Saturday, September 30, is International Translation Day. The theme for this year is ‘Translation unveils the many faces of humanity.’ We begin to appreciate and understand other cultures and other points of view through translation, we also learn to perceive ourselves. While we see what other worlds have and what they lack, we do so with a renewed understanding of what we have and what we lack. Translations always bring in change, bring in something new to us, even unexpectedly.
While translation helps us appreciate other cultures and points of view, we also learn to perceive ourselves
Who should know this better than us Indians? Most Hindus have grown up on a diet of translations of the epics and Puranic stories. Most Indians would have heard or read parts of such translations. Each time an epic is translated, new elements are added to it, a few specific parts highlighted, a few characters gain more prominence than others. This happens even more so if the translation is into a different media like painting or music or cinema. The epic changes as it changes other traditions, cultures, and readers/listeners/viewers. We have our many ‘Ramayanas’ and ‘Mahabharatas’, both epics still giving rise to new translations and interpretations. Our heroes change demeanour, even character in our translations. What we choose to translate and how we translate shows who we are.
Thus, the many faces of humanity that are unveiled by translation includes ours as well. As we identify with, or distance ourselves from, specific translations — the story, the themes, the characters, the narrative style — our face is clearly visible in the mirror of judgment. But, isn’t it true of all writing and reading, not just of translations? Our world is brought into being in our languages, and our worldview is perhaps constrained and constructed by our language.
One of the ways in which we reveal ourselves is in the way we refer to others, in the way our use of language marginalises others and deems them unfit and unworthy of a place at the table. All of us know of the way we refer to people of other religions, other communities, and other castes. This is also clear in the way men refer to other genders in this patriarchal world of ours. These become denigrating terms, abuses, when men talk to each other, and definitely so when men and women use these when talking to or about the others. The terms perform societal oppression, which is why uttering some of these can lead to criminal prosecution.
But how about the way in which we talk about disabilities, about persons with disability? From idiomatic phrases in our various languages that use disability, mark and mock them, to terms which use disability to denigrate others. Our languages use equivalents for lame, blind, deaf, lunatic, etc, to characterise people and abuse them. We label and erase from our view persons with disability, and instead use these terms to ridicule ‘normal’ people. It is only when we translate from our languages that we pay attention to our own character, our own easy acceptance of these terms, our own skills of erasure. It is only when we translate that we realise that some of our favourite stories and novels have characters who are disabled, whose disability is often used to highlight or show a flaw in character, or that they have characters whose disability is only used to describe them.
Even our well-meaning efforts help to marginalise the disabled, to deny them their rights as human beings, as citizens of our country. To call them differently abled is to say they should look past their disability and not ask for support from the community or state to help them work with their disability. To call them ‘Divyang’ is to state that theirs is a God-given body (with all its implications).
International Translation Day marks the Feast Day of St Jerome, a priest who translated the Greek Bible into Latin. His thoughts about translation strategies are foundational to Translation Studies. The day is thus an occasion to think of what translations can accomplish and how we must encourage more and more translations. Translation makes us realise that society needs to change, for we cannot like many of the faces of humanity, including ours. We need to translate ourselves for the better.
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