It was a rainy day yesterday. Gray sky as dark as slate, a gray river with boats in muted colours stuck solid on the gray, opaque water of the Hudson in the low light. The air smelt of wet vegetation. The balcony railing had drops of water clinging from it. I breathed in the fresh air and I thought, ahhh, a muri, telebhaja kind of day.
Oh wait. I’ll have to translate that.
A puffed-rice and assorted-vegetables-dipped-in-batter and deep fried kind of day.
- How my Bengali friends in Calcutta would laugh at the gentrified translation if they read this. English–it does that to words.
- How my diasporic Bengali friends in other parts of the globe would understand why I did this but would still smile. They do it all the time. Translate nuances into broad markers.
- How my non-Bengali speaking friends familiar with the variations of South Asian food would have their mouth water at the translation guessing at the food item. They’re quick to get to the specific from the general idea. Especially food. Like me.
- How my friends completely unfamiliar with South Asian food would guess at what it could be, perhaps find a substitute in their minds (say Jalepeno poppers or fried chicken) and still feel the rainy day.
- How my non-diasporic (is there such a term?) friends in Calcutta, writing on the web addressing a global audience everyday, would understand the challenge, laugh, and yet do it themselves.
I had started out trying to blog about the rainy day but what I ended up doing was think about language, writing on the web, and the global audience.
Books have always been translated from one language to another. Something is always lost in translation but much is left. The audience that does not speak the original language has had to have been satisfied with the translation. Sometimes, the translation has turned out a literary work by itself. Other times people have been motivated by the translation to learn the original language.
A writer representing one culture has also written primarily for an audience from a different culture in the second culture’s language. That’s been very common.
Say, for example, so many writers from the Indian diaspora write all the time living in the US in English about life in the US and India. Often, they have to provide a background or keep explaining very common things for an audience that’s completely unfamiliar with the context. To Indian readers, this could sometimes kill the fun by killing the nuances or the jokes could seem like fiction by itself, removed from much that is currently “real.”
In the past, translations would appear only after the original work had already established its merit to one set of audiences or when the writer was famous enough to justify simultaneous publications in many languages. Writers could also choose a primary audience within or outside a community thereby being able to decide what to contextualize.
With writing on the web, like say blogging, the work is read simultaneously, in the same instant, by people from mind-bogglingly different backgrounds.
But it’s not just the audience. If the article on Forbes today about WordPress is to be believed, editors can also span the globe. 26 different countries in six continents represented in WordPress alone, although most employees may not be involved in editing (I don’t know).
How will writing adjust itself to this instant global audience?
And that’s not just a question of language or nuance.
It can be about description.
He noticed how the paint was chipped off from the houses lining the streets, how the cars were run down, and how the AC’s were old and dripping water.
- Reader 1: He’s in an economically backward area for sure. How sad these people live in such poverty.
- Reader 2: Cars, houses and AC’s? He’s in a middle-class area for sure.
The great dictum of good writing, “show, don’t tell” would not work so well here. You’d have to come out and say what the setting means.
It could also be about structure.
- If it was an essay, one set of people would expect a clear thesis in the first paragraph or so, several body paragraphs backing up the thesis and then a conclusion reinforcing the thesis.
- Another set would read the above as too “in your face,” an example of a not-so-subtle approach.
But when all these audiences co-exist, as on the web, how will writing change to accommodate everyone’s tastes?
Then again, perhaps I’m dreaming up a problem that’s not here.
Could this be an already homogeneous audience, albeit geographically spread, that’s reading on the web? Are they all similar thinkers, made that way by commonalities in education, global exposure through global culture, and similar economic backgrounds that gave them this exposure in the first place? Perhaps I’m not even close to addressing all the rest.
Or is this just an old problem in a new form? Did writers always grapple with these issues?
Yesterday I put up a post on an experience in a library where I heard a man without identification being escorted out. Although I never knew who he was, I was primarily thinking of the homeless. My primary emotion there was mostly sadness at the memory.
But then, a reader, apparently a mystery writer, commented on the post saying it had given her an idea for a mystery novel.
A mystery novel could not have been further from my mind when I wrote the piece but now my memory of the incident will always be coloured by her perspective of mystery.
She, a reader, managed to alter me, the writer’s memory of the incident!
Isn’t it cool that despite all these considerations you still get to write not knowing where it will lead?