WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS | D. FELMAN, A.S. MASON AND SAMANTHA SCHNEE
At least since the invention of the printing press, the history of literature has also been the history of translation. Within 50 years of the birth of print technology in the 15th century, the number of books in Europe had shot up from a few thousand handwritten manuscripts and their copies to more than nine million. As soon as it became possible for every household to possess a copy of a book it valued, such as the Bible, translation became a valuable and widespread activity, enriching lives immeasurably by casting literature into new languages and making them accessible to vast new audiences.
Even today, what we think of as the greatest works of world literature, are works we generally know only in translation. The most popular version of the Bible, the King James Bible, is an enduring and majestic 16th-century translation of the original Hebrew and Greek. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, widely considered the greatest novel ever written, is read today by many more readers in English and other translations than in the original Spanish. The same is true for Flaubert, Chekhov, or even last year’s Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk.
If the world today is a smaller place than it used to be, then we owe that as much to translation as to the arrival of the Internet. Indeed, in our own vibrantly multilingual country, the glories of our literature would sometimes not find an audience even a few hundred kilometres from their place of origin were it not for translations. As the literary critic Edmund Wilson once wrote, translations achieve something like a cross-fertilization of cultures, allowing the best of what has been thought and said to reverberate widely.
Yet, English, with its imperial past, is now the dominant world language, and as with all asymmetries of power, there comes a neglect of small or marginal presences. A study by the online magazine of literature in translation, Words Without Borders, shows that 50% of all books published in translation worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% into English. A sample of the riches English readers are missing out on because of the reluctance of English-language publishers to invest in the (admittedly expensive and time-consuming) process of translation is now provided by the anthology Words Without Borders, which brings together 28 works of literature never before published in English and selected by some of the most prominent names in world literature, from Naguib Mahfouz and Gunter Grass to Jose Saramago and Ha Jin.
The Indian presence in this contingent is the Bengali writer Parashuram (1880-1960), whose story, The Scripture Read Backwards, chosen by author Amit Chaudhuri, is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Parashuram had a talent for comedy, not just of character or situation, but something that penetrated to the very heart of cultures and their relations with each other.
The Scripture Read Backwards envisages, through a series of comic vignettes, a world in which it is not England which has colonized Bengal, but Bengal, which has colonized England. British schoolboys sitting in pathshalas study how Bengali colonialism has brought peace and order to fractious Europe; newspapers feature advertisements for powders to darken “the unfortunate natural pallor” of the skins of Englishwomen; a British governess is ticked off by her Indian mistress for saying thank you, please and sorry all the time (“It’s a very rude habit”); and a nascent British Home Rule movement tries valiantly to counteract the propaganda of the Bengali empire. In this way, Parashuram sublimated Indian resentment at the Raj into healing laughter.
Many of the other pieces are just as entertaining. The Chinese writer Ma Jian, who has already found an audience around the world (he had the good luck of also marrying his translator), treats us to Where Are You Running To?, a story about a woman chasing her truant son through the streets of the city, remembering on the way all the hardships of her life. The Nigerian writer, Akinwumi Isola, presents a tale of marital strife in The Uses of English, a translated story that is also about translation, and the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, a hardbitten story about the life of a boxer, Lightweight Champ. This sparkling collection is the most powerful manifesto possible for a world of words without borders.
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