“Translation is itself a form of writing”

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Based in Bengaluru, Srinath Perur is the acclaimed translator of Ghachar Ghochar, a Kannada novel by renowned writer Vivek Shanbhag. The book won the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Prize for English translation. He is also the translator of Girish Karnad’s memoir, ‘This Life at Play’ published last year. As a travel writer and scientist who writes for various publications, Perur’s own work, If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai, is a delightful travelogue of 10 sightseeing tours in India and abroad. DHoS spoke with him about the joys and perils of the difficult task of translation. Excerpts from an interview

A national prize for your first translation. What does this mean to you?

I was generally looking for a closer engagement with Kannada, and when Vivek Shanbhag, who had read some of my writing, asked me if I wanted to try translating Ghachar Ghochar into English, I thought I’d give it a shot . I was a little puzzled by the price because Ghachar Ghochar was released in 2015, but it’s always nice when his work is appreciated. Since you need a good book to have a good translation, it is also an acknowledgment of the original Kannada. And since good books emerge from literary cultures, it is a useful reminder of the riches that exist in our languages.

What was the experience of translating Ghachar Ghochar and what were the challenges?

It was very fun. I wanted to produce an easy-to-read English text, and Vivek was happy to give me the space to try to do that. My main challenge was to find a voice that would carry the book. I translated the first few pages several times until I thought I had such a voice. After that, it was a pretty smooth process.

You are also a writer. Is there a difference between writing and translation work?

Translation is itself a form of writing. Much of the skill and sensitivity needed to write fiction also applies to translating fiction. In some respects, the simultaneous presence of two languages ​​complicates the mechanics of writing and it becomes easy to produce sentences distorted by a kind of force field compared to the original. It takes effort, at least for me, to produce a translation that reads naturally, and I often struggle with that. But then you (usually) don’t need to invent things during the translation, so it’s usually a more manageable activity.

Why has Kannada not acquired as much importance as certain Indian languages ​​in the translation circuits?

Translations into and between Indian languages ​​other than English have been happening for a long time and it is a complex landscape that I cannot claim to fully understand. Speaking of English translations in India, perhaps what gets published has been determined to some extent by where the publishers come from. And that’s understandable – how do you know which translations to order without having an idea of ​​a book’s place in its culture? I think a lot of things are changing now. People are buying more translations, authors want their books translated, new translators are appearing, and publishers are searching more widely. I think we will soon have a more uniform representation of Indian languages.

Is there a work in Kannada that you would like to see translated or that you would like to translate?

I recently thought of two of Poornachandra Tejaswi’s novels, Carvalho and Chidambara Rahasya. Written in the 1980s, they were hugely popular in Kannada and seem particularly powerful now that the climate crisis is upon us. Both novels have the natural world – beautiful, mysterious, deeply interconnected – as a backdrop as well as a kind of protagonist. People try to control this natural world, but their attempts are short-sighted and clumsy with sometimes tragic consequences. However, they are fast and funny books. At least one of them has been translated into English, although it doesn’t seem to be readily available. I would like to see them both read more widely.

Some say translations can never be true to the original. Some dialects and idioms cannot be translated into English. Comment?

Even the original text is not faithful to the original text. As in, something can always be read in more than one way. The path of a translator is only one of them. It is undeniable that a translation is the product of the sensitivity of the author and the translator.

One of my favorite translators is Anthea Bell, who (along with Derek Hockridge) translated the Asterix comics from French into English. She had to deal with puns and cultural references that wouldn’t make sense in English, so she came up with different ones that fit the signs. In many cases his solutions to the problem of untranslatability produced something richer than the original. It’s never as simple as “lost in translation”. The target language also has its own possibilities.

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