(First published in Man’s World, September 2001)
It all started because of Manuel. Do not ask me what his last name is; I do not know. He wrote in from somewhere in Europe, explaining that he was learning English, spoke Spanish and Portuguese fluently, and had picked up a review, written by me, on the Web of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. With great respect, he wished to know why it was considered such a good book when to him, it was literally incomprehensible.
Now, many accusations have been levelled against our lady of the causes, but this was not one I’d heard re GOST. Asked to elucidate, Manuel sent me a paragraph, in English, from GOST. It read:
“It came back from Rahel from when of raining of It was a Ayemenem. Flabby of the land of the one in the one of the strokes of inclining of Ropes of silver, gunfire of as of above of ploughing the old One of the house no steep one of the roof of its of it consumed of the mount, low gabled of the hat of the one of as of the ears of its of on of the pulled one. As walls, moss of WITH of the listed ones, soft of the grown one of had it, land of the one of the one of above of drained it of that of the humidity of WITH of little of the one of the protracted one of they had it of and the savage of the garden of, full overgrown of was makes small scurry of the whisper and lives. No serpent of the one of undergrowth makes rat rub-connoisseur in meeting software a rock of the one that glistening. As they had crossed it of the hopeful ones of the yellow ones of the rñs-giants a lagoon paragraphs scummy is coupled. Mongoose of the One drenched through the input of automobiles of it blinked leaf-leaf-leaf-leaf-strewn.
He was perfectly right. It was incomprehensible. Except that, in the dim banks of my memory, the relevant paragraph I had read, also in English, also from GOST went like so:
” It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway. ”
I applied to Manuel for enlightenment. Oh, he emailed back airily, he had come across an English website that offered readers a peek at first chapters from bestsellers. Arundhati Roy was among the authors Manuel checked out, but since his English was not so good, he translated the whole thing, by machine, into Portuguese and then back into English again so that he could compare the two. I suggested that instead of going through this painful process, he might see the light if he compared the machine translation in Portuguese to the original English version. Ah, said Manuel, light dawning, why I not thinks of this earliest? Dear lady, I thanks. And thus he departed forever from my mailbox, but not before he’d opened up a brave new world to me.
Of course, what you get on http://www.babelfish.com and other popular translation websites are essentially free translations done by a computer that I imagine has long since had its RAM fried by the strange bits of information it feeds on. The paid sites step in with a more old-fashioned method: they do their stuff the human way, with people who understand, at least in part, the nuances of the languages they’re translating to and from. Babelfish and co offer two things, though: a workable translation of a web page in another language if you’re in a hurry, and hours of fiendish fun if you’re not.
I don’t know how you spent your weekend, but I spent it feeding hapless machines across the world choice passages from various Indian writers in English, translating the said excerpt into another language, and then translating it back into English! Many gleeful cackles later, I had enough material to share the deathless results of this experiment with you.
The introductory sonnet to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy should really have been translated into Chinese, given his translations of the Chinese poets, and then translated back into English, but there was a Java script problem. So I settled for Italian, the language of the sonnets, instead:
(Original version) To these I owe a debt past telling:
My several muses, harsh and kind;
My folks, who stood my sulks and yelling,
And (in the long run) did not mind;
Dead legislators, whose orations
I’ve filched to mix my own potations;
Indeed, all those whose brains I’ve pressed,
Unmerciful, because obsessed;
My own dumb soul, which on a pittance
Survived to weave this fictive spell;
And, gentle reader, you as well,
The fountainhead of all remittance.
Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.
(Italian translation, rendered back into English):
To these I must a debit beyond saying:
Mine several muses, hard and kind;
My people, than are themselves rise in feet mine sulks and urlando
and (have in the long term) not taken care themselves of;
Out of order legislators, of which orations that
I have filched in order to stir my own ones potations;
Effectively, all those of which brains that I have pressed,
Unmerciful, because obsessed;
My own spirit dumb, than on a pittance
is fictive survivor in order to weave this period;
And, delicate reader, you also,
fountainhead of all the remittance.
Comprarlo before good sense insists
that you will strain your ag and storcerete your wrists.
