The Pedagogy of the Translated



              I must start with a disclaimer.  This paper is not about translation theory, nor is it directly concerned with the practice of translation.  In fact, even at the risk of offending several of my translator-friends, I must confess that I find a good deal of the vivad on anuvad rather vapid and unproductive.  There is something adventitious, if not specious, about this species of scholarship.  That the practitioners spend a good deal of their valuable time in performing the even more valuable service of translating Indian texts into English is creditable. But what is perhaps less so is that they go to town with their findings.  Should one translate culturally loaded words or leave them in the original?  Should footnotes be used or not?  What to do with idioms?  And so on.  Such questions, interesting as they are, are not likely to have universal answers.  In fact, what would be more useful would be to compare several translations to find the range of approaches actually in use by practising translators.  But, this kind of hard work few want to do. Besides, every basic textbook of translation discusses these issues.1 What might be even more useful is to evolve one or more schools of translations--schools in the sense of groups of translators working together with a shared agenda and theoretical approach to their tasks.  Such schools could even come up with a handbook for translators from Indian languages into English, which might serve as a helpful tool to both students and practitioners of translation.  Right now, though, most of the vivad that is encountered seldom rises beyond the listing of individual translators experiences or justifications for the kind of decisions they took while translating a particular text.

              My paper, as I've already said, does not debate the theory or practice of translation; what it does in fact is to argue for a shift in the discourse of translation studies.  This shift may be described as that from structuralism to substantivism.  As Probal Dasgupta says:

         Most of us engaged in translation and its study have stopped wishing for universal formal obedience to some conceptually   perfect method. We prefer instead to notice that we persitently admire some exemplary performances and to act on our most persistent admirations. 2

But, to me, both structuralist approaches to translation theory and the more postmodern, indiocentric ones, which celebrate individual translations, are somewhat unsatisfactory.  After all good translation theory does not guarantee good translations—or vice versa.  In India, such a jump from universals to specifics will not necessarily create a better community of translators or readers of translations. But engaging with the pedagogical and ideological implications of teaching translated texts will, it seems to me, aid in the larger process of creating such a community, actively interested in the production and reception of translated texts.

That is why my paper seeks to stay away from theoretical discussions and, instead, to engage with the practice of teaching translated texts. The paper, then, is about the pedagogy of translation more specifically, but also about the pedagogy of the translated, in a broader sense.  It seeks to raise a number of questions such as:  how should translated texts be taught and understood?  What is gained by teaching translated texts and what is lost?  What are the dangers of considering translated texts as "originals"?  What, on the other hand, are the pitfalls in banishing translations altogether from the classroom?  In approaching such questions, the paper will argue that teaching translated texts is at best a halfway house.  As long as the system of instruction is monolingual it will always clash with a culture which is essentially multilingual.  Such a position has serious ramifications on broader cultural questions of Indian selfhood, identity, and nationality, some of which the paper may spell out.

              Let me approach these questions through my current and ongoing experience of teaching a course called "Modern Indian Fiction in Translation."  The course was on offer to undergraduates at IIT as an elective in a compulsory slot--that is, it was one of many possible courses for a Humanities and Social Sciences requirement that they must fulfil.  I had fifty-five students, many of whom were in their second year.  The course ran for sixteen weeks.  There were two minor tests which count for 15% of the marks each, a major test at the end of the semester worth 40%, two book reports or one term paper worth 20%, and the remaining 10% was allocated for class participation.  The course had two prescribed texts that everyone had to read and which were taught in the lecture classes.  I had chosen Rabindranath Tagore's Gora in Sujit Mukherjee's translation, and U. R. Anantha Murthy's Samskara, translated by A. K. Ramanujan.  For the reports, students had to choose a text translated from their mother tongue or a language they know, so that they could compare the translation with the original.  The other text can be from another language, but they still have to comment on the readability of the translation, in addition to talking about the theme, style, and content of the book.

