LANGUAGE IN INDIA

Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 12 December 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.


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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

PRACTICING LITERARY TRANSLATION
Some Considerations, Reflections, Experiences,
and Samples for Scrutiny

V. V. B. Rama Rao, Ph.D.


1. TRANSLATION IS AN ART, AND HISTORICALLY A SERVICE TO THE DIVINE

Translating various kinds of texts may have different objectives and, accordingly, many techniques. Literary Translation is an activity that belongs to the domain of art than to the domain of academic pursuits. This does not, however, imply that art is beyond learning and beyond academic pursuit. There are Schools for Art, Music and so on, and Institutes for acquiring excellence.

The whole point is that literary translation has evolved independent of formal training as an academic discipline. In Telugu, Nannaya and Tikkana have been basically literary artists turning their creative energies to explore and interpret the major Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata. No doubt the large corpus they produced would yield ample scope for academicians to deduce specific individual talent in creative, imaginative translation.

An octogenarian litterateur and professor, who runs a literary journal, once mentioned in a conversation casually that a translator's goal is not making an idol for promenading (utsav murti) but making and unveiling the manifest deity (udbhav murti). The very trope (the use of a word or expression in a figurative sense) is pregnant with significance: a translator's job is holy, a service to the Divine.

2. NO FORMAL TRAINING

Indian literature that moves our hearts and souls so deeply is replete with authors who translated from Sanskrit into other Indian languages without any formal training in translation.All renowned translators went to literary texts they loved and adored and, without any formal training in translation and without propounding any theory as such, forged ahead with the task of rendering unto their readers what they considered worthwhile in the languages of which they had thorough grasp and command.

All this does not undermine the importance of acquiring or imparting some kind of theory. In the matter of literary translation, it takes long for an all-subsuming and extensive theory to emerge to cover the wide range of languages. As of now, extensive literary translation is pursued as an urgent necessity in the backdrop of the multiplicity of Bhashas in our country.

3. THE GOAL: DISPEL THE DREAD ABOUT TRANSLATION

It is my endeavor in this article to dispel the dread about literary translation: to assure that it is within the reach of enthusiasts without the prerequisite of training or 'academic' background. As one goes along, one can trust to evolve as a good translator just by steady application and lots of perseverance.

4. TRANSLATION: A NECESSARY ACTIVITY - MY LIFE, MY EXPERIENCE

Translating texts from one language to another is a necessary activity. The purposes vary and so do the methods and techniques. Literary Translation is not often as formidable a task as it has often made to appear by a reading of the work of theoreticians and academics who are not always translators themselves.

By way of assuring the new entrants, aspirants and enthusiasts, I may be permitted to be a little personal, and relate my own experience. My first attempt at translation from English into Telugu was T. S. Eliot's Wasteland, which I did, to show to my Principal, the Late Vasantharao Venkata Rao-garu of hallowed memory, after I joined the faculty as the junior most member of Maharajah's College way back in 1957.

Venkata Rao-garu gave me a pat on the back, and I never looked back. My daily bread I earned from teaching, but translation, whenever an opportunity came up, continued to be my love. I started the practice without knowing any continental names of translator-theoreticians, linguisticians, or actual practitioners. Knowing the source and the receptor languages and then a strong desire and will to translate are the only things I thought necessary for the practice. I write this as a confession too. Difficulties I did encounter but never any that compelled me to give up midway.

It has been a delight that I could accomplish a self-imposed task, translating and publishing first VOICES ON THE WING, and later MORE VOICES ON THE WING. Two hundred and fifty poets were included in these volumes. Of these, except for a very few, the work of all the poets has been brought to English readers for the first time.

5. QUALITY OF TRANSLATION, AND THEORY AND PRACTICE OF TRANSLATION

The quality of translation is a matter of choice, for never did I have any access to any theory. When I read recently, after almost completing the present work, this statement of Laurence Venuti, "I translated five books from Italian before I began thinking in explicitly theoretical terms about my work," I have been greatly reassured. Venuti is a prolific translator from Italian to English and an interview with him was carried by The Book Review recently in their July number. He told the interviewer (Dr. Asaduddin) that theory drove his practice and vice versa. Here, as a translator I must say that it is practice alone that has been taking me along.

