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J. Kuortti. India in translation: tendencies of representation in translating Indian fiction

In my article, I discuss a recent work of Indian English fiction that has been an international bestseller: Vikas Swarup’s Q & A [27][1] which was later made into a major film (Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). I will analyse certain cultural elements of the novel in the English original and its Finnish translation, Tyhjentävä vastaus, eli kuka voittaa miljardin, translated by Pirkko Biström [29]. Here, I am not looking for mistakes or lapses in the translation nor am I trying to evaluate it in terms of quality assessment. Instead, I will be discussing comparatively the strategies of intercultural dialogue adopted in the original (ST) and the translated (TT) versions[2].


Swarup’s novel textually explicitly represents India for the reader in a transcultural context. While it is written by an Indian about India, it is published for the international English-speaking audience. As a diplomat, Swarup can be defined as a diasporic writer. Yet the themes and issues of the novel are current socio-political matters in India ― from communalism to corruption and the Indian cinema to poverty ― but the context is transcultural global media setting with the American NewAge Telemedia company running the show Who Will Win a Billion, modelled after the actual Kaun banega crorepati ― Who Wants to be a Millionaire?[3] Furthermore, the identificational context and underlying conflict is intra-cultural, not cross-cultural ― between the poor and the rich. The novel is not a singular one on this as for example Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger [2], another international bestseller, deals with similar issues.


I discuss how the representation of India is further handled and transmitted in translation. The aim is to consider the translation strategies in translating transcultural texts, the prerequisites for transcultural readership, and the challenges these pose for analysis.


1. Transcultural translation  2 ур

Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in post-colonial, transcultural and transnational translation[4]. This interest stems, firstly, from the increasing and intensifying cultural contacts in our globalizing world and, secondly, from the emphatic focus on the questions of alterity and representation of the Other in post-colonial theory. Where all translation can be seen as instigated by difference, or in Walter Benjamin’s [8. P. 19] terms foreignness ― whether linguistic, cultural, geographical, or historical –, in the case of transnational and post-colonial translation this preliminary difference is further heightened by historically contextual relations of power. For example James Clifford [11. P. 182; emphasis added] sees such cross-cultural translation as anything but neutral:

Cross-cultural translation is never entirely neutral; it is enmeshed in relations of power. One enters the translation process from a specific location, from which one only partly escapes. In successful translation, the access to something alien ― another language, culture, or code ― is substantial. Something different is brought over, made available for understanding, appreciation, consumption.


In the aftermath of such new orientations it can be assumed that these emerging theories and practices have transformational effects also on translating and translations. If earlier there has been (and continues to be; see Sengupta 1994) [24. P. 172] interest in translating the Other as exotic, it can be argued that attention in translation is now paid more to multicultural contextuality and the intricacies of intercultural dialogue. Although I will not be discussing the ethical aspects in more detail here, it can be said that this change has not taken place accidentally or involuntarily but through a serious engagement with the ethical and political dimensions of (post-colonial) translation[5]. Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi [6. P. 17] refer specifically to an “increasing awareness of the unequal power relations involved in the transfer of texts across cultures”, and it is in this spirit of awareness that my analysis is conducted.


India translates intriguingly. The literary works from India that make their way into the international market and get translated are often peculiar, and receive ambiguous if not hostile reviews in India. Despite this, translated Indian literature has found its readers and it is of interest to how India does, then, get translated, translate, and transform in the translation?


2. Translation strategies                  2 ур

Translation across cultures is the more difficult the more removed the respective cultures are culturally and linguistically from each other. In Finland, very few Indian books get translated, and they are almost exclusively translated from English [17]. The cultural distance is marked, and there is no clearly established vocabulary for translating Indian works[6].


In general, to overcome this difficulty, the translator uses various strategies in translating. In her book In Other Words Mona Baker (1992) outlines seven translation strategies[7]. Here I discuss only one of Baker’s [4. P. 34] strategies to illustrate the translation of Q & A, namely “Translation using a loan word or loan word plus explanation”. This is the most common strategy in this case, although for example “translation by cultural substitution” is used in translating the term “chawl” [27. P. 31, 70, 267] which is varyingly translated as ”vuokrakasarmi” (tenement) [29. P. 26], ”talo” (house) [29. P. 61], or ”huone” (room) [29. P. 246].