              Before I go on to the problems and opportunities that a course such as this affords, I want to stress just how unprecedented this experience has been for me.  This is the very first time in my life that I am teaching a course entirely devoted to Indian (that is non-English) texts and that consists entirely of texts that have been translated.  Through all my professional career, I have never had such an opportunity to teach Indian texts, or should I say teach India, without hitching up both with some aspect of English culture.  Even teaching Indian English literature on its own, in an independent course or paper, which we know is only a recent privilege, also draws its justification from the medium of the texts, which is English.  In fact, even the inclusion of translated texts in some recently relaxed syllabi of English departments, presumably accounts for their inclusion because the translations are into English.  For the ideological and pedagogical journey of English teachers like us from English to India--and such a long journey it is!--translation seems to be the ultimate, or at least penultimate, stop. It is as if only translation can help us recover that part of our selves which colonialism forced us to mortgage to the culture and language of our conquerors.  This idea of translation as recovery, if not discovery, is quite in keeping with the nationalist telos of English India.  But in this process of transfer, what one realizes is the unequal relationship between the source and the target languages; the dominance of English over India seems to be absolute.3  I would, instead, like to emphasize another aspect in this transaction.  Suppose we were to regard translation as a means of subverting the culture and norms of the target language by attempting to recover the source language, the question of the status and validity of the original versus the translation still remain and have to be confronted.  I shall return to such topics later.  Right now, basking in the new -found freedom of teaching India--albeit translated India--I only wish to underscore the svarajist possibilities of such a move.

              The teaching of translated texts has several pedagogical implications, some of which I should like to explore.  The first problem is that of obtaining the texts.  This problem is multi-layered, so, first of all, let me dwell on the physical availability, or lack thereof, of texts.  This should not seem like such a problem given the plethora of translated titles in print.  But on closer examination, there is still a scarcity and unreliability in the supply.  Most bookshops do not stock a good selection of translations; only a few popular ones, often according to regional preference, are on display.  So, if a student wishes to study all the novels of, say, Nirmal Verma or Srilal Shukla, both leading Hindi novelists, no single bookshop will suffice.  If, in addition to translations, the originals are sought, then the task is even more difficult.  Even the Sahitya Akademi library, which is probably the single best repository of original texts in various Indian languages often does not have key texts.  So, if a student wishes to compare, say, Ek Chithda Sukh with A Rag Called Happiness perhaps the only place they can go to for both texts is the author!  And, there is no guarantee that the author will brook this sort of pestering.  If both texts are in print, of course, the student might obtain them after a persistent or exhausting search, but if the original is out of print, then a proper comparison of the two texts is very difficult.  This problem applies to some of the best-known Indian authors from even the most important of our languages.

              A second, and related, problem arises if the text in question has more than one translation.  Examples are Premchand’s Nirmala or Tagore’s Gora,  the text that I am teaching this semester.  The choice is not as obvious as it may seem.  In the case of Nirmala, even though the translator is a colleague, one would have to take into account the opinions of discerning critics who rate David Rubin’s translation higher.  In the case of Gora, Sujit Mukherjee’s translation is clearly to be preferred, but the older translation, attributed to W.W. Pearson, revised by Surendranath Tagore, has a tautness and intensity that seem to be lost in Mukherjee’s more leisurely and expansive version.  As one of my students put it, “In the effort to remain faithful to the original, this translation does not allow the book to flower, to take wing in English.”  Of course, this could be just an unfounded impression, so I promptly asked her to produce textual evidence to corroborate her impression.  But there are other, more material factors:  the price of the older translation is Rs. 39 or 60, while the latter is Rs. 185.  Sujit-da should be happy to know that in this case, I still decided in favour of his translation, which also has an excellent introduction by Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, and ordered 30 copies.  The presence of more than one translation is not just a cause of confusion; it also affords the opportunity of giving students an exercise of comparing two translations, not just with the originals, but with each other.

