Deepa Bhasthi’s call for translations with accents.
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The first time I found myself in London, many years ago now, I remember being told, no, not that atrocious ‘your English is very good’, but that I had a very Indian accent. The first time I heard it, it came as a shock.
Back in school, we were instructed to speak only in English, or risk severe reprimand, a note in our diaries to summon our parents or, worse, the disdain of our classmates. There were those among us who spoke the language even at home – the culture in the hill station I grew up in remains, like most other once-retreats for the colonisers, heavily influenced by the British class system. My parents insisted on speaking Kannada at home, but they did not particularly care when I discarded the language in our library for my growing collection in English.
Raised by our schools to embrace an alien tongue – and, by extension, an outlook that encouraged us to see our own languages and cultures as ‘one wasteland of non-achievement’, as Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o terms it – we sought to align with identities far removed from the multi-linguistic cultural landscapes we lived in. We were taught to erase every bit of our native cultures from our mouths and minds, and encouraged to cultivate a neutral accent. Our skin tones might give us away, but our English would be crisp, clean and un-placeable. Thanks to this Macaulayism, my Kannada, my Hindi, the other languages I speak now reek of the slight twang of an English medium education, still an aspiration for millions in my country.
Naturally, then, it bothered me slightly to be told I had an Indian accent, even though they couldn’t say which part of vast India it was from. ‘Well, I am Indian’, I remember muttering under my breath.
Back in India, my accent was again what it had always been – neutral, urban, upper caste, privileged. It would take me a few more years, and (accidentally) starting a career in translation, to realise just what a privilege it was to have any accent at all. I had started to translate from Kannada to English – mostly, as time went by, to feel closer to the former, something I had missed belonging to for decades. A kind of rooting, if you will.
Much has been said about translation’s challenges, joys, and nuanced politics of choice – of the decision-making it necessitates. Perhaps not many people think simultaneously in two (or more) languages, two cultures, two texts as intimately as a translator. In the course of engaging with the rewarding art of translating a text – and translating a reader, as the writer, poet and translator A K Ramanujan saw it – I found myself struck by thoughts on language and specifically on literature in India, far more than I wanted to be, some days. These evolving, shape-shifting metaphors and ideas started with an untethered phrase: ‘to translate with an accent’.
An accent is a wonderful mechanism for letting someone know that you have footholds in cultures beyond the language in which you are communicating. In India, an average person with some level of education and/or perhaps a job away from their home state is likely to be at least bilingual. Given how so many of us consume entertainment, from the popular Hindi film industry to independent music in many languages to social media, and given labour migration from one state to the other in a country as diverse as India, multi-lingual competence is not at all rare. On the other hand, it is also true that, chiefly in cities, there is a section of urbanised youth who count English as their first, and sometimes only, language. Alongside an increasingly strong push to promote Hindi for the whole country, backed by a right-wing central government that falsely claims it as a national language, sociolinguistics in India is a complex issue that needs to be approached cautiously, bearing in mind both the always-urgent need to decolonise culture, and evolving socio-economic realities.
Given these complexities, I have begun to think of us translators working in the Indian subcontinental context as occupying a unique position from where we choose to translate. I say this because, even if not party to tri-, or multi-lingual knowledge, most of us are likely aware of how pervasive and deep-rooted caste and class systems are across our respective countries, and the unique chokehold these have over every single aspect of life, including language. A thick accent, a grammatical mistake, a mispronunciation still invite judgement among the upper classes, here, because how well – or not – one speaks English is among the many indicators of what caste the person belongs to, therefore determining how they must be engaged with, if at all.
Language, especially English, is learnt with baggage in India, for obvious reasons. There is our colonised past and then, our globalised, hyper-connected digital lives that unfairly favour those adept at the language. Extending this to literature, it is true that Indian Writing in English (IWE) garners much more attention than what is called bhasha (the word means, literally, ‘language’, and denotes India’s many regional languages) literature, where attention, fame, legacy and income also depend greatly on the language, on the writer’s gender, caste and other factors.. For translations, it often so happens that a bhasha-to-English project finds more fame than the inverse. Worse off still is a bhasha-to-bhasha translation – even rarer to hear about, though perhaps the most interesting of translation practices. We will be the first to tell you that it is easier to negotiate exchange of cultures into and from the bhasha than to coax English to bend to our will.
Bhasha literature is an intensely patriarchal space. I wonder if it is easier for a woman writer to make a more visible career writing in English – limited though the audience many be – than in an Indian language. Here, I think of the likes of Banu Mushtaq, an extraordinary writer in Kannada who has, for decades, been reflecting in her short stories on the lives of Muslim women in particular, and whose work I am so privileged to be currently translating. While she is a respected figure in literature, the names most widely recognised in Kannada writing are those of men. I would redistribute some of this fame, if I could redo the list.