6. INTER-NATIONAL AND INTRA-NATIONAL TRANSLATIONS

I feel that all existing theories concentrate on inter-national language translations. The task I chose and continue to undertake is translation from intra-national languages: from Telugu to English and from English to Telugu.

It is not my wish even remotely to suggest that I have no respect for theory or academics. They work their work and I mine.

7. TRANSLATIONS AND LITERARY TRANSLATION

The following points would be of practical value to decide specifically before undertaking translation:

  • Category of translation: Informative, Instructional or Literary Target reader: Lay person, User of a Manual, Student/Learner, Literary enthusiast or general public.
  • Source language: Original text)
  • Genre: prose, short story, novel, poem etc.
  • Period of writing: ancient, medieval, modern or contemporary
  • Target language: language into which text is being translated

8. TRANSLATION INTO ENGLISH AND BETWEEN INDIAN LANGUAGES

Translating regional literatures into English has been widely recognized as a priority item in our present literary agenda in India. Now English is an Indian language. The influence and interference of the 'power' aspect of the colonial days is gone, thanks to Independence and the ascendance of democratic mores all over the world. Now is the time to throw open the treasures in our regional literatures to the entire world via the world language. It is common knowledge that amongst our own literatures a wide range of translations should be made available to knit the country with literary achievement. Though translating our literary texts into English is fraught with difficulties, negotiating between cognate languages is surely less hard.

In the context of the much needed and unusual spurt in translation activity, it is essential for translators to exchange their views, relate their experiences, and make the path easier to tread for the new entrants and further aspirants. In the absence of a universally valid and accepted theory, translators necessarily follow their own strategies in practice. Experience-exchanging works should be welcome. This monograph is such an attempt.

9. THE BASIC QUESTIONS

Practicing translation is a matter of both skill and knowledge. While theories and textbooks provide and impart knowledge, it is insight acquired in practice that sharpens skills. Talking generally about translation (either from English to another language, or the other way round), one would do well to begin with basics. For each source language, and for each target language, a different strategy has to be devised by the practicing translator individually. Translation theory cannot be universally applicable. But, it is true that machine translation presupposes inter-translatability between languages.

The basic questions one has to answer that a translator has to answer himself or herself before embarking on the practice are:

  1. Which is the text being translated genre-wise: prose, poetry, fiction or drama?
  2. What is the purpose of translation: transferring info. from one language to another or carrying a literary text from one language to another?
  3. Is it translating instructions etc. from a manual in one language into another?
  4. What is the type of text in terms of its original composition, contemporary, classical medieval or ancient?
  5. Who is the target reader, the elite, the neo-literate, the general public or students with a specific purpose?
  6. Is the translation into the same genre or into another?

10. KINDS OF TRANSLATIONS

Translations vary according to the need, and according to the target reader the translator has in mind. For example, they may be intended to be used (eventually or immediately) for learning a language and cultivating literary appreciation in the target language. This demands extensive notes not only on lexical, semantic, and syntactic items but also on expressive literary devices. If the translator does not know for certain the prospective use of his work, he would not be able to give what the reader may deem essential. Pedagogic Translations ought to be different from translations for the general reader.

Interactive translation is possible only when the original writer and the translator can exchange notes on the translated texts at every stage so that the translation is evaluated by the original writer himself in terms of fidelity, etc. This kind of translation ensures credibility and authenticity. The writer and the translator confer, and the translator's task becomes easier and difficult at the same time. This need not be explained in detail.

Then there is Collective Translation also to increase the credibility and the dependability of the translation. This is resorted to by institutions like Sahitya Akademi. A number of translators are assembled at a place where a work is discussed first and later assigned to different hands. It is discussed, commented on, and guided. Fresh drafts are discussed again, revised, and edited for sending the final product to the press. Some kind of uniformity is assured when different translators translate different bits under the guidance and supervision of a general editor. The object is to communicate the very the best of a literary text with co-operative effect.

11. ORIGINAL TEXT AND THE TRANSLATED TEXT - LITERARY TRANSLATION

If we are concerned with literary translation, it should be our aim to take as much of the beauty and significance of the source text into the target text. After carefully considering the answers to the questions raised above, we have to make a number of choices. In matters of style, diction, expression, etc., what is most important is appropriateness, aptness, and felicity in the target language.

