How many people read translations?
How many people care about translation as an art form? How many people can do even a relatively good translation of stories? How many people have dexterity in multiple languages — to an extent that they can go down deep inside the abyss of the source, find the best pearl, and resurface to present it to the right kind of caring, compassionate receptor audience?
How many stories can we — even the best possible activist-author-translator around — ever translate at all?
It’s not an academic question. I do not like academic questions. I am not an academic. I’ve been writing these notes regularly now not to find a new self-gratification toy to play with. I’ve been writing these simple diaries of human life, more frequently than ever, to keep them as updated as possible, with a fresh sense of urgency so that the memory is fresh, and it’s chronicled somewhere in the cyberspace — with an audacious hope that some day, somebody would find their urgency to retrieve them from a likely topsy-turvy world, and look back with some cursory curiosity at a human civilization that not too long ago actually cared for human civilization. In a way, my question is this: can real stories of real lives of real people be translated in a way so that people from a different “planet” — linguistic, spacial or temporal — can understand them, appreciate them, and then do something about them?
And then, there are so many millions of stories — countless stories — that we could not ever translate.
Every time there is an earthquake, every time there is a hurricane, cyclone, tornado, landslide, mudslide, massive flood or tsunami, we hear stories on our flat screen TV, uppity-elite newspaper or fad-fancy cyberspace — almost as entertainment, between two car and viagra commercials (or in case of the uppity-elite newspaper, news sandwiched between two or three conflicts in Syria, Libya and Israel-Palestine). Then, it’s time for dinner, organizing files for next day’s important board meeting, and instructing the domestic servant or spouse how not to waste too much laundry detergent on the next set of laundry.
Life goes on, as it went on the day before, and stories that were beginning to be translated, are left untranslated. They never take a shape and materialize. They quickly fizzle out.
So many stories have not been translated. My old Indian colonial English doesn’t even bother to say it in an active voice. As if the expression is not direct: it’s not mine, and it’s not ours. It’s somebody else’s. Earthquake in East India today, or the big one in Gujarat a few years ago, killed a few hundred people? A couple of train collisions killed a few dozen more last month? Terrorist bomb blasts killed some more in Mumbai the month before? Okay! What about the horrendous nuclear disaster, earthquake and tsunami in prosperous Japan that wiped out a large part of that civilization and will wipe out even more in the coming years for sure? What about the genocide in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Punjab or Bengal?
Talking about Bengal, remember cyclone Aila that just recently erased a vast land mass of mangrove forests in Bangladesh — forests that for thousands of years protected the Bengali nation from catastrophic natural calamities? Did you ever hear about those villages in the Sundarbans where once my own students came from, and told me stories of the Woods of the Widows where all the male members had been killed by Project Tiger tigers, and where the tigers have now lost their forests because of the cyclone and must therefore migrate into the villages where my students once came from, to plain survive on cattle and human flesh?
Who’s ready to translate those stories of the unfortunate human flesh?
Too many stories have not been translated, for which I take some responsibility. I have not done my part to translate stories I’ve known so well; I made an educated decision to ignore them, and not to invest my uppity-elite time to take them on.
What about you? Any new takers on a new translation project?
Brooklyn, New York