Translation can be viewed as many things: an art, a bridge between cultures,
a travesty, a necessity in our increasingly global world. For a fiction writer it is
also a compliment. The ultimate compliment in a way, because it indicates that
a narrative is powerful enough to transcend the context in which it was written
and be appreciated in a language or culture completely alien to its author. To
be translated is really to feel that you’ve entered, as Susan Sontag put it, ‘the
circulatory system of the world’s literature’.
Yet, it is strange to see a work that you’ve spent years creating, and know so
intimately, become an impenetrable object. I flick through my Dutch translation
which, though the book and font are roughly the same size, is about fifty pages
longer than the English version. It’s startling that so many extra words are
needed to convey the same information. (Translated into German, I’m told, a
book can become about thirty percent longer). All I can make out in the new text
are the names of my characters and the odd Punjabi expressions that they use.
Otherwise, the writing is a mystery. And yet, my name is on the cover.
But inside, in small letters, there is another person’s name: Jeannet Dekker.
She did not contact me at all while translating the novel. When she had almost
finished, I received a request, through the publisher, for a translation of the
Punjabi words in the book so that a glossary could be included in the back. And so,
for a short while, and in a limited way, I became the translator of my own work. It
was not as easy as I’d imagined. First of all, it came as some surprise to me that
there were so many Indian words in the text at all. I thought there were maybe
twenty or thirty – in fact it was more like one hundred and thirty. I was fortunate
that a glossary works like a dictionary and all I had to do was give the meaning
of the Punjabi words – not try and find their English equivalent. Just this short
exercise left me filled with silent awe and gratitude over what my translator had
Of course, as a reader of world literature, I have inevitably considered with
wonder, and sometimes puzzlement, the act of translation. However, becoming
involved with The Chronicles project has prompted me to reflect further on the
subject. I am intrigued by how similar and simultaneously different the act of
translating fiction is from that of writing fiction. Both processes are a quest for
truth through language – but rather different kinds of truth. The fiction writer
seeks to express the truth of the world as he sees it, while the translator must be
truthful in the way he interprets the original.
At one level, if you go into the linguistic minutiae of it, translation is a kind of
science – which is something, I think, writing fiction can never be. If there is
another fundamental difference between writing and translating, perhaps it has
to do with ego. To write fiction is, in a way, a bold and presumptuous act. It takes
some arrogance to believe that others will be interested in reading about a world
and characters that you have created. This is not to say that, during the actual
process of writing, you are not racked by doubt and the niggling sense that you’re
not quite achieving what you set out to. But the impulse to write at all comes from
a kind of hubris. Sartre said, ‘one cannot write without the intention of succeeding
perfectly’ – which suggests one must believe in the possibility of doing so.
If the writer’s fate involves a gradual move away from the perfection of vision to
the best possible worded approximation of that vision, then, does the translator
journey in the opposite direction? From loose to more and more exact renditions
of sentences into another language. And what of the ego? Does the act of
translation, in fact, require a subordination of ego so that the translator can allow
the original writer’s ‘voice’ to infuse the new text?
I couldn’t resist the impulse to put some of these thoughts to my Dutch translator.
After all, The Chronicles offered me a perfectly legitimate excuse to contact her.
The resulting exchange was very inspiring and raised even more issues about
translation. I look forward to discussing and exploring these further with my
fellow participants in the project.