A Wager with Nectar


by Jessica Sequeira

India in Translation, Translation in India,
Edited by G.J.V. Prasad,
Bloomsbury, 336 pp.

You can get a sense of the tone of this book before even opening it. The title, a dizzy mirror and paradoxical double, casts into doubt fixed ideas of both “India” and “translation”, and suggests that a fluidity is inherent in the nature of both these terms. An introduction by editor G.J.V Prasad is followed by eighteen essays ranging from pre-colonial times, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to our searing present. It doesn’t come as a surprise to find that both ethical and political projects, as well as the market, have always been a factor in the practical side of translation, and that the choice of books published and methods used to work on them have been far from pure. The nature of a collection like this one is that it tends to focus on what translation does, rather than on the text itself.

Yet I think of the thirteenth-century Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar discussed in one of the essays, who even when writing in Sanskrit, championed his Marathi language on the basis of its special “sweetness”; he challenged any comers to “a wager with nectar”. Entering into a variety of diverse and extremely specific situations to tease out how some text got from point A to point B, I kept reminding myself of the ultimate reason for this deep analysis. Such means, strategies and acts of transgression either torqued beauty for other purposes, or wrote it anew.

The ornate joys of studying the ins-and-outs of context must always wager with the “nectar” of the object itself. This is what is always at risk. The poetry to be found in a translated work—along with the joyful act of performing this translation—can sometimes get lost amidst the analyses of a text’s consequences, and the ways upon which it is being operated. At their best moments, these writers sensitively examine the fluid ways in which form links with theme. And along the way many recognize that there is also always a space for the freedom of the translator, in her individual choice of words, her rigidity or flexibility of tone, her lyrical or staccato flow. Translation, like writing, can be a branch of dance or music.


India in Translation, Translation in India has a stated threefold project: to trace how specific Indian texts travel around the world in translation, how they travel across languages within the subcontinent, and how texts from other countries travel to India. “Travel” is a bit of an anodyne, passive word, not taking into account the processes of influence and sometime subversive, unexpected acts of creation — perhaps one could more excitingly think of an itinerant theater troupe, or, picking up the idea of nectar again, of a pollinator like a bee.

“India is a nation of translations,” the introduction kicks off—we recall that it has 22 major languages and at least 22,000 dialects—before we are referred back to Herodotus, the first person to call people Indians, and to the India/Bharat naming question of the Constitution. More than the nation-ness of India, though, the book itself focuses on language, and the way that the use of language can define and create in a way that destabilizes even the idea of nation itself, which is more in translation than a rigid structure formed of texts.

“Many of our modern Indian languages were not only born in translation, mostly from Sanskrit and some from Tamil; they were also standardized and influenced by the Europeans and translations from European languages,” Prasad notes in his introduction. Taken seriously, this means that either/or questions about Hindi and bhasha regional languages, Hindi and English, Sanskrit and Hindi, local and foreign, are deeply complicated by such an intermingled history.

The idea of anuvada, or “saying after” through repetition, gloss or commentary, is deeply embedded across Indian tradition and has been invoked by multiple contributors in this context. A translation can work as a not-uncritical homage that creates a new work from the original, while starting a conversation between the two works and with literature as a whole.

The topics of the essays are, in order: the earliest Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad Gita; the translation of laws under the British East India Company; an 1850s Gujarati version of Aristophanes’ Wealth; a fraudulent 18th century Jesuit forgery called the Ezourvedam, supposedly a Fifth Veda; the Bengali Mahabharata; the colonial context of Indian renditions of Virgil’s Aeneid and Okakura Kakuzō’s Book of Tea; a comparative study of the translated children’s stories Panchatantra and Grimm Tales; a call to read translations beyond the colonial context; a look at Rabindranath Tagore’s translation of Kabir; English variations on Faiz Ahmed Faiz; Hindi translations of French fiction; Naiyer Masud’s Urdu Franz Kafka; Antonio Gramsci in Bengali; representations of Indian literature in a French anthology; Samuel Beckett adapted to film; the hijra community experience “trans”-lated; disability in translation; and the Englished Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar.


A few things I noted from each author, briefly:

Sachin C. Ketkar writes about the Marathi saint Dnyareshwar, who encouraged bhaktiworship and practices of devotion beyond those of sanctioned ritual, linked to an embrace of dualism rather than Advaita Vedanta. In doing so, Ketkar mentions André Lefevre’s idea of “refractions”, in which misunderstandings and misconceptions generate new meanings. Translation takes on an active or passive role as a form of “interference”, and makes culture into a “polyglot phenomenon”. New models, genres and literary languages are created in translation “as a process of semiotic transformation”.

Gargi Bhattacharya delves into legal history, and says that thanks to translation, the “orthodox pundits gradually lost their supremacy over Hindu customs” as their words began to be understood by educated non-Sanskrit speakers, resulting in social reform.

Hiren J. Patel talks about how “when [poet] Dalpatram rendered Wealthinto Gujarati, he not only removed the sexual explicitness and banter of the original play but also tampered with the form in which the play was cast”, despite the importance of aischrologia or “speaking what is shameful” in Aristophanies’ comedies. Dalpatram makes the immoral figures into Muslims who speak in the Hindustani language, and the work into a formal natak play; Bhattacharya reads this as social-political critique.

Tara Menon analyzes the false Jesuit Veda designed to create “fragments of esoteric truth” that “brought back to life, energized and set to work to take over, to inseminate the entire religion”. This language of the stud horse to describe translation is uncomfortable (I hope deliberately so). The fake syncretism of such a “semi-Christian halfway house” attractive to Hindus was based on a faith that a common Indo-European philological base united the different traditions, a link artificially created in this text via Ezour (Yajur/Jesus) and Chrixnou (Krishna/Christ). The forgery forms part of a “virtual lexicon of modern religiosity” that for its creators might as well have existed, even if it did not in reality.

Soham Pain discusses the “Western theory of the existence of an ancient Indian Golden Age which was followed by a subsequent decline of Indian culture and civilization”, picking up Vedanta texts “with the sole aim to project a ‘pure’ form of Hinduism uncorrupted by superstitions and polytheism”. Pain is interested in the idea of how a translation can grow more popular than the original, and talks about the use of blank verse in a Bengali version of the Bhagavad Gita, forging new linguistic possibilities.

Lav Kanoi says that “some of the stories-of-translation can be as interesting, if not more interesting, than the story-in-translation”. Translation at the Colonial College was an examination method for boys in their teens and early twenties who had come to India. Somewhat amusingly, he writes that these young people tended to go astray after arrival and acquire “habits destructive to their health and fortunes”, but to everyone’s relief, the exercise of translation served to “furnish a powerful anecdote to addiction”.

Pryada Shridhar Padhye discusses a Jain monk’s comparison of the translator to a person rebuilding a dilapidated temple, so that even the use of new materials or drastic changes are still an act of homage, service and reconstruction. Hindu texts were “readymade literature to be appropriated for the spread of Jainism”. In the tradition of translating the stories of the Panchatantra, freely choosing was thus not considered to be plagiarism. It helped that these tales had a fictional author, so that anyone could edit, adapt or contaminate, noting down the changes that they had made. Western ideas of originality and faithfulness did not really apply. The Brothers Grimm tales, in contrast, were “a brand which does not allow any wilful tampering” and in European translation, they were sanitized of sexual references. The Grimm translations were nationalistic and rigid, while the Panchatantrawas open to plurality.

Subhendu Mund claims that “the entire corpus of Indian literature, the bhashas, have more or less been the consequence of different avatars of translation: transcreation, adaptation, appropriation and the like”. He calls attention to the fact that recently most translations into the local languages have been done through English, not “horizontally” from one to another. His argument is that before the colonial era, “say between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries”, bhashas“thrived on adaan-pradan (give-and-take) between one other”. Literature as a discipline was a refashioning, retelling and reinterpretation of previous texts. Interestingly, he claims that “frame stories were also India’s gift to the world” through Buddhism, which adaptated the jatakasPanchatantramahakavyas and puranas.

Amitendu Bhattacharya discusses the dissent he finds in Tagore’s work, which he traces through his interest in the Baul poets (wandering minstrels from Hindu and Muslim communities who thought of the human body and love as a route to knowledge) and in the Bhakti movement. “Bhakti was the bridge that connected Upanishadic precepts with Brahmoism and Baul philosophy,” he writes. It favored a direct path to God, without need for ritual. Tagore’s father had set up the Brahmo Samaj for “practical devotional mysticism” but Tagore himself was particularly interested in Kabir, as many counter-cultural figures in the US and UK would also come to be. He would translate Kabir with the help of Evelyn Underhill. Kabir was attractive as a popular vernacular folk poet, and also in his idea that divinity is to be found scattered in all things and throughout the world. Bhattacharya also argues that Tagore wanted to “prove he was a true inheritor of the legacy of mysticism that flourished in India for centuries”, in an act of poetic self-creation that made him an inheritor and representative of this tradition. “By catapulting Kabir to the international literary scene, Tagore was trying to prove that there existed a strong unifying and secular tradition in India long before the British arrived.”