(The discerning reader will notice that while the machine ran into a brick wall with such words as “purse” and “sprain”, out-of-order legislators is far more felicitous than merely dead ones. Why “did not mind” has become “not taken care themselves of” I do not know; clearly the machine saw meanings in Seth’s poetry that he himself was unaware of.)
For R K Narayan’s Swami and Friends, Spanish seemed to be apposite, a language well suited to grandmothers, lemons and small bambinos:
(Original version) It cost him all his mental powers to ask without flinching, ‘Did you get the lemon?’ He wanted to know it. He had been feeling genuinely anxious about it. Granny answered this question at once, but to Swaminathan it seemed an age–a terrible stretch of time during which anything might happen, she might say anything, scold him, disown him, swear that she would have nothing more to do with him, or say reproachfully that if only he had cared to go and purchase the lemon in time, he might have saved her and that she was going to die in a few minutes. But she simply said, ‘You did right in not going. Your mother had kept a dozen in the kitchen.’
(Spanish translation, rendered back into English) It cost him all his mental powers to ask without flinching, ‘you obtained the lemon?’ The he wanted to know it. The had been being felt genuinely anxious about him. Granny answered this question immediately, but to Swaminathan an age seemed a terrible one stretches of time during that something quizás happen, she quizás say something, scold he, him repudía, he swears that she would not have anything more to do with him, or to say reproachfully that if only he there was dear to go and to buy the lemon in the time, he would be able it to have saved and that she moriríaUnos few minutes. But she said simply, ‘Its did the right to not go. Its mother had maintained a dozen in the kitchen.’
(Interesting! Narayan’s relatively simple prose doesn’t trip the computer up much, but the machine adds a strongly colloquial flavour by rendering “You” and “Your” into “Its”, even if does make Granny sound like Gollum in Lord of the Rings.)
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children deserved to be translated into a language worthy of the great man’s highly original syntax; German was the logical choice, but naturally:
(Original version) And on the bus, amid rattling seats and the nostalgic cracks of the window-panes, what certainties! What nearlynine certitudes about the future! A boast from Sonny: “I’m going to be a bullfighter; Spain! Chiquitas! Hey, toro, toro!” His satchel held before him like the muleta of Manolete, he enacted his future while the bus rattled around Kemp’s Corner, past Thomas Kemp and Co. (Chemists), beneath the Air-India rajah’s poster (‘See you later, alligator! I’m off to London on Air-India!’) and the other hoarding on which, throughout my childhood, the Kolynos Kid, a gleamtoothed pixie in a green, elfin, chlorophyll hat proclaimed the virtues of Kolynos Toothpaste: “Keep Teeth Kleen and Keep Teeth Brite! Keep Teeth Kolynos Super White!”
(German translation rendered back into English) And on the bus, under ratternden seats and the nostalgic branches of the windowpanes, which collateral! Which nearlyninegewissheiten over the future! A Prahlerei of Sonny: ” I will be more bullfighter; Spain! Chiquitas! Hey, toro, toro! “, its satchel he stopped his future, during which bus ratterte around corner Kemp, behind Thomas Kemp and CO (chemist), under the air Indiarajahplakat before him as muleta from Manolete, ordered (‘ you see later you, to crocodile! I am out to London on air India! ‘), and the other Hoarding, on that, during my childhood, the kid Kolynos, a pixie in a green gleamtoothed, elfin, chlorophyll hat proclaimed the virtues of the tooth paste Kolynos: ” maintenance teeth Kleen and maintenance teeth a Britisher! Hold for superwhite ZahnKolynos! “,
(This, I thought, was superlative. Note the sneaky underlining of colonialism in the text as “Brite” transmutes into “Britisher”. The alligator has changed into a crocodile; while Sonny’s hopeful “I’m going to be a bullfighter” has been fiercely transmuted into a direct assertion: “I will be more bullfighter”. For sinister reasons, the machine has done absolutely nothing to the phrase ‘muleta from Manolete’.)
But this is merely the beginning. I kneel before the altar of babelfish and solemnly swear an oath: the next pretentious Indian writer who comes my way is going to be machinetranslated forcibly from English into Korean. And then I’ll translate the Korean bit into Portuguese. And then the Portuguese into German. And then, and only then, back into English…and then, maybe, I might read it.
Nilanjana S. Roy