How faithful is the Hindi to French translation of Mr Choonee’s words?

 Beauty lies in the eyes of the translator

By Satish Kumar Mahadeo
Many people believe that translation is an exact science and mistakenly assume that firmly-defined one to one correlations exist between words and phrases in different languages, thus rendering translations fixed and identically reproducible. They assume that all that is needed in order to translate a text is to encode and decode between languages (e.g. from Hindi to French/Creole, for our immediate purposes), using a translation dictionary as the codebook.

Mr Choonee, a man who has, after all, had a career in the field of Diplomacy, which must have taught him the “subtilités du langage”, is alleged to have spoken of some groups in Mauritius having more “droits” than others. The word “droits” is purported to be a direct translation of the Hindi word “Hak” — which the Minister, at a later stage, interpreted as implying notions of “legitimate pride”.
Spivak, the famous literary theorist, considering translation as “the most intimate act of reading”, wrote that, unless the translator has earned the right to become an intimate reader, he/she cannot surrender to the text, cannot respond to the special call of the text. A simple document, e.g. a product brochure, can often be translated quickly, using techniques familiar to advanced language students. By contrast, a newspaper editorial, a political speech, or a book on almost any subject will require not only the craft of good language skills and research technique, but a substantial knowledge of the subject matter, a CULTURAL SENSITIVITY, and a mastery of the art of translation.

Scholars suggest that in order to produce an adequate translation, a translator should avoid the tendency to translate word for word, since word for word translation misinterprets the original content and spoils the beauty of its form. The ideal in translation is to produce in the minds of the receptor culture as nearly as possible the same effect as is produced by the original source culture. Translation must consciously attempt the SPIRIT of the original at the expense of the LETTER. So word for word translation does not seem to be considered as a good one since such renderings “generally make for a doubtful translation”. The literal translation is a lie; it is a fake and fraud.
Ironically, l’express (09 Sep 10), by publishing a caricature of a sociocultural organisation burning a copy of its Sunday edition, with the inscription “C’est le CORAN??”, learnt at its own expense how a text — whether in audiovisual or written form — can be highly offensive when its emotiveness and cultural sensitivity is not taken into account. In other words, how a text or an image is translated from one culture to another culture depends on the receptor culture.
The whole point is that translation, if it is utilised as a means to act as a bridge between cultures, is a complicated and multi-faceted activity. Translating the phrase as “white as snow” into a language whose people have no experience with snow can be challenging. The translator in such a case has either to incorporate additional material in his target language version in order to make such implicit connotations explicit in the target language, or resort to explanations to make up for the missing connotations in his target language version. Or the translator has to resort to a non-corresponding equivalent item, which may have an equivalent function in the target language culture.So what would be the the “functional equivalence” of the Hindi word “Hak” in French and Creole? I will give language experts who have an “intimate reading” of both Hindi and French or Creole the “RIGHT” to ponder upon.

Beyond the issue of miscommunication stemming from Mr Choonee’s speech, I want to raise a fundamental question, namely the role of TRANSLATION in acting as a bridge between cultures in a multi-ethnic society. When cultural sensitivity is absent, something gets “LOST IN TRANSLATION”.

* Published in print edition on 17 September 2010

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