Tuesday, June 23, 2009

To translate or not to translate?

Last week our little critique group had its final meeting of the season. There was champagne, tons of amazing food, and lots of good writing and critiquing. I was debuting the first draft of my new, as-yet-untitled novel. As always I use a lot of Hindi words. In this case I was using more Allahabad/U.P. rural Hindi. Not quite bhojpuri, not the chaste hindi of the cities, it adds a distinctive flavor to those who populate my novel. As always I did not provide translations nor footnotes.

Weirdly, I don't mind reading translations or footnotes, if they are well-done and not too obtrusive. But I do mind including them in my own writing. And no, it's not laziness, but good guess.

Writing, for me is an immersion. I immerse myself in what I write. And I hope eventual readers do that too. A translation or a footnote is an aside. It breake through the fourth wall, the wall that lets a reader be an observer within a work and puts him/her outside looking in. And besides a piece of writing should be strong enough to make the meaning clear, without making it clear. I hope to clarify meanings for my next drafts. But no translations for me, oh no!

Why am I writing this post? Because there was a suggestion that I provide footnotes. A valid suggestion, a good one even. But I responded negatively...arrogantly, perhaps? It's interesting that this post comes just after the one on Colonizing English because they're so related.

Then I came across this very interesting literary paper by O.P. Dwivedi on Rushdie's seminal work, Midnight's Children. It's a great read but some of the most interesting statements are these:

Of Salman Rushdie he says, 'As a linguistic experimentalist, Rushdie attempts to destroy the natural rhythms of the English language’ and to dislocate ‘the English and let other things into it.’

'Its (the novel's) popularity rests on two things: the innovative use of English as a
language, and the fantastic representation of history. While Rushdie resorts to the use of ‘magic realism’ to oppose the Euro-centrism of master discourses, the innovativeness of Rushdie’s English is prompted by a desire to capture the spirit of Indian culture with all its multiplicity and diversity.'

To me there has been no better and more skilled colonizer of English than Rushdie. And this paper elucidates what I've felt for so long. I knew there was something inauthentic, dare I say even pandering to provide the exact meanings of words in fiction.

For one thing there are no exact meanings in any language. Forget concepts, even physical objects can really be translated. All we have are approximations. If I translate a charpai, as a string cot, is that what it really is? Does it convey the meaning, that char means four, and pai refers to the legs. And that charpoy is an English version of an Indian word? And when a western reader thinks of a string cot, does s/he think of the intricate woven patterns made of jute rope. Does s/he know that these are not mass-produced but are still traditionally made and that each weaver's patters are distinctively different? Do they know that every once in a while, a man would make the rounds of the neighborhood to tighten the weave, repair or re-string the charpais? And that as a little girl I loved sitting and watching gnarled, dark hands effortlessly singing through air, stringing the jute threads, creating a beautiful, tight weave out of what was essentially some pieces of wood and bamoo?

Does it make them think of warm summer nights made just a bit cooler because of the air circulating all around the charpai. Do they know that in Allahabad at least, there is also something known as a khatola, which is a smaller, lower-to-the-ground saggier version of the charpai?

Hindi and Urdu are very high context languages. A word means something mainly because of the high context. So qayamat is not just armageddon, the end of the world. It's something else. Depending on its use, it can be a descriptor of a woman's beauty, of the seductiveness of her eyes, because her loveliness is so absolute it can hasten qayamat. This is just one reason Urdu poetry or really any Asian language is impossible to really translate in any real sense.

English, and most western languages (French is not however) are low context. Things are most always what they mean. In English you have today and tomorrow. In Hindi we have kal. It could mean either. It's the context that gives it meaning.

There is a reason that English is popular. It is low context, giving it larger shared meaning. It's clear, it's precise (for the most part), and we can all understand it. It's complex but with low context, making it a perfect language for uniting the world.

But back to my point of providing translations. If by my writing I can inform the reader that a charpai is some kind of bed to sit or lie on that's enough. They don't need to know the contexts. However, it's an easter egg of sort for those who will get the context. Novels are subjective anyway. We all process them based on our emotional development, our life experiences. That's what makes them special. That, despite our differences and those of the writer, we can find something shared that resonates through the words. Good novels convey universal emotional truths that can transcend cultures. The details of some words are immaterial, if the writer can get to the heart of the truth. Which is why we can enjoy Naipaul and Kawabatta and Mahfouz and Sylvia Plath. They lay it bare and show us something about ourselves, our inside selves.

I agree with the Dwivedi paper, which states: "Rushdie rather thinks that the text of the novel should be self-explanatory and absorbing in itself. In truth, Raja Rao’s English remains Sanskritised, whereas Rushdie’s English is an example of the hybrid discourses of a cosmopolitan writer.

This short excerpt is from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's short story "Imitation," from the collection "The Thing Around Your Neck."

I've been reading some African works since I've returned from S. Africa.
"Madame!" Amaechi screams. "Chim o! Why did you cut your hair? What happened?

"Does something have to happen before I cut my hair? Clean up the hair."