In analyses, translation strategies can be positioned on a continuum of cultural transpositioning. This term, developed by Sándor G.J. Hervey and Ian Higgins in their book Thinking Translation [15. P. 28], encompasses five different degrees of adaptation of the source text on a scale from exotic (dominated by the source language) to cultural transplantation (dominated by the target language): Exoticism, Cultural borrowing, Calque[8], Communicative translation, and Cultural transplantation [15. P. 28–34]. On this scale, Baker’s loan word strategy would correspond with cultural borrowing. Of interest here is the ways in which both Q & A and Tyhjentävä vastaus engage with loan words/ cultural borrowings. Cultural borrowings are, after all, “words that fill gaps in the recipient language’s store of words because they stand for objects or concepts new to the language’s culture” [15. P. 212], “when corresponding vocabulary is missing in the borrowing language” [23. P. 71]. While the Finnish translation as TT is an interlanguage translation of the original, the original as ST, too, can be argued to engage in intralanguage translation in its strategies of representation as the text is multilingual, not simply an English text ― although arguably an Indian English text.


2.1. ‘Foreign’ words     3 ур

One of the common features of transcultural writing is the use of special vocabularies and terminologies of the respective cultures and languages. It is a common practice in many of such works that these terms are also italicized to point out that they belong to another language or culture than the one in which they are introduced [13. P. 32]. This has a foreignizing and even exoticizing function for “something foreign is by definition exotic” (ibid.). An English language work of Indian literature is always balancing between domestication and foreignization when it tries to represent Indian culture and life through linguistic choices.


This is also the case in Swarup’s book as it uses quite a lot of Indian words for cultural phenomena, food and cooking, clothes and dressing, terms of address, musical terminology, exclamations, and so on. In a word, it uses intralanguage translation strategies in the way it incorporates words from different languages. Some of these are unmarked, while others are in Italics. The Finnish translation, then, sometimes follows this practice but in many cases there are differences in the usage of Italics.



As examples of unmarked, unitalicized words we can mention ”salwar kameez” ([27. P. 25, 176; in Finnish ”salvarkamiz” [29. P. 20, 160]) and ”sari” (e.g. [27. P. 187, 247] (24 times); [29. P. 171, 227]), ”chicken biryani and seekh kebabs” ([27. P. 13]; “kanabiriania ja sikh kababia” 8) and “samosa” (e.g. [27. P. 38, 178; 29. P. 32, 163]), and “Sahib and Memsahib” [27. P. 126; 29. P. 113] as well as the suffix “-ji” denoting respect, as in “Panditji” [27. P. 100; 29. P. 89][9]. The fact that these words are unmarked signals their assimilation into the English language from various Indian languages [23.  P. 69–71].



In many instances, however, such ‘foreign’ words are in Italics both in the ST and the TT, suggesting a cultural difference.[10] Examples of this are ”bindi” [27. P. 25; 29. P. 20] and “tilak” [27. P. 98; 29. P. 87], “laddoo” [27. P. 308; 29. P. 286] and “puri” [27. P. 177; 29. P. 161], as well as ”zamindar” [27. P. 94; 29. P. 84) and ”firang” [27. P. 139; 29. P. 126]. Many of these words could fall in the previous category of unmarked, assimilated words but here for some reason they are distanced from the ordinary. This is all the more marked as words from other languages remain unitalicized in the ST: for example the Arabic “Hajj” [27. P. 54; 29. P. 47], the Japanese “Arigato” [27. P. 282; 29. P. 260], and the Spanish “chorizo” [27. P. 129; 29. P. 116] ― in the TT these all are, however, in Italics.


Varying usage

While both ST and TT usually concur in their use of Italics, there are some notable differences. In some cases the ST uses Italics but the TT does not. Significant examples of this would be “dupatta” [27. P. 25; 29. P. 20][11] and “paan” [27. P. 92; 29. P. 81][12]. Why the TT has left out the Italics is not clear, as these cultural items are not familiar in the Finnish context. The translator might have considered them as such, or it might be a case of lapse in the production.


