Translator Translated by Anita Desai

I found this little collection of short novellas (long short stories?) at a random bookstore in Hyderabad. Never having read anything by Desai, buying it was just an instinctive leap. I’m so glad I did! Of the three short stories in The Artist of Disappearance, my favourite was Translator Translated. Warning: this is less of a review and more of a rant about translators and translations.

Summary: A lonely English teacher, Prema, who lives a miserable unsatisfied life, is offered a chance to try her hand at translation. The book in question is written by her favourite Oriya author, Suvarna Devi. When she translates the first book – Prema finds herself a purpose in life, she finds her voice and takes her back to a time in her life when was full of curiosity and passion. She begins to identify herself with Suvarna Devi, begins to consider her a friend, even. When the book is released, at a press conference, Prema finally meets Suvarna Devi, only to discover that she’s exactly like her – a mousy misfit, with none of the grand qualities Prema has attached to her. The old author hardly seems to care about the translation. But Prema takes on the task of a new book Suvarna Devi going to write, not quite ready to let go of her new career. Leaving her job, Prema becomes a full-time translator. Only this time, Suvarna Devi’s work has lost its perfection. Prema begins to spot inconsistencies and erroneous language and repetitive over-done drama, and finds herself wanting to rewrite. Somewhere along the way, Prema finds herself modifying the work, taking it upon herself to help Suvarna Devi improve her language and story.
My thoughts: The most obvious theme of the story is that of a translator finding her own voice in someone else’s work. What makes a good translator, and is a translator not an author? Is there a bond between the translator and the author? How much creative license does a translator have?  The story poses some excellent questions and tries to guide us to the answers. I have always been of the opinion that a translator is only a lens, which brings a work into our reach, and when the lens is very clear (carrying the metaphor too far? just go with it.) and powerful, we’re grateful for it. But the lens isn’t what makes the work beautiful, that is all the author. Isn’t it? The story has made me think… if having your own voice hinders a good translation, would authors make bad translators? Or is that just a big generalization…? Personally, I would be a good translator, but only of books I like. Otherwise, burying my judgments would prove difficult.

Translator Translated is also about art and how it is made. The story makes you wonder if some aspect of a book would always be lost in translation. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? A bunch of days ago, my favourite author declared Ron and Hermione shouldn’t have ended up together (dropping bombs is so J.K.Rowling: does staying out of the news make her uneasy?) Which reminded of the Dumbledore revelation and how a re-read of the last couple of Harry Potter books after the news convinced me that she’d had it in her mind all along – once I knew it, Dumbledore seemed gay, too. But then: would he have seemed so in a translation? Do you see what I mean – a translator couldn’t know everything going on in the author’s head. Does it not affect the book? That also means that I’ll never be able to read the most authentic version of Anna Karenina or any of the translated books I love. So disappointing.

But mostly, Translator Translated by Anita Desai is about identity. About how you perceive yourself and how your perception affects how others see you; or how you think others see you (confusing, sorry.) It’s a sad, sad story about learning to love yourself and it shows you how simple it would be and how few manage to do it. I wanted to feel sorry for Prema at the very end, but I was convinced that she’d brought it all on herself. Such a character is hard to sympathize with and harder to relate to. Translator Translated, like the other stories in the collection, is well written, honest and hard-hitting. Read it!