Translation as exploration – Going beyond just translating text

The Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation translation series 2023

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(L-R) Arshia Sattar, writer, translator, founder and co-director, Sangam House; Urvashi Butalia, founder and director, Zubaan; and Rita Kothari, writer, translator, and co-director, Ashoka Centre for Translation. Photo IPP

The state of Indian translations, the challenges they face, and a few successful initiatives were the focus of a panel discussion on ‘Translation as exploration’ organized by Zubaan Books and Prabha Khaitan Foundation at New Delhi’s India International Centre on 15 July to promote the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation translation series.

Initiating the discussion, Urvashi Butalia, founder and director, Zubaan said the act of translation is never just the act of translation, never merely the act of traveling between languages, never just the words on a page but it involves so much more.

Arshia Sattar, writer, translator, founder and co-director, Sangam House and Rita Kothari, writer, translator, and co-director, Ashoka Centre for Translation, were the panelists.

Introducing Sattar, Butalia said she has mostly worked on the classics (Valmiki’s Ramayana and Selections from the Katha Sarit Sagar), traveling through time, language, space, and culture – translating texts that are so well known.

Kothari, on the other hand, has done a book on translation – Translating India: The Cultural Politics of English – that defines translation as ‘an act of unease’. According to Kothari, it is not simply the act of translating from one language to another but also translating the experience from one language to another. “Are there silences around that experience? Are there exclusions in that experience that cannot be taken because the source language is holding them or because they remain unspoken in all languages? The way women live their lives and the silences in which they live, how do you carry those from one language to the other?” Kothari asked.

Politics of translations

Sattar said translation for her is a political act. “It doesn’t only depend on women translating women, but what we are translating. For me, not simply in our own country but all over the world, the importance of translations is really political.”

India is moving from the non-existence of translations to a period where there is a profusion of translations from Indian languages into English, Kothari said. “What gets published in English leaves us all somewhat tired – it is an over-rehearsed, over-repetitive, and very often slightly mediocre feel. What is of interest lies in other Indian languages. People know that interesting politics and interesting intellectual inputs are also coming from the regions – they are not coming from English-speaking India, they are coming from the mofussil centers of India.”

I think translation is a very, very big part of that democracy. It is a very big part of reorienting. It reminds us that what we consider as knowledge doesn’t only look like this, it can come in different forms. Translation, for me, is a frontier for a major intellectual shift in this world,” Kothari said.

The voice of translations

What is unique to every translator is what they bring to the work, Sattar said. “It is not our physical voice that you are hearing when we translate, but it is the ideological voice that we carry with us.”

Kothari has translated two titles from Gujarati into English for Zubaan. These are Ila Arab Mehta’s Fence and Speech and Silence: Literary Journeys by Gujarati Women, an anthology of Gujarati women’s writing. “What appears to be an eclectic choice is basically a journey. I am doing this because as an academic, I am thinking of these questions – I am thinking of history, and temporality; I am thinking of what social scientists ignore by not reading the narratives. Therefore, I am taking that little journey there.”

A profusion of translation initiatives

There has been a rise in a number of other translation initiatives in India. The Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation, a Tamil Nadu government body, has a program for translating Tamil books into three South Indian languages and English. It buys the translated books from publishers to subsidize publication. However, there’s no translation grant. The publisher pays the translator with an assured buyback of a certain number of books to help defray the costs. The corporation helps with promotions and honors translators by inviting them to book events and book fairs.

The Yali Project at Sangam House nurtures and mentors translators. Each translator gets two language mentors, one in the original language and one in the target language. The translators and mentors meet once a year to finalize the draft. Through its wide network of editors and publishers, the program ensures that these translations are published by smaller Indian presses and are widely disseminated. In the six years of its existence from 2017 to 2023, the program has published 12 translations in eight languages.

Sattar said, “I think it is very important to constantly mentor new generations of translators, writers, and feminists. We are building a network that is committed and indebted to each other.”

The Ashoka Centre for Translation has a tie-up called Women Translating Women with Zubaan. It has brought out some books translated by students. Kothari said, “There are always students who want to do this, but who have not found the time, the moment, the place for it. You have to sometimes alert them a little bit through talks and mentoring.”

The Ashoka Centre has unique offerings such as a book on Kabir’s shlokas in eight languages including Persian and Sindhi. “Translation is not only a skill. It is something far more, which is actually difficult to capture and describe. Translators are knowledge makers and knowledge disruptors.”

There are a lot of first-generation learners and people coming to the cities to such institutions. This is a good time to steer them in the right direction,” Kothari concluded.

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