Contemporary Concerns: Ihsan-ur-Rahim Malik

Problems of Cultural Intrusion in Literary Translation

- Ihsan-ur-Rahim Malik

ABSTRACT: In the present-day world extensive translation has had led to a dynamic expansion of the literary horizons. In translation, various cultures across the world with all their literary wealth have found a ready vehicle to travel and merge with other cultures so much so that no single culture appears to be alien to another culture. From this perspective translation can be seen as a natural concomitant of globalization. Although globalization has led to a wholesale integration of the world it has also created unforeseen problems with regard to the apprehension of unfamiliar and, at times, unfathomable peculiarities of specific cultures. There is a humongous gap between how people, unfamiliar with a particular culture, comprehend its peculiar aspects and what the aspects actually convey or mean. Translation doubtlessly has a vital role to play in bridging the gap.  
Although translation studies is fast emerging as a formidable disciple with well-defined contours and a definite and structured theory, there continues to exist a sharp dichotomy between the theory and practice of translation. The unmistakable involvement of culture in translation makes the process ever so tricky.  The paper looks at the problems of how culture intrudes in subtle and unavoidable ways creating multiple, and often insoluble, problems for the translator. How the transference of genre, for example, from one literature to another works havoc with conventions peculiar to a particular literature. The paper also probes the possibility of translating the otherwise untranslatable qualities of rhythm, music and cadence the dynamics of which differ diversely from language to language. Finally the paper tries to answer the question whether translation is actually possible or not and as to what should be the defining characteristics and hallmarks of a good translation.    

Translation has since long played a decisive role in bridging the gap between cultures. With globalization cultures merged and integrated in unprecedented manner. Cultures, along with their peculiar aspects travelled and synthesized with other cultures. Literature which is one of the finest aspects of culture too found a vehicle, in translation, to travel and push its horizons further. Although, globalization led to a natural coalescence of cultures, it also created the problem of interpretation and translation. There is barely any aspect of culture which translates easily to make sense to people belonging to another culture. The emergence of translation studies answered a lot of questions posed by indecipherability of cultural aspects. The establishment of Translation Studies as an independent discipline has always been problematic particularly in the face of popular criticism that it lacks the credentials which could grant it disciplinary status. This criticism, as it were, was not wholly unfounded.  To establish itself decisively, a discipline requires a pedestal of reliable norms, rules, conventions and a definite and well-structured theory. In the absence if these essentials it is impossible for a discipline to establish or delineate itself. Translation, it can safely be assumed, cannot be governed by immutable rules and theories. The very conventions and rules, from which the theory of translation is derived, differ immensely from culture to culture. This is the reason why there is a palpable disjointedness between translational theories which have emerged around the world. Having a unified and globally relevant translation theory is an impossibility unless theorizations from all parts of the world are read and studied comprehensively and with the intent of finding commonalities which can be theorized. Maria Tymoczko writes:
There is a need in translation studies for more flexible and deeper understandings of translation, and the thinking of the non-Western peoples about this central human activity is essential in achieving broader and more durable theories of translation.

She goes on to say that “the consequence will be the refurbishing of basic assumptions and structures of Western Translation theory itself.

Unless a translator succeeds in liberating his work from the influence of doctored and unidimensional theorization he would only be, to use Lawrence Venuti’s word, ‘domesticating’ translation, that is subjecting it to the norms and conventions of the target culture. Translation should belong to a realm which is not circumscribed by rigid conventions and norms. Such circumscription, needless to say, puts fetters around the translator’s mind rendering him incapable of a genuine translation. If a translator is forced to modify and alter the content and import of the text to make it palatable for the target culture the translation is bound to be superficial and unappealing. Flexibility and adaptability have to be the hallmarks of a genuine translation. Gideon Toury in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics describes translation in the following words:
Translating is an act (or a process) which is performed (or occurs) over and across systemic borders. In the widest of its possible senses it is a series of operations, or procedures, whereby one semiotic entity, which is a constituent (element) of a certain cultural (sub)system, is transformed into another semiotic entity, which forms at least a potential element of another cultural (sub)system, providing that some informational core is retained ‘invariant under transformation,’ and on its basis a relationship known as ‘equivalence’ is established between the resultant and initial entities. (Sebeok,  1112)

