Tidewaters of translation

Seaweed, Venice, 2011, © Kathleen MacQueen.

Seaweed, Venice, 2011, © Kathleen MacQueen.

What is criticism? How is it similar to interpretation or akin to translation? Are these terms interchangeable? In seeking a direction for these questions, I think of the character of Kanai Dutt, from Amitav Ghosh’s 2005 novel The Hungry Tide, who is a translator by profession, adept in six languages. The skill seems as essential to the undercurrents of the text as it is to the narrative for, as a translator, he is a conduit of language, a transmitter of history, and a raconteur of the spirit of a people and place. In his clumsy stewardship, however, he threatens to destroy that spirit along with the text.

Language is as fluid as the Sundarbans, islands territorially split by the Indian/Bangladeshi border but whose very composition and existence are at the constant whim of storms and floods. Just as the tidewaters change the map of this basin between the rivers and the seas – wiping out some landmasses, building up others – so too does the translator lose and then recover a narrative of time and place. Through language, stories can be recuperated, the author seems to tell us: memory is the tool, imagination the means.

Yet observation and experience are also critical to the chronicle of a story and, in the case of Kanai in The Hungry Tide, he is as dependent on others to construct his tale as he is for survival, whether in league with Piya, a scientist, or Fokir, a fisherman. In this sense, all writing is a form of translation as an exchange of knowledge and as movement between individuals, peoples, languages, or even cognitive systems. Methods of exchange influence interpretation. Mistakes are mitigated by a multiplicity of voices. Accountability favors long term rather than immediate restitution.

Where then is criticism? Increasingly, I think of arts writing not as criticism but as a translation of texts, images, and events. It relies on, yet remains distinct from, the work of others. At the same time, it is based on understanding and not simply the receipt or the giving of a gift. This is the lesson of so-called backwaters, whose tidal interstices are, like life, precariously navigable, reliant on reciprocal exchange as much as precise observation and the relay of data or words, where trust serves greater purpose than suspicion.

Kathleen MacQueen, January 26, 2013