Translation has a chequered history in India. The earliest translations seem to have happened between Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali and the emerging languages of the regions and between the same languages, and Arabic and Persian. Indian narrative and knowledge-texts like Panchatantra, Ashtangahridaya, Arthasastra, Hitopadesa, Yogasutra, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavatgita were translated into Arabic between 8th and 19th centuries; there was also an intense exchange between Persian and Indian texts. Sanskrit texts, especially the Bhagavatgita and Upanishads came into contact with other Indian languages during the Bhakti period producing great bhasha texts like Jnaneshwari, a translation of Gita by the Marathi saint poet, Jnaneshwar and several free translations of the epics, especially Ramayana and Mahabharata by the saint-poets of various languages. For example, one may look at the Ramayana adaptations of Pampa, Kambar, Molla, Ezhuthacchan, Tulasidas, Premananda, Ekanatha, Balaramadasa, Madhav Kandali or Krittibas.

The Colonial period saw a spurt in translations between European languages and Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. While there were exchanges between German, French, Italian, Spanish and Indian languages, English was considered privileged by its hegemonic status as it was used by the colonial masters. The British phase of translation into English culminated in William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam. Sakuntalam as a text has now became a marker of India’s cultural prestige and one of the primary texts in Indian consciousness. This explains how it came to be translated into more than ten Indian languages in the 19th century. The (colonial?)/British attempts in translation were determined by the Orientalist ideology and the need for the new rulers to grasp, define, categorise and control India. They created their own version of India while the Indian translators of texts into English sought to extend, correct, revise and sometimes challenge the British understanding though the whole battle was fought around ancient texts rather than the contemporary ones. Raja Rammohun Roy’s translations of Sankara’s Vedanta and the Kena and Isavasya Upanishads were the first Indian interventions in English translations of Indian texts by Indian scholars. It was followed by R.C. Dutt’s translations of Rigveda, the Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and a few classical Sanskrit plays. These translations were meant to challenge the Romantic and Utilitarian notions of Indians as submissive and indolent. Then came a flood of translations by others like Dinabandhu Mitra, Aurobindo and Rabindra Nath Tagore to name only a few. Translations between Indian languages also began around this time, though in a limited way.

The reality however is that English still remains inaccessible to even the literate majority in India, and the real empowerment of these sections is possible only through translations of significant literary as well as knowledge texts in Indian languages. Gandhi’s views on translation may be relevant here: “I consider English as a language for international trade and commerce and therefore it is necessary that a few people learn it…. And I would like to encourage those to be well-versed (in English) and expect them to translate the masterpieces of English into the vernaculars.” He even felt that the adoption of English as the medium of education might prevent the growth of Indian languages.

As L.M. Khubchandani points out, the education system in the pre-colonial India, working through pathshalas and maktabs, regarded school education as an extension of primary socialization and built a hierarchy of linguistic skills which promoted a chain of mutually intelligible speech varieties, ranging from local dialects to highbrow styles. Several functionally oriented languages and scripts equipped the learner with a rich and fluid linguistic repertoire. Uncomfortable with the traditional linguistic heterogeneity of India, the colonial rulers proposed monistic solutions to Indian education creating an opposition between English and the bhashas. Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835) and the work of his predecessors ignored Indian languages. The post-colonial period witnessed an increasing emphasis on using mother tongues as the media of instruction and UNESCO’s recommendation that psychologically, socially and educationally a child learns better and faster through his/her mother tongue was quoted by many language planning authorities.

Therefore, both in our society and in our schools we need to create space for different languages represented in society. This will become possible only when there are plenty of translations of literary as well as knowledge texts available to the teachers as well as students. And, it is also important to translate such texts from one Indian language into another – by way of ‘horizontal translation’, rather than bringing the knowledge-based texts from the so-called ‘donor’ languages of the west in a ‘vertical’ manner (Singh 1990).

It is our firm belief that this knowledge should also be available to the common men and women in India, anxious to access the highest knowledge through their mother tongues. This is the general premise from which the idea of a National Translation Mission (NTM) has sprung.