Bringing Out the Original Grandeur. There are some basic points to bear in mind. The idea of a translation, by and large, is to present the original work to a reader from another language in a language known to him. It is obvious that every item of beauty in the text of the original language cannot fully be put across in another language. Notwithstanding the innumerable inherent limitations of translation, every effort has to be made to convey as much as possible. The reader of a translated text does not fully comprehend the grandeur of the original, but conveying something not meant, not intended, and not supposed to be intended, would be unfair both to the new reader and the writer of the original. It would be a fairly satisfactory effort on the part of the translator to give some idea of the eminence in the writing to the extent the reader wouldn't be disappointed. He has come to the translation of a text, which he feels worthwhile reading at least in translation. Literary translation is a service, and a service it remains no matter what detractors may say.

Dealing with metrical verse. It is not easy to render into somewhat similar metre. Many translators translate it in free verse to make their own task easy. No two languages may have the same metrical forms. Each language has its own turn of phrase and idiom and beauties in one language may not be retained when translated into another. Still, literary translation of poetry, specially, has many practitioners as well as takers. If a translator is unduly worried about negative criticism from people who happen to know both the languages well, he should have faith in sahridaya (goodness of heart). A good translator should brave even uncharitable and unholy criticism at times. He should know his limitations.

Markers and Other Devices: Social markers, markers of cultural levels, registers, and technical words, need to be carried into the target language with utmost caution. The translator could be faulted for taking too much for granted from his reader or, in the other extreme, underestimating the reader. Pedagogic translations may be an exception to this. Too many explanations and too many footnotes distract. And then the most important thing is the stance of the translator. The ideal thing is: be inviting, enthusing and encouraging the reader to get the feel of the original text. It is essential to be reader-friendly and the fidelity to the target reader is obviously a little more important than fidelity to the original text.

12. FIDELITY - FREEDOM - FINALITY

The validity of a translated text does not depend totally on one to one correspondence between the original and the translated texts. Some parts or fragments may be safely omitted; some may have to be excised in extra-ordinary situations as was done by me in translating for Sahitya Akademi Narendrapal Singh's Punjabi novel translated by himself into English as Trapped. Certain passages which might be unsavory to Telugus describing homosexual exploits, etc., had to be passed over. Even after that the novel invited a lot of severe criticism even in Telugu. It is useful to retain some words of the original, especially terms of kinship, items of dress, words of address, interjections, expletives, items of food, clothing etc. not only in unrelated but even in cognate receptor languages. The receptor language stands to gain some loans from the original, when they eventually become familiar and popular. Translated texts can contribute to the growth of the receptor language in terms of lexis.

The best way to enjoy reading Greek Tragedy is to read it in Greek, but very few possess that ability. We all know that Greek tragedy is worth knowing about, and for that reason, we go to translations. It is for that reason that translation is necessary. No one who knows Greek would read a Greek tragedy in English translation except for some kind of a critical assessment. It is easy to pick holes in a translated text but then what is unforgettable is that without a measure of charity, empathy and sahridaya, appreciating a literary text, either in original or in translation, is not possible. On this point, it is useful to evolve some definite do's and don'ts while judging translated texts.

In the first instance, it would be useful for the translator put himself or herself in the position of the target reader. The reasonable assumptions that a translator can make regarding the target reader have already been mentioned. Translators would do well first to stop under-estimating his target reader. Then, one should be clear about the purpose of the translation. Another criterion could be judging the extent of help offered in footnotes, explanations of cultural items, etc. Excess is always to be avoided. The practitioner is supposed to exercise his judgment carefully, most importantly, in this matter.

A great newspaper editor Andhra produced, C. Y. Chintamani, averred that the best school of journalism is a newspaper office. In the same way, one can sincerely say by way of offering a piece of advice, "The best way to translate is to roll up your sleeves and get down to translating, and continue the practice." I can only speak for myself in this context. Except for a compulsory question in the Part II Telugu of the B. A. examination (for which there was an hour's teaching in a week - not just in the time-table but in real practice), I had no previous experience of translating any text. The exercises in the classroom did not include literary texts. Why does one write poetry? You know the answer, which holds good for the question "Why translate?"

Having decided that we are interested in literary translation, we have to study the texts first to devise a strategy in terms of translating various features like style, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, structure, idiom, expressive devices, and so on.

In Telugu, intensive and extensive translation activity started with the translation of ancient and medieval literary/religious texts in classical Sanskrit. Right from Nannaya, this has come down, and, in most cases, it is fair to call the activity more transcreation than translation. Later ,translation has been found to have immediate utilitarian aesthetic value with the advent of English education: thanks to the efforts of Orientalists like Sir William Jones, founder of Royal Asiatic Society and civil servants, and forward-looking foreigners like C.P. Brown. Translations from other European languages into English and their popularity in colleges and universities owing to the charm of English for various reasons made the elite realize the urgency of translations. It took some more time for the public, and, more importantly, scholars and educationalists to widely realize the need for translations of literary texts from one Bhasha literature into another.

13. FOREIGN LANGUAGE TO INDIAN LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS

Translating texts in a foreign language into an English language is a more different and difficult job than translating from one Indian language into another. Though ours is a 'plural' society with a multi-lingual situation, in reality ours is a single cultural entity in the larger context, for, we share a basic heritage and tradition. Terms relating to food, kinship, things we use in daily life, occupations, etc., draw from an almost single large matrix. Our epics, legends and beliefs, and convictions are similar, though there are differences too. Even when there is variety and difference, there is never so much of a communication breakdown. The context in most cases gives some kind of clue to what is being mentioned. A common system of belief and way of living makes terms easy to find in other language communities. When we translate a foreign language text, for example, from a language like French or Russian, the life styles and the heritage being totally different make translation of terms difficult.

14. INTRA-NATIONAL LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS

There is no theory extant that I know of which deals with intra-national language translation. The theories available do not throw any light on our problems and still less are they of any help in practice. It is true that theorists have been coming up with crisp terms that enrich technical glossaries. Many of the concepts and terms are indicative, though not strictly relevant to intra-national language translation practice.

'Domestication' and 'foreignization,' for example, are not relevant in the contexts of Bhashas, to which group English is now admitted, several years after the colonizers left for good. If putting an idea into language is one kind of 'translation' activity, translating that into another language is another, more difficult, process. In the first instance it is less complex but the second translator poses several problems.

In creative writing there is a special significance intended in the use of vocabulary and expressive devices. Aesthetic considerations play a very important role. This leads to complex problems very frequently. First, translating an Indian language text into another Indian language is less difficult than translating a foreign language text into an Indian language. Translating a French, Russian or English text into a language like Telugu is more difficult. This is so because of the differences in cultural background, customs, beliefs, life styles, and so on. Then, the demands vary when translating factual writing, writing for communicating information or instruction.

There are so many ways in which a literary text, which is a piece of creative-writing, can be rendered into another language. This is not the case in factual, informative writing where the purpose is comparatively narrow and limited. Poetry, for example, is imaginative writing, which, usually, lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations. The translator needs to be very resourceful and equipped to make his translation as suggestive and as communicative as the writer of the original text.

15. JUDGING TRANSLATED TEXTS

Sahridaya and Rishirina

Sahridaya (the quality of being a connoisseur with the goodness of heart and an intention to appreciate) is essential for the appreciation of a literary text and it is no less a prime requirement for the appreciation of a translation. For a translator too it is as essential a prerequisite, for he or she has to put across the seen/imagined/felt beauty into the target language. The translator-transcreators who have rendered the texts into Telugu from Sanskrit centuries ago were great imaginative artists themselves. They had minds and hearts that could get into that creative frenzy to come up with a version that had been their own in many ways. Their capacity to envision and intuit has earned for them laurels, which they never expected would accrue to them at all. They must have felt their work a way of redeeming what they believed was rishirina (indebtedness to sages/teachers).

Reviewer as the first judge

Regarding judging translation and translated texts from English to Telugu and the other way round, one must agree with the veterans like Venuti that it is much more challenging. The first judge is the reviewer. Many a time he does not have access to the original: more so if the original is Telugu. The reviewer would do well to consider at first whether the translated text in English or in Telugu can stand on its own. The translator stays always 'invisible.'

