When reading a book in translation, I often find myself wondering how true is the translation to the original? How does a translator convey those subtle and sometimes very particular cultural and linguistic nuances? How does an author feel about the translated version of his/her story? I asked an author that last question once, and he wittily replied that since he didn’t read x language at all, he really was quite pleased with the result.
So consider what would happen should a translator “go rogue.” In “Translator Translated,” perhaps my favorite of the novellas in Anita Desai’s The Artist of Disappearance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), we meet Prema, a hard working, underappreciated, college professor and expert in the regional Indian language Oriya. While attending an event at her alma mater, she runs into a former classmate, the glamorous, successful Tara, whom Prema has always admired. As the women begin to chat, they discover a mutual interest in literature: Tara has begun a new publishing venture, and brings Prema on as a translator.
Prema begins her work with the best of intentions, and with the publication of her first translation, finally experiences a hint of the professional and personal recognition she has desired for so long. With this boost to her ego, she goes on to the second project, but soon discovers she could substantially “improve” the storyline of the original work. She begins to rewrite the novel, and one can see how it can only unravel from there. The novella is a quiet, thoughtful contemplation not only of the process of translation and the role of the translator, but also of the fundamental human need to be seen and acknowledged.