Every serious work of translation informs itself.  That is to say it bases itself on a specific set of norms which the act or process of translation itself generates. These norms should not be and cannot be perennially relevant or valid. Acts of translation are culture and context specific. The cultural context in which a translation is done differs almost invariably form every other context. The norms for example that need to be observed while translating Iqbal into English may not necessarily be the norms that need to be observed while translating Dante into English. Culture determines both the sensibility of the writer and the structure of the language he uses. Translating works of a multilingual writer, like Ghalib or Iqbal, can further compound the problems for the translator. For Instance, translating Ghalib’s Urdu verse would be different from translating his Persian verse. The Urdu language is a product of a somewhat different culture and is not considered, by the connoisseurs, to be as flexible and sweet as the Persian. Besides, the sensibility and the linguistic and grammatical constructions also differ.

If theorization is overemphasized, very little scope is left for a proper understanding of the problems created by the distinctiveness of languages and cultures. Focusing too much on literary meaning, even the well-known Western Orientalists, renowned for their translations of seminal Oriental works, struggle to comprehend the subtleties of language. Reynold Nicholson, for instance, in his translation of Iqbal’s Asrar-i Khudi  (Secrets of the Self) translates the word ‘aab’ as water which is the more common meaning of the word and does not convey the sense in which Iqbal uses it. In the context in question, the word is used in the sense of ‘brilliance’ (which is the other meaning of the word). Similarly he translates the word Khiraj as ‘tax’ taking it to mean the tax levied by some medieval Indian rulers while Iqbal has used it in the sense of ‘tribute’ (another meaning of the word). Lesser translators, judging by the inaccuracies found in translations like the one mentioned above, have an enormous task at hand.        

Globalization has no doubt led to a wholesale integration of the world but this integration is yet to justify itself in terms of the apprehension, understanding and decipherability of cultural subtleties. Globalization and translation share a very subtle as well as intricate relationship. The need of the hour perhaps is to study the relationship extensively and religiously so that the covert features of this symbiosis are brought to light and both terms are placed in a better perspective. Paul St-Pierre in an article entitled ‘Translation in the Era of Globalization’ writes:                     
 If, as many theorists of globalization seem to believe, there has been a delinking of the bonds between nation, culture , identity and language which characterized the industrial and ‘modern’ age, and out of which much of translation practice and theory have developed, then there is presently a need  to investigate the relations between translation and globalization, to see in what other sorts of configurations translation is called upon to function, what other sorts of roles it is called upon to play. (St-Pierre & Kar, 166)

The practice of translation has undergone a radical change over the years. Globalization and technological advancement have somewhat redefined the practice. The change has been fast as well as revolutionary giving us minimal time to negotiate and reconcile with it. It is difficult to make sense of the dynamics of this change unless one probes its genesis and progress. St Pierre concludes the aforementioned article in the following words:
The challenges for translation in the era of globalization are certainly those relating to the change in the way translation is actually carried out, but at least as importantly, they are those relating to the attempts which need to be made at understanding these changes. (St-Pierre & Kar, 171)

As mentioned earlier there has been, over the years, a profusion of theorization about translation and consequently we have a host of dictionaries, anthologies and encyclopedias of translation studies available for reference. To name a few Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English edited by Olive Classe, Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies  edited by Mona Baker  and Dictionary of Translation Studies by Mark Shuttleworth and Moira Cowie. Besides this we have some seminal books on Translation Theory as well like Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, Western Translation Theory: Herodotus to Nietzsche by Douglas Robinson and Translation Studies Reader by Lawrence Venuti. The fact however remains that in spite of all the theorization the practice of translation is far removed from the theory and theorization. A practice whose parameters are ever evolving, self-limiting and regenerative cannot have a definite set of rules and norms. Even translations, regarded by popular opinion as sublime, have proved this to be true time and time again. Writing to friend with reference to a translation into English of some of his poems from Gitanjali (Bengali) by a skilled translator Tagore had remarked “I don’t think my poems can be rendered properly into English…certainly not in rhymed verse. May be it can be done in plain prose. When I go to England I shall try my hand at it.” Tagore eventually did render his Bengali Gitanjali into English and earned name and fame across the world because of this translation. The fact however remains that Tagore never felt satisfied with the translation and remarked in a letter to his friend, Edward Thompson:
I have done gross injustice to my original productions partly owing to my incompetence partly to my carelessness. (Tagore, 446)

