Notes from a literary session that I had the pleasure of attending at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Translators provide a connection between the mortals and the Gods, transporting readers to literary heavens that are otherwise inaccessible to them, said the moderator as she introduced Arunava Sinha and Priya Sarukkai Chabria in the session ‘Translating the Classics’. Translation is a gift of love, she said quoting Sujit Mukherjee, for the translator has enjoyed the work of literature and want to make a gift of it to others.

How very true. Several times I have thanked God for the gift of so many beloved books that I could not have read otherwise. Direct Translation from one language to another is easier with the deluge of translation software on the internet. But how does one translate the many aspects of a poem or novel that cannot be communicated through words alone? Aspects like the dialect of a region, the nuances of life in a certain part of the world – the local legends and traditions, the likes and dislikes of the people, the sayings, the beliefs, the histories, the stories and the eccentricities to which only the people who live and speak the language can relate to. Communicating all this in addition to the emotions of the writer that has gone into creating the work of art cannot be an easy task at all.

Professor P Lal used the term transcreation, suggesting that the translator re-creates the work of art all over again. The session conveyed that both these translators did just that, they not only love the works that they translate, they also own them. They assimilate the essence of the work and then re-create it all over again in English.

Talking about translating The Chieftain’s Daughter by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Arunava Sinha mentioned that he had taken care to give a contemporary feel to the book. Bankim Chandra must not have considered that the book would become a classic for posterity, for he had been just twenty seven when he wrote it. It is very much a young man’s book with action, romance, heroism and drama. He elaborated a little about the practical difficulties in translating from Bangla which allegedly has as many as twenty different words to describe the moon in various contexts. The excerpt he read out had a definite contemporary feel, considering that it was from a historical novel set in a totally different period.

A book published a century or two ago does not become a classic on account of its age alone. A classic is a book for all ages that reaches out to the reader beyond time and space. Books that can be read again and again, that give new and varied insights into life and the world.

“I am in Aandaal’s thrall” said the poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria sharing her exhilaration in translating the poems of the eight century mystic saint Aandaal. She had the audience enthralled for the next thirty minutes in which she described the beauty of the poetry of Aandaal and the challenges that she faced translating it.

As Priya talked, Aandaal came across as a teenager wandering around the woods of Srivilliputthur, singing in divine rapture and lighting up the countryside with her verse. Aandaal’s poetry has several layers of meaning, said Priya as she went on to explain how a verse on ‘the monsoon clouds with pearls of rain falling from it’ can be interpreted as the ‘dark blue body of Vishnu jeweled with sweat’ at a corporeal level, and on a metaphysical level as ‘deep compacted space with spinning galaxies’, for the body of the Lord contains the Universe within it. She read out three different translations of the same verse, each one profound and beautiful. The Durbar Hall fell quiet as she read on, evoking the presence of Aandaal in Mirabai’s land.