Globalization is not new. From time immemorial, there has been widespread cross-cultural translation and sharing of ideas between India and China
By Priyadarsi Mukherji
I have spent more than half of my life in learning and propagating Chinese language, literature and culture through monographs and works of translation. I am also a poet. Hence, I have a natural inclination to translate Chinese poems, both classical and modern, into Bengali —my mother tongue as well as Hindi and English. In the course of these translations, one cannot avoid transcreating phrases and indigenizing concepts. Today people tend to forget that globalization is not new in this world, nor is the transposition of ideas. From the time immemorial, there have been widespread cross-cultural communications between India and China, influencing each other with extensive cooperation between great scholars of the two countries. In the olden days, the two-way traffic did not require any passport or visa. That was indeed a genuine globalization.
I firmly believe that only poets can translate poems better— from one language to another. Not only they can retain the rhythmical sense, the rhyming patterns, and the poetic sentiment, but can also preserve the soul of poetry. Culture specificity of the source language should be rendered into another language by retaining culture-specificity of the target language. Otherwise, the translated poems seem awkward. Therefore, transcreation and indigenization go hand in hand. Every piece of translation would, therefore, need to have annotations, so as to provide enjoyment to the ordinary readers as well as researchers. The question of substituting words or the problems of translatability keeps on haunting a good and conscious translator till the proper sense gets rendered or transposed to his satisfaction. A language can never be entirely devoid of localization or indigenization— how hard globalization is sought to be imposed upon it. That’s why phrases and idioms remain as a hallmark of a language. Flora and fauna and the geographic features associated with a particular culture need to be addressed by appropriately substituting them with those found in the culture of the target language. A Chinese-American scholar Tang Degang said if literature is made to fly abroad, even then it cannot cast off its localized characteristics.
I would now like to highlight briefly some of my experiences in translation. While translating Lu Xun’s last poem “A Random Composition in the Waning Autumn Days of 1935”— written on 5 December 1935,I found the poem’s title indicating the year according to the traditional Chinese calendar. It was the last of the 12 Earthly Branches. In fact, 1935 was a combination of the second Heavenly Stem 乙 and the twelfth Earthly Branch 亥。I had to put it directlyas 1935. And in the place of Lu Xun’s ‘waning autumn days’, I put the name of the month according to the traditional Indian calendar— Agrahayana. In place of harsh autumn, I put the name Hemant— the season occurring between autumn and winter comprising the months of Kartik and Agrahayana.
In the same poem, I also found some names of edible aquatic herbs popularly called the ‘wild rice’, and ‘cattail’ that I substituted with aquatic herbs commonly found in Bengal. These names remind us how similar had been the condition of the impoverished people of both China and Bengal, and how they searched for aquatic herbs in the swarms and ponds for their livelihood. Names of trees, shrubs and herbs, even some birds and flowers in one culture and related topography, are not easy to translate due to their non-existence in other cultures and vocabulary. Therefore, a proximity concerning their nature or characteristics is sought and put in the target language composition as culture-specific substitutes.
While translating Mao Zedong’s complete poems, at a number of points (e.g., Long March, CelebratingChina’s First Nuclear Test, A Conversation of Two Birds, etc.), I had to indigenize the words denoting unitsof length, distance, weight etc. The Chinese units of measurement do not match with those used in India. The Chinese ‘li’ (里) equivalent to half a kilometer has been rendered as ‘Krosh’ in Bengali, even though‘Krosh’ happens to be a bit more than three kilometers. Similarly, the Chinese ‘jun’ (钧) that equals to 30 jinor 15 kg, has been rendered as ‘mon’ in Bengali, which is about 82 pounds. Chinese ‘zhang’ (丈) (=3.33 meters) is rendered as ‘gaj’ (= 3 feet) in Bengali. While translating, for the sake of rhyming or else in order to address to the local customs and practices, the Chinese weights and measures have been translated into words denoting Indian weights and measures. On one hand, indigenization of words, and on the other hand a comprehensive annotation to the compositions can provide the readers with enjoyment of reading and correct understanding of another culture.
In the poem “Dayanhe, My Wet Nurse”, of Ai Qing, the word 婆婆 appears as an address in the sense of mother-in-law of a girl. In the Indian society, a married girl calls her mother-in-law as “mother”. Therefore, in translation, the word 婆婆 was rendered as ‘Ma’. The context is amply clear with the word daughter-in-law.
In the Euro-American society, there has been an age-old concept of dissociation of an individual with one’s relatives. That spirit is reflected in their generalized terms of uncle and aunt; some distant cousins, etc. Onthe contrary, in India or in China, the addresses for relatives have been quite elaborate. In translation, therefore, it becomes a problem area while transposing such Chinese or Indian names denoting relations into any European language. While in the intra-Asian context it is easy to understand and translate such terms within India and China.
On the question of translatability and untranslatability we would find how the single-word expressions add to the embellishment of a language. E.g., in Bengali, even in Hindi, the paddy in the field is called ‘dhaan’. After husking, the rice is called ‘chaal’. And when cooked, the rice is called ‘bhaat’. However, there is no single-word equivalent when translated into English. There is no single-word expression in English, or even in modern Chinese for the directions that we get in Bengali. For example, the word ‘Ishan’ means north-east; ‘Nairrit’ means south-west; ‘Vayu’ means north-west; and ‘Agni’ means south-east. All these are four corners other than north, south, east, and west. All these words are rooted in Sanskrit. Very few people would today know that the rising sun in Sanskrit is called Arun; the scorching midday sun is Tapan. The blue lotus is Indivar, red lotus is Kokanad, and the white lotus is Pundarika. My point is, in order to translate, one needs to know well one’s own roots. Then only one can do justice to translation.
In the course of translation, there are various new innovative methods that could be applied in transcreation.
Priyadarsi Mukherji is Professor in Chinese & Sinological Studies, Centre for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.