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Indian literature lost in globalised translation

 | October 10, 2011

About a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A hundred years later, India is still waiting for its second honour in this category.

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Indians may vehemently deny this, but a vast majority of them are pretentious. They are all the time pretending to be someone they are not, pretending to be not wanting something that they actually crave for.

For instance, at every Oscar season, I have heard this — why must Indian cinema be bothered by an essentially Western honour. Why must they?

But India has been sending a film year after year officially (forget that it is very often the wrong choice) for a possible inclusion in the nomination list of five.

What is more, there have been years when a few movies have also been sent unofficially by Indian producers or directors. There have also been years when conflicts and legal cases have followed such submissions.

It is pretty much the same story with international film festivals: during the two decades that I have covered Cannes, I have grown tired of hearing Indian producers, directors, stars and government officials quip that the country need not be bothered by the festival’s attitude towards Indian cinema. If Cannes does not want to select an Indian movie, so be it, they have quipped.

Yet, Indian government officials, producers, and the whole crowd descend on the French Riviera every May, spend huge amounts of euros (even at the cost of the public exchequer!), have a cushy time and go back home to bad mouth Cannes.

Indians never seem to understand that their cinema is not at Cannes or at the Oscars’ Hall of Fame, because of one abiding reason. The country hardly makes anything as good as it needs to be made. Period.

It is not very different in sports or literature.

About a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A hundred years later, India is still waiting for its second honour in this category.

The country, happily, came close to winning one this year.  Good.

Days before the actual announcement of the literature prize, online bookmaker Ladbrokes placed a 25/1 odds on Kerala’s poet and critic K Sachidanandan. He shared the same odds with perennial Nobel hopefuls, such as Don DeLillo and Philip Roth.

Surprise, surprise, there was another Indian writer in the race this season: Vijaydan Detha. He was from as unlikely a region as Rajasthan.

Translations better than originals?

Admittedly, in these hundreds years that have gone by after Tagore’s Nobel victory, a few Indians have figured, though in what is described as unofficial Nobel shortlist.

Sachidanandan (photo) told the media that an important reason for India being unable to garner Nobel literary recognition was bad translation from the vernacular to English.

Sachidanandan, who writes in Malayalam (the language of Kerala), is himself a very good translator. He has translated the poems of this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Tomas Transtromer from Sweden.

However, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipul have said at different times that “Indian literature minus Indo-Anglican writing amounted to mere sentimentalism and superstition”. Of course, Sachidanandan would disagree with this, because he feels that Indian vernacular writing matches some of the world’s best prose or poetry.

“Some of our best writers like Mahashweta Devi (or Sunil Gangopadhyay or OV Vijayan) have remained rooted in their milieu (and their respective languages) while invoking universal concerns and therein lies their respective strengths”, averred Sarah Joseph, a Malayalam author, renowned for her non-conformism, in one of her interviews.

So, can we can then infer that it is bad translation that impedes India writers from clinching the Nobel Prize. This may be true to a point.

For, as poet-novelist Amit Chaudhuri added in another interview: “It is about the role of English in India and the role of India itself in the globalised world. But the idea of linking literature to the economic fate of a nation is to miss precisely the ironical force of literature… It seems to me that the West is not interested in the ironical relationship… the literature of communities that are not directly linked to globalisation”.

What is perhaps happening to Indian vernacular literature is similar to what the country’s cinema is being subjected to. What is the point in spending crores of rupees to produce a film and projecting it in a rank bad theatre? Likewise, if Sachidanandan’s contention is true, great Indian literature suffers at the hands of careless or incompetent translators. What a pity.

But, before we continue with this argument any further, Indians must decide whether they at all want Western recognition. If they do, they better get good translators (and make better cinema).

For, as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of India’s best known auteur-directors, once told me, sometimes translations are far better than originals. I am sure they are.

Gautaman Bhaskaran, whose recent biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan in English has just been translated into Malayalam, is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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