We Should All Be Translators


I teach a translation syllabus to undergraduates for 4 out of the 17 hours of class mandated by the UGC. When I think of my timetable, the MS Word image pops up in my head, as clear as a PNG file, as if I’ve just clicked on it. In my head, the four hours are blocked off as the easier ones, ones in which more conversation is possible. 

The education policy of India has always mandated the study of two languages. One of these languages is Additional English. Most colleges in the city offer Additional English to students who don’t know other languages spoken in the state – Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and even Sanskrit. Many students from Kerala or the North-eastern states find that the most viable option they have is Additional English; they’re reassured by the fact that studying English will not be difficult – that it’s a subject that will allow them to score marks easily, without having to deal with the burden of learning a new language (like French or German, that are also available to them). 

So why a translation syllabus, one might ask, particularly for a subject that labels itself ‘Additional’, as the offshoot of English that might be taught in other classes? 

The study of English shapes itself differently in different states and institutions. In some, it is the study of grammar, in others, it is the study of ‘spoken English’ – the perfecting of our bent accents, made so by the sounds of our own languages. In the third and last type, it expands to the study of Literature – nurturing a love for reading and writing. But for a city like Bangalore, one that prides itself on the coexistence of many languages – what can English education be, that not only furthers the education of the student, but allows them to ask questions about their own identities? 

The simple answer to this question, as you might have guessed, is translation. Our syllabus is filled with texts that have been translated to English from Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Assamese etc. Together in class, we read AK Ramanujan’s comments on the arduous process of translation and look at sentences closely to ask ourselves, “do these sound like they were first written in English?” We learn to look at sentences and understand their grammar, we understand what ‘syntax’ means and pay attention to processes of meaning-making, all through the language that holds us together — English — while regularly looking back at the language we identify as our ‘mother tongues’. 

In a one-on-one tutorial session I recently had with a student, a young woman from Trichy, Kerala, she said to me that she struggles very often with being able to tell whether she’s speaking the ‘correct’ English. This identification is impossible for her, because this sense of accuracy is held primarily by her mother tongue, Malayalam. When she reads a sentence, it sounds absolutely perfect to her in Malayalam, but when it is judged by the rules of English grammar textbooks, she loses confidence. Imagine my horror, then, when I read her assignment – the translation of a short story from Malayalam to English – and saw that her work was one of the better ones I’d read that day, that her solid knowledge of Malayalam allowed her to transport a story so accurately into English, that I could learn a thing or two from her. How can such a student be under confident about her English?

Most undergraduate students in Bangalore are like this girl from Trichy. They come from their diverse worlds of endless languages, to larger, English-speaking colleges. They worry about their accents, their grammar, their speaking skills. What they want, more than anything else, is to have someone sit them down and explain to them the logic of English grammar. When such students study the art of translation, they’re made aware that their worlds are as rich and important as worlds that exist primarily in English. 

When we discuss the short stories on our syllabus, we are not only discussing the texts themselves, but our own identities. We see that the desire to travel resonates across states, we see that a love for food is usually what holds people together, and most of all, translation allows us to see that one world can be carried into another – that we can exist in English, even if we might not have grown up with it. 

English is simply the meeting point at which many of us come together, it allows us to converse, and it allows us to look more closely at our own differences. We don’t have to be perfect at it, we don’t have to pronounce the words like others do, all we need to do is speak it. When a student sometimes forgets to add copula verbs to their sentences, words like ‘has been’ when speaking in past tense, translation allows them to see that they haven’t really made a mistake, they’re simply using the rules of their language in English, and why should that be a bad thing?

Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.