The other way round is perhaps easier to understand, when the ST is unmarked and the TT is marked. Good examples of this would be “dacoit” ([27. P. 102]; “dacoit” [29. P. 91])[13], ”Diwali” ([27. P. 196]; ”diwali” [29. P. 179]), and ”Hakim” ([27. P. 120]; “Hakim” [29. P. 108]), where the Italics in the TT indicate cultural distance, while the unmarked status of the ST indicates cultural and linguistic proximity. A different case can be found in the next example where the ST is unmarked (”plays matka”) [27. P. 28] and the TT is marked (”pelaa matkaa”) [29. P. 23]. The rationale here for the Italics is that ”matka” is also a Finnish word for travel and needs to be differentiated from the Indian term[14].


2.2. ‘Foreign’ words and explanations             3 ур

Another feature often combined with the use of italicized ‘foreign’ words is explanation, or gloss [cf. 20. P. 159]. An unfamiliar word that is given in Italics can be explained right after the word (maybe in brackets). Sometimes even footnotes or a glossary may be provided (either by the author, translator, or publisher/ editor). Swarup uses Italics for cultural borrowings, and there are sometimes explanations in the text as in the following example: “junk-dealer, or kabariwallah” ([27. P. 132]; ”romukauppias, kabariwalla” [29. P. 119]). This feature is, however, quite limited in the ST. In the TT, then, there are a couple of instances, where an explanation is appended to the text, as in the following examples. The ST has ”lungis” [27. P. 104] while the TT has “lungi-lannevaatetta” (loin-cloth; [29. P. 93]), “beedis” [27. P. 104] in the ST are ”bidi-savukkeita” (cigarettes; [29. P. 93]) in the TT, and “tabeez” [27. P. 94] is translated as ”tabeez-amuletti” (amulet; [29. P. 83]). In these cases, a brief explanation is given as to the meaning of the word when it is first used. Such explanations most often give the impression of being addressed to an outsider who does not have knowledge of a given cultural phenomenon. Like Italics, explanations have on the one hand a foreignizing function and on the other hand a pedagogical, familiarizing function.

In the following example the explanation in the ST is further enhanced in the TT:

starched kurta pyjamas made of khadi cotton cloth [27. P. 91];

tärkättyä kurtaa ja käsin kehrätystä khadi-puuvillasta tehtyjä pyjamahousuja [29. P. 81].

The TT does not italicize ”kurta” but further explains ”khadi” as hand-woven. For an Indian reader, khadi is familiar through the Gandhian practice of anti-colonial protest through weaving ones own cloths, while for the Finnish readership this invites a note.


One relevant semantic field for the novel is numerals, for the context is a quiz show with a high prize. Here especially two terms are of interest: “lakh” and “crore” which are used for “one hundred thousand” and “ten million”, respectively. These Hindi words are normally used when talking about large sums, and they are employed in Q & A, although not consistently. In the Finnish context, these are not familiar, and therefore it is not unexpected that the first instance of “one lakh rupees” [27. P. 171] is both italicized and explained: ”yhden rupia-lakhin, siis sadantuhannen rupian” (one hundred thousand rupees; [29. P. 155]. The construction of the phrase, however, is unconventional and complex, indicating that the term and its semantic function are not familiar. Also the ST sometimes reverts to the non-Indian practice and uses for example “five hundred thousand rupees” [27. P. 221; 29. P. 202] instead of *five lakh(s). For the “crore”, then, the TT simply omits the term and substitutes (cf. Baker [4. P. 34] it with ten million as in “for ten crores” [27. P. 336] in the ST and “sadan miljoonan arvoinen” (worth a hundred million; [29. P. 311]) in the TT. Here again, the ST is not consistent, occasionally using the phrase “ten million rupees” [27. P. 272; 29. P. 250] instead.