I know that Chim o is some kind of exclamation of horror. I don't need to know exactly what it is because I know that Nkem has cut her hair because she has learned her husband has moved his new, young mistress into their house in Lagos, while she lives a lonely, isolated life in the U.S. And it is fraught with the knowledget that not too long ago she too had affairs with married men to survive.

This is just what I think and feel. What about you?


naperville mom said...

You're right in that one can never provide the 'exact' meaning of a word with 'ethnic' origins... That said, I, as a reader from another culture, would still expect some sort of meaning or explanation, to be better able to appreciate the 'context' or at least, get a feel for the subject in an ethereal sense.

Bina said...

Yeah, I don't do footnotes either, although glossaries have been enforced upon both Animal Medicine and La Bambina Che Non Poteva... (the latter without my knowledge.) I guess the Italians really needed it, given how unfamiliar they are with Pakistani culture.

Melissa Miller said...

Footnotes are best left for non-fiction. I love being transported by fiction in both time and place. It is a real skill to be able to include another language and cultural references without including an expository aside. My recommendation is that you keep striving to achieve it. Your reader wants to be swept away, not anchored with facts and definitions. Just don't make them too confused to stay in the moment.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"the wall that lets a reader be an observer within a work and puts him/her outside looking in. And besides a piece of writing should be strong enough to make the meaning clear, without making it clear."

This is, I believe, the key. Let the reader use his brain, but provide the slight clue to get there. Very thoughtful post.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments guys.

Naperville mom, my point is that the writing should make the meaning clear. However, since the cultural contexts of the words will not mean anything to some readers, adding clunky meanings (footnotes,etc) I personally find detract from the narrative. I get your point though.

BS, I guess I don't have tht much of an issue with glossaries, since they're out of the way and not intrusive. How is the Italian Slum Child doing, btw? Any news?

MM, you know I totally agree with you. I could not have said this better myself: "Your reader wants to be swept away, not anchored with facts and definitions."

Midlife jobhunter: Let the reader use his brain. That's a perfect way to put it. Reading is not just a passive activity is it? The mind of the reader has to be engaged, to be involved with what he is reading. Nicely said.

small squirrel said...

I am somewhere in the middle. I think it is somewhat wrong to think that just because the person might not get the exact cultural context, that you should not bother to explain. it is a double whammy then, almost like "you don't get it so why should I bother to explain it?" and borders on elitist. And I also think it is wrong to think that just because i do not get it in the dialect or language that you are using, I won't get it. I mean, I speak not a word of hindi, but I have my own thoughts and memories of a charpoy.

I do agree that a skilled writer will work the meanings into his/her writing. I think that Rohinton Mistry does an excellent job of this. His tales of the Parsi community in Mumbai are chock full of Parsi terms, but do not make the reader feel excluded.

My only concern is that the text be accessible in some way to the reader. If you don't care at all about that (which I know you have not said at all), then just write in the original language! :)

Pahalwan said...

From the broad to the specific. I love this post not because it makes some important points but because it takes me back to a time and a place that will never return for me. The charpai brought back a flood of memories.

Incidetnally, a charpai is generally made from hemp rope. At least in my village. Jute is too rough and not local. I don't know about the charpai tightening guy. It used to be my job. Still have the rough hands. :)

Anonymous said...

Your discussion of high/low context applied to the written word is interesting and even though I've studied and taught the theory as toool of analysis for intercultural communication and relationships, I've never applied or used it to analyze the written word. Very insightful. Will bring your ideas into my classroom. As a struggling scholar, I learned early to look up words I don't understand. Will begin reading more international authors. Your essay on English should be in a textbook. Fascinating!

Jawahara said...

Ss, I hope you didn't get that I meant that things should not be explained. More like *how* they should be. This is what I think. Does the writing itself explain what something is without using footnotes or exact meanings? Because like I said I don't believe there are exact meanings. And literature is subjective anyway. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Naghib Mahfouz. They use Spanish and Arabic words. I don't understand the exact meanings...nor do they footnote. Sometimes they have glossaries at the back of books, as BS said above. I don't mind those. But I get what they're saying because I get the larger story. In some ways, by not footnoting....they immerse me in the larger context of the worlds they create. Because stopping to read a meaning jerks me out of the story. That's me personally.

I think there might be some writers who do use footnotes and meanings (in parentheses perhaps) well. I guess I am just not one of them :-).

I agree with you about Rohinton Mistry totally. Thanks for reading...and especially thanks for commenting.

Pahalwan, I stand corrected. Hemp rope it is. Would someone get a high if they burned a charpai? I'm impressed with your charpai-tightening background. It's a useful skill to have :-)

Judy, unfortunately I am just a hack. There are others (including Dwivedi, whose article I quoted) who've done a much better job studying and writing about this issue. ;-) But thanks anyway.

dipali said...

Very thought provoking post. I think a glossary helps by being both unobtrusive and usable if required. Yes, some Hindi words become so difficult to translate with all their connotations- a story about someone's bua/phuphi will bring a great deal of context to those familiar with the culture in a way that aunt, or father's sister can not. I loved your example of the charpai. I wonder if it would evoke any memories in today's kids:(