A Book Of Essays Spanning A Translator’s Career Shows Why Translation Matters

Paul St-Pierre’s ‘Translating Odisha’ shows readers how translations, if used well, can be dynamite.

Acclaimed US writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who directs the Programme in Creative Writing at Princeton University, recently spoke about the challenges and rewards of translation. Lahiri, who now translates books into and from Italian, said that for her, translation was an incredibly “powerful and regenerative” activity. Being a creative writer, Lahiri’s avowals about translation are bound to be met with instant approval. The same iterations being made for years now by translation studies experts, at least since the ‘translative turn’ began in the 1970s and 1980s, have unfortunately not been accorded the same enthusiastic attention.

Take Paul St-Pierre, a representative name in translation studies and the author of the book under review here, Translating Odisha, published by Dhauli Books. In essay after essay, St-Pierre talks about the ‘writerly art of translation’, its ever unfinished nature, its openness to many interpretations, which Lahiri has also spoken about. The parallels between their statements are striking. To give just one example, Lahiri says, “...in any one given moment you can have 10 or 20 or 200 perfectly reasonable translations because translation is also an act of interpretation”. And here is St-Pierre in Translating Odisha: “... a translation is always incomplete, always ‘unfaithful’, always replaceable – at another time or in another place other selections, based on different criteria, will be made”.

My purpose in beginning with Lahiri is twofold: to invoke her authority to gain a hearing for the undervalued work that translators do, and, then to point out that the high value she accords to translation owes itself to the work done by translation studies scholars or translatologists. It is the latter who have done the hard work of survey, documentation, research and reasoned analysis, and, occasionally, as in the case of St-Pierre, translations, to tell us why, in Edith Grossman’s phrasing, “translation matters”. Also, Lahiri, despite her love for all languages, cannot be expected to speak for a marginalized entity like Odisha or Odia literature written in a language spoken by 40 million people. Someone else is needed for that.

St-Pierre is a Canadian who held a Professorship at Montreal University. He has also been visiting Odisha for the past 25 years. A title as intriguing as Translating Odisha is not easily explained by putting these two facts together. Even as his collaborator on the English translation of the classic Odia novel Basanti (OUP, 2019), I had not seen this book of 22 essays and 14 occasional pieces coming. The essays were published in top-notch journals such as TTR and META or delivered as plenary talks and papers at conferences in Canada, England, Turkey, India and Sri Lanka. The occasional pieces were published as reviews of or introductions to works of translation.

Paul St-Pierre, Translating Odisha, Dhauli Books (2019)
Paul St-Pierre, Translating Odisha, Dhauli Books (2019)

A disclaimer here: Basanti is mentioned in the book, but as one of the 44 items listed in the last section. The list includes other major translations from Odia literature involving St-Pierre, such as Six Acres and a Third (University of California Press, 2005; Penguin, 2006) by Fakir Mohan Senapati and The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told (Aleph, 2019). But no essay in the book discusses the nuts and bolts of translating into English. St-Pierre focuses, instead, on 200 years of translation activity in Odisha. These are translations into Odia from Indian and non-Indian languages, including, of course, English, a major player given its historical importance. This probably is the biggest coup pulled off by the book. The reader comes to it hoping to meet with the passionate translator. She meets, instead, with the dispassionate translation scholar and critic.

The outcome is not as dampening as one might think. For St-Pierre tells us how to use translations, showing us how, if used well, they can be dynamite. And this is how. Translations can hold a mirror up to society and document the shifts in social self-fashioning. An example would be in order here. In one essay, St-Pierre looks at the translation scene in Odisha for two years: 1965 and 1995. Approximately the same number of translations into Odia was published in these two years. But the ‘what’ of translation tells a different story in each case. In 1965 Western languages dominated, numbering as many as 30 out of a total of 52. In 1995 the former were edged out in favour of Indian language works amounting to 40. So what does the ‘seismic shift’ portend? In 1965, Odisha was still looking up to the West and looking away from itself and its environs. In 1995, which could be taken as the inaugurating year of globalization that followed the economic liberalization of the 1990s, Odisha was caught in the paradox of going global by moving homeward.

The essay where this diagnosis occurs is in section 2, easily the heart of the book. In the five essays in this section, St-Pierre reads off societal and cultural trends from around 6,000 translations into Odia published between 1807, the year in which the first Odia translation was printed, and 2004. After providing snapshots of relatively shorter durations in four essays, he presents a comprehensive picture of the entire 200-year period in an essay titled Understanding the History of Odisha Through Translation.

The result is a fascinating breakdown of Odia society’s evolution, based on what is translated by whom, for whom and why. It is as follows: (1) missionary translation (1807 to 1866), (2) reinforcement of Odia identity (1867-1941), marked by translations of Sanskrit religious texts into Odia, (3) internationalization of Odia consciousness (1849-1973), marked by translations of European and American literary works, and, (4) connecting Odisha to India (1974-2004), marked by translational importations from other regions and from Indian English writing. This bibliography of translations into Odia, drawn on throughout, when published as a separate entity, is going to be crucial to historical scholarship.

I will end this account by looking at one essay in section two which, in a significant reversal of the positive spin that the author has given to the transformative potential of translations, proceeds to read it negatively. This essay analyses the English translation of Paraja, an epic novel of tribal life in southern Odisha by Gopinath Mohanty. Claiming that ‘alienation’ is inherent to the translation process, St-Pierre says the English translation of this novel accentuates the alienation by adding qualifiers to its scheme of explanations and generalizations. Now this is an interesting way of analysing a translation, one that I would be loath to give up on. The problem is, it is rather close to the reductive position that a translation, especially if done in English, flattens the original, a position that St-Pierre has throughout contested in his spirited discussion of translated Odia works by Senapati and JP Das, to name the two he has focused on.

On the whole, however, Translating Odisha is a rewarding book. It should interest anyone who wants to know how to study society and culture through the monographic point of view of translation. Conversely, it ought to be an object lesson in applying the global perspectives of translation studies to a local, even peripheral, literature and culture. St-Pierre navigates between the two topographies well.

Himansu S. Mohapatra is a former professor and head of the department of English, Utkal University, Odisha. He has translated in collaboration with Paul St-Pierre. Their first joint translation, ‘Basanti: Writing the New Woman’, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The second joint translation of ‘Nija Nija Panipatha’ (Battles of Our Own) by Jagadish Mohanty will be published by Penguin Random House in 2021.