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Translators’ Dilemmas and Entering ‘South Asian Literature’

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Ever since Hangwoman, my translation of K R Meera’s modern epic in Malayalam, Aarachaar was published, I have been repeatedly asked whether I edited it to ‘shape’. The question sometimes irritated me, because it was posed as if I had carried out the intellectual equivalent of cosmetic surgery on that fine work.

I struggled to communicate the subtlety of the editing that translation demands. One is always conscious of the fact that the readership of an English translation is qualitatively different from that of the original Malayalam text, but editing in the process of translation is not primarily aimed at making the text palatable to the former. Much more significant is the fact that what may need a whole sentence in the source language can perhaps be conveyed in a word in the target language or vice-versa. And, more importantly perhaps, any translation is hugely dependent on the translator’s reading of the text. The translator is constantly faced with the problem of how to interpret – is a certain word or phrase or sentence a simple description, or a complex one, or perhaps a metaphor or a simile? Editing rests quite decisively on such micro-decisions.

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