Translations: South & Southeast Asia features 32 literary translations in 15 languages from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore across the genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Curated by guest co-editors Bilal Tanweer and Pauline Fan, these texts will appear in four issues, in both the original language and English translation. Each issue is introduced with an Editorial in epistolary form, where Bilal and Pauline reflect on the art, aspirations and problems of literary translation. Each translation is prefaced by a translator’s statement, discussing their translation approach and the particular challenges encountered in the featured works.
As I read the translator statements for the works featured in this issue, I was struck by certain common questions.
To begin, I think of the images of a clocktower, mango and rosewood in Riffat Abbas’s poems. The newness of their treatment in Seraiki language excited the translator, Abdul Sami. But what the poems achieve in Seraiki, they cannot attain in English. The translation poses a question: what does Sami intend to bring to English with the translation? In the same vein, Vidit Singh’s note on his brilliant translation of Varun Grover’s ‘Karejwa’: ‘I wanted to keep a visceral Indian flavour in my translation that amalgamates with the rest of the text and doesn’t estrange the reader.’
What does the translator ‘carry across’ when she translates if the ‘achievement’ of the poem in the original language cannot be retained or made visible in the target language? What is the ground where the translator stands—is it the original language or the target language?
I see the impulse to translate as a stirring caused by an image, a line or a narrative. This fluttering of imagination is followed by a desire to amplify and carry it to the wider world by voicing it through one’s own body, to feel the song sung in one’s own voice, to make oneself a vehicle for the beauty one has experienced and to participate in its unfolding.
In a world built on divisiveness, one of translated literature’s most liberating promises is for us to have a fluid, shifting, and ultimately enlarged sense of ourselves. I think often of Aleksander Hemon’s lines: ‘All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be. They are everywhere. That is all that the world is.’ To translate, perhaps, is to dream the work again—closely, intensely—and to find it a home in another language so that the dream is renewed; so it can become a shared space. An awning stretched over us, so we could assemble together to participate in a fleeting festivity, together.
To answer the earlier question—what is the ground where the translator stands?—one could cite Johan Radzi from his lovely, thoughtful journey-diary, ‘Ennui on Locomotive 46’ that also deals with questions of language, translation, nationalism: ‘My carriage was still silent when I arrived, wobbling from side to side, trying to stabilise myself on a ground that was always in motion.’
Translation seems to be a ground that’s always in motion. To translate is to be both a passenger and a driver.
The power of translation is its ability to offer us a different way of inhabiting the world—one that is premised on the elusiveness of language and devoid of the consolations or claims of absolute knowledge. In that sense, the project of translation is an important one for our moment where identitarian claims on language—whether of secular, nationalist or religious variety—are hardening. (Having said this, one ought never to forget or gloss over the histories of the colonial translation and knowledge production and their role in producing knowledges that made possible the oppression and division of peoples, and consequently, the devastation of entire colonial societies.)
I am grateful for this exchange between translators across South Asia and Southeast Asia, whose work we have had the privilege to read, reread, edit, contemplate and discuss. For me this is a rare opportunity to think with the voices of our fellow translators about translation and its practice and to come together to learn and celebrate their work.
I look forward to continuing our journey on this moving ground for the next three issues.
In the past few weeks, curating a selection of translations from South Asia and Southeast Asia, we have travelled through topographies of language, meaning and imagination. I am grateful for your presence as a companion on this journey of discovery, conversation and reflection.
Translators inhabit liminal realms, moving across uncharted waters to arrive at unknown shores, finding our way in the dark ‘from threshold to threshold’, to invoke a phrase of the poet Paul Celan. What we bear across is not only the work we have transformed but also our indelibly transformed selves.
I see this figure of the translator moving between shores echoed in the lines of a poem featured in this first issue by Liyana Athukoralalage Upekala Bhagyani Athukorala, lyrically translated from Sinhala by Vivimarie VanderPoorten:
…The raft that moves from one bank to another
cutting through the water;
On its many journeys will it even once
listen with its heart
to the voice of the river?
To listen with our heart. This made me think of the Malay notion of mata hati—seeing with ‘the eyes of the heart’ into the essence of things that lies behind the world of appearances. Literary translation urges us to go beyond the words and grammatical structures we encounter on the page. As much as translation is an intellectual activity, it belongs, ultimately, in the sphere of the intuitive and creative.
I have long felt that one of the foremost tasks that translation demands is the act of listening. Only when we listen can we begin to interpret. Only when we hear the music of the original work can we transpose it to the intonations and rhythms of our own language. As VanderPoorten remarks in her translator’s note: ‘While syntax and diction helped me understand the original, I paid more attention to sound and metaphor… While the translations do not rhyme, there was some need to interpret the sound effects of the original.’
This act of close listening (a twin of close reading) suggests that translators must embrace the condition of vulnerability and resist the temptation to impose rigid certainties, even as we seek to inspire a sense of conviction in our interpretations. In remaining vulnerable, we open ourselves not only to the nuances of the original text and language but to the possibilities of transforming the shoreline of our destination language and cultural landscape.
I think of Jeremy Tiang’s translation of Hai Fan’s short story featured in this issue, ‘Cherry-Red Ivory’, and how it brings to life fresh, strange, even unsettling experiences into the English language. The scene of cutting up and cooking elephant meat is one that lingers long after reading. It is an instructive example of Tiang’s concern with context, not only offering insight into historical background, but ‘evoking the material reality of life as a guerilla.’
Walter Benjamin spoke of translation as Fortleben, the ‘afterlife’ of the original text. (Interestingly, there has been vigorous debate about the accuracy of ‘afterlife’ in rendering Benjamin’s concept of Fortleben.) I have always embraced the idea of translation as an afterlife, particularly if one thinks of non-Western perceptions of afterlife—as multiple incarnations co-existing in cyclical time rather than an occurrence of ‘life after death’ in a linear progression of history. As ‘afterlife’, the translated text becomes a renewal of the body and spirit of the original, now transfigured in the breath of another language.
Our task as literary translators is not only to transport a text to a new topography of experience and attempt to transcend the limits of language but also to transgress—to step beyond the boundaries of what is permissible. At times, the translator must ‘destroy’ her own language in order to create it anew.
In the hands of the translator, language is perhaps like the red kite in Dipen Bhattarcharya’s powerful story, ‘Run, Boy, Run’, translated by Shabnam Nadiya. The act of translation often seems to take place in moments where space-time cracks open or is suspended. Like the red kite, literary translation takes us on unexpected journeys of mapping memory and place, bringing us face to face with another part of ourselves.
As you so beautifully expressed, to translate is ‘to dream the work again.’ Like Amol’s red kite, translation awakens earthly and sublime longings, stirring our souls with dreams of flying: ‘With his kite nearby, at night he dreamed that he was standing at the top of a mountain peak flying a kite, easily cutting through all the other kites that tried to fly as high as his, and the sundered kites were drifting away beyond the red clouds on the horizon where the sun was setting.’
Illustration by Rohini Mani
Subscribe for new writing
Sign up to receive new pieces of writing as soon as they are published.