              Sometimes, of course, multiple versions can be confusing.  For instance, with Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, the student giving the presentation found that the English version had many more facts and statistics than the original Bangla text.  In other words, not just because of translation but inherently we were dealing with two different texts.  A better example of this is Tagore’s English poems, which really have no Bengali originals. We know, for instance, that the English Gitanjali has 103 poems while the Bangla book by the same name has only fifty-three.  The English version takes poems from a number of other Bangla titles including sixteen each from Naivedya and Gitimalya.  Besides, Tagore often combined two poems from Bangla to make one in English.4  So you have parallel texts, which differ widely from one another.  Choosing one instead of the other has serious implications.  Though the two texts have the same name, say, Gitanjali, they are really quite different.  This is also true for texts like Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s Sei Samay, translated as Those Days by Aruna Chakravarti.  Chakravarti in her Introduction tells us that she was “instructed,” presumably by her publisher to “compress” the 907 page original to about 500 pages.  Gangopadhyaya refused to have anything to with this mutilation, though Chakravarti reports this rather euphemistically:  “But he, very graciously, wrote back to say that he would leave that to me, having full faith in my abilities” (vii).  The translator-editor then goes on to congratulate herself, “And to my surprise, I found that the task was not so formidable after all” (ibid).  She attributes the ease to “discrete deletions” and to the astonishing claim that “The English language lends itself, quite naturally, to greater precision than the Bengali” (ibid).  Whatever the justifications, the English version cannot be considered, even in translation, as the “same” text.  Not that such abridgements are unusual, in the original language or in translation.  Many of the “classics” of the 19th century have been thus abridged to make them more accessible.  I wonder why Chakravarti and her publishers did not clearly acknowledge that theirs was an abridged translation?

              The question, to my mind, is not just of abridgement or accuracy, but of the ontological status of the translation vis a vis the original.  Can the former claim to represent the latter with a fair degree of justice?  I am not sure.  Without wishing to privilege the “original,” it is clear that an infinite number of translations of the same texts are possible. So one could argue that there is only one original and any number of translations. But there is a contrary argument too: that there are no originals at all, that reading is translations and therefore we are forced to contend with multiple versions of texts, without recourse to any pure original.  In this multiplicity, translations and originals jostle for interpretative attention on equal footing.  The most cited expression of this view is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s in her Translator’s Preface to Of Grammatology:

       Derrida’s theory ... would likewise admit—as it denies—translation, by questioning the absolute privilege of the original.  ... Any act of reading is besieged and delivered by the precariousness of intertextuality.  And translation is, after all, one version of intertextuality.  ... If the proper name or sovereign status of the author is as much a barrier as a right of way, why should the translator’s position be secondary?  (lxxxvi)

This scenario prevails especially when the original is lost or irretrievable, as in the case of the several texts which are available only in translations.  The example of Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha readily comes to mind.  Reputed to have been written in Paishachi or Bhutabhasha, the original has been lost forever, only its Sanskrit adaptations remain with us.  This also applies to texts that go across cultures; the originals are often forgotten or left behind and only translation remain, which in turn assume the status of original texts.

              The problem of original vs. translation assumes special dimensions for sacred texts, especially in logo-centric cultures.  For example, the Koran was supposed to have been revealed to the Prophet by the Archangel Gabriel.  No translation can, thus, hope to occupy a status akin to the original.  In fact, there can be no translation of the Koran; there is only one Koran, and that is in Arabic.  Anything else can only be regarded as a potential source of error.  As opposed to this, in India, we have many Ramayanas and a good number of these are sacred.  As Ganesh Devy says, “Indian metaphysics is not haunted by the fear of exile from the absolute right” (In Another Tongue 147).  In a sense, this is possible not only because the Indian notion of the sacred allows for plural expressions of a unitary truth—Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti—but also because for us the Spirit, not the Word is primary.  Or to invoke Devy again, “India has a tradition of linguistics that combines a material view and a transcendental view of language” (ibid). Even theoretically, the idea that our dharma is sanatana—eternal—without beginning and without end is further evidence of this. In the sanatana parampara, there can be no absolutle originals, strictly speaking.  Even the Vedas stand for gnosis, not only for a specific set of texts.  For us, then, translation is not shameful but joyful, a celebration of the bountiful and ever-available ananda that comes from the play of sat and chit, being and consciousness. The question of the nature and availability of texts, then, is a very special and complex metaphysical and epistemological problem when it comes to teaching translations.5

