Share Your Thoughts

During my first year of college, I translated Albert CamusL’Etranger from French to English (The Stranger), and in my senior year I translated the riddle of Nala and Damayanti from the Lanman Sanskrit Reader (नळोपाख्यानम्, nalopākhyānam, The Story of Nala). Even late nights and countless cups of tea could not keep me from flailing miserably at both efforts, because I didn’t understand then the existential difference between transliteration (conversion of text from one script into another) and translation (see below). I didn’t know who I was, so how could I translate another?

In her scholarly and highly accessible Translating Myself and Others, Jhumpa Lahiri writes that “translation is an act of doubling and converting, and the resulting transformation is precarious, debatable even in its final form.”

As I read this marvelous sentence in the last paragraph of a chapter titled “Juxtaposition,” I juxtaposed “translation” and “migration.” Reading that same sentence as a member of the Indian-American diaspora, I realized how perfectly Lahiri’s sentiment echoed my experience of doubling and converting. And although I have been in the United States for over five centuries, my transformation from a Bombay Baby to an American Adult still feels precarious, perhaps even debatable.

Three pages into the next chapter, titled “In Praise of Echo,” Lahiri’s brilliance again had me substituting my life as a migrant for hers as a translator: “All translation [All migration] must be regarded first and foremost as a metamorphosis: a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation in which specific traits and elements are shed and others are newly obtained.”

Lahiri uses the character Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to push back on those who suggest that translations are “creatively inferior” to originals, and thus translators are secondary echoes on the hierarchy of writing. She notes how this corresponds to “feminine archetypes in which a woman’s position and identity were subservient to a man’s.” 

While perhaps 50% of India Currents’ readers are female, and hopefully all of our readers have sympathy for the history of subservience, I imagine that nearly 100% are interested in the diasporic experience.

So many of us are accustomed to doubles: in our speech, our food, our dress, our literature. Some elders might want more Gujarati spoken by the next generation and less English. Others holding on to tradition might want more dosas eaten than doughnuts. But all of us living in America have a right to the right side of the Indian-American hyphen.

All of us are entitled to ask as Lahiri does: “Who is original? Who belongs authentically to a place? Who does not? Why are those who did not “get there first” so often marginalized?”

We might take a page from Lahiri’s important voice and editorialize as she does so compellingly: “A language, and by extension a culture, or a nation, that flees its echoes is a culture that is turned inward, in love with itself, or with the idea of self.”

But Lahiri, is not satisfied with simply contemplating Echo; instead, she reminds us that Ovid’s myth includes Narcissus, the tragically self-absorbed character who was in love with his reflection and who inspired the word narcissism: Those who preach to make America great again, or argue for Italians first, are also in love with a shadow.

Translating Myself and Others is a work of scholarship so there are words like “optative” and phrases like “literature is not normative but speculative.” But don’t let that put you off. There is much more in this slender volume including a poignant afterword that is an extended dedication to Jhumpa’s deceased Mother/Ma/ মা. I imagine that Bengal-born and New-England-transformed Tapati and her husband, Amar, translated for their daughter the essence of a literary and migratory life.

Courtesy of this slender work and a life informed by literature, I now better understand that Google Translate is misnamed. While it is quite helpful in understanding what a Hindi word written in Devanagari means in English (or from German to Japanese or a host of other cross-mappings of the world’s languages), Google Transliterate is weak tea. To add masala (मसाला), one must translate. One must double, convert, and deeply brew the tea before blowing on its surface and taking an eager sip of the fully flavored chai (चाय). Only then can you be transported to a tea garden (chai bagan) in Darjeeling.

For the author’s daughter, Anupama (translated as “incomparable”), who teaches children (including her daughter, Eshni) the indispensable meaning of literature from across the globe.

Rajesh C.Oza

Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, P.S., Papa’s Stories, and Living in...