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A Woman Translator of/ in a Male Tradition

Vanamala Viswanatha


Sayed Haider Raza, ‘La Terre’ [Earth/ The Ground], oil on panel, 50 x 175 cm, 1971


Feminist translation theory has raised several questions about ‘gender in translation’ – also the title of a seminal book on the theme by Sherry Simon. For instance, Suzanna Jill Levine, a leading translator of Latin American literature, asks: ‘What does it mean to be a woman translator in and of a male tradition?’ The very choice of text, if it is misogynistic, could pose an ethical dilemma for the feminist translator. Carol Maier argues that ‘the translator’s quest is not to silence but to give voice, to make available texts that raise difficult questions and open perspectives. They must become independent, ‘resisting’ interpreters who do not only let antagonistic works speak… but also speak with them and place them in a larger context by discussing them and the process of their translation.’ Maier underscores the need for translators to assert their agency and document their process of translation. The agency of the translator is very much defined by the immediate context of the chosen text, the languages in question, the publishers, and the readership. Here is my account of how I confronted some important issues in the context of translating a medieval Kannada classic into English, ‘The Life of Harishchandra’, published in the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) Series, Harvard University Press, 2017.

Choice of Text

In July 2010, reading the MCLI guidelines for proposal writing, I found that the team preferred that the selected text be translated into contemporary prose rather than verse. This was reassuring for me as I had also largely worked only with prose until then. I thought that the text had to have a story-line strong enough to make up for the absence of poetry in the translation. While revered Kannada poets Pampa and Kumaravyasa, who have written their versions of the Mahabharata, occupy the top ranks in Kannada literary history of over 15 centuries, their texts focus on the conflict between the sons of two brothers, and the ensuing dynastic war at Kurukshetra. But I wanted to select a narrative that talked about things other than war; themes other than male prowess, ego, valour, and empire building. I was looking for a story that would deal with values that mattered to ordinary people. The Harishchandra narrative fitted the bill all the way. Though it is the story of King Harishchandra, it is a saga of his spiritual growth. The purpose of the text is described by the poet himself: ‘Raghavanka… has narrated this story in the poetic mode, not for personal gain, but just so that people can recite this paean to king Harishchandra and live a good life.’(C 14: V 33) The larger social purpose that inspired the work inspired me as well. Also, I’d fallen in love with the sound of Raghavanka’s poetry even before reading him fully: some of the verses of the text I had learnt in the Gamaka (reading poetry using ragas from Karnatak music) class in my younger days had stayed with me. Besides, the vulnerability of an emperor who, despite being exiled and dispossessed, staunchly fights for the value of truthfulness, makes for karuna rasa—far more appealing than vira rasa that valorises kingship and conquest. Also, this truth tale from days of yore seemed like a potent counter-discourse in this era of post-truth, which has called into question all our certitudes and convictions, pointing to the relativity of truth claims. It is another matter that the text, through its interrogation of Harishchandra by the holatis (‘low-born’ women), undermines the edifice of Harishchandra’s truth by exposing its moorings in caste oppression. Though Raghavanka is not considered an equal to Pampa or Kumaravyasa in Kannada literary culture, I still chose him for all these reasons.

I was also convinced that Raghavanka’s progressive text would speak eloquently to us in India today. The issue of untouchability is at the heart of this text. The text traces a shift in perspective from seeing caste as a feature attached to one by birth, to understanding caste as an aspect that emerges from one’s words and deeds. By declaring, ‘A sage who lies is a holeya (‘low’ caste man); a holeya who does not lie is a noble sage.’ (C14: V10), the text equates godliness with truthfulness. Untouchability, which also figures symbolically in other Harishchandra narratives, moves centre-stage in Raghavanka’s text when he invents the characters of the two dark and lovely holatis, giving them the space of an entire chapter. (See excerpts from the chapter) When the king refuses to marry the holatis because it would amount to breaking the injunction of endogamy that defines caste purity, they interrogate the king’s sense of caste superiority. The text stages this radical critique of varna, or social order, through the anamika (holati) women when they speak to power, raising their voice against discrimination on the basis of touch. As the king has no answers to their ‘irrational’ questions, he does what power does best–silences them with violence. But as Amartya Sen reminds us in ‘The Argumentative Indian’, the questions of the defeated never really and simply die. They always come back to haunt us.

Alongside this liberal reading of the text, there have also been deconstructive critiques – ‘reading from below’ which uncovers the dark truths of caste oppression, patriarchal domination and gender violence, as well as feudal and state control that the text rewrites in the name of truth and benign kingship. The text thus speaks to the burning issues of power, caste, and gender not only of its time, but also to, and equally of, contemporary India. And it was important for me that we created a space in which the Kannada voices of these local holati women could prevail and reverberate in and through global English.

