Alternative rendering


January 1942: Mahatma Gandhi with Mahadev Desai at Sevagram. Photo: the hindu archives

A page from Mahadev Desai’s manuscript of his translation of “An Autobiography”: Chapter XXII, “Comparative Study of Religions”, Part II.

A page from Mahadev Desai’s manuscript of his translation of “An Autobiography”: Chapter XXII, ‘Comparative Study of Religions’, Part II. Photo: FROM AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OR THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH

Tridip Suhrud’s meticulously produced critical edition of Gandhi’s autobiography in English gives readers some of the flavours of the original in Gujarati by polishing and leaving it gleaming with marginal annotations.

TRANSLATIONS render; they do not reproduce the original.

There they are rather like music. Every time a song is sung or played, it comes just a shade different, depending on the musician’s state of being—physical and psychological—external factors like the climate, natural and aesthetic, and the availability of musical aids which change, vary, diversify from age to age. The song stays the same; its singing varies.

A raga composition by Tyagaraja (1767-1847) would have been sung by his contemporaries in one way, a century later in another way, and today, by today’s vidwan, with somewhat new inflections. And if, by some H.G. Wells-ian fluxions of time and space, Tyagaraja were to descend on the contemporary scene in a flying chariot, he might well collaborate with the blue-jeaned vidwan in rendering his 150-year-old composition with old fealties intact but new novelties added, the text or lyrics as they are called, of course, remaining the same.

Quite something like this happened with the autobiography of M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948). Written by him in instalments in astonishingly expressive Gujarati over an extended period starting in 1925, it was rendered into classical English by his scholar-secretary and literary alter ego, Mahadev Desai (1892-1942). One can be sure Gandhi went through his own story as it was being done into English line by line, word by word. Navajivan published the English translation in two volumes, in 1927 and 1928, to instant and international acclaim.

Authenticity, not identicality

The fostering words were Gandhi’s, the fostered words were Desai’s. There was an authenticity in the English version, not an indenticality. And the margin between those two was not just “passed” by Gandhi as legit but embraced by him as licit. The Gujarati original had osmosed into the English version. The English was, therefore, less of a translation than a recension of the original. The English translation is Desai’s in a literal sense. It is a Gandhi-Desai product in its inner-ness.

Eager to take in Gandhi’s life story as told by him, the world absorbed the English translation, with Gandhi witnessing and perhaps wondering at the surge of approval and the tide of appreciation with which it was received. For its readers, the book was what it indeed was, Gandhi’s autobiography written by him and published in his lifetime and so as salt-true as true salt can be. They did not, when the translation appeared or even for a long time thereafter, sit down to compare, with the help of bilingual experts or dictionaries, the English with the Gujarati to see if there was any departure from the first. If there was any, it was Gandhi’s, not Desai’s. They also knew Gandhi’s English was of the highest quality as was the translator’s and the work, collaborative and conjoined, was for all intents and purposes straight from out of Gandhi’s experience and his active vocabulary.

And so Satyana Prayogo athava Atmakatha in the aqua pura of its Gujarati emerged as An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth in the delectamentum aqua of its English version. A literal translation of the title would have been “Truth’s Experiments or An Autobiography”. True to the original, yes, but would it have rung true? One wonders.

Two questions arise.

1. Is the difference in title a significant difference?

2. Did readers note the subtle difference in the title?

The answer to the first has to be: Yes, “Truth’s Experiments or an Autobiography” is not the same thing as An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. To the extent that truth as experimenter is different from truth as the experimented-upon, the difference is significant. In the Gujarati, truth is the protagonist, the active agent. In the English, the author is. In fact “My” brings him into the title frontally. Inter-language variations in translation may or may not be intrinsically significant, but whether they are or not, the fact of the variation has to be noticed, noted and recorded.

Truth as protagonist

Why? It has to be noticed and noted for both verisimilitude and veracity. We can be sure that Gandhi and Desai would have discussed the title. Did they find the original somehow wanting, deficient? Did the erudite V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, long-serving president of the Servants of India Society, who went through the draft and, on the condition of anonymity, suggested revisions “from the point of view of language”, encourage Gandhi to modify the title? Did the austere “Servant of India” think it presumptuous—arrogating the right to speak on truth’s behalf? Perhaps one day a mouldy paper trail will lead to the answer. Be that as it may, Gandhi and Desai modified the title in English to what has now settled into the readers’ imagination. But—and this is significant—Gandhi did not proceed to retro-revise the Gujarati title. He kept that as it was. The title of the original work, the autobiography in its first form, therefore, remains and it has truth as the protagonist in Gandhi’s life, not Gandhi as the protagonist in truth’s terrestrial career.

The answer to the second question is: Not the “ordinary” reader but the fastidious one or the pedant would have noticed. And then saying “Ah yes” moved on to the text.

Rigour requires the reader to note, ponder, consider the nuances of the title change. Respect requires the reader to accept it un-judgmentally for it has come from the author. From another hand, this atrial change would have been regarded as unacceptable.

