Human beings evolved on the face of earth over 50,000 years ago. Roaming the earth as hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were least concerned about anything beyond satisfying their immediate needs for food and safety. It was only in the last 20,000 years that we began to settle in specific places and establish the practice of agriculture and concepts of home, trade and money. When human intelligence grew and led to the formation of empires in different parts of the world, the invention of language became essential to communicating and conducting transactions between regions that were geographically and culturally wide apart from each other.   Sumerian_26th_c_Adab

Translation, thus, became an imperative process for understanding and interaction between people of different ethnic and linguistic regions. The spread of Colonialism took English language far and wide in the 17th century. It reached such distant shores as those of Africa, Asia, Australia and America. The ingenious methodology of Colonial rule strived to wipe away “native” languages, thereby slowly but surely taking control over the psyche and power of these regions.

Here, we can see that although the process of translation has been prevalent since the times of the earliest human migration from Africa to all other parts of the world (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens), the academic study of this process as a discipline is fairly recent. Roman Jacobson, the structuralist critic, was one of the first to propose a theoretical approach to this discipline. He coded the language from which one needs to translate as Source Language (SL) and the text that needs to be translated as the Source Text (ST). The language and text it needs to be translated into came to be known as Target Language (TL) and Target Text (TT).

Linguists also defined 3 types of translation.

  1. Intralingual- the process of translating symbols of one language into some other symbols of the same language.
  2. Interlingual- the process of translating symbols of one language into symbols of a different language.
  3. Intersemiotic- the process of translating symbols of one language in written form to a different form in the same language or a different language (audiovisual, performance arts etc).

The process of translation can be undertaken in 3 ways.

  1. Translation- the words in one language are translated into their exact and equivalent counterparts in a different language.
  2. Transliteration- the script in one language is written in a different language so that readers of that language can understand and read the phonetic implication of the original text.
  3. Trans creation- the meaning and cultural connotations of a text in one language are imbibed by the translator and recreated in a different language without losing its style, intent, context and tone.

There are two factors to be taken into account, when we discuss Translation.

  1. Process
  2. Product

Oftentimes, writers and readers clamour over the authenticity of a translated work and its acceptability in a particular context. Should a translator be completely subservient to the rules of languages and solely endeavour to provide exact equivalents of the SL in the TL? Or should s/he take into consideration the age, milieu, cultural and social contexts of the ST and its readers; and subsequently make the desired changes during the process of translation?

These questions of truthfulness and authenticity gain critical attention when it comes to India, a country so rich in its cultural and linguistic heritage. The practice of proselytization and  and translations of Bible also brought about a keener inspection into the the act of translation. Colonial rule and its linguistic after-effects changed our education system and ideologies significantly. English also helped to unite the 30 or more small independent kingdom states under the single entity of India as a nation.


Indian Writing in English (IWE) emerged as a powerful genre worldwide, with Tagore and Ezekiel (1930s) in the lead and Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and others (1980s onwards) in tow. Most of these Indian English writers are also talented translators. They skilfully convert experiences that are essentially Indian into the global language of English. Many authors like Tagore, Kamala Das and U.R Ananthamurthy write both in English as well as their mother tongue. In today’s India, majority of the people are comfortable using their regional language for personal purposes, and English for formal purposes. Societies have changed from monolingual village microcosms to multilingual cities and towns; and for many of us, day-to-day translation of common words and phrases is as natural as breathing.

The problem arises only when we try to analyse how effectively a TT portrays the symbolic and cultural meaning of the ST. The process is akin to transferring perfume from one bottle to another. Some of the fragrance would definitely be lost during the process, but the aim is to preserve the essence. Similarly, when one tries to translate culture-specific words like nana-nani, idly, pookkalam etc into their English counterparts of grandparents, dumplings and floral carpet, onam-pookalam the TT often lacks the ideological depth of these indigenous words firmly rooted in the traditional soils of India. This distancing then leads to a need to elaborately  describe such words, and many IWE authors have been criticised for exoticising India in their works.

I believe that, as a passionate lover of languages, the question one must ask is not about the veracity/authenticity of translation; but to appreciate the sincere efforts made by authors to represent and transmit the writings in various different languages into the unifying language of English. Translation liberates texts from the stifling restrictions of niche languages and regions, thus bringing them out into the light and warmth of the global literary world.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *