Even today, what we think of as the greatest works of world literature are works we generally know only in translation. The most popular version of the Bible, the King James Bible, is an enduring and majestic sixteenth-century translation of the original Hebrew and Greek. Cervantes's Don Quixote, widely considered the greatest novel ever written, is read today by many more readers in English and other translations than in the original Spanish. The same is true for Flaubert, Chekhov, or even last year's Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It is a paradox of literature that as a writer's reputation grows, the proportion of his readers who read his words exactly as he wrote them dwindles.
If the world today is a smaller place, then, than it used to be, then we owe that as much to translation as to travel by aeroplanes or the arrival of the Internet. Indeed, in our own vibrantly multilingual country, the glories of our literature would sometimes not find an audience even a few hundred kilometres from their place of origin were it not for the benediction of translations, and our literature as a whole would be the poorer for it. As the literary critic Edmund Wilson once wrote, translations achieve something like a cross-fertilisation of cultures, allowing the best of what has been thought and said to reverberate widely.
Yet English, with its imperial past, is now the dominant world language, and as with all asymmetries of power, there ensues a neglect of small or marginal presences. As the translator Michael Hofmann has remarked, the size and spread of the English language offers readers "a delusive self-suffciency". A study by the online magazine of literature in translation Words Without Borders shows that 50 per cent of all books published in translation worldwide are translated from English, but only 6 per cent into English. A sample of the riches English readers are missing out on because of the reluctance of English-language publishers to invest in the (admittedly expensive and time-consuming) process of translation is now provided by the anthology Words Without Borders, which brings together 28 works of literature never before published in English and selected by some the most prominent names in world literature, from Naguib Mahfouz and Gunter Grass to José Saramago and Ha Jin.
The Indian representative in this contingent is the Bengali writer Parashuram (1880-1960), whose story "The Scripture Read Backwards", chosen by Amit Chaudhuri, is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Parashuram had a talent for a comedy that penetrated to the very heart of cultures and their relations with each other.
"The Scripture Read Backwards" envisages, through a series of comic vignettes, a world in which it is not England which has colonised Bengal, but Bengal which has colonised England. British schoolboys sitting in pathshalas study how Bengali suzerainty has brought peace and order to a fractious Europe; newspapers feature advertisements for powders to darken "the unfortunate natural pallor" of the skins of Englishwomen; a British governess is ticked off by her Indian mistress for saying thank you, please and sorry all the time ("It's a very rude habit"); and a nascent British Home Rule movement tries valiantly to counteract the propaganda of the Bengali empire.
The fun of the story is that British subjects are not just forced into submitting to the ways of empire; some of them really want to be like the Bengalis in matters of conduct or fashion - indeed there is no stopping them. "What's that? Feeling cold?" says one character to another. "Whatever made you wear a dhoti and kurta again? You'll die of pneumonia trying to ape the Bengalis." In this way Parashuram sublimated Indian resentment at the Raj into healing laughter. Would that "The Scripture Read Backwards" had been translated earlier, and read forwards to a Curzon or a Mountbatten.
Many of the other pieces are just as entertaining. The Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of The Noodle Maker and Stick Out Your Tongue (he had the good fortune also of marrying his translator, Flora Drew, and the couple talk about their marriage here), treats us to "Where Are You Running To?", an entertaining story about a woman chasing her truant son through the streets of the city, remembering on the way all the hardships of her life. The Nigerian writer Akinwumi Isola presents a tale of marital strife in "The Uses of English", a translated story that is also about translation, and the Mexican writer Juan Villoro a hardbitten story about the life of a boxer, "Lightweight Champ". This sparkling collection is the most powerful manifesto possible for a world of words without borders.
More of Parashuram can be found in an excellent edition of his Selected Stories, published just last year by Penguin. The translations are by the prominent critic and translator Sukanta Chaudhuri and the physicist Palash Baran Pal, and they render Parashuram's prose into a fine light-footed English, bounding along on gusts of whimsy. Here are the first two paragraphs of the story "The League of Tender Spirits":
The weather office at Alipur has reported that the hole in the atmosphere above Sagar Island has filled up for good, so there will be no more rain. An advance guard of three autumnal green insects has been captured on Chowringhee Road. The murky sky is being rent apart to reveal the underlying blue. The sunlight has taken on the hue of bell metal. The mistress of the house is airing quilts and blankets out of doors without fear of the weather. One has to snuggle up a little close in bed in the early morning. Skinny little baby cauliflowers are selling at four to a rupee. The price of gourd is rising, of potatoes falling. The autumn is manifesting itself on land and water, air and ether, body and mind. The kings of yore used to set out on expeditions of conquest at this time of year.
The court was in vacation; my house was empty of clients. The whistle of the Dhapa Mail sounded from Circular Road. I observed with wonderment that my elder son had laid aside his geometry textbook and was perusing a railway timetable. My younger son was possessed by a railway demon: he was churning his elbows like pistons, pursing his lips like a shrew and crying 'Choo--choo--choo!' My heart grew restless.
The sentences, flatly declarative and roving from subject to subject, seem forged almost independently of each other, yet the effect they create cumulatively is exceptionally fine. Parashuram, too, was "possessed by a railway demon" - the wonder and excitement of train travel figure prominently in many of his stories. "The king of all forms of transport is the railway train," declares one of his characters, "and the king of all railways the East Indian Railway".
Two stories by Parashuram can also be found in Amit Chaudhuri's excellent, if somewhat too Bengali-centric, anthology The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature.
And here are some essays on translation: by Howard Goldblatt ('Sometimes, of course, a translation can enhance a work in ways the author never imagined. Gabriel García Marquez has said he prefers Gregory Rabassa's English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to the Spanish original, to which Rabassa replied, "That is probably less of a compliment to my translation than it is to the English language." James Thurber tipped his hat another way: When told by a French reader that his stories read even better in French, he replied, "Yes, I tend to lose something in the original."'); "A Rose By Any Other Name" by Umberto Eco, "On Translation and Garcia Marquez" by Edith Grossman, "How To Read A Translation" by Lawrence Venuti, "The Process of Translation" by William Weaver, "On Translation" by James Atlas, "Translating Saramago" by Margaret Jull Costa, and "Animadversions on Translation" by Michael Hofmann. And Douglas Hofstadter compares two translations of Pushkin's novel-in-verse Evgeny Onegin in this essay, "What's Gained In Translation".
Other Middle Stage essays on early-twentieth-century Indian writers: on Fakir Mohan Senapati, whose novel Six Acres and a Third also contains a witty critique of British rule like that of Parashuram, and Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay.
And old posts on two other anthologies: Literature from the "Axis of Evil" and The Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing.
[The first part of this essay appears today in Mint as a review of Words Without Borders.]