The sublime joy of translations

(ATTN EDITORS: This is the last in a 10-part “Translating India” series where noted translators — in articles written exclusively for IANS — share their experiences of translating from their respective languages.)

By Arunava Sinha
I began as an organic translator, without any awareness of the “larger issues of translation” (and there are several of these). I was fortunate, because I would then have become too involved in checking the boxes to actually complete a translation.

For instance, I had absolutely no thoughts about whether the translation of Sankar’s “Chowringhee” should read in English as though it had been written in English, or whether it should remind the reader that the book in their hands was originally written in another language. These dilemmas never popped up because all the great books I had read in translation — from Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa to Kafka and Camus — had never led me to think along those lines.

Today, just over 10 years after I began translating on an industrial scale, I acknowledge that this is an important question. And yet, no matter how neatly I formulate an answer in my head, when I get down to work I become an organic translator all over again, being led only by the text and by my own use of the English language, which I translate into. It is most interesting to apply such questions to a translation and try to identify the choices the translator has made. But with a handful of exceptions, I have not met many translators who actually grapple with the issues raised by translation theory while translating. Nor does their work suggest that they have.

This is not to imply that translation theory is not important. All literary theory is valuable in offering new and different ways to read a book. It is extremely enriching to apply these theories to one’s reading for a better understanding of how a novel, for instance, might have been framed historically or culturally. But these theories seek to give coherent expression to things that have already been internalised by a writer. They aren’t consciously adhering to a theoretical structure or discipline while writing. So it is with translators.

Indeed, translation is, ideally, the art of transparence. If the original work leans on post-modernism, or post-colonialism, or feminism, and so on, so too must the translation. In the course of translating over 40 books by authors ranging from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay — born more than a century apart — I have found that a good translation will preserve these aspects of the original without making a conscious effort.

All that I do, honestly, is to follow the text, trying to take into another language all the qualities of the original work that I can perceive: Meaning, significance, rhythm, punctuation, beat, sound, pitch, fineness, delicacy, even silences. My belief is that the intangibles are automatically translated in the process, without the translator having to labour through that process. In fact, making a deliberate effort to carry over a political stance, for instance, should be unnecessary: The text already holds that stance. If the translator is doing more than the text requires, they are adding something of their own. Which is not necessarily wrong — for it’s always a matter of strategy.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of translation lies in finding a voice that seems to dance alongside the original. There is a sublime joy when the words, phrases and sentences form themselves because the translator has somehow entered that zone. I have discovered this joy in varying degrees when translating different works — most of all when working on the novels and short stories of Buddhadeva Bose, followed by the fiction of Rabisankar Bal, Anita Agnihotri, Bani Basu, Moti Nandy and Samaresh Basu. I believe that one way of gauging the quality of a text is to see how felicitously it can be translated. When the writing is clunky — no matter how wonderful the story or how deep the characterisation — translation inevitably becomes a chore.

As a translator, I sometimes think of myself as a wannabe Peter Sellers, who could slip into the shoes of utterly diverse characters without reminding you that they were all being played by Peter Sellers. I have translated over 25 different writers, and my fervent hope is that each of them has a distinct voice in these translated works — and that none of those voices is mine.

(Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and non-fiction into English. More than thirty-five of his translations have been published so far. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *