Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Updated on Oct 18, 2022 02:46 PM IST

Telugu thrillers, memoirs in Marathi, epic poems in ancient Prakrit... books from across the country are enjoying a second life in English. Where should you begin? Six translators, including Daisy Rockwell, Jerry Pinto and Poonam Saxena, pick their translated favourites.

 (HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
(HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

In how many languages can you say congratulations? Some time in the coming week, the shortlist for the JCB Prize, a 25-lakh literary award, will be announced. Already, there’s reason to celebrate. Six of the 10 books on the longlist are works not originally written in English. There are Malayalam and Bengali novels. Hindi, Urdu and Nepali translations have made an appearance for the first time. And when the winner is announced on November 19, “there’s a good chance that, like 2021, a translated book will take the prize,” says writer and translator Arunava Sinha.

Sinha, who has translated 70 books and won the Distinguished Translator Award at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, features on the list too. He translated Manoranjan Byapari’s 2021 Bengali book, Imaan, about a man struggling to adjust to the free world after years spent in jail. “The quality of Indian fiction in translation has been getting better over the years,” he says.

Daisy Rockwell, whose translation of Geetanjali Shree’s 2018 Hindi novel Tomb of Sand won this year’s International Booker Prize and is on the JCB longlist, echoes Sinha’s observation. “Very few modern literature translations were published until the 1990s,” Rockwell says. “It was a trickle. In comparison, what we have now is a boom. Maybe a boomlet — because so much remains untranslated and unpublished.”

Rockwell has a simple analogy for what it means to turn a great story in one language into a great one in another. “If you take look at the Latin roots of the English word ‘translation’, you learn that it means ‘to carry across or over’,” she says. “If we imagine ourselves carrying the text, like a bundle of clothing, across a great distance or a small one, we can understand that the longer the journey, the more the contents of the bundle will change over time.”

It’s a tough journey. And translators must be aware of the path at every step. Rockwell says the extensive wordplay and unique prose style in Shree’s novel required seven drafts before she even sent it to editors. “If the description is vague or cryptic, we need to know so that our version can also be vague or cryptic. We need to know the precise type of architecture, so we know what sort of noise a door makes when it slams.”

Between the lines

Author Jerry Pinto, who translated Sachin Kundalkar’s 2006 Marathi work Cobalt Blue into English in 2013, says translation is like transferring a single glass piece from one kaleidoscope to another, and hoping the ever-changing pattern remains the same. “Recreating that perilous journey is the challenge.”

Finding equivalent words is only one part of the process, says Jayasree Kalathil, whose translation of Valli, Sheela Tomy’s 2022 Malayalam novel, is on the JCB longlist. “Malayalam has many words and phrases to describe types of rain, based on intensity, time of year, duration, sound, even the size of the droplets, which may not find equivalents in English,” Kalathil says. “A good translator will find creative ways of using the existing words and phrases in English to convey all the meaning held in a single word or phrase in Malayalam.”

Ultimately, a good translator must work in the shadows, shaping and reshaping someone else’s story and finally letting go of it. “A translator’s last draft must stand on its own as a novel in the language in which it will now be read,” says Poonam Saxena, who translated Dharamvir Bharati’s 1949 Hindi classic, Gunahon Ka Devta into English as Chander and Sudha in 2015.

The world would be poorer without translated stories. “We use the phrase regional languages, but they’re more than that,” says Sinha. They’re the languages of an entire people.”

He, like Sabika Abbas Naqvi (whose translation of Rahman Abbas’s Urdu novel Rohzin is also on the JCB shortlist), believes that translating an Indian language novel into English is a kind of showcase. It allows for the work to be translated into more languages, reaching still more readers.

Already, new initiatives are pushing what Rockwell calls the boomlet. Publishers around the world have started to credit translators alongside writers on book covers, offering a new level of visibility and recognition to the job. Of the 15 Nobel Prizes in Literature given out since 2008, 10 have been to authors who write in a language other than English, including this year’s laureate, French author Annie Ernaux.

The non-profit body Indian Novels Collective, set up in 2017, aims to translate 100 Indian classics, including works in Gujarati, Konkani, Odia and Dogri, into English. Last year, the global writers’ organisation English PEN announced PEN Presents, a new programme to promote translated literature. Twelve Indian translators won grants to produce 5,000-word samples of works they would like to translate, to pitch to UK publishers, a task that otherwise goes unpaid. They’re working on short stories, novels and memoirs in languages as diverse as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Nepali and Tamil. Winners will be announced by the end of this month.

Earlier this year, the New India Foundation introduced three fellowships of 6 lakh each to translate Indian non-fiction from 1850 onwards into English. By April next year, the inaugural winners of the Armory Square Prize, the first global prize for translations from South Asian languages, will be announced.

This is welcome news. In a nation where most people speak a language at home, one in public and have working knowledge of a third, Pinto says engaging with literature outside of English allows us to appreciate languages as things of pleasure, not just instruction. “That plurality will help us live together as a country.”

Translations allow us to “seek, discover, know and revel in stories that we otherwise would have no access to, simply because we don’t know those languages,” says Mita Kapur, literary director of the JCB Prize. A way to share the experiences of India’s many communities, many of them invisible to the English-reader; many of them excluded from the mainstream in far more serious ways too. “I tend to enjoy a work translated into English more than one written in English now,” says Saxena.

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WHERE TO BEGIN

Six writers and translators pick their favourite works in translation.

The selectors

Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Daisy Rockwell: Translating books from Hindi and Urdu for 30 years. Her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand won the International Booker Prize this year.

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(Girish Srivastava)
(Girish Srivastava)

Jerry Pinto: His novel Em and The Big Hoom won the Windham-Campbell prize in 2016. His latest, The Education of Yuri, was released last month. He translated Sachin Kundalkar’s Marathi book Cobalt Blue in 2013.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Poonam Saxena: Former national weekend editor with the Hindustan Times; author of An Unsuitable Boy (2017). She translated Dharamvir Bharati’s Hindi novel Chander and Sudha in 2015, and an anthology, The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, in 2020.

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Jayasree Kalathil: Author of the children’s book The Sackclothman, translated into Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam. Moustache, her 2020 translation of S Hareesh’s Malayalam novel Meesha, won the JCB Prize.

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Sabika Abbas Naqvi: Performance poet, co-editor of the Bystander Anthology, senior editor of the SAAG Anthology. Her work revolves around gender and minority rights.

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Arunava Sinha: Has translated 70 books and won the Distinguished Translator Award at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. He is also co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.

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THEIR TOP PICKS

Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Tears of the Begums (Urdu, 1922)

By Khwaja Hasan Nizami. Translated by Rana Safvi Recommended by Sabika Abbas Naqvi

Why read a translated work? “You get to read ideas that came from people speaking and writing in a language that you don’t understand,” says Naqvi. This book compiles 29 chronicles of the survivors of the 1857 uprising, after which Delhi was besieged by the British army. It’s the fall of an empire told from an unusual perspective.

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Fair Tree of the Void (Marathi, 1990)

By Vilas Sarang.Translated by the author Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

In this collection of stories, you never know what’s coming next. Middle-class morality is almost always the victim. One man metamorphoses into an erect phallus, believing that he is Shiva’s lingam. On the island of Lorzan, women possess either torsos or legs. Idols of Ganesha come alive, leave the visarjan crowds and vanish into the gallis of Mumbai.

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The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala (Maharashtri Prakrit, 2nd century CE)

Compiled by the Satavahana king Hala. Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra Recommended by Jerry Pinto

This is possibly South Asia’s oldest known anthology of poetry and secular verse. The speakers, mostly women, discuss sexuality with frankness, sensitivity and humour. For Pinto, Mehrotra’s 207 short verses “bring a whole new civilisation to light”.

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Yajnaseni: The Story of Draupadi (Odia, 1984)

By Pratibha Ray. Translated by Pradip BhattacharyaRecommended by Poonam Saxena

“Obviously, you need to be bilingual to translate,” Saxena says. “But you must be more fluent in the language into which you are translating, for the final work to read like a novel in its own right.” This story of the Mahabharata character humanises Draupadi’s dilemmas and sacrifices, as she looks back on her life through the book.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Yellow is the Colour of Longing (Malayalam, 2004)

By KR Meera.Translated by J Devika Recommended by Arunava Sinha

Translation, says Sinha, allows us to visit the different islands that others occupy, in a world we share. His pick: short stories from Kerala. One tale centres on sex-racket cases, another examines subtle power plays between the sexes. The titular story follows two patients who fall in love. She, a single mother, has jaundice and sees the world in yellows. He, married, is infected by a virus that makes him see only greys.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Aranyak (Bengali, 1937-39)

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.Translated by Rimli Bhattacharya Recommended by Jayasree Kalathil

Kalathil read a Malayalam translation of this classic, by P Vasudeva Kuruppu, in school. “I’ve never forgotten it,” she says. She also enjoyed this English translation. The semi-autobiographical novel follows Satyacharan, a young manager of a forested tract in Bihar. His job: clearing for development a land he’s falling in love with. It’s a tale of destruction and dispossession that rings as true today as when it was written.

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Carvalho (Kannada, 1980)

By KP Purnachandra Tejaswi. Translated by DA Shanker Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

The plot involves a farmer, a scientist, and a good-for-nothing layabout who claims to have spotted a rare flying lizard in the Chikmagalur jungle. The novella follows their expedition, with a cook and a cameraman joining in. Is the lizard really there? How do bees become part of the story? The book blends mystery, adventure, agriculture, law, politics and metaphysics.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

A City Happens in Love (Hindi, 2015)

By Ravish Kumar.Translated by Akhil Katyal Recommended by Sabika Abbas Naqvi

Naqvi picks these quick, concise stories about love, heartbreak and longing in the modern Indian city. A Bihar boy falls in love with a momo seller from the north-east, but there are bigger forces than just love. A couple finds that they only safe space to meet in Delhi is the DTC bus. Another discovers that the arch of a flyover can protect you from rain but not prying eyes.

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Shyamchi Aai (Marathi, 1935)

By Sane Guruji.Translated by Shanta GokhaleRecommended by Jerry Pinto

Several translations of this autobiography of the social activist Pandurang Sadashiv Sane, or Sane Guruji, are available. “But they’ve all been faithful rendition, some of them have been dull, even abysmal,” Pinto says. He picks Shanta Gokhale’s 2021 translation. The book’s stories centre on Sane’s mother and her moral influence on Shyam’s life, even amid their abject poverty.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

The Dreams of a Mappila Girl (Malayalam, 2022)

By BM Zuhara.Translated by Fehmida Zakeer Recommended by Jayasree Kalathil

“Malayalam publishing does not have a real editorial process, so sometimes in the process of translating the book, the translator also has to take on the role of an editor,” says Kalathil. She recommends this rich account of a girl growing up in the 1950s in a small Kerala village. Zuhara dreams of watching movies in a theatre, playing in rice fields, learning kalaripayattu. Traditional Muslim families in her village don’t grant girls these freedoms, she soon learns.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Hellfire (Bengali, 2010)

By Leesa Gazi. Translated by Shabnam Nadiya Recommended by Arunava Sinha

Farida Khanam’s daughters, Lovely and Beauty, are not children. But Farida has never let them out of her sight. Then, on her 40th birthday, under curfew, Lovely takes her first solo trip to Dhaka’s Gausia Market. And Farida’s fragile world starts to come apart. Sinha recommends this fast-paced tale hiding a grim secret.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Yakshi (Malayalam, 1967)

By Malayatoor Ramakrishnan.Translated by Prema Jayakumar Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

In this Malayalam bestseller, a professor disfigured in a college lab accident believes himself lucky when he finds a beautiful woman willing to marry him. But it’s not quite happily-ever-after. He soon starts to doubt her motives; he suspects she might not be human.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Joothan, A Dalit’s Life (Hindi, 1997)

By Omprakash Valmiki.Translated by Arun P MukherjeeRecommended by Sabika Abbas Naqvi

“Translators must research the author’s writing style, previous works, and the context of the work they are translating,” says Naqvi. The identity and politics of the writer “dictate the way they portray every word” in the translation. She recommends these memoirs of a member of the “untouchable” Chuhra community. It details their distinct culture and the casual cruelty meted out by the dominant caste, the Tyagis, in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

The Stepchild (Gujarati, 2004)

By Joseph Macwan.Translated by Rita Kothari Recommended by Arunava Sinha

Set in a Gujarat village in the 1930s, the story of a community of weavers, the Vankars, subjugated by the upper-caste Patels offers no happy ending. There’s powerful dialogue and subtle detail and the writing is rich in local idioms.

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The Dark Sun & The Woman Who Wore a Hat (Marathi, 1999)

By Kamal Desai. Translated by Sukhmani Roy Recommended by Jayasree Kalathil

Two novellas, translated by the distinguished scholar of feminism and post-modernism, examine the inner lives of women, and their changing but constant struggle for selfhood. “With translations, the idea that good writing is not down only to the author but in large part the translator, is often overlooked,” says Kalathil. “The joy, for me, in reading a work in translation is in discovering this alchemy at work.”

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Raag Darbari (Hindi, 1968)

By Shrilal Shukla.Translated by Gillian Wright Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

Satire is particularly tough to translate. Rockwell’s pick looks at what happens when intellectual ideals come face-to-face with the greed and corruption of post-Independence India. Young history scholar Ranganath, visiting his uncle in Shivpalganj, Uttar Pradesh, is aghast at how government institutions have been exploited by criminals, businessmen, the police and politicians. Written in 1968, still familiar today.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Jasmine Days (Malayalam, 2014)

By Benyamin.Translated by Shahnaz Habib Recommended by Poonam Saxena

A young woman, Sameera Parvin, has a life she loves as an expat radio jockey in a Middle-Eastern city. Then the nation is rocked by an Arab Spring-like revolution and she finds herself embroiled in the political upheaval. She must choose between family and friends, loyalty and love.

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In a Land Far From Home (Bengali, 1948)

By Syed Mujtaba Ali.Translated by Nazes Afroz Recommended by Jerry Pinto

“What’s a Bengali doing in Afghanistan? Read this to find out,” says Pinto. Mujtaba Ali spent 18 months teaching in Kabul, from 1927 to 1929. His account of the country shows a people grappling with their past and future. There are accounts of King Amanullah’s modernisation initiatives (encouraging women to do away with the veil, banning traditional dress for men) and their consequences. Tribal rebellions force the king to abdicate.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Six and a Third Acres (Odia, 1897-99)

By Fakir Mohan Senapati. Translated by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre, KK Mohapatra Recommended by Arunava Sinha

In this classic critique of colonialism, an evil landlord, Ramachandra Mangaraj, exploits loopholes in 19th-century laws to appropriate the property of the poor. The tale is told from the perspective of a horse, a peasant and a foot-soldier, those excluded from the circles of power and wealth.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

The Young Widow (Kannada, 1977)

By MK Indira. Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana Recommended by Jayasree Kalathil

This short novel follows a child widow in a small town in Karnataka in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s an era when conservative communities struggle to hold on to restrictive traditions in the face of rapid change. Phaniyamma’s quest for personhood as a husband-less woman echoes much of today’s gender dynamics.

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Breast Stories (Bengali, 1997)

By Mahasweta Devi.Translated by Gayatri Spivak Recommended by Sabika Abbas Naqvi

Three short stories present the woman’s breast as a symbol of social exploitation and a weapon of resistance. The story Draupadi follows a tribal activist who, after being gang-raped in police custody, turns her wounds into a counter-offensive. Breast-giver is about a wet nurse who ultimately dies of breast cancer. Behind the Bodice is about how a photographer’s fascination with a woman’s breasts triggers a cycle of violence.

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My Life is a Song: Gaddar’s Anthems for the Revolution (Telugu)

By Gaddar. Translated by Vasanth Kannabiran Recommended by Jerry Pinto

Gummadi Vittal Rao, better known as the poet, singer and revolutionary Gaddar, reached lakhs of Indians with his songs, and has been the face of the people’s resistance since the 1970s. Only a few of his songs were ever recorded. The book presents the lyrics of 23, selected by his friend and fellow revolutionary Vasanth Kannabiran. “It opened my eyes and my ears to a new music,” says Pinto.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket But… (Telugu, 2012)

By Gogu Shyamala. Multiple translatorsRecommended by Jayasree Kalathil

Shyamala’s short stories draw from her childhood and her experiences as a Dalit. They blend realism, psychic allegory and political fable. In one story, a Brahmin boy is considered polluted after a Dalit girl saves his life. In another, a girl is sent away to school so she can escape being sexually abused by an upper-caste villager. In a third, children use drums to play a game after a funeral.

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Umrao Jan Ada (Urdu, 1899)

By Mirza Muhammad Hadi ‘Ruswa’.Translated by David Matthews Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

Many consider this story of a Lucknow courtesan (who may or may not have existed) the first Urdu novel. It’s the tale of a woman being bought and sold, of forbidden love, of the art of seduction. Of fleeing hunger, dacoits, lies and war. There are epic twists of fate, but it’s the storytelling that conquers all.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Cobalt Blue (Marathi, 2006)

By Sachin Kundalkar. Translated by Jerry PintoRecommended by Arunava Sinha

“The challenge always,” says Sinha, “is to be able to translate the invisible beauty of a language.” In this work, a brother and a sister fall in love with the same man, the enigmatic paying guest in their middle-class home in Pune. The novel is written in two parts – the stories of each sibling told through diary entries and inner monologue – echoing how little we know about our own families.

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Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation
Retell therapy: Indian literature is flourishing in translation

Essence of Camphor (Urdu, 1998)

By Naiyer Masud.Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon Recommended by Daisy Rockwell

“Translation enriches our way of thinking about the world, about ourselves, about language, about what it is possible to say and think,” says Rockwell. “Without it we are deeply impoverished.” Seven stories make up this book. A parfumier mixes memory with desire to recall the girl who influenced his destiny. A dispossessed boy learns lessons of love from a girl who has never set foot on land. A building inspector has the unusual ability to detect in houses their obscure realms of fear and desire.

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Ramayana (Sanskrit)

By Valmiki. Translated by Arshia Sattar Recommended by Jerry Pinto

Most translations of the Ramayana are clunky, says Pinto. “This edition shows Sattar’s enduring and genuine love for the work. It brings in her scholarship, her engagement with the text and its texture.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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