Choice of Form and Style

As this is the first full-length kavya text to be translated from Kannada, it was not easy to find models to emulate. Once I had got critical feedback on my sample draft from my discerning editor David Shulman and a range of sensitive readers, I evolved a formal, high style in an elevated register to embody the gravitas of the original text. In keeping with the guidelines, the first draft was done entirely in prose. As I read the draft again, the intense poetry of the original verses haunted me. I tried rewriting just the first nine stanzas of Chapter One in verse and asked Sheldon Pollock, who had taken charge of the MS by then, how that sounded. As his response was positive, I re-translated another hundred odd stanzas in verse to highlight their unique poetic quality of being highly emotive or intensely lyrical or intricately patterned. And in the final version, nearly 20 percent of the text is in verse. I carried out a similar exercise with the dramatic pieces. This highly theatrical text is full of witty conversations and sharp repartee. So I laid out these lines in the form of dialogues. The narrative content of the story was best told in taut prose that maintained the poetic quality of the text. So my attempt has been to recreate the poetry of Raghavanka with all its vitality and virtuosity using three important modes–verse, prose, and dialogue. The poetry of the text sought its own medium; we can only take credit for humbly listening to the demands of an articulate text.

Choice of Diction

The stereotype of a translator of classical texts is the figure of a male translator who ‘apprehends’ a foreign classic and brings it over to his native milieu in order to enrich his literary culture. And I just did not fit the bill here. I am a woman; a non-native speaker of English; I was not ‘bringing in’ but ‘sending out’ a text in my second language Kannada (Tamil is my first) to my ‘third language’ English. I am not sure whether Kannada was enriched in the process, or English. Of the ten books (13 volumes) published in the MCLI series so far, eight are translated by male translators while two are by women – Indira V. Peterson and myself. Almost all of the translators are from the west or have lived there; I am the only India-based translator. Where, then, is the advantage?

There was one advantage. I discovered that the Kannada shatpadi would ring in my inner ear as I translated it. I would try to recreate the rhythms and cadences of that style in English. This is how it worked. One of the most useful suggestions from the editorial board was to prune the text for verbiage while revising. So there I was, happily pruning words that were repeated. In the holati episode, I found verses where certain phrases were repeated. For example, the phrase ‘what use is…’ is repeated five times in C7:V8. So in one of the versions, in the interest of economy, I retained the phrase just once and deleted the other four so that it read as follows:

The maidens said,
‘What use is an elephant to one who is poor?
Ghee when one is thirsty?
Ravishing Rambha when one is writhing in pain?
The kingdom of earth when one is dying?
Jewels and applause when one is burning from a sun stroke?
Tell us, lord of the earth.’

Compare this version with the final one given in the excerpt to see the difference in impact.

Re-reading the manuscript just before it went into print, I realised I could no longer hear the insistent and querulous questioning in the holatis’ speech in Kannada. Therefore, the power of compression had to give way to the power of reiteration. Clearly, auditory imagination can be an enormous advantage for a translator in recreating the sound-sense dynamic of the original in the translation of classics, especially from predominantly oral traditions.

Situated in a post-colonial relationship with English, it was important to resist the predatory moves of that hegemonic language. So my attempt has been to bend English to make it a fit vehicle for the expressive intent of each of the 728 shatpadis in the Kannada text. Here again, my deep engagement with the Kannada text showed me how to shape the English text. More visibly, I have retained several Kannada words untranslated in the English text for various purposes: to celebrate local colour, to translate puns, to quicken emotive response, to avoid the risk of naming in English what does not have adequate equivalents for various cultural nuances such as holati, holeya, chandala, or anamika, and to point to the various aspects of word play in the text. But the structure and style, the sound and sense of each of the stanzas, has been determined by my sense (gleaned through the five senses) of the Kannada original.

Perhaps it is time for a different kind of translation practice which expands and extends English to take in the foreign. Walter Benjamin argued that translators translating foreign texts into their language tend to preserve their own language instead of allowing their language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Perhaps it is time for the post-colonial subject residing in vernacular spaces to speak up in her second or third language ‘English’, stretching English to make it speak the poetry of the original language. Perhaps it can as well be done by translators who come from different historical and cultural configurations, located at complex intersections of gender and caste, language and sensibility, nation and ethnicity. This would mean reading and listening to a translator very different from the stereotypical figure of the western/ westernised, English-speaking and male translator of Indian classics. It may also mean travelling beyond the definition of Indian classics as texts written by dead, male, upper caste writers to include folk/ oral epics and women’s texts.

A 13th-century Virashaiva poet from north Karnataka, Raghavanka wrote his masterpiece ‘Harishchandra Charitra’ pioneering the use of the versatile, six-line, shatpadi metre for serious poetic purpose. This racy and dramatic narrative, the first full-fledged kavya on the Harishchandra theme in any Indian literature, raises important social issues that are as relevant today as to his own times.

Vanamala Viswanatha, an award-winning translator, has translated into English important modern Kannada writers such as Vaidehi, Anantamurthy, Lankesh, and Sara Aboobacker. Vanamala, who has also served as honorary director of the Centre for Translation, Sahitya Akademi, and member of the National Translation Mission, has taught English language and literature in several premier institutions in Bengaluru.