On Translation

Interview by Prof. P Raja
If translation is also creativity, where would you draw the line between creative writing and translated writing?

There are two planes of creativity: Inspired Creativity and Imaginative Creativity. I believe – and that is also my experience – that the theme or idea for an original piece of work is always inspired. It comes with a force of spontaneity. Once the writer sits down to execute the inspiration, the theme unfolds itself. Characters and situations fall into their proper slots. What emerges is expected to become memorable.

Now, so far as translation is concerned, the translator must be imaginative enough to locate the right word, the right simile or metaphor, the right phrase and idiom in the language into which he is translating, to convey as exactly as possible the motive of the original writer. This is not an easy task. Mere scholarship or a dependable knowledge of both the languages is not enough. The translator must have the power of empathy, of identifying himself with the original author to a great extent. I feel that a highly successful translator was a potential creative writer, who had chosen the mission of presenting the worthy stuff of another language in his own language.

You are a bilingual writer. Do you translate from one language into another?

If I translated, I cannot be called a bilingual writer. By its very definition, a bilingual writer is one who writes in two languages. However, I have also translated one or two novels of mine…

But most of your short stories are present in both English and Oriya, aren’t they?

That’s right. They are not translations from one language into the other. Sometimes I have written a story in Oriya and then have later taken up the same theme and plot into English, and vice versa. They remain basically the same, but since I am the writer, I can take liberty in changing them or reconstructing or elaborating a certain situation while rewriting it in the second language. If someone else were to translate a story of mine, he would not have that freedom. But as I said, I have also translated my writing, to fulfill a particular demand.

What are the difficulties you encounter when you translate your ideas into English? How easy the work is when you translate your ideas into your mother tongue, Oriya, from what you had originally written in English?

I have not entered the realm of such difficulties, because I have recreated my stories, free from any commitment to be literal in rendering. That, I believe, is the privilege of a bilingual writer.

Poetry is what is lost in translation, said Robert Frost. Is that why you have not translated your poems in Oriya into English?

Absolutely right. Poetry emerges from planes that are subtle and the expression depends much on the association of words and ideas strictly native to a poet’s milieu. Often the dreams and reveries formed in the poet’s mind and conveyed through his language cannot be exported into another language. Of course, there are possibilities of successful translation from languages that are quite similar to one another. But even then the translator has to be pretty sure about the nuances of the key words.

Do you agree with the theorist who declared that translation is a thankless job?

Such observations are relative. I do not know what the theorist meant – thankless in what way. If a translator had sacrificed his own creativity or devoted his time and energy for the sake of his love for translation, then his satisfaction itself is his reward. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam have been translated practically into all the Indian languages. In fact most of the modern Indian languages earned maturity through the translated versions of the epics. I am not speaking of Tamil which is one of the oldest living languages in the world. I am speaking of those languages that evolved between 10th and 14th centuries. The translators of those epics undertook their task out of great devotion for the epics as well as great love for their own languages. What thanks did they expect apart from their own satisfaction in serving their mother tongues? It was certainly a creative satisfaction that was infinitely more precious than the recognition or royalty one receives today.

You have wielded your pen in almost all literary genres. You are a very successful bilingual writer. But your CV doesn’t show you as a translator. What are the reasons you would like to attribute to this?

My CV does not show me as a translator because I have not translated anything! There are any numbers of writers who have never translated any work. The inspirations for the two kinds of activities are different. However, now that you have put the question to me, I should make a confession. Many years ago, I tried to translate a story of a veteran Oriya writer into English. To my horror I found that I was recreating it in my own way. Howsoever I tried to be faithful to the original; my creative zeal would not let me do it. I gave up in despair. Indeed, translation is a discipline one must practise with dedication.

Your works have been translated in almost all the Indian languages and also in many foreign languages. What is your reaction to your translated works?

Mixed reaction, some translations are good and some are not satisfactory. Two volumes of my stories in Portuguese language have been well received – friends from Brazil inform me, whereas I do not receive reports about individual stories published in magazines or anthologies in French, Italian etc. In Indian languages my short story collections are reasonably well translated. Several translators of mine have received the Sahitya Akademi Award for translation.

Translation, Transcreation and Adaptation. Which of these three terms you would like the translator of your works to use?

Translation of course! But, for reasons practical, when a work has a reincarnation in another medium – say stage drama or film – naturally the principle of adaptation has to come into operation. That is why I generally do not allow my stories to be filmed, though I had to let a few films be made of them in Hindi and Oriya because of exceptional reasons.

What would you like to say of the recent Tamil translations of your two books: Mystery of the Missing Cap and Tales told by the Mystics?

I understand that Mystery of the Missing Cap is a success as a translation, though I have no idea about their circulation. It was because you, the translator, were well-acquainted with the spirit of my stories and you are a creative writer who combined in yourself the zeal for translating into your mother tongue works that you liked. About the other book, I have received no report so far. But that is a collection of tales originally told by mystics, retold by me. The pure story elements in them are such that they should prevail in any case.

It is said that voracious readers too show very little interest in reading translated works. What have you to say about this?

 There are readers and readers. But I suspect that there is some truth in this impression. An average reader finds himself at home in situations and amidst characters that are not alien to him. But whatever little I have read of literatures of other countries, I have done so only through their translations in English. Your case also is not likely to be different.

How much of the literatures you have read all these years were in translation?

My problem is, I am an extremely slow reader. I have with me for years a number of acclaimed works from different languages, translated into English. But I have read little. If I look back into the past ten years, the books and individual articles and stories in translation I have read may be less than ten percent of my total reading. But I have friends who are avid readers of contemporary works available in translation. I just envy them.

What are your favorite books in translation?

Fiction of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Victor Hugo, plays of Ibsen. I cannot remember more at the moment.

As you know a few literary journals in every state of India devote themselves to the propagation of literatures of India through translation. The journal Pratibha India for which this interview is taking place is one among them. Can you name such magazines in other states? And why do you want to remember them here?

I know Anubad Patrika in Bengali and Vipula in Telugu. I remember them because they are, like the Pratibha India, serving a great purpose. They are the symbols of the unity of Indian literature though written in many languages.

Has your Oriya novel Amrita Phala that won for you the Saraswathi Samman award, been translated into any other Indian language? Who is doing that in English?

It has been translated into Bengali and Hindi. I began translating it myself into English. But I had to stop because of pressure on time. I do not know when I will be able to resume the work.

Prof Manoj Das for April Conference 2016

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.