              I shall, however, return to a more mundane level.  Even if the texts we wanted were available, even if we could choose which versions we wish to teach, even if we were to resolve the question of the ambiguous relationship between the original and the translation, we soon discover that the texts we have chosen are not teaching texts.  Most of them lack critical Introductions or the necessary apparatus to make them classroom-friendly.  Even when Introductions are provided, very little attempt is made to place and order the book in the writer’s careers.  The result is an isolated text, removed from its context, which makes it very difficult to teach.  Most translations don’t have a bibliography either.  They don’t discuss previous criticism of the text.  A text like Gora or Samskara must have been widely discussed in Bangla and Kannada respectively.  For an English reader an idea of the history of previous interpretations would be very useful.  Unfortunately, this is not usually provided.  Most translations also don’t give you the chronology of the writer’s life.  Even Meenakshi Mukherjee’s Introduction to Gora mentions nothing about the life of Tagore; even his date of birth and death are not given.  Thus, most translations are really texts for reading, not for teaching.  A little more work by the translator could convert the former to the latter, but this is seldom done.

              Now let me touch, briefly, on what is lost in translation.  It is obvious that a good deal of the linguistic, social, cultural, even thematic content cannot be carried over easily from one language to another.  But of all these losses, it seems to me that the greatest is that of language and style.  The study of literature, as we know it, privileges a special kind of language that makes for the “literariness” of the work.  It is that special kind of language, that unique flavour and technical achievement that is often lost in the translation.  The cultural implications of this loss are multitudinous:  all characters end up sounding the same.  Social divisions, status, degrees of politeness, idioms, puns, sayings, proverbs, abuses, and a whole range of linguistic devices are elided or ironed out.  There is thus a considerable flattening of meaning, a shallowness and superficiality in many of the translated texts.  Inevitably, translation results in a diminishing and down-grading of the quality of the original.  Some authors, especially poets suffer very badly in translation.  The examples of Kalidasa or Goethe come readily to mind.  Reading either in translation, one is often left wondering why they are considered so great in the first place.  It is only when one has access the original that their great gifts begin to become evident. It is not surprising, then, that those like Salman Rushdie who only read Indian literature in English translation are wont to consider it rather substandard in quality.

              The pedagogy of translation, therefore, needs to take such factors into account and try to compensate for them.  Inevitably, content and theme are given more importance, while form and language are rarely examined.  How can one set a question on Tagore’s style in Gora if the students can only read the translation?  They will end up commenting more on the translator’s style than Tagore’s.  But the translator’s style, in such circumstances, is of great importance.  What sort of language does he use?  Indian English?  British English?  American English?  Standard, non-regional-international English?  Each of these will produce a different kind of text, with its own cultural orientation.  I believe that Indian English is the best language for the translation of Indian texts because it is closest, culturally, to the given Indian language.  This is also Trivedi’s view in his spirited Afterword to Survival:  An Experience and an Experiment in Translating Modern Hindi Poetry.  The experiment, incidentally, was getting someone who knew no Hindi, in this case Daniel Weissbort, to do most of the translating with the help of native informants, of course.  But if we believe that Indian works are best translated into Indian English, then we must also emphasize that this has to be not just a competent, but innovative, supple, sinuous Indian English, the sort of English that our novelists are writing and inventing.  Unfortunately, many translators, being failed writers,  can’t write very good English at all.  Such last-resort translators greatly diminish the value and teachability of translated texts.

              No wonder in the teaching of this course, I have discovered just how capricious, arbitrary, and various the current translation styles seem to be.  Some like Jai Rattan in his translation of Manu Bhandari’s Aapka Bunty give you a lazy and poorly written translation.  Others such as Jaidev in his translation of Bhisham Sahani’s Basanti over-translate, rewriting large chunks of material, changing metaphors, modifying the original style considerable.  Such translations are interesting in that they show a constant tension and tussle between the two texts; in that sense they become the record of the translator’s wrestle with the original..  Then you have a translator like Kuldip Singh who produces in English readable texts which read like originals but vary considerably from the originals in the specifics of sentence structure, diction, and even style.  This is also true of Krishna Baldev Vaid’s own translation of Uska Bachpan.  Even the English title, Steps in Darkness is not reflective of the original.  While the original has fifteen, untitled chapters, the English version has ten chapters with titles.  But this translation was hailed by critics like Nissim Ezekiel to be among the first good translations of modern Indian fiction.  The reason for such praise should be obvious:  Ezekiel couldn’t read the Hindi, but he knew that the book read well in English, unlike a lot of other translations.  But when the two versions are compared we begin to notice the differences.  It is not that the English version isn’t convincing, but it’s quite different from the original.  Then we have translators, who out of an almost slavish, if lazy, regard for the target language, make an illiterate, working-class character sound like a learned professor!  It is a pervasive case of translations being “target-oriented” rather than “source-oriented,” to use Umberto Eco’s categories.6

What we have then when it comes to translations of contemporary Indian works is a plethora of styles and methods, a confusion of contradicting and often ineffective approaches to the very difficult and arduous job of translation.  I think what is needed is much greater critical awareness, but again, reviewers, self included, sometimes review works in English translation without even reading the original.

