A translation exercise to improve students’ creative writing

Literary translation and writing have a cyclical, reciprocal relationship, as novelist Maithreyi Karnoor explains with a task to tap into students’ feel for language

Maithreyi Karnoor's avatar
Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology
6 Jun 2023
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Young Indian student looking thoughtful at a laptop

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As part of a creative writing course I am teaching in a design college in Bangalore, I gave my students the following task: I asked them each to choose a story or a poem from the language of the state they come from and translate it into English before writing a couple of paragraphs on their thoughts and reflections on the process of translation.

These are 18- and 19-year-old students with an urban upbringing, and they speak English fluently and comfortably. I observed that while their thoughts were well written and showed an ease and a certain effortlessness in their expression, the translation was stunted with ill-formed sentences, awkward word choices, clumsy order of events and poor punctuation. In fact, I have also noticed this in published works of translation. This happens when, as translators, we are inhibited (intimidated even) by the original. Reading such translations is tedious and joyless.

Good translation thinks of the original as not a template but a launchpad for the retelling. I believe that as translators, we must respect the original but not worship it. And our task is to take the work by the hand and lead it across the linguistic and cultural bridge where it attains a new avatar as a literary experience. 

I told my students to go back to the original and follow these steps: read it, close your eyes and feel it, sit with it for a moment and then express that feeling in English. I told them to put the original aside and edit it like a reader who does not know it is a translation.

This time, their works were massively improved. They seem to have discovered – as I hoped they would – that the secret ingredient of good translation is good writing. In this essay, I will unpack this self-contained exercise – a thought and its practical demonstration – with examples of challenges I face as a translator of literary works from Kannada, a South Indian language.

Although English has long ceased to be a foreign language in India – and almost all higher education in the country is conducted in it – a significant cultural transit is still involved in translation, whose navigation determines the difference between idiomatic smoothness and awkwardness. Translation is, after all, a subjective craft and the outcome can feature anywhere on a wide spectrum whose extreme ends – one being exoticisation by over-explanation and the other opacity by lack of explanation – are undesirable. Menu cards in fancy Indian restaurants are stark examples of the first kind of risk, where foods with Indian names (dosa, for instance) are explained with Western jargon (“rice batter leavened overnight by naturally occurring atmospheric bacteria made into crisp crêpes – alternatively fluffy pancakes – served with spicy mashed potato and coconut chutney”).

While such annotation on a menu card may be a practical requirement, it doesn’t take an expert in postcolonial studies to see the problem with such a translation in literature. On the other hand, retaining too many original words makes the text impervious. There is no blanket rule to overcome this predicament, and every instance is an individual case that relies entirely on the translator’s discretion and ability to make intelligent choices. One solution may be to tone down the explication and simply call it a rice pancake rather than wax eloquent on the recipe and retain the word dosa in further instances of the food to normalise it. Another one can be to include a glossary with detailed descriptions and retain the original in the main text if the translator feels that the contextual meaning is sufficient. It is the willingness to take certain liberties sensitively and cleverly that makes for good translation in such language combinations.    

The intent and ideas, the rhymes and rhythms of the text provide the scaffolding, and the translator must decide the beauty of the new construction by the appropriateness of the envelope she pushes in choosing the material to (re)build it with.

When I was translating the novel A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, the challenge was to convey the dryness of the north Karnataka sense of humour with which the text was replete. One tongue-in-cheek paragraph, for instance, talks about the limited world of the inhabitants of the village and how the pace of their lives was the antithesis of haste. I could almost see the author, a grandfatherly gentleman, sitting on an armchair telling me the story with a deadpan expression but with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It was important to retain that quality even as I hugged close its idiomatic shenanigans.

These decisions come under sharp relief in the matters of adages or witticisms with which Indian languages are rife. It is rare that English has equivalents for most of them. At times, it is worthwhile to invent one that strikes a balance between the music and the meaning of the original (for example, “has a pound of butter yet seeks grease in the gutter”); at others, a more literal phrasing (such as “shoving other people’s children into the well to gauge its depth”) conveys the message via the strength of the context while retaining the flavour of the original, adding novelty to the usage of English. Again, there is no rule to translation of idiom, and teaching translation must involve rigorous practice with many examples, and feedback must be based on smoothness and naturalness, and the new text’s ability to convey the intent.  

No culturally nuanced remark or phrase is casual enough to be taken lightly, however. For instance, to say: “I will go” is considered inauspicious in Kannada because it implies going away forever (death). Instead, it is the norm to say: “I will go and come” (literally). This, however, would be a poor translation and it is an unfortunate mistake many translators make. “I will take your leave” in formal or stylised settings and “I will be back” in straightforward ones are more appropriate translations of this situation.

Going back to the original premise that good translation is essentially good, culturally sensitive writing, I feel the inverse – that the practice of good translation can lead to good writing – is also true. This dextrous waltz and trapeze of words within the close scaffolding of the plot and context of the original can, with practice, lead to an intuitive skill for writing. It can give one independent control over words where shedding the training wheels of translation to write original text is just a step away. I used translation in my creative writing class to challenge the complacency that comes with fluency in one language. It helped my students unlearn many notions they took for granted and encouraged them to weigh more carefully the words and phrases in their own writing, improving its quality greatly.       

Maithreyi Karnoor is a Charles Wallace fellow in writing and translation; she teaches creative writing at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, India. Her work has been shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and twice for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her debut novel is Sylvia (Neem Tree Press, 2023).

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