3. “Monkeys do not speak. Especially not in English”:

Initial conclusions

Contemporary post-colonial transcultural fiction often deals with identity questions connected to the issues of tradition and modernity, problems of ethnocentricity and xenophobia, rewriting of history and identity, impossibility of return, and processes of cultural translation, unlearning and relearning. In this questioning, they tend not to offer simple solutions to these issues but confront the problematics in more complex ways. One example of this is Swarup’s book which confronts the socio-political issues of contemporary India.


One dimension in which this critical position is present in the novel is the linguistic level. While apparently translating a (mainly) Hindi setting into an English one, it at the same time points at the importance of English in India ― even for the poor[15]. The protagonist Ram Mohammad Thomas ― an avatar of the idea of a secular, multicultural India ― learns English and uses it to his advantage, but also keeps it a secret especially from the authorities who treat him as an animal: “Monkeys do not speak. Especially not in English” [27. P. 15; 29. P. 11]. Ram is vindicating himself by refusing to expose his understanding of English ― an apt albeit problematic stance in (and for) a transcultural English text.


In post-colonial translation theory, emphasis is on contextual specificity. If we as scholars, translators and readers do not focus on that, there is the possibility of creating misunderstanding instead of understanding. We need to be reminded of the importance of remaining alert to the cultural specificities in writing, translating and reading. I have here made one detailed analysis of a novel in order to see how the specificities function in translation. Through the examples, I have tried to show how intra- and intercultural translation can make a difference in transcultural discourse.



1.     Adiga, Aravind 2009. Valkoinen tiikeri. Trans. Tarja Teva. Helsinki: Avain.

2.     Adiga, Aravind 2008. The White Tiger.

3.     Apter, Emily 2001. On Translation in a Global Market. Public Culture 13:1. Р. 1–12.

4.     Baker, Mona 1992. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. New York: Routledge.

5.     Bandia, Paul F. 2008. Translation as Reparation: Writing and Translation in Postcolonial Africa. Manchester: St. Jerome.

6.     Bassnett, Susan & Harish Trivedi 1998. Of Colonies, Cannibals and Vernaculars. In Bassnett & Trivedi (eds.) Postcolonial Translation: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge. Р. 1—18.

7.     Bassnett, Susan & Harish Trivedi (eds.) 1998. Postcolonial Translation: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

8.     Benjamin, Walter 2004 [1923]. Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Trans. Harry Zohn. In Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge. P. 15–23.

9.     Boyle, Danny 2008. Slumdog Millionaire. DVD.

10.                       Buzelin, Hélène. 2007. Translations ‘in the Making’. In Michaela Wolf and Alexandra Fukari (eds.) Constructing a Sociology of Translation. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. P. 135—169.

11.                       Clifford, James 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

12.                       Cronin, Michael 2004 [2003]. Translation and Globalization. London: Routledge.

13.                       Dickins, James, Sándor G.J. Hervey   Ian Higgins 2002. Thinking Arabic Translation: A Course in Translation Method: Arabic to English. London: Routledge.

14.                       Dingwaney, Anuradha & Carol Maier (eds.) 1995. Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-cultural Texts. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

15.                       Hervey, Sándor G.J. & Ian Higgins 1992. Thinking Translation: A Course in Translation Method: French to English. London: Routledge.

16.                       Huggan, Graham 2001. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London and New York: Routledge.

17.                       Kuortti, Joel 2004. Modernia intialaista kaunokirjallisuutta suomeksi. [Modern Indian literature in Finnish.] Bibliophilos 2. P. 40—44.

18.                       Levenston, Edward A. 1992. The Stuff of Literature: Physical Aspects of Texts and Their Relation to Literary Meaning. Albany: State University of New York Press.

19.                       Myers-Scotton, Carol 2006. Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Malden: Blackwell.

20.                       Nida, Eugene A. 2003 [1964]. Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating. 2nd ed. Leiden: Brill Archive.

21.                       Niranjana, Tejaswini 1992. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism and the Colonial Context. Hyderabad: Orient Longman & Berkeley: University of California Press.

22.                       Robinson, Douglas 1997. Translation and Empire: Postcolonial Theories Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.

23.                       Sailaja, Pingali  2009. Indian English. Dialects of English ser. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

24.                       Sengupta, Mahasweta 1994. Translation as Manipulation: The Power of Images and Images of Power. In Anuradha Dingwaney & Carol Maier (eds.) Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-cultural Texts. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. P. 159—174.

25.                       Simon, Sherry & Paul St. Pierre (eds.) 2000. Changing the Terms: Translation in the Postcolonial Era. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

26.                       Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty 2004 [1992]. The Politics of Translation. In Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge. P. 397—416.

27.                       Swarup. Vikas 2005. Q & A. London: Doubleday.

28.                       Swarup. Vikas 2009. Slumdog Millionaire. New ed. of Q & A. London: Black Swan.

29.                       Swarup, Vikas 2005. Tyhjentävä vastaus, eli kuka voittaa miljardin. Trans. Pirkko Biström. WS Bookwell.

Venuti, Lawrence (ed.) 1998 [1992]. Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. New York: Routledge.

[1] Swarup’s second novel is Six Suspects (2009; Finnish translation Syyllisten seurue by Eva Siikarla, WSOY 2010), and the third novel, The Accidental Apprentice, was published in January 2013.

[2] Biström is an established translator who has some experience in translating Indian cultural texts. She has translated a collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s aphorisms (Rauhan sanat, 1988). Further references to the source text and the target text are given parenthetically, preceded by QA and TV.

[3] Seven seasons in India since 2000, the seventh KBK 7 ended in June 2013.

[4] See e.g. Niranjana [21]; Dingwaney & Maier [14]; Robinson [22]; Venuti [30]; Bassnett & Trivedi [6]; Simon & St. Pierre [25]; Apter [3]; Huggan [16]; Cronin [12]; Buzelin [10]; Bandia [5].

[5] See Sengupta [24. Р. 172]; Bassnett & Trivedi [6. Р. 17]; Spivak [26. Р. 397]; Bandia [5. Р. 230].

[6] There are some lapses in the rendition of Hindi phrases in the translation: ”Jeet” [27. P. 212] becomes “eet” [29. P. 93] and “Sabki” [27. P. 112—113] “Sabhi” [29. P. 101]. Also “Hey” in the Hindi phrase “Hey Ram” [27. P. 23] is taken as English and translated as “Hei Ram” [29. P. 18]. On the other hand, the French “cervettes au gratin [27. P. 130] is corrected to “crevettes au gratin [29. P. 117].

[7] The seven strategies Baker [4. P. 23—43] distinguishes are: 1 Translation by a more general word or superordinate, 2 Translation by a more neutral/less expressive word, 3 Translation by cultural substitution, 4 Translation using a loan word or loan word plus explanation, 5 Translation by paraphrase using a related word, 6 Translation by paraphrase using unrelated words, 7 Translation by illustration.

[8] Calque is defined as “an expression that consists of TL words and respects TL syntax, but is unidiomatic in the TL because it is modelled on the structure of a SL expression” [15. P. 33].

[9] In one occasion, the Finnish translation transforms the suffix into another construction: ”Sirjee” [27. P. 212] is translated as ”Herra päällikkö” (master chief ) [29. P. 193]. Also the English version varies from the normal form ”-ji” in using the parallel form ”-jee”.

[10] Sometimes the function could be seen more as emphasis rather than marking of cultural difference but Swarup does not use Italics for emphasis (cf. Levenston [18. P. 94]).

[11] However, the equivalent term ”chunni” is Italicized in both ([27. P. 176; 29. P. 160] ― except that the TT is not consistent in this: see [29. P.165, 170]).

[12] Here again, both the ST and the TT use Italics for ”beedis” ([27. P. 104]; ”bidi” [29. P. 93]).

[13] Here the TT is irregular in its use of Italics. Sailaja [23, P. 71] comments that dacoit was assimilated into the English language already in the 19th century.

[14] The similar gambling game ”satta” is unitalicized in both versions [27. P. 233; 29. P. 213] while the game of kabaddi [27. P. 71; 29. P. 62] is italicized in both.

[15] This feature is present also in White Tiger, which provides a fruitful point for comparison.