              This confusion of translation styles brings me to two related but contentious issues—canon formation and the constitution of “Indian literature.”  Teaching a course of translated texts, willy-nilly involves one in the process of canon formation.  The canons of translated texts, though related, are not identical to those of original texts.  A certain writer may be very important in his or her own language, but may not be translated or translatable at all.  A good example, until recently, was Bhalchandra Nemade.  Arguably, the most important living Marathi writer, none of his novels was available in translation.  Recently, Macmillan India published Sudhakar Marathe’s translation of his first novel, Kosla.  Until now, he could not be included in a course of translated texts; the contemporary Marathi novel would have to be represented by other writers like Jayawant Dalvi , several of whose works are readily available in translation.  Similarly, a writer’s canonicity depends a good deal on the quality and impact of the translation.  Anantha Murthy became an international writer at least partly on the strength of Ramanujan’s translation of Samskara.  In this case, the translation became, in a sense, more famous than the original.  Unfortunately, the pedagogy of the translated must suffer from this disadvantage that the availability of translations, not the quality of the originals determines what will be included and what will not.  It is precisely this easy availability, coupled with supposed translatability, that makes Indian English books hog up the major share of courses on Indian literature taught in foreign universities.  Our native writers may have shouted themselves hoarse saying that Indian English writers are not Indian writers, but no one pays any attention.  Indian English is read simply as Indian, something which our Indian English poets and anthologists, not to speak of leading publishing houses, have encouraged.  Sometimes, translated texts too can contribute to this unhappy illusion that English equals Indian.

              The second issue is that of how to constitute India through translated texts.  We see that India is as much a fictional and fictionalized territory as it is a real one.  How is its bountiful and bewildering variety to be represented?  Should one even make the attempt?  What principle should one follow in framing the syllabus?  Should it be some sort of proportional representation, as in the weather report?  Should the choices be based, instead, on notion of quality and greatness, national and international reputations being preferred to regional ones?  Or should the choice be historical?  Or else, thematic?  There are, again, no easy answers, but we shall have to sit down to evolve criteria in making such syllabi.  In my own course, I have two compulsory texts, Gora and Samskara, as I mentioned.  The former portrays older, 19th century debates, while the latter is more contemporary; but both deal with similar issues, tradition vs modernity, the idea of India, the quest for identity, and the search for wholeness, totality, transcendance.  In the optional texts, I have encouraged students to choose at least one of their two texts from their mother-tongues.  The result is the we have many more novels translated from Hindi than from any other language.  A wide sampling of Hindi novelists have thus entered into my course including Premchand, Mohan Rakesh, Bhisham Sahani, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Rajendra Yadav, Manu Bhandari, Krishna Sobti, Mrinal Pandey, and so on.   There is also a fair sprinkling of translated “classics” such as Paraja by Gopinath Mohanty or Mother of 1084 by Mahashweta Devi.  But even then no such course can do justice to the idea of “Indian literature in translation.”  Indian can only remain a descriptive rather than ideological term, open to questioning, interpretation, resisting closure.

              Ultimately, studying India is impossible solely through English.  Studying Indian literature, too, is unsatisfactory if done only in English.  Bringing translated texts into our as yet monolingual higher education syllabi and class rooms, only underscores the need to bring back our own languages as media of instruction.  A monolingual pedagogy cannot serve a multilingual society.  We shall have to break free from the straight jacket of English if we have to do justice to our culture.  Translated texts only show that the source languages and texts behind the translated texts, which we leave outside the classroom even as we allow the English translations in, are really knocking the doors of the academy, poised to enter or gatecrash.  How long can we keep them barred, like untouchables or outcastes, from the privileged portals of our education system?  Sooner or later, we shall have to allow multilingual cultural studies; we in India should take the initiative in this regard.

