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Translating A Masterpiece

Harish Narang

By Premchand Translated from the hindi by Manju Jain.
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2011, pp. 641, 550.00


Atranslator has to be faithful to the text he/she is translating into another language. A translator has to observe not only the linguistic practices of the language into which he/she is translating the text but also keep in perspective the cultural norms of the recipient society. He/she has to stick to the stylistic devices employed by the author of the original text, some of which may be completely different from those obtaining in the target language. A translator must transfer not only the meaning of the text but also the humour, irony and the satire contained therein. And above all, he/she must not be literal or imitative but creative. And all these simultaneously. It is multi-tasking at its best—or is it at its worst? That's why I had once observed, in the context of my own translations of some Indian stories in English, that the act of translation is as difficult as building bridges across the skies. Perhaps, it is because of this impossibility of the task that it has been suggested that there is no such thing as a perfect or ideal translation. All translations are only approximations—attempts to get as close as possible on all the aspects mentioned above. And yet this has not deterred persons from undertaking translations. It must also be mentioned here that the task of a translator is easy or difficult according to the distance—linguistic and cultural—between the two languages involved in the act of translation. That is to say, translation of a text from Hindi to Panjabi or Urdu and vice versa would be relatively easier than the act of translating a text from, say, Tamil to Hindi or Panjabi. The crucial word, however, in the above proposition is 'relatively' since there is no such thing as 'easy' in the act of translation. It is such a tight rope walking—keeping a balance among the various expectations mentioned above—that many if not most translations are poor approximations. Premchand is a difficult author to translate into English. Like any other writer, he is steeped into the socio-cultural and politico-economic milieu of his times. But then his times were turbulent times—while the old Indian way of life was trying desperately to survive, the new social, political, cultural, ideological situations were gaining strength by each passing day to knock it out. The change could be felt ...

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