The words indeed sum up the difference there can be between the original and the translation even if the writer is himself the translator as well. It is immensely challenging for a translator to comprehend all the literary dimensions of a masterwork even if he is a native speaker of the source language let alone translating the work into another language while keeping intact the original import, melodiousness, rhythm and music. In her article entitled ‘Translation as Culture’ Gayatri Spivak Writes that:
For myself I cannot help but translate what I love, yet I resist translation in English, I never teach anything whose original I cannot read, and constantly modify printed translations, including my own. I think it is a bad idea to translate Gramsci and Kafka and Baudelaire into Indian Languages from English. As a translator then I perform the contradiction, the counter-resistance, that is at the heart of love. (St-Pierre & Kar, 249)

Translating fiction and drama has been more rewarding and relatively easier for translators across the word. Translating poetry, however, poses multiple problems to the translator. Translating poetry does not merely involve the rendering of words and meaning into another language but also the rendering of rhythm, music, cadence and the metrical pattern peculiar to particular subgenres of poetry. This, needless to say, is virtually impossible. Writing about the musical qualities of Tagore’s Gitanjali Srinivasa Iyenger writes:
The accent is almost as much on the music as on the poetry, as in Subramania Bharati’s ‘songs’ in Tamil. The stillness is suddenly disturbed by a dance of rhythm, the ear is charmed and enraptured, there is quick passage through the doors of sensibility, and the chords reach the soul’s sanctuary at last.  This is why poets like Bharati and Tagore defy translation into English, even when the attempt is made by the authors themselves.  Joseph Loewenback tells us that the Czech composer, Leos Janacek, although he couldn’t speak Bengali nor understand Bengali speech, nevertheless listened to Tagore’s poems with a musician’s ear, grasped there quintessential meaning and “penetrated deep into its world, into its inner melody, its inner rhythm.” (Iyengar, 14)

One of the great contributions of translation has been the transference of genre. But for translation we would not have poets attempting to write Haiku and Ghazal in English. Having said this, translators need to be selective about what to translate. Choosing everything or anything to translate invariably proves to be problematic. Although a few attempts have be made to write Ghazals in English but the outcome hasn’t been satisfactory. However skilled the translator is, he can’t make the intricate rhyme scheme of the ghazal appear as appealing and charming in translation as it is in the original. Sometimes following the rhyme scheme of the ghazal in translation makes the Ghazal appear childish. Even Haiku, an important form of traditional Japanese poetry with an intricate structure of 5-7-5 morae or syllables appears unpalatable when it is attempted in English given the fact that you have better forms to experiment with within the language. It is not easy to make a translation appear effective when the rhyme scheme is intricate and better suited to the flexibility of a  particular language.

Translation is always possible but one has to set the entire process free from the constrains of fossilized theorization because such theorization further limits the possibilities of an already challenging exercise. As some theorists have rightly pointed out every individual translation should be allowed to follow rules and norms which it generates from within the process of translation. Translation one may conclude can never be absolute or perfect or an exact rendering of the original   and will always require modifications and alterations proportionate to the intellectual maturity and growth which the translator keeps acquiring and achieving from time to time. The translator, whether he is a native speaker of target language or the source language, should ensure that thrust and focus should not just be on language but also on the cultural subtleties and the peculiarities of cultural consciousness and sensibility. As Bassnett and Lefevere write:
The study of translation, like the study of culture, needs a plurality of voices. And similarly, the study of culture always involves an examination of encoding and decoding that comprise translation. (Bassnett & Lefevere, 138–139)  
Works Cited
Iyenger, Srinivasa. Rabindranath Tagore: A Critical Introduction. New Delhi: Sterling
Publishers, 1985.
Bassnett, S. and A. Lefevere (eds). Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary
            Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998.
Sebeok, T. (ed.). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. Berlin, New York:  Mouton de Gruyter,
St-Pierre, Paul and Prafulla C. Kar. In Translation – Reflections, Refractions, Transformations.
            New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005.
St-Pierre, Paul. "Translation in the Era of Globalization." St-Pierre and Kar 162-173.
Spivak, Gayatri. "Translation as Culture." St-Pierre and Kar 238-251.
Tymoczko, M. “Enlarging western translation theory: Integrating non-western thought
            about translation.” University of London. Available at:
            satranslations/tymoczko.pdf, 2003. 

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