What I have tried to argue in this paper is that the translated need their own pedagogy just as the oppressed do.  In some sense, to be translated is to be colonized, especially if the target language is English.  We the colonized are also the translated.  We can never represent ourselves as we are.  This does not imply that the colonizers can represent themselves as they are; but that they can sustain the illusion that they do.  Monolingual self-confidence coupled with the right to study one's culture in one's own language mask the fissures and the frisons of such self-representation.  Unproblematic as it might seem, such self-confidence of metropolitan cultures hides complex protocols of control and containment.  This the best critics of English literature, from Raymond Williams to Terry Eagleton, have invariably pointed out.  But we who cannot represent ourselves as we are or even as we think we are, we who perforce must be contented with Others' mediations of our selves, we who's sva is always wedded to the para, we the translated must recognize that it is our peculiar destiny, our blessing and our curse, to find ourselves out second-hand, as it were.

              The translated, then, must work at an alternative pedagogy.  This will be a pedagogy that aims at obviating the need for translation on the one hand and of working within the constraints of translation for modes of self-representation which are more just and responsible.  This we can do by regarding the translated text as neither totally opaque, nor totally transparent, neither totally alien, not totally familiar, but a sort of in-between, translucent in its suggestivity, but also conscious of its own limitations, its own inability to stand instead of the original, even if it can stand in addition to it.  We can do this by challenging the translated text with the original and, also, at times, by doing the opposite, that is challenging the original with the translation.  This is the only way that we can head towards a creative bilingualism in which ours bhashas can interrogate English and be, in turn, enriched and challenged by English.  Translation, then, is not the last, but the intermediary step in a praxis which shifts from the monolingual to the multilingual, from the monocultural to the multicultural, from the hegemonic to the plural, from English to India.



1. See, for example, Peter Newmark’s A Textbook of Translation.

2. “Cognitive-Perceptual Reciprocity and Substantive Translation,” presented at “Anuvad-Vivad:  Current Debates in Translation,” a seminar organised IACLALS at CIEFL, Hyderabad, 27-29 September 1999.  An earlier version of this paper was also presented in the same seminar.

3. See Harish Trivedi’s lament, “How Original!  An Aspect of Post-colonial Translation” for example.

4. See Sisir Kumar Das’s painstaking documentation of this in his Introduction to The English Writings of Rabindra Nath Tagore, vol. 1.

5. Devy discusses question of origin in Of Many Heores too; see “Translation as Origin” 152-156.  Also see Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation.

6. Cited in the Translators’ Preface to Bankmim’s The Poison Tree:  Three Novellas xiii.




                                                                                                                 Works Cited

Barnstone, Willis.  The Poetics of Translation:  History, Theory, Practice.  New Haven:

              Yale UP, 1993.

Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra.  The Poison Tree:  Three Novellas.  Marian Maddern and

              S.N.Mukherjee, trans.  New Delhi:  Penguin, 1996.

Das, Sisir Kumar, ed.  The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore.  Vol. 1.  New:

              Delhi:  Sahitya Akademi, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques.  Of Grammatology.  Gayatri Chakravroty Spivak, tr.  Baltimore:  John

              Hopkins UP, 1982.

Devy, Ganesh.  In Another Tongue:  Essays on Indian English Literature.  Madras:

              Macmillan, 1993.

-----.  `Of Many Heroes’:  An Indian Essay in Literary Historiography.  Hyderabad:

              Orient Longman, 1998.

Gangopadhyaya, Sunil.  Those Days.  Tr. Aruna Chakravati.  New Delhi:  Penguin, 1997.

Newman, Peter.  A Textbook of Translation.  New York:  Prentice Hall, 1988.

Trivedi, Harish.  “How Original!  An Aspect of Post-colonial Translation.”  Indian

              Review of Books.  5.1 (16 Septber 1995-15 November 1995):  31-32.

Weissbort, Daniel and Girdhar Rathi, eds.  Survival:  An Experience and an Experiment

in Translating Modern Hindi Poetry.  New Delhi:  Sahitya Akademi, 1994.


  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape