Rediscovering reading in my native tongue

Venkata Tejah Balantrapu

As a person born a decade before India’s 1991 reforms, my access to the wider world outside my small town was through books. Television had limited programming, and radio had faded into irrelevance (for young people, unless you wanted to listen to songs or follow a cricket match). I read, always in English, literature (literatura in latin, for ‘book-learning’) that was available in the local library, and helped me escape what otherwise seemed a dull and boring life. I was from a generation that knew how to spell words like “phlegm” or “chutzpah” but never had to pronounce them. Saying them out loud made no sense in my life, and no one would use them in regular conversations. My world of speech was Telugu, a weltanschauung rich with word-choices, dialects, and everyday diversity. Growing up, I never read a word in Telugu, but always spoke it at home. I spoke English at school and my inner-world of imagination and ideas were fuelled by English. I thought in English. I probably thought in Telugu too, but not with intention.

To know a language, truly, is to be able to do three things with it: converse, read, and write, with comfort and felicity. Speaking a language is relatively straightforward for human brains – we just need to soak in the culture where said language is spoken. Learning to read and write, however, requires a lot of effort and practice, perhaps years for most of us, just to acquire some functional skills. Clearly, there is some difference between oral proficiency and writing or reading in a language – they are two different frames to access a language. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian thinker, argued that the medium influences and transforms the message. If orality and script are two different ‘media’ – the frame through which language transmits – then there are differences in how language emerges when one speaks, and when one writes.

This is a weird dichotomy: a world of text and a world of speech running parallel to the language they spring from. A K Ramanujan, Indian poet and scholar, famously wrote, “No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time.” They don’t have to ‘read’ because they have ‘heard’ it as stories, as music and song, as dance and drama. But when they do start to read the Mahabharata (or the Ramayana), here too they are met with a bewildering choice. These texts form a literature, a set of works of great artistic merit and aesthetic pleasure for their readers. The written form is a more efficient tool to make literature than orality. Writing is secure relative to the spoken word, it enfolds meaning and ideas with letter-compounds (words) to represent them. This is because writing helps address a key problem: the unstable link between a word and its meaning. This is an ancient problem, as old as language itself. In the opening lines of the Raghuvamsha, Kalidasa prays and gives praise to the god and goddess who are attached like word and its meaning – so that he too can grasp the ineffable link between word and its meaning. Literature, then, is a textual art that is both transcendental and meaning-collapsing; it binds together ideas, words, and meaning. This allows it to stay timeless for as long as there are readers who can take in its word-bound ideas and make their own meaning from it. This reading of the meaning of literature opens up a sense of agency: as a reader, I will be able to pick up the script, understand the words, make meaning, and take pleasure from reading a text. Should I then not be able to port this ability to a different language too?

Well into my adulthood, I began to read Telugu. First, I had to teach myself the letters and words, and then learn to string them together to generate meaning. The near-instantaneous recognition that I have with English text was missing in Telugu. Despite years of speaking the language, I had to slow down and stitch word and word together to make meaning. In English, when I wish to convey an idea, words seem to pop up without effort. In Telugu, I have to struggle – the words one uses for speech are awkward in text. Everyday Telugu speech also slurs and mixes word pronunciations, but one has to be really comfortable with the text to make those slurries work in writing. At that slow pace, one discovers an instability not just with word and its meaning, but also its spelling and intent. Much like atoms in modern physics, words are no steady and precise objects, they are potentialities thrumming with energy. With time, I managed to assimilate enough of a vocabulary to begin reading text at a reasonable pace. These days, I spend most of my time reading Telugu text online, on literary e-magazines like the lovely Eemata. This is a new Telugu for me, a world of text, and different from the Telugu I speak.


Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain…
– ‘Translations Necessary’ from the Translators’ note, preface, King James Version of the Bible, 1611.