Fatima Rizvi talks about Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s involvement with the Progressive Writers’ Association, and says that: “Traditional, romantic images in Faiz, and for that matter in most progressive poets, are employed to suit modernist, avant-garde or political intent.” As Edward Said put it, Ahmed Faiz “created a contrapuntal rhetoric and rhythm whereby he would use classical forms (qasidaghazalmasnaviqita) and transform them before his readers.” V.G. Kiernan was Faiz’s first translator but he would find other interpreters in Agha Shahid Ali, who in reflecting on the process of working on his poems spoke wonderfully about how “all meanings are interwoven, just like calligraphy”, or Shiv Kumar, who alluded to the “evasive splendor of his images”. Rizvi writes that for Faiz, “the torment sponsored by the state is concomitant with the anguish inflicted by the beloved”.

Nipun Nutan uses bar charts and new data methods to look at how French books arrived in translation to India, as a response to market demand or from an independent desire by a writer-translator. I’m not sure how legitimate this method is, given the tiny number of books under consideration, but I am interested in the passionate translator’s prologues that Nutan discovered, such as this one by Rishabhcharan Jain: “I consider Dumas to be the greatest novelist of the World; and I do not at all doubt this belief of mine. In the tongue of Delhi, Dumas is my dilruba(beloved) and I am his ashiq (lover)…”

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi talks about the problem of translating Kafka as a mirror of the themes of the writer himself, especially the Voice that is “no longer sound and not yet meaning” just as in a troubled dream, making one a foreigner in one’s own language. He reminds us, too, of a Kafka line which is phrased like this by Edwin and Willa Muir: “But no one, no one can lead us to India.”

Shinjini Basu contextualizes a translation of Gramsci that uses Marxist terminology, yet trickily positions it at a critical distance from the “institutionalised Marxist hagiography”.

Runjhun Verma takes up an anthology of Indian writing published in Europemagazine in 2001. She talks about the role of the anthology, and here again we find charts, which comparatively analyze the regional languages represented. India, she concludes, no longer symbolizes a spiritual country with a glorious past, but rather “its image is one of the modern thriving country that has its own challenges and beauty”.

Samudranil Gupta discusses Beckett’s practice of self-translation into French and back to English as a way of “putting language into perpetual uncertainty”. One line he quotes from Beckett almost makes me want to stop reading about translation at all: “You may put me in the dismal category of those who, if they had to act in full awareness of what they were doing, would never act.” Gupta finds interest in Beckett’s ideas of being “ill-equipped” and “destroying language”, and we come to the surprising thought that “translating Beckett into Indian languages, despite the apparent difficulty, can actually get him even closer to putting language into disrepute and abuse”. In this sense, Gupta enthusiastically takes up Ashish Avikunthak’s 2005 film Antaral/Endnote, a Beckett adaptation that produces alienation with its anti-narrative and confusion of languages. For Gupta, this untranslatability is the opposite of the mere communication of the nationalist state project, and hence it creates a kind of belonging.

Regiane Corrêa Oliveira Ramos talks about the way that transgender autobiographies from India by people such as Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, A. Revathi and Living Smile Vidya are currently being translated and appreciated in Brazil. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in India on September 6, 2018 and gender rights still have a long way to go. The hijra’s desire to be “self-translated”, and to discuss the body, can transform into a text.

Someshwar Sati wants to shift the translation conversation from issues of loss and gain, to those of normality and inadequacy, specifically to look at issues of disability. For her, translation is a form of social activism.

Amrapali Saha describes the Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar as itself an “intra-class translation straddling two divergent modalities of middle-class life within one home”, in the context of a liberalizing economy and the consumer revolution in India. The success of the translation into English has brought this tension to a wider audience.


Sometimes an imperfect book can provoke more thoughts than a predictable one. This ambitious if uneven collection could have done with a round of editing. The grammar is often distracting, and the same terms are spelled and described differently across the book, resulting in confusion even beyond the natural hodgepodge one finds in a multi-authored collection. Even so, this book takes a remarkable step in the direction of its own ideals. The reader discovers new ways of thinking about literature and its possiblities, the brushes of meaning that open up when multiple texts or realities enter into contact, just as the little body of a bee skims against the pollen of a stamen before coming to rest with languor upon the pistil of a different flower.


About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French.

Image adapted from The Bear and the Honey, Wenceslas Hollar, 1607-1677, via University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection (cc).