“Note on Translating the Novellas” by Velcheru Narayana Rao on translating from Telugu the novellas by Viswanadha Satyanarayana

Velcheru Narayana Rao has translated from Telugu the two novellas by twentieth century writer Viswanadha Satyanarayana — the magic realist short story Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse headed God in Trafalgar Square and the satirical Vishnu Sharma Learns English. These have recently been published by Penguin India.

With the permission of the publishers the translator’s note is reproduced below. It is a fascinating account on the choices writers like Viswanadha Satyanarayana make while writing fiction. These choices are not restricted to the form itself but also to the choice of language and expression and how to assert their identity through the written word. The translator’s note is fascinating to read as it sheds light on how the destination language of English misses out these deliberate linguistic choices made in the original Telugu text along with the liberties the translator himself took.

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Satyanarayana dictated his novels to scribes. He rarely wrote himself. He often dictated very short sentences, with a staccato effect, interspersed by long Sanskrit compounds. However, in these novellas the style is simple with no high- flown Sanskrit. The first novella, Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse- Headed God in Trafalgar Square, reads well, with every sentence carefully constructed, though there are occasional lapses in syntax and in marking paragraphs, which could be due to irresponsible printing. However, by 1960, when he was writing Vishnu Sharma Learns English, Satyanarayana had grown somewhat carefree. He began writing novels by the dozen, often dictating several novels the same day to scribes who worked in shifts. He dictated sentences as he pleased, never looking back to read what his scribe had written. The manuscripts were sent to press as they were. No one edited his work, and apparently no one proofread it either. One can find paragraphs that run to pages on end, because the scribe was not told to begin a new paragraph. The punctuation is inconsistent and spelling  arbitrary.  We do not have adequate information about the scribes themselves and their writing habits; and we have no way of checking if the spelling is the author’s or the scribe’s.

I call these novels oral novels, which have to be read with a different poetics in mind than those we apply to written novels. I tried to develop for my translation strategies that reflect the specific nature of the original novels. However, a certain degree of written quality inevitably enters my translation—for the very reason that I am writing and not dictating.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the question of the dialect in which literature was to be written was hotly debated. Telugu literature until that time was mostly in verse. Classical metres were largely syllabic and they allowed only a fixed set of syllabic clusters to be used in a verse. Variations in the canonical shape of morphemes were not allowed in these metres. It was due largely to the continued use of these metres that the spelling of words and patterns of syntax in literary use remained fairly homogeneous through a period of about nine hundred years—quite a phenomenon in the history of any language. Furthermore, Sanskrit, which ceased to be a spoken language but continued to be used as a vibrant literary language for about a thousand years more, gave the Telugu literary dialect a source of sustenance and inspiration to remain uniform and distinct from its various spoken dialects. However, the emergence of the printing press in the nineteenth century generated an increased need for prose.

Paravastu Cinnaya Suri (1809–1862),  a  Telugu scholar in the employment of the East India Company, wrote a grammar of Telugu modelled after the prescriptive style of the venerated Sanskrit grammars, efficiently encompassing the literary Telugu that had been in use for writing verses for about a thousand years. He thought his grammar could be followed for writing prose for discursive purposes, ignoring hundreds of years of the practice of using a different variety of prose in commentaries and common business transactions. The administrators of the East India Company, in charge of public education, most of whom were trained in England in classical languages, prescribed Suri’s grammar in schools. However, the variations in syntax and in the spelling of words between what was acceptable in writing according to Suri’s grammar and the way educated people wrote in their daily use was so great that they almost looked like two different languages. Young men and women were told that the words and sentences as they had habitually written them were ungrammatical, and they had to learn a whole new set of rules to learn how to write.

Modern scholar Gidugu Ramamurti (1863–1940), spearheaded a movement to change the way of writing Telugu. He called the language that followed Suri’s grammar grāndhika-bhāsha, book-language, and argued in favour of adopting for writing vyāvahārika bhāsha, language used by educated people in their daily life.

His argument made a lot of sense: It was clearly artificial to try to write prose for modern use following the rules that were prescribed for writing verses in the past. However, when Ramamurti rejected Suri’s grammar as outdated, it sounded like a call for rejection of grammar as such, like telling people they can write the way they speak—without any regulations. The Telugu literary community was divided into two camps: the ‘traditionalists’ insisted that Suri’s grammar should be respected, and the ‘modernists’ argued that such restrictions fettered the freedom of writing. The arguments were fierce and the battles were endless. It was unfortunate that the debate lacked conceptual clarity. Gidugu Ramamurti, with all his great scholarship, failed to state that he was calling for a new set of regulations  and conventions for a new written language, and not for   a state of chaos where people wrote as they spoke. His argument in favour of a language used by educated people in their daily use (sishUa vyāvahārika), left room for a lot of misunderstanding. In the confusion that followed, it was not realized that nowhere in the world do people write as they speak and that all languages develop written forms that change in time, but still remain distinctly different from speech.

Satyanarayana  took  the  side  of  the  traditionalists, primarily because most of his writing was poetry. But oddly, he continued to support the traditionalists even when he wrote novels on themes of contemporary life. However, as he began to dictate his novels, his style inevitably showed the influence of spoken forms. In the end, the style in which his later novels appeared came out in an incongruous mix of styles, old and new, with words written in a variety of spellings, neither following the old grammars nor following the contemporary spoken forms. His syntax, however, was brilliantly conversational and his sentences powerfully expressive. His desire to follow an outdated grammar failed to suppress his creative energy. In the end, what Satyanarayana achieved was an arresting atmosphere created by an entirely new language that could only be named after him. His prose style became the hallmark of his novels.

Dictating the novels caused other problems as well. As Satyanarayana dictated, he tended to digress frequently from the context of the narrative. Often the digressions were so far removed that whatever he was thinking at the moment found place in the novel, either as a part of the conversation between characters or as a long commentary by the author on the situation at hand. His novels acquired a charm of their own because of these digressions and are loved by his admirers.

While translating Ha Ha Hu Hu where such digressions were few, I followed the original fairly closely. But in translating Vishnu Sharma Learns English, I decided to take some liberties. To translate the printed text as it is might be of interest to critics who might wish to study the author’s mind at work in dictation, but it would tax a non-Telugu reader, and for that matter, even a Telugu reader. Apart from the digressions, which impede the narrative, incidents with local and contemporary references would require endless footnotes. I abridged the novella, eliminated digressions and paraphrased some sentences rather than translate every word. I am aware that in the process my translation might change an oral novel into a written novel. But I hope the oral nature of the novel is still apparent. I made sure that the changes I made are minimal and do not affect the integrity of the story. I maintained the basic style of the narrative and meticulously preserved the dream.

Viswanadha Satyanarayana Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse headed God in Trafalgar Square ( translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao) Penguin India, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 399

18 April 2018 

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