Wrestling With Words And Meaning

Translations have been very educative for me!

My first job of translating a document was a very difficult exercise. I was translating the ‘Chairman’s speech’ at the Annual General Meeting of the shareholders, in Marathi for the Company’s magazine. The speech was characteristically very short. It stood out for two qualities – for its brevity, unlike the Chairman’s speeches of those times of companies like Hindustan Lever [as it was then] and ITC, which were very elaborate, and for its brief content loaded with a lot of meaning or message. I remember brooding over some sentences, their meaning and trying a lot of expressions and words to capture the meaning as truthfully as possible. There was no question of anybody complimenting for this effort because it wasn’t a document that was read for its literary value. Yet it was a great exercise for me, and not just that, but also very educative.

I began by transliteration and mistook it for translation till I realised that translation was a different game. Sharad Chavan, who was well known news reader on AIR’s Mumbai channel was a professional translator. I reached out to him when I was under severe time pressure to translate and publish the Chairman’s speech in Marathi. I could see the qualitative difference – his sentences were crisp, they captured the essence of the original English sentence and placed emphasis on the words in sync with the original text. There was a lot to learn from him. My acquaintance with Sharad Chavan was to grow later and he was to mentor me for developing my writing skills is a story about which I will write later. Suffice it to say, I learnt a lot from him.

It was always my desire to have a book that carried my name as the author. This was partly satisfied when I edited a book for my organisation, but it was editing credit, not writing. I decided to translate a book, and I picked up ‘No Full Stops in India’ by Mark Tully for translation in Marathi. The very first sentence presented a huge stumbling block! Here it is: How do you cope with the poverty?’ That must be the question I have been asked most frequently by visitors to India.’ I found the question difficult to translate. I could not think of any appropriate expression in Marathi which could convey ‘How do you cope with the poverty.’ I tried hard but couldn’t. The first-sentence-stumbling was like the first ball wicket of a batsman! You feel ashamed, you get a terrible sense of inadequacy. I went ahead with some ‘compromise’ and translated the entire foreword. But the stumbling at the very first step prevented me from publishing it.

Later, I also translated the foreword to Rajmohan Gandhi’s ‘Understanding Muslim Mind.’ When Babri masjid was pulled down, I published it in the Company’s magazine, it was within three days of the Babri Masjid event!

After retirement, I translated a hundred page English book in Marathi. It is all about how to work effectively and build success. The format is that Michael Angelo explains ‘how to work effectively and build success’ with examples from his life, to a person who has failed in life. Translating that posed a great challenge. Yet the soothing words of Suneel Karnik, the well-known editor, that it was a good translation which deserved to be published, was a great compliment. He insists that I must translate his two recommended books, and those remain on my list.

And now I am translating the speech of a noble laureate, in Marathi. I stop at sentences which carry deep meaning, think about the message, and experiment with words and constructing sentences to catch the essence. This experience is impossible to describe. To experience what I experienced, try translating these sentences: It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Or try this: Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting – even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document.’

So much is said about the power of words. Yet words remain ‘very poor communicators.’ Words are like the ‘local trains’ at Mumbai’s overcrowded stations. They carry a lot of passengers and leave out many stranded on the platform. My understanding of that quote is now reinforced by my understanding of the meaning they carry.

Vivek Patwardhan