Ludmila Varná

Unearthing of Indian Writing in English:
A Conversation with
Christopher Rollason and Ludmila Volná


Interview by Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal

What should be the language of one's creativity: one's native language or a second/alien one?

Ludmila Volná: For a large number of writers this would, of course, be the mother tongue, but in principle it can be any language expressing by the means of which one feels at ease; that which does not feel alien.

Christopher Rollason: In most cases it will, of course, be one's first language. However, some people are genuinely bilingual and therefore free to choose.

What should be done to promote the literature in native regional languages?

Ludmila Volná: The translation work cannot be overestimated here. To translate between Indian languages and into English and other, non-Indian languages. As far as I know it has been the Sahitya Akademi's prerogative for several years to promote the former.

Christopher Rollason: Translate, translate, translate! Into English, into Hindi, and between Bengali and Tamil and all the rest. And into non-Indian languages, too.

Are there sufficient translations of regional literary works into English? What do you think are the essential qualities of a translated literary work? How will you distinguish transcreation from transliteration?

Ludmila Volná: In fact, there have been perhaps a surprisingly large number of works in regional languages translated into non-Indian languages. Not only into English, but we find an impressive number of works being translated into French from Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil and other languages. And one can find translations from Hindi, Urdu and Bengali also in Czech, for example, not speaking of translations of classical Sanskrit works. Whether the number is sufficient is hard to say; of course, the more the better. A translation is always a kind of re-creation of the text, I believe. Not only should the translator try to be faithful to the original as much as he or she can, but also the work must be understood by the readers into whose language it is translated. So it is always a kind of compromise between the two. The scope for "imaginative flight" for translators is given by their capacity to find the most suitable expression in the language into which they translate.

Christopher Rollason: It is obviously vital to translate works from Indian languages, including Hindi, into English: the more the better! I should add (I live in France) that on the French book market there exist a surprising number of translated works from Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam etc. Most of these are directly rendered, i.e. not going through English. You can find them in the bookshops. This fact is insufficiently well known. It is thus not only a question of translation into English. A translated literary text needs to strike a balance between fidelity to the original and culture and accessibility to the host culture. Transcreation — I believe the concept has been particularly explored by P. Lal — differs from translation proper because it is a much freer process. It is in line with a long Indian tradition, as with the many different language versions of the Ramayana, most famously the Tamil version, which are retellings and not translations of Valmiki's Sanskrit narrative. However, a transcreation should be billed as such and not presented as a translation in the strict sense.

Can a translator always be faithful to the original? Sometimes, he or she deviates from the original. Do you grant such deviations to a translator? There is a typical dichotomy involved in a work of translation. On the one hand, a translator cannot digress from the subject. The other side of the coin is that, if translators do not deviate from the original and stick to the text, where is the imaginative flight for them? A translator is chained by classical bondage of rules, customs and regulations. So, where is the scope for imaginative flights for a translator? Should a translator be subjective or objective?

Ludmila Volná: A transcreation is clearly not a translation and should be distinguished as such. It is what is in the Indian context also called "a rendering." A number of renderings of the classical Sanskrit texts into English have been done, and quite often Indian writers have rendered their own works from their native language into English or vice versa, especially in the period of the beginnings of Indian writing in English.

Christopher Rollason: Transcreation and translation proper are not the same thing, and each has its advantages. The transcreator can be subjective: the translator proper needs to be objective.

What are the problems of Indian English criticism? What do you think are the major issues before Indian critics? Are these critics following the ancient Indian tradition of Rasa, Dhwani and Alamkara? Or are they playing "the sedulous ape" to the western critical tools? Are there certain attempts to evolve an individual perspective, different from the ancient Indian aesthetics and western critical theory? There is an onslaught of theory from the West. Are the Indian critics able to maintain a separate identity? Who are the major contemporary Indian English critics who have evolved a new and innovative approach in their critical works?

Ludmila Volná: Indian critics should follow their own way — which does not mean an absolute rejection of Western criticism. I feel, nevertheless, that they should also try to set the critical approaches relevant for Indian writing on Western critical circles and be sceptical towards any post-colonial theory which is subject to simplifications or distortions with regard to the specific features of Indian culture and literature. Indian critics should certainly not allow any kind of theoretical colonization. Theories like dhwani-rasa have not yet found their way into broader critical circles. On the other hand, IWE has already its own well-established tradition of Indian critics, starting with Srinivasa Iyengar, Prema Nandakumar, or C.D. Narasimhaiah, and going on with names like Harish Trivedi, Vrinda Nabar, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Subhendu Mund, GJV Prasad, Nilufer Bharucha and many others, all of whose approach can be classified as a singular contribution to Indian English criticism.

Christopher Rollason: There are very significant names in Indian criticism — Harish Trivedi, GJV Prasad, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Gayatri Spivak — but, alas, how well are any of them known in the West outside the ambit of postcolonial studies, or perhaps translation studies? This said, surely Indian critics wishing to make their mark internationally would do best to master both Indian and Western points of view? Still missing is the Indian critic who will bring rasa theory to the outside world's attention as an alternative to Aristotelian perspectives.

