The complex art of translation

Tariq Khan

Literary translation may refer to a wide range of activities and phenomena. Whether perceived as the translation of a certain kind or translation of a certain text type, literary translation is among the earliest language professions. Literary translation matters as much as literary creations and may feature among the oldest forms of translation available. One of the reasons why literary translation is so widespread is that it enables literary creations to transcend geographical, cultural, and linguistic boundaries.

Images: Manjula Bevoor

What qualifies as literary translation? Does literary translation refer to literary texts taken up for translation or does it refer to a certain style of translation that is sensitive to aesthetic appeals? In other words, does literary translation concern the nature of the source and target texts or does it concern the process in which the target text is produced? These questions have two parts and both are relevant. The answer to these questions will also have elements of both. The gamut of literary texts is considerably large and the translation of various established categories cannot be discussed in the same breath. That is why literary translation requires an itemised discussion, for each genre displays a unique characteristic. For instance, the translation of poetry and prose will have non-identical sets of challenges. This is also true for translating (auto)biography and drama. Literary translation plays a pivotal role in the spread of literary texts across linguistic and geographical borders and intercultural and cross-cultural communications. It would not be wrong to say that literary translation plays a facilitative role in the popularity of literary texts and their conversion into literary masterpieces.

Literary translation as a distinct kind of translation activity poses a multidimensional challenge. The translator of a literary text is entrusted with the responsibility of not only mapping the content from one language to another but also the style and genre. Often, the cultural nuances, gaps, figures of speech and indirect meaning create challenges for the translator. Performing this task, the translator often has to engage in a creative activity called transcreation. Therefore, the question that continues to ignite debates is whether the translators of literary texts should be given credit for creative writing or translation.

Literary translation adds variety to the existing repertoire of literary works in a language. For readers, translators, and language enthusiasts it brings insights related to the variegated ways in which human languages behave. It is an established type of language activity that concerns the translation of literary works from one language to another. In the process, the translator encounters language barriers due to the lexical and structural variations between the source language and the target language. For those engaging in it, literary translation offers fruitful returns in the form of enhanced awareness about meaning, context, word formation strategies, syntactic constructions, elements of discourse and the overall structure of the pair of languages concerned. It is important to differentiate literary translation from literal translation. Literary translation is the translation in which the source and target texts are literary while literal translation is a translation approach or strategy in which the context of the text does not play any role. Non-literary translation refers to the translation of such texts that do not qualify as literary texts. Scientific papers, books, reports, etc., are examples of non-literary texts.

Literary translation has been as much a component of language classrooms as literature itself. It contributes to the development of language skills and can alter the way individuals perceive different phenomena in life. Readers can easily notice unfamiliar metrical compositions, notably different plots, unfamiliar characters and strikingly different climaxes in plays while reading a literary text in translation. These differences contribute to the creation of new literary texts when the same readers are involved in creative writing and adaptation. While translation is credited with playing a contributory role in the development of a language, literary translation should be credited for enriching the literature of a language and making it accomplished. Therefore, literary translation is vital for the growth of language and literature.

In the initial days of machine translation, literary texts posed the highest degree of challenge and it was assumed that machine translation would never be successful with literary translation. However, since the onset of Open AI, it has become possible to produce writings of literary and creative value. The translation of literary works has also benefited immensely with the development of AI-based tools. The growth in this field is on the rise. The primary source of difficulties is culture-related.

Explication (also referred to as explicitation) is the act of removing obscurity and making things explicit. Due to various factors including cultural norms, it is taboo or prohibited to talk about certain things and phenomena even though words exist for them. When such things and phenomena are to be discussed, people often switch to some other language as if this were an attempt to keep their own language pure and unpolluted. For instance, when visiting a doctor, patients often use English to name body parts even though words are available for the same in the language they speak. It is observed that literature that encounters the restriction of using certain linguistic expressions in one language and culture becomes free during translation into some other language and culture. Explication is an interesting aspect of literary translation, but it is highly under-researched.

Back translation or reverse translation concerns the translation of the target text into the source language. A similar activity called retranslation or repeat translation refers to multiple instances of the source text translation into the target language. Both back translation and retranslation are used as techniques to assess the competence of translators and the quality of translations. Examining how the ‘back translation’ and ‘retranslation’ of literary texts read can be intellectually stimulating. The issue appears lucid at the surface because the literary text in the source language has a pragmatic context, or a theme, or a plot that is to be transferred into the target language. However, problems arise when either the source or the target language exhibits inadequacies of a certain kind during the translation process, for instance in transferring culture-specific concepts and phenomena. Based on shared concepts and syntactic and semantic similarities, one may be tempted to conclude that literary translation between a pair of cognate languages would be easier than a pair of non-cognate languages (for instance, between Gujarati and Hindi rather than between Hindi and Tamil). However, if literary texts embody conceptual structures and contextual themes that are free of linguistic codes, the translation should be easy irrespective of whether the pair of languages concerned share a common ancestry or not.

In addition to proficiency in the pair of languages concerned, a commonly known prerequisite for non-literary translation is the knowledge of the subject matter. Likewise, in literary translation, the translator should possess a taste for literature and a creative sense to maintain style and translate a literary text from one language to another. As translation concerns the transfer of meaning and context, it shares an organic relationship with semantics and pragmatics, two well-recognized sub-fields of linguistics. Literary translation is vital for the growth of literature of any language. It has been instrumental in facilitating understanding of cultures that are seemingly located very far from each other. Some prerequisites to excel in literary translation include a keen interest in literary texts of diverse kinds, an excellent grasp of pragmatic aspects of the languages concerned, skills to understand and employ denotative and connotative meanings, ability to use the figures of speech, and a knack for using expressions bearing pun, irony, and euphemism.

