Module 4: Theories of translation
  Lecture 14: Indian Translation Theory

A. K. Ramanujan's theory of translation

A. K. Ramanujan is a translator who helped foreign readers to appreciate the beauty of ancient Indian texts other than the Sanskrit ones. As Vinay Dharwadker points out, his translations included classical and bhakti poetry in Tamil, Virasaiva vacanas (poetic aphorisms) in Kannada, bhakti and court literature in Telugu, folktales and women's oral narratives written in the 19th century, and the poetry and prose of India after independence (“A. K. Ramanujan's Theory and Practice of Translation”: 114). As a translator Ramanujan was well aware of his responsibilities of having to convey the original to the target reader and also of having to strike a balance between the author's interest and his own interest. His task was made all the more difficult when it came to the translation of ancient Tamil or Kannada poetry into English, because there were differences in culture, language and temporal framework between the source and target languages.

In his effort to achieve the closest approximation to the original, Ramanujan concentrated on various principles of poetic organization. Here he tried to make a distinction between the ‘inner poetic core' and the ‘outer core' of a poem. He focused on the images and their arrangement in the original poem, and sought to reproduce that arrangement in his translation by a visual pattern, usually made by the ordering of stanzas on the page. Dharwadker quotes Ramanujan as saying that he made “explicit typographical approximations to what [he] thought was the inner form of the poem” (117). He feels that Ramanujan developed his ideas of outer and inner poetic forms from two different sources – Noam Chomsky and Roman Jakobson. What Dharwadker has in mind are Chomsky's concept of deep structure and surface structure, and Jakobson's distinction between ‘verse instance' and ‘verse design'. He also finds similarities between this and Julia Kristeva's distinction between ‘phenotext' (the manifest text) and ‘genotext' (the innate signifying structure). Ramanujan also drew upon the Tamil Sangam distinction of ‘akam' and ‘puram' poetry, representing the exterior world and the inner world of emotions respectively. He felt that English and his disciplines of linguistics and anthropology give him his outer form while personal and professional concerns with Tamil, Kannada and other Indian folklore form his inner self. As a translator, these two forms had to be in dialogue with each other.