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Comparative Literature #4

S. Satish Kumar
Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University

Paul Valery had written upon the demise of Rainer Maria Rilke: “Rilke, my dear Rilke, thanks to whom my poems speak in a language I do not understand-”

One assumes that the task of the translator is precisely this; making a poet/writer speak in a language they themselves do not understand. This is a felicity that cannot be acquired through training. Translation is a skill that, like the knowledge of languages, is a useful asset to a comparatist. One is a little perplexed however when Susan Bassnett suggests that Translation Studies will someday replace the practice of Comparative Literature or that Translation Studies is more relevant than Comparative Literature. One has always seen the two as mutually interdependent and illuminating fields of study. It is true however that one’s view of the situation is that of a comparatist’s and not of one trained in translation theory. So it would be better for one’s own sake if one spoke of Translation Studies in terms of a process and exercise within the sphere of Comparative Literature.

What comes to mind when one is reading a text in translation? If one knows both languages; the target and the source, then one either marvels at the fidelity of the translation to the original or grumbles about the, at times minor and sometimes major, flaws in the translation. But if one has no knowledge of the source then the translated text is all one has. As an example let us consider a single line from Baudelaire’s Harmonie du Soir,
“Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,” there are several translations available for just one line:

Lewis Piaget Shanks: “the quivering violins cry out, decrease;” (1931)
Roy Cabmbell: “The fiddle, like a hurt heart, palpitates,” (1952)
William Aggeler: “The violin quivers like a tormented heart,” (1954)
Geoffrey Wagner: “The violin thrills like a tortured heart,” (1974)

Now, if one is conversant with the French language one will quibble over why “tormented” and not “afflicted” or which word in the English language conveys best the meaning of the French word frémit. If one is not, then, after having carefully perused all the available translations, one selects and adheres to the one that makes the most sense; the translation that most effectively speaks in the language one is conversant with. It is of course, a separate question whether the translation says the same thing as the original does in its own language. This is precisely why one states that it is not possible to teach the art of effective translation or in other words the art of making a work from foreign tongue to speak in a tongue foreign to it. It is simply a matter of sensitivity to both the language and the emotion of the source. The emotion in a work (say a poem) is as integral to its reading as is the manner in which it is conveyed in language. What one is trying to get at is precisely this: That the act of translating begins with the act of reading, and thus by extension it is an act of receiving.

There is a lot of debate over whether a translation should or should not be accorded as much importance as an original work within the literary system of a language but, from the point of view of reception the appearance of a translation is as much a site of investigation within a literary system as the appearance of a new work. The publication of the first ever complete translation of the Abhijnanashakuntalam in the English language is thus as much an event in the literary system of the English language as say the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. Professor Figueira has worked extensively on the reception of the Shakuntala in 19th century Europe. Her work not only explains the impact or the affect (to use a better word) that the translations of Shakuntala had on the 19th century European readership but also the historical circumstances that lead to the appearances of these translations in the various literary systems of Europe. The point being that translations of a work like the Abhijnanashakuntalam from Sanskrit into various European and even Indian languages have been, in many ways, the expression of many diverse motivations and aspirations. These motivations and aspirations of course arise out of or are initiated by a contact with a work/author/literature and this contact itself is facilitated by certain historical circumstances. The earliest translations and adaptations of Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam into various Indian “Bhasha Literatures” were a part of a larger process by which the various Indian languages would come into their own. This coming of age meant a tussle between the constant return to the authority of Sanskrit and the moving away towards the colloquial or the language as it was spoken.

This becomes clear if one thinks of the most influential translations of the Shakuntala story into Indian language literatures. In Bengali we find first a prose translation by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar(1854) in highly Sanskritised Bengali and later one by Abanindranath Tagore(1895) again in prose but in a simpler Bengali that was closer to day to day parlance. The same was the case with Malayalam. In Malayalam one finds the earliest and most influential rendering of Kalidasa’s telling of the Shakuntala story by Kerala Verma(1898). It became the most influential piece of poetry in Malayalam literature of that time earning Kerala Verma the title of Kerala Kalidasan. Both Vidyasagar and Kerala Verma were instrumental in infusing each of their respective languages with the legacy of the Sanskrit language. They were both equally proficient in their own regional languages and in Sanskrit and they both through their own use of language defined a literary language in their respective regional literatures. Kerala Verma’s work not only affected a strong Sanskrit influence on the literary Malayalam of his period but also paved the way for further translations of Sanskrit works into Malayalam.

Now both Vidyasagar and Kerala Verma did have their own formulations on nationhood and nationality which are certainly worthy of exploration but the sweeping generalisations of imposing a absolute Nationalist agenda on their work (especially with language) robs them of the significance that their work holds in contributing not only to their own respective language literatures but also the literary wealth of India as a whole. Similarly labelling all European translations of Kalidasa as Orientalist or as being coloured by the hegemony that is characteristic of a colonial situation takes away from the sheer exhilaration that we find especially in the early translations of Kalidasa that comes from the discovery of a form of drama so alien from European dramas. What we now understand as flaws in understanding within the corpus of Orientalist scholarship like Jones’ equating Vedantic philosophy with the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato or viewing the Abhijnanashakuntalam and Kalidasa as an alternative to Greek Tragedy are but locational quirks. These parallaxes stem more from positions ignorance perhaps than from positions of power. Thus each of these translations of the Abhijnanashakuntalam can be viewed as instances of its receptions across space, time and cultures and in dealing with reception the recipient is as important as the emitter and an effective appraisal of the situation requires an approach that is both holistic and rigorous.
This is one such situation where the mutual interdependence and illumination that one spoke of earlier becomes most evident.

The fact is that translation is indispensable to a discipline that seeks to study literature in terms of “supranational assemblages”, but also in the fact that it draws attention to issues of language that are essential to the study of literature (comparative or otherwise). Thus, if Translation Studies helps the comparatist to actually engage with the questions of language/language-use, reception and changes within a literary system, then Comparative Literature and Translation Studies can be the best of friends. And Comparative Literature, now more than ever, is in dire need of friends.

This is not because there is, or as people like to imagine there always has been and always will be a crisis in the discipline of Comparative Literature. Comparative Literature is fully equipped in terms of methodological tools and approaches to withstand the onslaught of recent trends in studies which, through their utter disregard for language and the high esteem in which they hold the politics of identity and difference, seek to reduce a literary work to a mining site for sociological and cultural data in order to satisfy their own theoretical dispositions and proclivities. To conclude one would like to emphasize, despite the previous sentence, that commitment to a cause is always greatly benefited by camaraderie (even in the form of fellow-travelers) and our cause is and always will be the Humanities.

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