What are your views about English studies in India? English studies were introduced in India to colonize the minds of the Indians. About the determination of the British to introduce European literature in India, Governor Lord William Bentinck declared that "the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and all funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on English education alone" (qtd. Iyengar 27). In the light of the aforesaid facts, is it not proper to exclude certain colonial texts from the syllabi of English Studies in India? In their place, should we not introduce translations of certain classics of regional languages? It will be a sort of decolonization of English studies. I think the curriculum of English studies should consist of literature in English language in place of literature of England. Your views please.

Ludmila Volná: In my opinion, the study of English in India should be given a place analogous to that which it occupies anywhere else. English studies are nothing more but nothing less either than English studies. If we study English, then we should certainly include classical texts written in English, and that is irrespective of the place where it is studied. It should include all literature written in the English language, certainly not just literature of England. Examples of what you call "certain colonial texts" should be, on the contrary, studied, I believe; not from a subordinate position but in the proper historical perspective, they should be studied by a "decolonized mind."

Christopher Rollason: It is usually said that Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education was aimed at imposing British perspectives on Indian minds. However, if you read that text closely, you will find a subtext, namely that he does also advocate developing modern Indian languages — rather than Sanskrit or Arabic — with a view to those languages acquiring a scientific and technical vocabulary. The technology introduced by a colonial power can be reappropriated for national purposes post-independence. Noone in India suggests tearing up the railway lines simply because the British had them laid. Karl Marx predicted that teaching Indians western technology would ultimately lead to India reassuming its place as a great nation. Mulk Raj Anand in his novel Untouchable saw technology as liable to bring about social progress in India by liberating dalits from the most menial tasks. Meanwhile, the idea of "excluding" certain "colonial texts" from syllabi sounds risky. Shakespeare remains the most important writer in English and introduced more words into the language than anyone else. Kipling's Kim is still valuable as transmitting aspects of the colonists' idea of India. Edward Said found Kim redeemable. This said, there is anyway a growing tendency worldwide to teach "literatures in English" — British, US, postcolonial — rather than "English literature."

The MNCs are hiring a number of Indians. One requirement for entry into these organizations is fluency in English, but the problem is that the comprehension power of Indian students in the English language is very weak. Will it not be better to teach the students about the minutest intricacies of the language in place of lecturing on a number of irrelevant and colonial texts of England? What do you think?

Ludmila Volná: The only way to solve this problem is certainly to improve the quality of teaching of the English language as such. Learning English does not necessarily need to be a part of English studies. In other words, it is possible to learn good English without majoring in English studies. At the same time it is necessary to realize that the "minutest intricacies" of the language are conveyed precisely by the literary works of art.

Christopher Rollason: I think there are two separate issues here. It is not necessary for all professionals proficient in English to be English studies majors. One thing is service courses in English for those studying economics, technology, et cetera. Another is the content of degrees in English studies as such. Meanwhile, I do not accept the notion of literary studies as "irrelevant." Creative writing expands a language's boundaries and is a privileged means of access to, precisely, its "minutest intricacies."

What are your views about the publication process in India? Publishers do not easily come forward to publish a new and budding author. Most of the time, they ask for money from the poets/authors instead of giving them royalties. Similar is the case with certain journals. They also charge for subscription/membership. In this way, new and innovative approaches to literature may be kept hidden from the eyes of the world. Please comment.

Ludmila Volná: The reluctance to publish a new and unestablished author is nothing specific to India. It is, more or less, the case anywhere else, too. New authors and innovators are not always appreciated; theirs is not an easy lot. This is a sad, nevertheless, generally valid reality.

Christopher Rollason: I am not in favour of the practice of asking authors or contributors for financial input into books and journals. I find it counterproductive.

Can electronic publication be an alternative to print publication? I think negatively about it. Publication on Internet cannot replace print publication. One can easily get one's material published on the Internet. But the real issue is whether people take it seriously. Readers go through blogs cursorily. How many genuine readers do bother to indulge in the text on the Internet? It is not suitable for serious academic research. What do you think about all this?

Ludmila Volná: We are perhaps still more used to print publications. Nevertheless, while it is true that one can publish whatever one wants on his or her own blog, there are very serious Internet journals published from prestigious universities where it is not so easy to get published. The advantage of these journals is, of course, that they are accessible to a large number of readers and thus academic research can benefit from them. Very often the readers and the authors can come into direct contact via e-mail. On the other hand there is a large number of print journals or other publications which are of poor quality. It is then necessary to have the criteria for serious academic research in mind and to act selectively both with regard to printed matter and to internet material.

Christopher Rollason: There is in fact a large amount of serious academic material online. Today, the bibliographies to articles reflect this. What worries me is that a lot of academic journals are paying sites. This I find contrary to the free circulation of knowledge, a principle vital to the Internet which also, I believe, corresponds to the Indian notion that knowledge exists to be shared.

Work Cited
Iyengar, K.R.S. Indian Writing in English. 5th ed. New Delhi: Sterling, 1985.