Five timeless translations to read, and what bad translations are

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Daisy Rockwell

In 2012, Jai Ratan, the most prolific translator of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi literature passed away. Ratan was born in Ludhiana, in 1912, and worked as a businessman, but his passion was for translation.

During his lifetime, he claimed to have translated over six hundred short stories and more than a dozen novels into English. Up until the last decade, practically any translation of Hindi literature into English that one might find would have been done by him. Ratan was a founding member of the Writers’ Workshop in Kolkata, and won the Sahitya Academy award for translation in 1992.

The only problem with Ratan’s translations is that they aren’t very good. Though I was never much taken with Ratan’s translations, I didn’t realise what a catastrophe they were until I had the opportunity to re-translate some works that he had previously translated.

If one goes over them word by word, line by line, alongside the original text, one begins to see the mystery of his craft. Whole passages and paragraphs are omitted; poems and songs are paraphrased rather than translated; and sometimes, in a flight of fancy, he’s felt moved to insert a few sentences of his own creation. And then there’s the style: my personal favourite was when a pair of moustaches were described by Ratan as “hirsute bars.”

One can critique Ratan’s translations endlessly, but the fact is that he was one of the only people interested in translating Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi writing for the bulk of the twentieth century. Thanks (or no thanks) to Orientalism, translation of ancient and medieval texts written in South Asian languages has been booming for over 150 years.

If you want to read the Bhagvad Gita, you have a wealth of choices: do you want the smooth rendering of Barbara Stoler Miller, even though some feel she mangles the text’s philosophy? Do you prefer the philosophically more accurate translation from JAB van Buitenen, even though it’s written in anapestic tetrameter (think ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)? Would you prefer to read the renderings handed out by ISKON in airports and train stations? And if you don’t like those, there are quite a few more to choose from.

Granted, who knows yet if the modern Indian classics will have the staying power of the Gita or any number of other ancient and medieval texts, but nonetheless, it has not been the fashion for scholars and writers to try their hands at translation of modern Indian literature until more recently.

The last ten years have seen a change in this respect: excellent Hindi translations have come out from Jason Grunebaum of Uday Prakash, Snehal Shingavi has translated Premchand’s Sevasadan and the stories of the Angarey group, there have been a number of new translations of Manto, and Penguin Classics, Katha and OUP have all started publishing many more translations of modern Indian works.

As a translator myself, I have lost the ability to read translations without my translator/editor cap on. Even if the work was originally written in a language I know nothing about, like Finnish, or Chinese, I am still moved, more often than not, to get out my red pen and start cutting words, moving text, and questioning word choices.

As a translator, I always notice who the translator is, even if the name is hidden in eight-point font on the copyright page. And as a translator, I jump with excitement when I read a translated book that knocks my socks off. Knocking off my socks in this case would entail making me put down my red pen, take off my cap (but always keeping it nearby), and just enjoying the beautiful craft of the translator in question.

Below are five translations of contemporary Indian writing that knocked my socks off in just that manner – and they were all the more wonderful because they were surprises: I didn’t know what I was in for, which made the reading all the sweeter.

Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, Kiran Nagarkar, Marathi; translated by Slee Subha

The English translation of Seven Sixes are Forty-Three was published by Katha in 2003. It’s an experimental stream of consciousness novel that jumps about through time with little explanation, and I admit that I didn’t think of it as something I would enjoy; because of this, I didn’t get around to reading it until last year.

The fluidity of the translation is absolutely remarkable. It’s so immediate, so contemporary, that it’s hard to imagine it as a translation at all. The theory goes that Nagarkar, who also writes in English, had a hand in it, but I salute the translator. Nagarkar was wise not to translate his work himself, as such efforts tend to go badly (authors can’t stop themselves from changing the source text; it’s theirs, after all; and a transcreation is the inevitable result).

Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vols. 1 and 2, Tamil; translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, edited by Rakesh Khanna

Khanna and Chakravarthy are the Pevear and Volokhonsky of Tamil pulp fiction translation. Their translations have an immediacy and flow that all the same treats their source texts with the greatest respect and just a touch of humor.

The Red Tin Roof, Nirmal Verma, Hindi, translated by Kuldip Singh

I don’t usually read Hindi translations, since I can read Hindi myself, but I got this 1997 translation – reissued in 2013 – of The Red Tin Roof in the mail and thought I’d dip into and see what it was like. Of all the Hindi authors I’ve read, Verma is the most accessible to Western audiences in terms of style and themes; he lived in Czechoslovakia and was steeped in English and European modernism. Perhaps this makes his work an easier fit with English in translated form; all the same, Kuldip Singh’s translation is beautifully rendered and I soon found myself captivated by the style and the beauty of his language.

Essence of Camphor, Naiyer Masud, Urdu, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon

The Urdu author Naiyer Masud is like none other. His magical work will haunt you long after you put the book down. But only Muhammad Umar Memon, who has translated numerous Urdu authors over the years, can really capture the mystical spirit of Masud’s work. Memon’s translations are uniformly excellent and should be sought out by anyone who wishes to get to know modern Urdu literature better.

My Kind of Girl, Buddhadeva Bose, Bangla, translated by Arunava Sinha

As with Memon in Urdu, one should always seek out Arunava Sinha’s Bangla translations. I chose this translation for my list because it was the first of his translations I encountered. Sinha has translated numerous stories and novels and all in a style that is at once accessible and flowing that still keeps us close to the original Bangla rhythm and turns of phrase.

Daisy Rockwell, “Five timeless translations to read, and what bad translations are,” in Scroll, July 26, 2015. Accessed on July 26, 2015, at:

The item above written by Daisy Rockwell and published in Scroll on July 26, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 26, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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