Writers in India have talked about these issues for decades. I choose to quote from two from my home state of Karnataka, both widely translated and read across the world. The late U R Ananthamurthy, of Samskara fame, was at times dismissive of those choosing to write in English, saying that it was a moral choice to write in one’s own mother tongue. An English professor himself, he chose to write in Kannada, calling it a political decision. It must be noted that a lot of bhasha writers have, over the decades in post-Independent India, chosen to see IWE as almost a betrayal, judging its writers for looking West in language and for validation. Shashi Deshpande, one of the best-known writers in IWE, has reflected on these issues extensively in her superbly titled memoir Listen to Me, pointing out that the writer has the absolute right to work in any language of their choice, irrespective of political correctness and the baggage tied to the language.
When I reflect on that for a minute, I find myself sifting through another argument in my head. How much time must pass before one starts to belong anywhere? A century? More? Less? English came via colonial rule, the generational trauma of which we will be unpacking and reckoning with for decades more to come. But when one reads the likes of Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, even Kamala Markandaya, to some extent, certainly Agha Shahid Ali, one notices the way English has been moulded from the Indian soil. The phrases, the stories, the flavour in what can only be called Indian English is like the smell of hot pickle lingering on one’s fingers after a rice and curd meal. Faint, but there. Has English been in the region long enough to call it, however hesitantly, with all its problems, a subcontinental language? I would dare to say yes.
To put it in perspective, Hindi, the way it is spoken today, as a different register of Hindustani, from which Urdu also draws, is just over a century old. Language is a cindering battleground in India; violence has broken out time and again over the imposition of languages, and there have been many deaths. Culture – messy, non-linear, and so complicated – is really about the politics around it.
If, then, English is still an alien language, or a hegemonic beast that swallows what is truly of this land – which it absolutely also does; we need to decolonise this, and every aspect of our lives – where does a translation from a bhasha to English locate itself in this discourse? What does speaking, writing, translating into English mean in these post-colonial, post-liberation, globalised, post-truth, post-, ultra-nationalist times mean?
I submit to you this: could we as translators cultivate a practice of translating with an accent? And editors and readers process it and read it, respectively, while noticing said accent? I understand this is a tricky premise to begin with, for the lines between foreignisation and domestication are constantly shifting, the blurriness between the choices blurred further by the translator’s own language, experiences, and so on. But what if we could find a way to retain a phrase here, a word there, to remind the reader that the text comes from another language; that, in reading an unfamiliar word, they have just learnt something new, have learnt a word which they might never use themselves but whose meaning, should they see it again, they might remember? In doing so, in my case, Kannada gains another reader. It goes without saying that there is a fine balance to be sought, between keeping some source language and ensuring a reader in English (in this case) is not met with an impenetrable target text. Here is where I shall argue that we, as various parties in this transfer between cultures, should, instead of trying to contort the source language to fit the English idiom, look for ways to stretch English so that it too can speak somewhat with the accent of the original language. Because, devoid of the musicality with which retained accents enrich the translation, we would remain separate languages and cultures, condemned to bear the burden of the proper in our unaccommodating, un-elastic cultural lives.
Working in the English language as an Indian with many languages is a process in negotiating with its politics every other day. Decolonising the mind, and then our outer worlds, and therefore our culture is but a lifelong attempt. In the meanwhile, though, I wonder if perhaps we could see the English language, in this context, for its elasticity. Language is meant to stretch this way and that; when an elastic band snaps back in place, it often no longer retains its perfect round shape. When we speak with an accent, write with one, translate with many, the palimpsest of language loses not much, but stretches across the artificiality of bridges and borders. Like that only, as we would say here in India.
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and translator living and working in Kodagu, South India. Her translation of Jnanpitha Awardee Dr Kota Shivarama Karanth’s novel The Same Village, The Same Tree was published in August 2022. Fate’s Game and Other Stories, a translation of short stories by Kodagina Gouramma, among the earliest women writers in Kannada in the early twentieth century, was published by Yoda Press in January 2023. She was one of the six winners of the inaugural PEN Presents for a sample translation of the short stories of Banu Mushtaq, who explores the lives of women in contemporary southern India, and in particular the experiences of Muslim women. The book-length translation is forthcoming.
Deepa writes on visual art, literature and politics of culture for publications including ArtReview, MOMUS, Literary Hub, Himal Southasian and MOLD. Her research interests are in the areas of sociolinguistics, land versus landscape and food politics. She occasionally works in visual art projects.