A combination of rigour and respect actuates Tridip Suhrud’s meticulously produced critical edition of the Gandhi-Desai translation. He brings to bear on the entire text—a mammoth task—the kind of reflection I have attempted in the preceding lines on the title alone.

Entering the translator’s mind

If as his translator literary alter ego and interpreter Desai was, to deploy a cliche, something like Gandhi’s Boswell, then Desai has found in Suhrud, his own or Boswell’s Boswell or—to be specific—a Peter Martin, Boswell’s and, therefore, the biographer’s biographer. Not in the sense of one who has written a life of Desai (which, one hopes, he will, some day) but in that of one who has entered the translator’s mind to see its working, in the word renderings, the subtle edits, the elisions, occlusions, substitutions and, thereby, helped us see the working of the author’s own evolving self-image.

Not just a mastery over Gujarati, his mother tongue, but an unabashed love for that language has spurred Suhrud to match the original autobiography, word for word, with the English version and to put down on the margins of the work, the variations. And he has not done so to demonstrate the superiority of the original but to enrich the reading of the English by this “alongside” method. “Look!”, Suhrud seems to say, “Gandhi’s was no ordinary Gujarati; it was that of a stylist, an aesthete, an artist in economy and precision but an artist also in expressive picturisation. So that you, dear reader of the great English rendering, do not miss out on the nuances that the Gujarati has, just look at some of those….” And he then proceeds to give, on the margins of page after page, new English renderings of some of the Gujarati words, phrases, references that have dropped off from the English rendering.

This method has, in Urdu writing, both calligraphic and printed, a hallowed word—hashiya, meaning literally, the margin. But the word has a wider connotation, signifying the space fringing a page of text in which space the reader, the commentator, may write, with the same care as the author of the page, notes, comments and observations that will be, thereafter, read in conjunction with the central text. The hashiya becomes, in effect, a running commentary on the text. And as it is transcribed on the page itself (which provides for hashiye by leaving wide margins) it cannot be random, casual not to say frivolous.

Suhrud has used the hashiya mode to differential effect. The page stirs with new life, as it were, because of the alternatives that link the chosen word or reference to the original Gujarati and illuminate it. The marginal annotations do not crowd the page, they just about dot it. Typically, they could number three to five per page and then certainly not on every page. Suhrud’s marginalia are restrained, spare. So the reader has the Desai rendering and the Suhrud rendition on the same page, not to choose one over the other but to experience both stereophonically. He has fimbriated the text with annotations that fill up the black-and-white charcoal line drawing with the pigments of felt experience.

To consider a few representative examples.

Gandhi’s well-known disparaging of his father’s three marriages seriatim is followed up-close by his description of his own marriage at the age of 13. The English translation has:

“I was devoted to my parents. But no less was I devoted to the passions that flesh is heir to.”

The Gujarati is more direct, like Gandhi. Suhrud shows us that the original had “I was devoted to father” (not “parents”) and he renders the original next sentence in his hashiya as

“But was I any less devoted to the passions?”

That sentence in the Gujarati has an interrogative ending is just as Gandhi would have said or written it, with a rhyme tucked in it as well: pitrabhakt (father-devoted) juxtaposed with vishaybhakt (passion-devoted). The rhyme just could not have been transported from one language register to the other, and Desai is right in not having even tried but the deficit suffered in the substitution of “parents” for “father” and the impersonalised reference in “flesh is heir to” is made up for by the hashiya.

morphing proverbs

Desai has, with good reason, sought generally to rub down Gujarati’s very “its own” linguistic demarches. This leads to his morphing proverbs into their standard English meaning—a pragmatic solution. Talking about his neglect of cultivating a good handwriting, he writes of his repenting this neglect when he saw the “beautiful handwriting of lawyers and young men born and educated in South Africa”. This is how it is put in the English. But the original, as Suhrud shows, did not use the generic “beautiful”. It had a Gujarati metaphor: moti na dana jeva aksharo, which translates as (in Suhrud) “pearl-like” characters. In the same passage on handwriting, the English has “I later tried to improve mine, but it was too late.” So it was and saying “it was too late” is not wrong, not wrong by far. But it is still not the same as saying it, as Gandhi does in the Gujarati, through a proverb: pan pake ghade kain kantha charhe?, which Suhrud renders as “(but) can one add a rim to a perfectly baked clay pot?”

In the passage where Gandhi recounts his confessing to his father the “stealing” of a piece of gold from his brother’s armlet, the English sentence reads: “I was afraid of the pain that I should cause him.” The Gujarati paints a more graphic scene, which Suhrud provides as “…lest he should be pained and strike his head in anguish”.

There are in the English version some rub-down of the scene as it unfolded. When, for instance, Sheth Abdul Karim Jhaveri meets the recently London-returned and despondent Gandhi in Rajkot and offers the assignment in South Africa that was to change everything for Gandhi, the entrepreneur is quoted as saying to him (according to the English version): “You will of course be our guest.” The original Gujarati is sharper, as a practical arrangement of this kind has to be. In Suhrud’s hashiya, Jhaveri tells Gandhi: “[You will] stay in our bungalow.” A difference, there.

