinion/telugu-author-who-is-known-to-english-readers-166194 )

I am writing this post in English to address the readers, who cannot read Telugu script.

Briefly stated, it comes down to this: Do the currently available translations measure up to acceptable standards? If they do, why they have failed to capture the attention of the global audience? If not, what can we do to improve the quality of our translations.

Thus the question is not whether there are translations or not but how the existing translations are faring with foreign audience and what can we do about it.

For those who have not seen the previous discussion, the gist of it is as follows:

In a literary gathering commemorating Kannada writer U. Anantha Murthy, Vadrevu China Veerabhadrudu garu asked why there was no English translation of Yajnam (Kalipatnam Rama Rao). Since I am aware of at least two translations, I have contacted Veerabhadrudu garu. His argument is, although there are translations, they do not “sensitize American readers” in a manner Prof. A. K. Ramanujan’s translation had done.

On Facebook, I have received responses from Anil Atluri, Amarendra Dasari, Narayana Swamy, Rao S. Ummetthala, R. Vasundara Devi, Syamala Kallury, G.K. Subbarayudu, C. Raghotthama Rao, and P. Sathyavathi.

The translators, whose works they have appreciated are Ranga Rao, Prof. C.L.L. Jayaprada, Alladi Uma – Sridhar, Narayana Swamy, Ari Sitaramayya, and B. Indira. And there are others like Dr. Sarada (Astralia), Dr. Sujatha Gopal, and Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar, who have contributed to thulika.net. I am sure there are numerous other translators and hundreds if not thousands of translations published each year.

Against this background, we need to review the current situation of English translations of Telugu stories. Secondly, if the existing translations are of poor quality, what we can do to improve the quality of translations. And more importantly, what can we do to bring them to the global audience.

It is common knowledge that people read translations when they do not possess the language skills necessary to read the originals. By default, translations are specifically aimed at readers who cannot read the originals in Telugu. Starting probably two generations back, the interest in English has increased to a point that Telugu language learning, reading and writing has decreased. However, I cannot help notice that there are Telugu readers both at home and abroad, who can enjoy both the versions. I have received emails vouching for this fact. Most of them are living abroad and are comfortable with both the languages. In other words, the translations demand certain mental disposition or aptitude on the part of the readers also. They are able to set aside the inherent idea that the essence of beauty of Telugu is not carried into English version but read it for what it is, an English rendering.

I start with the premise that all translations are not done with global audience in mind. Actually, Sahitya Akademi’s policy clearly states that their aim is,“to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country.”

Currently, the situation in India is this:

Several universities and foreign language institutes, C.P. Brown Academy and Sahitya Akademi are working towards producing English translations of Telugu stories.

So, here are a few questions we should be asking:

  1. For translation teachers:

– What are your goals?

– What are your syllabi?

– Have you included translations of Telugu stories? If not, why not? (this question is even more important, if you are a native speaker.)

– If they claim there are no translations, is it not their job to train their students to translate Telugu stories?

– What are the criteria for their selection of stories for including in their syllabi?

– If they are working towards producing translations for global audience, are they aiming to meet the “criteria”?

– Are the critics, who say we do not have good translations, asking these institutions and universities to work towards producing good translations of Telugu stories?

  1. For scholars and critics:

– Is there any substantial study of English translations of Telugu stories currently available in India?

– Are there any critical/analytical articles of Telugu stories by a single translator or single book of translated stories?

In short, there is plenty of criticism to write off the existing translations but not much effort on the part of critics, teachers and institutions to improve the situation. Please, enlighten me if there are such studies and or attempts to conduct any study.

  1. Publishing. We need to address this area as well.

– I think most of the translations are being published by universities and literary organizations. However, I did not see any effort on their part to bring these books to the public. Once a year, they may have a book fair but is that enough? What else can they do to promote to make the public aware of their existence?

I would like to add a word about “sensitizing translations to American readers.” Some of the translators mentioned above live in America. Sarada lives in Australia. That means they interact with the foreigners on a daily basis and they do have a better of understanding of the sensibilities of global audience. I’ve been living in America for 40 years. Today I understand Americans better than Telugu people. I understand American English better than the English spoken by the Telugu people in Andhra Pradesh. In my opinion the translations of those translators are written off because they are not read with the mindset of a foreigner. If you are a Telugu person and read a Telugu story in English, automatically you tend to translate it into Telugu in your mind and then you are disappointed. I know I have seen some of the criticisms of my translations. From experience I can say that it is hard for a native speaker to set aside his preconceived notions and read an English version like a foreigner. I am talking from experience.

However, to be fair, I need to address the issue of quality of all translations in general.

I must admit some of the translations I have received were sloppy. After starting thulika.net, I tried to edit and show to the translators the mistakes in their translations. Then, the translations got sloppier because I was there to edit their sloppy translations! Now I do not do editing any more.

My belief is the translator has the original story and possibly in touch with the writer, and the end product carries the his or her name. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the translator to make sure that grammar, spelling and sentence construction are properly addressed in the end product.

Now, the pivotal question – why Telugu stories have not reached the global audience. As I mentioned earlier, the quality of translations may be partly responsible. And also the fact that some of them, like the Sahitya Akademi publications are not intended for global audience.

To me the reasons for not reaching the global audience are not just lack of translations but our failure to create an awareness of these translations.

It has to happen at two levels. 1. At the academic level; not only the Telugu professors at the universities and other educational institutions but any Telugu person working in an institution can make any effort to introduce Telugu fiction to the students at a formal or informal level. Are they doing it?

I am however not crazy about support from the academic circles. The actual work must start much earlier. The Telugu families abroad can create reading circles in their children’s schools and public libraries and read the stories to them. Yes, I am aware the children’s first response could be ‘this translation sucks.’ Probably those, who have spent time with grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts may not be surprised by the language in our translations. If they say the language sucks, ask them to tell the story in their words. They may enjoy rewriting and even talk about it with their peers. That keeps them on track.

Secondly, introducing to the general readers. In addition to the reading groups mentioned above, in your parties, youth camps, talk about the stories we have, regardless whether the originals or translations. How many of you talked about Jhampa Lahari or Arundhati Roy as opposed to talking about our own writers? How many of you introduced the Telugu stories to Telugu youth?

  1. For the translators:

I can’t stress this enough. While editing, do not rely on Word spellchecker completely. Half the time their suggestions are misleading. When I have a question about the usage of a phrase or word, I will type, “…. in a sentence” or “… synonyms” and it gives several examples. We can even ask for famous quotes with a specific word or phrase, which gives pretty good idea within a context. This is particularly important in the case of phrases. For example

Just do not start translating because you know English. It is more than knowing the language.

There are two articles on translating Telugu stories into English. You may find it interesting. One by Dr. S.S. Prabhakara Rao, Translation or transference: the Problematic of Culture Specifics, and the second, Dynamics of Cross-cultural Transference: Translating from Telugu to English.

I need to add one more point here. Some editors and writers refer to the editing practices in America. There is more to it than what meets the eye. The magazines undertake editing only when money is involved. It is a business, and they edit according to what they think their readers would enjoy. The editor is paid and the writer is paid. And where there is no money, there is no editing either. They accept or reject based on their requirement but do not undertake any editing. Then they may send letters asking you to attend their workshops, of course, for a fee of $300 or so.

In other words, the translators must of necessity pay attention to grammar and phraseology. That is also part, actually a major part, of translating.

And for all Telugu people, please do something about creating awareness that Telugu is a language with rich cultural and literary history.

Just for fun, I typed two search phrases, American stories and Telugu stories. The results for Telugu stories are far from flattering, actually appalling.