Is the beauty of regional language books lost while being translated into English?
Reading is a holistic experience – it depends on the words as much as it does on the story. With the right sequence of words, the whole reading experience can change. Some books have even gone on to be celebrated because they were written well, bringing an ordinary story to an extraordinary level.
And in this scenario, in a country like India with many regional languages, the books written in these languages hold a special value and beauty in the prose / lyrical verses. But the country has a wide reader base, most of whom are also familiar with English, and some regional language books with good sales records or those written by stalwarts have been translated to English mainly to expand their readership.
The English to Regional Languages Conundrum.
We have heard of bestseller books in English being translated to other regional languages to make them more accessible to the local readers. And most bibliophiles have tried reading the same book they read and loved in English in another language they understood. Invariably, the experience is never the same. Some books have come off better in this exchange, and some worsened, but they were never alike.
And this has been a good enough yardstick for how translation works.
The Accessibility Debate.
The first and foremost explanation (excuse?) given to justify the process of translation is to bring the book to a wider reader base. While this sounds logical and is right in some context, the quality of the translation wholly determines how the book is enjoyed.
Most books in regional languages are translated mainly because they have wonderful stories / original content. And extreme care has to be taken so that the translation does not butcher this beauty. In bringing the book to more readers, the translators should be taking extreme care not to disturb the writing of the original.
The Native Speakers’ English Proficiency.
Due to the emphasis of English as the primary medium of instruction, a majority of the urban Indian readers (who also impact the market and the sales of the book) are used to reading books predominantly in English. Books in regional languages have lost their sheen due to the lack of popularity and only the most popular, established books get a steady sales record. Purely from the standpoint of marketing and readership, the translation of books to English becomes a necessity.
Keeping the Originality Intact.
A book is made up of so many more things than just the way it is written, and translators have one major job: to make sure that their translation does not alter the flow of the original prose. In addition to prose, a book might have original verses that rhyme in the language they are written in. Even if the rhymes cannot be translated into any other language perfectly, translators can choose to do that in a way where the original beauty of the verses is not lost much.
Books that have Multiple Interpretations.
When classics are translated they have more than one interpretation, and with each translation/version, something new is added to the text, and something else is taken away from it. In this melee, it becomes impossible to maintain the original intact. But even amidst choices, the versions that are loved the most are the ones that focus on the story of the original and still make sure that the vernacular words are undisturbed.
The perfect translation is the one that interprets the original in a way that retains the essence intact but manages to find that balance between the English prose and the regional context. For instance, Tamil book classics like the timeless Ponniyin Selvan (A series of novels by Kalki Krishnamurthy) have been translated into English books many times by different authors.
Some of them maintain an austere verbatim translation (which loses the charm of being original and reads like a badly written prose), or tried to infuse lyrical beauty in English (which infuses it with a fake feeling) or ended up messing the original in a botched attempt to mix the best of English language and Tamil storyline.
The Character/Place Noun Debate.
The most important challenge of any translation is to find alternative spellings for the names of the characters. Certain letters are specific to a particular alphabet series in a regional language, and their sound consonants do not have any English equivalent. In these cases, the nouns are transliterated, and they are just used in the same phonetic resemblance, making the reader notice the vernacular style and connect to it.
Translations: Lost Beauty or Lasting Impressions?
Like all books, ultimately, the value of translations are determined by the quality of writing. As there is no need to research, cross-check or concoct believable fiction, the focus should be given to adding more quality to the original in the form of doing justice to its beauty in translation. Such books leave lasting impressions, and some translations have become even more famous than the originals, so much that readers mention that version popularly when asked for the title.
Translating regional classics is a hard enough job, but if done right, the beauty is not lost in translation – it just obtains a newer, sometimes better form.