Since the inception of the concept of translation, there has been an endless debate among academicians and readers about the aspects of a work that is often believed to be lost in translation. That has led to the rise of black and white concepts like a “good translation” and a “bad translation”. But, of course, that warrants a complete understanding of the vast world of translation studies, which often leads to one fundamental, seemingly unanswerable question, Is there such a thing as a good/bad translation?
Quality versus Accuracy
In this context, let’s begin by taking an example into consideration- Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker international prize. Readers and critics loved this work and in that sense then it was a good translation. But, Korean academics then came out with protests stating how the translation caused the book to deviate from its original tone and diction. In that sense then, it was a bad translation. Therefore, the point is, how do we reach a consensus here?
Eminent poet Gulzar observes,
“Translation is not only about displaying a meaning in another language. A language carries a complete culture. The culture of its vocabulary needs to be translated.”
What must be remembered here is the fact that the true purpose of translation is to enable people from a different language to be able to understand and comprehend the work of someone who has attained fame in his own linguistic domain. Every single such domain comes with an entire set of culture connotations which differ from each other. For instance, Bangalis love their roshogolla, don’t they? It’s not just mishti- it’s a sentiment within itself.
Now, a considerable number of these Bangalis also love their pumpkin spiced latte from Starbucks. The difference, however, is in that it is not an emotion for them. You understand it because the minute you say Bengal, people don’t automatically say pumpkin spiced latte, they say, “Ami roshogolla khabe.”
Or something similar. And while that is grammatically incorrect, it shows at the same time, a non-Bangali or a foreigner’s eager interest in wanting to find out why is the roshogolla so famous. Translation serves a similar kind of purpose. Let us take for example, Tagore. All of us know here that Tagore’s works are primarily in Bangla, but that does not essentially mean that Tagore is famous only among the Bangalis. Everyone has heard about him and that then brings us to the next obvious question of – Why. Why is he so famous?
Translation must be seen as an effort to answer this question of why. To bring forth to the reader what exactly makes a writer world famous – which in most cases is the universality of emotions that he expresses. Now what we have to understand is that each of us perceive emotions differently – our emotional ranges are different and while they can be clubbed under basic headings like happy, sad, angry and so on, our motivations behind experiencing them can be different.
Isn’t it then unfair for a piece of work to have the same kind of effect in other cultures as well? When we are classifying a work of translation as being good or bad, we are classifying it on the basis of audience response – a basis which is purely subjective and varies not only from culture to culture but from each individual even within the same culture.
We have all read Tagore’s short story, “The Postmaster”. The last couple of lines from it, reads as follows :
Haay buddhiheen manob hridoy! bhranti kichutei ghoche na, juktishastrer bidhan bohubilombe mathay probesh kore, probol promankeo obishaash koriya mithya ashake dui bahupashe bnadhiya buker bhitore pranpone joraiya dhora jay, Obosheshe ekdin shomosto nari katiya hridoyer rokto shushiya shey polayon kore, tokhon chetona hoy ebong ditiyo bhrantipashe poribar jonne chittyo byakul hoiya othe. (Transliterated from Bangla)
The English translation of this goes something like this:
Oh poor, unthinking human heart! Error will not go away, logic and reason are slow to penetrate. We cling with both arms to false hopes, refusing to believe the weightiest proofs against it, embracing it with all our strength. In the end it escapes, ripping our veins and draining our heart’s blood; until, regaining consciousness, we rush to fall into the snares of delusion all over again.
Now, Bangla, by the sheer quality of its phonetics, has a natural cadence to it. This is the reason why the words from the original piece seem to flow but in English it comes forth in short crisp sentences. At the end of the day, the question is whether the effect remains the same. While English opts for hard hitting sentences to bring out its effect, Bangla chooses to let the words flow on their own, creating a voice which, on account of its lilt, seems to bring out more of the infinite sorrow behind this futile waiting rather than the blunt truth which seems to spill forth in English.
Or, take an excerpt from Gulzar’s poem titled “Mausam” and its English counterpart :
ġaur se dekhnā bahāroñ meñ
pichhle mausam ke bhī nishāñ hoñge
koplo kī udaas ankhoñ meñ
āñsuoñ kī namī bachī hogī (transliterated from Hindi)
Look closely: in the midst of spring
There will be traces of seasons gone by
In the sorrowful eyes of opening buds
Will be the moistness of tears not yet dry.
What is interesting about this translation is the fact that the Hindi term bahaar when placed in the context of nature means something as simple as the beauty of blossoming flowers. But in the translation, the poet has chosen to use the term “spring”, which is probably what he or she feels that flowers are associated with.
Thus, one cannot outright reject the latter interpretation with Gulzar’s poem since a work of fiction, as we all know, has myriad shades. Therefore, when one is reading a translation it is important to understand that the translated work shall incorporate within itself knowingly or unknowingly at least a part of the culture of the language that it is being translated into.
In that sense, a translation must be seen essentially as a separate work of fiction interlinked via a similar storyline to another work of fiction. Much of the debate about good translation and bad translation then can be put to rest if one takes into consideration the cultural aspect of a language which has its bearings on the final translated work – which then develops a character of its own and can be classified as a work of fiction in itself, independent of any other considerations.
About the author:
A final year student of Linguistics, Upasya is best described as a part time poet and full time dreamer. As someone who goes through life with a mixtape playing in the background, she is known to sustain herself on a diet of books, songs and poetry. Forever swaying between being a storyteller and a travel blogger, Upasya cannot imagine her life without the mic, the music and of course, the words.