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An Excerpt from “The New Knowledge”

Madhu H. Kaza’s essay for Two Lines 30: The Future of Translation is a tour-de-force essay that considers her position as an immigrant and translator out of her first language, but not the language in which she’s most fluent, Telugu. The following is an excerpt from that essay.

I translate because I am an immigrant. I write and think and dream in a language distant from my origins, but a language that has become a home. I was brought to the U.S. by my parents when I was five years old. They had immigrated a few years earlier and sent for me when they were sufficiently settled. It’s not an unusual immigration story. On my fifth birthday, I left my home, my school, friends, neighbors, extended family, my language, a whole world and way of life as well as my grandmother and grandfather who had parented me up until then. I lost a life and traveled toward a new one. If translation is the “afterlife” of a text as Walter Benjamin first put it, I think of all of my life in the U.S. and in English as the afterlife of a child who was raised in a small town in coastal Andhra Pradesh, India. I am living out a translated life. Like many child immigrants I wonder about the person I would have become if I had not left home, the girl whom I had abandoned.

The difficulties with translation from Telugu began, then, with a split in my self. Or to put that statement in reverse: the very knot of identity for me is connected to problems of translation, of what can and cannot be transmitted across borders. If assimilation were easy, if one life and one identity could be converted smoothly into another, I would not need to translate. But the different parts of my identity sit in jagged, disproportionate relation inside me, and Telugu and English are two languages that almost never meet in my current North American life. Virtually no Telugu literature in translation has been published in the U.S. Because Telugu is a vernacular rather than national language, English translations circulate primarily on the Indian subcontinent itself.

I didn’t come to translation from a love of a particular Telugu writer or a general interest in Telugu literature. I wanted very badly as a young adult to be returned to something that had been disappeared from my life, to find a way to carry the language I had left behind with me. I felt the desire for the language of my infancy, what Dante understood as the emotional call of “the language of the cradle.” Because it includes the intimacy created with first words, it is a deeply felt but difficult yearning for me to describe, and it’s far from literary. When I was growing up in the American Midwest in the 1980s it seemed not only as if the language had been voided in me, but also as if the language itself was obscure and dying in the world. It was spoken within the Telugu community in the U.S., but most people outside that community didn’t even know that the language existed. To not have the language recognized meant I had to bury that essential, original part of my identity. I didn’t think I could ever get close to the language again. Once my Telugu speaking relatives died, I imagined it would die out in me as well. . . .

Read the rest of Madhu H. Kaza’s essay in Two Lines 30: The Future of Translation.