Sacred Sin and Necessary Evil!

Now, there are certain remarks, which have to be understood in their right perspective. First, the saying that poetry is something that is lost in translation. This, I am sure, is meant to be a caution to the practising translator. Then, there is the saying that translation is like mistress: if beautiful she is not faithful, and if faithful not beautiful. This at best could be a crude joke, but even this could be explained as a caution to the translator who may take liberties with the original. Some say it is a sacred sin and a necessary evil. The words 'sacred' and 'necessary' should be important for the enthusiastic translator. Then, there is the million-dollar question of 'faithfulness' to the original and the translator's limits for transcreation.

Fidelity - Betrayal Syndrome

Regarding the Fidelity - Betrayal Syndrome, Susan Bassnett asked a question: "Should the translator be faithful to the author or be faithful to those who cannot read the original language?" It is quite significant that she did not wait for an answer. There is another angle to it: this settles the question of fidelity and makes the French statement (if it is meant to be serious at all) just half-witty. Then, the question regarding the degree of liberty a translator could legitimately take. This is a question best answered by the individual translator himself if anybody poses this to him personally. The degree of freedom varies from practitioner to practitioner and from text to text. A little field-testing with objective assessors would do the draft translated text a lot of good.

To Bring Out the Glory of the Original Text

It is the humble attempt of the translator to bring at least a part of the glory of the text before a reader who has no access to the original. For this he tries to accomplish a figurative parakaya pravesa, metaphorically getting into the original writer's mind. Sometimes it is an adventure, sometimes more hazardous than rewarding, sometimes an expedition into uncharted waters, which may simply devour him or drive him away into the perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn. It is for this reason that we should go to translations with a measure of forgiveness for lapses.

Target: Sufficiently Interested Reader

The translator intends his work for the sufficiently interested general reader who does not know the language of the original text. He is a provider of lift (elevator) facility to those at the door ready to embark. Translation in its Latin cognate, we are told, has the meaning related to travel, transfer from one place to another. The translator assumes that a reader comes prepared to put some effort to gain something. The reader is assumed to be interested in getting exposure to a new language and culture. The reader approaches the translated text, determined to hear a proxy. He knows full well that he is reading a translation and is prepared to accept it as the next best. If the translation is satisfying, it is forgotten that it is the other's voice, and there is willing suspension of disbelief in deeming it as the author's voice. The reader gets the joy of accessing the author. The translator, then, is successful. It may be possible that he has some prior knowledge or exposure, which perhaps would make things easier for him. The facilitator does work to the best of his satisfaction, to the best of his knowledge and judgment.

The reader is drawn to a translated work to read it avidly knowing that it is the next best to the original inaccessible to him, to get a fair measure of something of its tone, quality, for comparative study, etc. He doesn't go there for serious evaluation of the quality of translation or critical judgment there on. In short, translations are not frequently read to pick holes. Even the one who knows both languages has to have his heart in the right place before passing value judgments solely based on isolated slips. This doesn't imply that the translator could hash it out and make the thing shoddy. This only enhances his burden and responsibility to give his best. Criticizing translated texts should do some good trying to set things that have gone askew straight. A critic of translated text should resist the temptation of fishing in a barrel. To declare that more damage than good is done by any given translation would only reveal a rash judgment. If the original writer has not done any damage himself by his writing, the translator cannot do any fresh damage.

16. SOME EXPERIENCES AND ADVICE IN GOOD FAITH

Getting into a Mess?

Literary Translation may be difficult but it is not impossible. It is true that translators do not enjoy, even in very deserving cases, the reputation that original writers have. Once a friend asked me, when I was in the middle of my translation project, as to how I got into such a mess. He is a writer himself and has won an award for children's fiction. A retired government employee, he writes stories, middles (articles in the middle page or section), and satirical pieces for newspapers. I mention this to tell you that he does not depend on his writing for his bread. My face fell for a moment and all that I could utter at that moment was "Just like that!" I wrote novels, still write short stories and columns, and do reviewing too. My good friend, perhaps, wondered why I have been doing such a time-consuming job with no reward or recompense from any quarter. There have been moments when I felt that translation is a thankless job. But I did not heed his warning, if it was one really, and trudged on. I thought my experience in translating jobs for institutions like Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust would stand me in good stead while translating even poetry. To my delight they did.