There is, however, a world of literature that is just right for me: Telugu translated into English. Translations help me switch between English and Telugu (and with poetry, some Sanskrit), to see how different people collapse meaning and translate it into a different language, and so, a different context. Short story collections (like The greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told by Dasu Krishnamoorthy and Tamraparni Dasu, Aleph 2022), novellas (like The Liberation of Sita by Lalita Kumari (Volga), HarperCollins, 2016), or even short excerpts of poems, Chaatuvu in Telugu (like A Poem at the Right Moment by V Narayana Rao and David Shulman, University of Chicago press, 1998) are all welcome portals where I can switch between the Telugu and English versions and reap the pleasure of the text’s mastery in both worlds. Translations show up the stark impossibility of taking a word and moving its meaning from one language to another. Those translations that aim for a literal truth fall short of both the original and its recipient language. Finding the right word in a different language is more fraught and unstable than finding the right word to make the original.

The opening lines of the Odyssey in the original Greek calls the text’s hero, Odysseus, polytropos. The Odyssey has been translated many times into English over the years, and each translator picks a different English word for polytropos: prudent, shrewd, resourceful, many-fortuned. Robert Fagles, in his translation, begins: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course…” (The Odyssey, Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1999). My favourite translation, though, is by Emily Wilson. She chooses the straight: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse…” (The Odyssey, Emily Wilson, Norton, 2017). Telugu translations too have to make many such choices. In A Poem at the Right Moment, the authors translate Viswanadha Satyanarayana’s line, “…kali gadachinakoladi chitragatulanchalagun” as “strange are the ways of this dying age.” The word Kali refers to the fourth age in Hindu cosmology, the Kali Yuga. As it is the last age, winding down into dissolution and deprivation, the phrase “dying age” sounds appropriate, but one can think of other terms too: “end times”, for example. In all these translations, the aim is to convey intent but not always the literal meaning. The translator takes pains to ensure that the meaning they make into the new language carries the essence of the original. Therefore, as a reader too, it behoves me (and all those who read such texts) to read them with intent and effort. In fact, the full verse in the original by Viswanadha Satyanarayana castigates readers for not putting in enough effort to read and blaming the poet instead for the text’s complexity.

But, reading is hard. It is a difficult skill to master and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The key to learning is pleasure – that which gratifies the mind. You find something that excites you and holds your attention. You are willing to come back, again and again, and in the process you read. It then inspires you with ideas that are complex and need to be worked out. This you do on a piece of paper (or on a document on your computer): you write. Those who are willing to put in the effort must contend with the instability of words and their meanings. They must also contend with the contours of the language they choose to operate in. And yet, the pleasures of text are many. Reading offers the satisfaction of unpacking dense meanings from seemingly simple, even ambiguous, sentences. While it is no replacement for lived experience, for many of us, reading is the closest thing to travel and to access memories of travels past. In the end, when all life must submerge back into the noise of world, it is the words we leave behind that have any hope of surviving into the future.

My top 10 translation picks
This is a short selection of books in translation that I read and took pleasure from. Hopefully, you will find in this list a book to start your journey of reading translated books.
Girls for Sale (Kanyasulkam by Gurajada Appa Rao); translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Penguin Classics, 2011 (With a fantastic cover image, Bride by Damerla Rama Rao, artist from Rajahmundry who died tragically young).
Folk tales from India; by A K Ramanujan, Penguin 2009.
A Poem at the Right Moment; collected and translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, University of California press, 1998.
Classical Telugu Poetry: an Anthology; edited and translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, Oxford University Press, 2002.
God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupathi; Annamayya translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, Oxford university press, 2005.
The Liberation of Sita (Volga), Translated by T Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayashree, HarperPerennial, 2018.
The Story of Manu (Manucharitramu, Allasani Peddanna), Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, Murthy Classical Library of India, 2015.
Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times, edited by Volga, translated by Alladi Uma and M Sridhar, HarperPerennial, 2022.
The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told, Dasu Krishnamoorthy and Tamraparni Das, Aleph, 2022.
Russian Classics [Telugu] – translated into Telugu by Kunaparaju Kumar, Anvikshiki publishers, 2019 (This last book is in the other direction – famous Russian short stories translated into Telugu).

The author is a writer and communications professional from Hyderabad. He makes his living writing and by helping others write. In the process, he gets to think about words and their meanings. If you do too, and would like to chat, he can be reached at tejahb@gmail.com.

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