In the chapter “Near Death’s Door”, narrating his illness, Gandhi says in the English translation: “I had thought all along that I had an iron frame….” The Gujarati has patthar jevun. Suhrud very rightly points out the variation from “a body hard as stone” to “an iron frame”.

Gujarati idiom

There is such a thing as idiom. Everyone has one’s own. Where does it come from? Language or grammar? Instinct or training? In owning up to his “Himalayan miscalculation” about his compatriots’ readiness for civil disobedience, Gandhi says in his inimitable frugal yet picturesque Gujarati idiom: …savinay bhangnun gadun dharya kartan dhimun chalshe. He employs the image of the cart—gadun. How has Desai rendered it? With fidelity to the spirit of the original and an understanding of the author’s disappointment with himself, as: “I realised that the progress of the training in civil disobedience was not going to be as rapid as at first expected” but with the central motif of the cart taken out. And with that out, something of Gandhi’s idiom goes out as well.

Are Suhrud’s alternative translations of words, expressions and phrases invariably meant to show up the Gujarati over the English? Not so. If most of the alternative examples can make the reader feel that the English version trails behind the original Gujarati, Suhrud also gives clear instances of the opposite, that is, where Desai has kept the spirit of the original but decidedly brought its English version closer to the experience. Talking of the time spent by him as a student in London in front of “a huge mirror watching myself arranging my tie and parting my hair in the correct fashion”, Gandhi says in the Gujarati that back home (in Suhrud’s construction) “one got to see a mirror on the day one got a shave”. Desai has rendered that, with telling effect, as “…the mirror had been a luxury permitted on the days when the family barber gave me a shave”. He has vivified the description.Likewise, when narrating the different ways in which the Indian “coolie” was referred to in South Africa, Gandhi says that “sami” being a Tamil suffix occurring after many Tamil names got to be adopted by their white masters who routinely called all of them “sami” without realising that “sami” was nothing else than the Sanskrit “swami” meaning, paradoxically, “master”. In the Gujarati, Gandhi says: “Whenever therefore an Indian… had enough courage in him… he would return the compliment… ‘I am not your master!’.” Desai has changed “enough courage” to “enough wit”—a distinct improvement that Gandhi, doubtless, welcomed.

Parallel glimpsing

Suhrud’s alternatives are not suggested replacements but parallel glimpsing, meant to enlarge the reader’s options in understanding.

The critical edition cannot be and is not immune from critical study itself.

Suhrud’s alternative translations have to be the result of his option-choices. And every alternative being subjective has to have other alternatives to it. Suhrud, being the scholar that he is, will doubtless be the first to acknowledge that. A classic “case” is provided by the description of Gandhi’s first meeting with A.W. Baker, an attorney in Pretoria. It is described in the English matter-of-factly with: “He received me very warmly.” This seems to be exactly what Gandhi means by the corresponding line in the original: mane bhavthi bhetya. Now, bhet can be any of the following: “encountering”, “meeting”, “interviewing”, “embracing”. Suhrud chooses the most demonstrative—“embracing”.

Did the boss at Baker & Lindsay embrace Gandhi at their first meeting? Perhaps he did. But Desai’s cautious rendering, approved by Gandhi, did not, it seems to me, need an alternative, and that, too, of “embracing”.

Occasionally, Suhrud’s alternatives seem to be redundant.

“I must skip many other experiences… and come straight to the Boer War” is how the English chapter titled “The Boer War” starts. Suhrud suggests as an alternative “shall” for “must”. If the original had the Gujarati for “shall” and not “must”, that would have been only right. But it does not. So? So just this, that Suhrud is most helpful when he is critically, not imaginatively reconstructive.

There should be no doubting that the English version of the autobiography is in Gandhi’s Gujarati ink flowing through Desai’s English nib. Suhrud’s critical edition polishes the nib’s point, clears its tines, slit, shoulders and vent-hole of unwanted and unintended substances, to leave it gleaming and free to work the Desai magic.

Suhrud’s critical edition is not an alternative text but a concordance volume of its own type. And one that must self-correct in its successive editions. Where are these self-corrections needed? In the wording of some of the alternatives where the definite article can play truant—the copy editor’s domain. And in the absolutely first class footnotes. These, as a genre, can never reach perfection for there is so much that can be added and so much that can be sharpened. Jairamdas Doulatram is, for instance, described inter alia as “…first editor of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi”—unfairly to the person who was that, Bharatan Kumarappa.

Suhrud’s edition will be valued for its hashiye alternatives and, no less, for its industrious footnotes. But above all for giving readers of Gandhi’s autobiography in English some of the flavours of the original in Gujarati of which Gandhi was as much a master as Premchand was of Hindustani. 

Print edition : October 26, 2018

Category :- Gandhiana