Frankly, after my retirement, I thought I should do something to highlight the poetic achievement of the contemporary free verse writers. Free verse in Telugu, at first looked down upon by the scholarly, and took a brief while to become not only acceptable but also popular. There is nothing more beneficial to promote and highlight a literary piece than to translate it into a language, which has a wider reach among the educated. I did not have a foreigner-reader in mind: my target readers are educated Indians who do not know Telugu but would like to read poetry originally written in that language. I firmly believe in Nativism, which has been gaining ground as a literary, critical theory during the last decade or so. We have to know more about what is being written in other languages in our own country. Poets have a role to play in national development. This may sound platitudinous, but then it is a personal conviction of mine.

17. DOS AND DON'TS

  1. When you like a piece, either in your mother tongue or in another language, the greatest tribute you can pay to the writer is to translate it into another language you know. Translate it, for there are many places it could be published.
  2. Don't talk lightly of translations. When you don't know a language, it is only a translation from that language which can provide you a window.
  3. A text can be translated in several ways. In a gathering of poets, I once suggested a variation in a place when a writer was reading out a translation to the audience. He told me that he could have used so many other variants too. It is true: I was not offended.
  4. While you are reviewing a book, or writing a scholarly piece on a translated text, remember you have to deliver your 'judgment' with equanimity and restraint. The translator has in mind a general reader who has a certain amount of curiosity or love for the language he does not know. The translator would put in an effort to do his best. Be precise in your comment, if comment you must.
  5. Don't be carried away by hasty reviews of translations. A reviewer is an individual with likes and, perhaps, dislikes. His opinion is not treated as a judge's sentence after due trial. His 'verdict' is not always dependable, especially when it comes to evaluating a work of translation. All said and done, there could be other opinions on that too. Any critic's opinion is not the final judgment. One doesn't know when or why one could be prejudiced. Some reviews sound unnecessarily harsh and unjustly prejudiced. Some could be vicious too but the translator is not really bothered, when he has his own lights.
  6. The skill of translation is a gift. If you think you have it go ahead and go on translating, as a hobby, if not for bread. Writing, still less translation, never gave anyone a satisfactory livelihood either here or elsewhere.

18. TO CONCLUDE - THE FIRST LAW OF TRANSLATION IS ITS FINAL LAW!

A translation is a translation: it may never be as good as the original. It is always a substitute, but not totally avoidable. And then nothing is final: a better translation may turn up. We have Henry Gifford's insightful observation: " the first law of translation is clear: nothing can be taken as final." The many translations of great classics like Kalidasa's Sakuntalam are proof of this. And then are many translations of the Holy Bible not only in European languages but even in Dravidian languages like Telugu.

I can furnish a further example from my own experience.

Ismail has been a well-known poet of the recent years in Telugu. In 1982 he wrote a poem on Balusutippa, a tiny hamlet surrounded by the river Godavari. Some years later in collaboration with the poet himself, a friend of mine, a reputed translator, translated it. Since it is very short it can as well be given here in its entirety:

The Godavari at Balusutippa

endless sheet of the river
endless stretch of the sky
which is the river
and which the sky?
The solitary fisherman's barge-pole
Divides the sky by the river
Leaving a reminder (sic)
Of cosmic O
Q.E.D.

I was not aware of the above translation till very recently. In November 1996 the place was in the news for the havoc wrought by the river and I faxed my translation of the same poem done before the flood to the Literary Supplement of a newspaper:

Endless is the river
Endless is the sky
Which is the river
And which is the sky?

The lone fisherman's oar
Divides the sky by a river
Leaving as a remainder
A zero, the size of a universe

It is not my intention to go into the individual merits of the two versions. This, I thought, would give an illustration from my personal experience. In a published poem, the poet has said what he wanted to say. It is perhaps only a translator who can unveil further beauties in another language without necessarily adding anything to the original text.


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V. V. B. Rama Rao, Ph.D.
ELT Professional, A Creative Writer, Translator, and a Widely Published Author
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E-mail: vvbramarao@yahoo.com.