Translators' Notes: Deborah Smith, Jerry Pinto, and Snehaprava Das on Translation


Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub is a satirical work that (among other things) parodies the prefatory material that makes a book marketable in a world irrevocably marked by print culture. In our contemporary times, the ‘Translator’s Note’ is one such document. It either precedes or succeeds a translated literary work, depending upon several factors including stylistic choices made by publishers. Though often ignored, the translator’s note contains valuable information that contributes towards the ‘meaning’ of a work. Far from being irrelevant, the note is usually a meditation on the process and experience of translating and transforming concepts, events, actions, and emotions from one language and culture to another.

In a podcast with Jen Campbell, Deborah Smith, the translator of the Man-Booker International Prize sensation The Vegetarian by Han Kang, speaks at length about her experience of translating from the Korean. Smith was monolingual—she only knew English—till she decided to pursue a Doctorate in Korean Literature. When she was sent a sample of The Vegetarian for translation, she had been studying Korean for only two years and had never translated anything from Korean to English. Smith talks about her interaction with Kang and the comments that she received from the author explaining the author’s intention behind a particular scene, a character, or a word-choice.

One of the significant problems that Smith highlights is regarding the translation of dialects and ‘affectionate words’. Korean dialects, remarks Smith, are very strongly marked and are almost mutually unintelligible. While translating Kang’s Human Acts, Smith made the choice of using a small amount of Yorkshire dialect and accent to highlight the use of a different Korean dialect (Gwangju dialect) in the novel. She also made the choice of using the word ‘love’ in characters’ conversations with each other. Smith says,

You don’t want to make things too ‘exotic’ but at the same time you don’t want to pretend that there is absolutely no difference [sic.]

While Smith highlights the need for a careful balance, Jerry Pinto in the ‘Translator’s Note’ to Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar (his first work of translation from Marathi to English), emphasizes the need to accept that there are some things that you simply cannot communicate. He talks about the use of ‘re’ (pronounced like ‘ray’) by the character Tanay in the first part of the novel. Pinto writes,

Tanay uses ‘re’ constantly. It gives his monologue an intensity, a spontaneity and an affectionate intimacy that has no equal in English. I tried to use the word ‘love’ as a substitute… but it was not equal in valency or intensity.

Pinto, in the novel, also chooses to retain some original Marathi words such as ‘Aai’ (mother), ‘Baba’ (father), and ‘kelvan’ (a ceremony). Pinto discusses the experience of reading not just a translated text but any text. He says that sometimes the sheer pace of the narrative carries us along such that there is no time to check “the meaning of the architrave behind which the diamonds have been stashed”; sometimes we act on instinct like so many children did when they read Enid Blyton. Most of the times, according to Pinto, we get the sense of the word from the context and read on.  

Translation, then, inescapably involves choice and choice implies interpretation as Snehaprava Das writes in the ‘Translator’s Note’ to One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator: Stories by Manoj Kumar Panda (translated from Odiya to English). Language, writes Das, is not merely a collection of words and rules of grammar but a vast, interconnected system of connotations and cultural references. Describing her experience of translating Panda’s works, Das considers the “typical cultural-specific language system” employed by Panda which “seems to hover threateningly on the edge of untranslability”. She considers the skepticism felt by the translator in ensuring an impossible ‘exactitude’; it is impossible because meaning is slippery. Panda himself writes that the path towards meaning is a ‘jagged’ and ‘mysterious’ one. Therefore, Das describes the translator’s role as,

A translator’s role—as is often postulated—could be compared to that of an artist; for example, a musician or an actor who interprets a work of art.

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