Literary texts in translation can be easily identified by the speakers of the language. In addition to attesting grammatical, ungrammatical, possible and impossible construction, the speakers of a language also possess the ability to distinguish texts of their language from those translated from other languages. All that is required in these exercises is a cursory examination of the style and structure of words and sentences featured in the text.

Religious texts, presenting the best instances of literary creativity, are among the most translated texts in the world. Even if the Bible, Ramayana, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, etc., are left out of the list of most translated texts in the world, it would include literary works from languages such as French, Italian, English, Chinese, German, and Spanish. The Little Prince (translated into over 500 languages), The Adventures of Pinocchio (translated into over 260 languages), Dao De Jing (translated into over 250 languages), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (translated into over 174 languages), and Don Quixote (translated into over 140 languages) are among the most translated literary texts*. Literary works like the Harry Potter series, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Diary of a Young Girl and The Alchemist are in the same league of translated texts.

India being a linguistically diverse country presents an interesting case for literary translation. The translations of literary works of prominent writers such as William Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, K. V. Puttapa (Kuvempu), O. V. Vijayan, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Ismat Chugtai, Indira Goswami, Mirza Ghalib, etc., have been extensively used for teaching literature in schools and colleges in India. The demand for translation of works of Indian writers increased manifold in the last two decades of the 20th century and the early two decades of the 21st century. The surge in demand for translation is not only for the pleasure of reading literary works but also for teaching literature in classrooms. Several language departments and programmes at the university level include translated works of Indian writers in their syllabi. Indian literature in translation has emerged as a serious course in various university departments. In India, Sahitya Akademi which functions as the national agency for literary activities also encourages literary translation through awards and publication. The novel retsamadhi written by Geetanjali Shree in 2018 and its English translation (Tomb of Sand) by Daisy Rockwell won the International Booker Prize in 2022. International recognitions of this kind for literary translation may galvanize the authoring and translation of literary works in India.

Translation is more frequently used in language teaching and language learning activities than generally acknowledged. The use of translation in language education programmes often employs the translation of literary texts from various genres and sub-genres. It is important to note here that the first published instances of some literary works in India are, in fact, translations. A significant number of literary works that existed in oral forms in India have started gaining written and printed forms through translation. The newness with which these works capture the richness of nature and account for the diversity of human experiences can amply support the teaching of literature in Indian classrooms. Teachers and learners can relate to the texts as well as the context of the literary work made available to them through translation. They will connect with the plot and characters of the literature reaching them in translation. In the Indian scenario, the literary works first get translated into English and then into other languages. This process increases the number of languages in which the translation can probably take place, however, it also poses a genuine risk of losing the cultural uniqueness when English acts as a pivot language for translation between languages of India.

The reproduction of literary works in (the modern form of) the same language is known as intralingual translation. For instance, most of Shakespeare’s plays reached English and non-English readers in translated forms. For English readers, these works were instances of intralingual translation, whereas for non-English readers these works were instances of interlingual translations. The English translation of the Odia stories of Jitendra Narayan Dash (popularly known as Dash Benhur) and the English translation of the Marathi plays of Vijay Tendulkar are well known in literary circles for creating an impact on young minds. Authors of Indian origin such as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Munshi Premchand, Khushwant Singh, and R. K. Narayan commanded great respect for their literary works, which are frequently taken up for translation. Very often, our knowledge of these literary greats is due to literary translation of their creative writings and the inclusion of the same in the syllabi of language classrooms.

Literary translation plays an integrative role in society. It has a tremendous potential to inspire action among individuals, especially in times of crisis and it can contribute to the overall development of personality. Often, wisdom encapsulated in literature received in translated form gets immersed in the readers and thereby inspires new thinking and action, especially in critical moments of life. Therefore, literary translation is an organic component of language teaching and testing programmes. Justifiably, literary translation in language syllabi and classrooms has become a regular phenomenon.

Using translation in the classroom
• Teachers in language classrooms in schools may like to have literary translations in their toolkit. This can happen bidirectionally; (a) teachers can ask students to translate excerpts of literary texts and have a discussion on variations that translated texts will exhibit (b) teachers can translate excerpts of literary texts themselves and then present a comparative table of the source and target texts to the students.
• Further, teachers can ask students to rewrite (intralingual translation) a piece of literary text in a different dialect of the language of the original text.
• Also, teachers can ask students to write down folksongs, lullabies, fairy tales, and songs for various cultural occasions that they hear at home but do not find in books.
• Teachers can also ask students to prepare a project on how literary and rhetoric devices are used in day-to-day communications, though not all of them are available in textbooks and dictionaries.
• A common classroom activity of asking students to write in words what they observe in an image or illustrate in a picture what they read in a text or saw in a video clip is an instance of practice in inter-semiotic translation.
• Language teachers can also ask students to translate idiomatic expressions, proverbs, sayings, punning riddles, etc., from their home language into the language of their classroom. Translation of literary texts can serve as a useful testing tool for language proficiency in a multilingual classroom.
• Identifying equivalents or coining words for translation purposes can be playful and academically rewarding.
These activities will make the students understand their languages as they are and not as they should be according to grammar books.


The author is working as the officer-in-charge of the National Translation Mission, CIIL, Mysore. He is trained in applied linguistics and takes an interest in psycholinguistics, humour studies, sociolinguistics, writing systems, and intercultural pragmatics. He can be reached at

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