Making linguistic landscapes
At a time when cleaners are called maintenance consultants why are Literature and Language not viewed as heritage?
Probably because it’s intensely connected with a sense of identity, any discussion about language raises temperatures. “Hey! Don’t mangle my language” is often heard, and though tossed lightly, an undercurrent of resentment layers the remark; and who has not chuckled over poorly subtitled films? Everyone has an opinion to share. What is language if not the doorway into and out of our interior worlds linking the personal with the universal?
Interpreting the world
Language is the invisible ocean which connects the world and translators take us across it, but some purists hold a different view: “We have nothing against English, but we don’t want French to become a second language in France,” said Gaston Pellet of the United Republican Group for Linguistic Resistance, Initiative and Emancipation. “It is very worrying and totally implausible that a series about Louis XIV should be made in English.” Well, Versailles (2015) was produced and very successfully.
We in India might have said the same thing about a film on Mahatma Gandhi (1982) but we had no difficulty in accepting that interpretation (a reading, a translation, if you like) of the political and public career of M.K. Gandhi and the re-translation of it via dubbed versions into Indian languages. Three hundred years after the Academie was established, Ezra Pound said that beginning with Chaucer, every great literary age is an age of translations, is fed by translations, and that every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations.
One of the things people who work in the hinterland between Indian languages and English must surely know is that a language, any language, equips us to interpret the world through underlying patterns of expression. Linguist James Underhill discusses the geography of our understanding saying that like land developers, we can transform our linguistically painted landscape.
Fire the imagination
Translators have no doubt at all that many different world views, visions and ideologies can be expressed in any language but readers of a particular culture will not readily understand everything about a literary product from another country. Because the English words we rely on most sometimes create a conceptual barrier between ‘dealers’ in English and speakers of other languages. Looking at things from the reverse, some words and phrases are terribly English-bound: Fair. Dark. Very well. If you please.
Today, the traditional power of language transmission is seriously challenged by technology which encourages skimming, and by its very nature, discourages slow and deep absorption, which is what builds familiarity and strength and confidence in the application of a language not our own to begin with. If the mother tongue has been disregarded and growth in it stunted in the early years, the problem becomes even more dire. Loss of language, and with it artistic horsepower, is certain.
Linguists and sociologists have estimated that a hundred years hence, the world will be poorer by 3,000 languages. Globalisation, displacement and the need to communicate with people from different parts of the world in a common language is destroying language diversity. Though every language carries knowledge and philosophical systems and world views unique to it, their importance is rarely, if ever, discussed beyond a token mention, except by the literary brigade and even they are apologetic because there appear to be no job prospects other than writing and teaching.
As a profession the first is unstable, and in the list of livelihoods (no longer a vocation), teaching long ago fell from its primacy in human life. At a time when cleaners are called maintenance consultants why are Literature and Language not viewed as heritage? If they were, there is hope that they would be actively preserved, protected, even nurtured.
The truth — that serious writing churns us up, releases feelings and in inexplicable ways refines the mind, thereby making us more capable of taking decisions — is hardly ever discussed. I was looking for proof of this when I read that Elizabeth Tudor used to translate from Latin into English and then into Greek every morning, and confided to someone that it helped her deal with courtiers from different countries (HR) and to keep her emotions in check (Life Skills).
Isn’t strengthening the mind one of the goals of education? We hope that the curriculum reforms in Indian education that are under way will pay close attention to language as a vital part of the Indian child’s growth not only to understand History and learn Science but to fire the imagination, enhance creativity and to read the world with compassion.
The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.