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Word for word: the translator's temptations and the pleasure of sinning

Preserving the language, spirit and storyline is a tall order – sometimes, straying is recommended.

Word for word: the translator’s temptations and the pleasure of sinning
The primary force that drives me as a translator is the joy of sharing. I’ve read something wonderful, and I think there are a lot of people out there who might enjoy reading it too, but they can’t because they don’t read and understand the language. Hell, I’m going to translate it for them, in a language that they can understand. That is it, that has always been it. And I love doing it.

I love the idea that language is not a constraint anymore, and that it’s finally what it’s supposed to be – an enabler. But like everything else, this comes with its own share of difficulties, heartburns, loopholes, and believe it or not – paradoxes.

At war with words

You may have often heard people say – literal translation is not always a good idea, translation should be done in spirit – so much so that it’s almost become a cliché now. The spirit of words is often marinated in the milieu they come from, and (this is something that is not often talked about) this is true for BOTH the original as well as the translated words.

A church-going middle-aged American farmer making a living in the southern states will refer to his wife as “mother” and a traditional Bengali clerk will refer to his daughter as “maa”. Literal translations don’t help here, but translations in spirit? Do they suffice? I doubt it.

The truth is this – sometimes a word in a given language carries a lot of information within itself. The word “mujahid” in Urdu may mean one of many things, depending on the context, as may the word “mon” in Bengali. Even translations in spirit fail miserably sometimes, because our assumption of the existence of a word or even a phrase in one’s own language for every word in another language is implausible.

I have known of at least one example, where, in order to convey the true meaning of a single word, I have been tempted to introduce a whole subplot within a story. That is the “inclusive” solution. The other solution, which is more often preferred these days, and is considered safe, is to simply drop the original word, and with it, the message.

Whose story is it?

The other problem that translators face is that of being faithful to the original. Seems like a piece of cake, doesn’t it? It’s “ethical”. Non-interfering. Almost like a dictum: Thou shalt not change the story that you are translating in any way.

But to be very honest, there are parts in a magnum opus by even some of the greatest writers in literature where I have felt – “I wish (s)he could have written this differently”, or “This would have been so much lovelier if it would have been said that way”. It’s a dilemma we translators often face, what we do about it is a matter of personal choice, but we do face it, there’s no denying that.

In my opinion, it would be unfair to say that it is a sacrilege to even think about it. No, because just like the translator has a duty towards the original piece, she also has a solemn duty towards her readers. My own take on the matter, and I know it may seem radical and controversial, is that the translator has to strike a fine balance.

Let us admit, the translator is not a machine, he is made of flesh and blood, and has the right to create something that he believes in. Had he been a machine, perhaps readers would not have enjoyed any of his works. His work is open to criticism, much as the original work is, but he does have the right to refuse to write something that he thinks is a blot that stands out and tarnishes an otherwise beautiful picture.

Why we don’t translate enough

I have often heard publishers say – “The market for translations is very small.” Why, I wonder? That’s not true about cuisine. People do want to experience new cuisine, people do like to discover new things, people generally like to explore. Or is it because eating out, in general, has become rare? Whatever be the reason, in an industry where it is not easy to create a sustainable profession out of writing alone, it is virtually impossible to survive simply by translating stories and novels, plays and poetry. Which is why translation is a dying art. The few people that are involved in this seriously all have alternate professions. And if the market continues to shrink at this rate, a time will soon come when no one will translate any more, making the walls between different cultures insurmountable and impenetrable.

Amidst all this, it is very heartening to see that several publishing houses have taken matters into cognisance and have created special imprints specifically for translation works. I think this is a marvellous and important first step in the direction of a scenario where we get an opportunity to discover a whole new world of literature, where the ingredients of the food may be the same, but the flavours differ.

As a noted Bengali author once said to me – “it is sad that we look up at the sky and strive to know so much about stars and planets billions of light years away, and yet we know so little of the person standing next to us.”

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include the anthology 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his novels include the forthcoming whodunit Penumbra.


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