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Found in Translation: A few noteworthy initiatives are helping Indian literature breach the language barrier

By October 27, 2017No Comments


Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on translation efforts in India; we begin with a look at some contemporary efforts.

Translation efforts seem to almost always come out of passion, especially in the Indian publishing space. Take the Murty Classical Library, launched in January 2015 which “aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia” or the new Indian Novels Collective which felt “young readers needed to access the rich literature in Indian languages.” The collective is now in the process of translating 100 novels from across India with a special thrust on Hindi.

Very few publishers in India focus on translation with the vigour and discipline that for instance, the Oxford University Press does. The academic press which has been in India for over a century now, recently announced its plans to enter Indian languages with translations of its back titles to Hindi and Bengali. This is an interesting development that yet again makes the case for India as a rich, prime player in the translation game, where books travel into the English speaking world and away from it as well, into India’s various languages. Much the way classics of various languages can enrich English, so too can local languages gain from English.

Kolkata-based Seagull Books is a unique gem, as well as a delightful aberration in the Indian translation story. Seagull, which publishes world literature and sells translation across the globe, is an important player not just in India. It is also the third largest publisher of translated fiction in the United States of America!

On a global scale, another new game-changer is afoot. In October 2015, AmazonCrossing announced a whopping $ 10 million commitment to translating books into English and in the same year emerged as the largest publisher of translations in the USA. Earlier this year, AmazonCrossing opened up its submissions to 13 languages including Hindi and Bengali.

Nurturing of translation talent in India is also a relatively new and interesting space. Sangam House, an international writers’ residency, has been at the forefront with various initiatives. For instance, The Simurgh Project on Words Without Borders brings Kashmiri poetry out to the world and it all started with a nine-day workshop in Srinagar and Pahalgam that brought together translators, poets, scholars and writers. In June 2017, Sangam hosted the Yali Translation Workshop where MT Vasudevan Nair’s Manju was translated from Malayalam to Tamil by R Shalini with N Sukumaran, Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar was translated from Kannada to Hindi by Ajai Kumar Singh with Rahul Soni, from Kannada to Konkani by Ramesh Lad with Damodar Mauzo, poets Lal Ded, Rupa Bhawani, Arnimal and Habba Khatoon were translated from Kashmiri to English by Neerja Mattoo with Arshia Sattar, Rahul Soni and Poorna Swami.

Says Arshia Sattar of Sangam House, “It is always important to nurture translators. We always need translations to read from other languages and other cultures, the more we have, the luckier we are. It’s also important to nurture a community of translators, so that we can share our trials as well as our triumphs. Our work gets better when we talk to each other about our work, our positions, our techniques, our tricks.”

“The project came about like so many other projects — the stars were right. What that means is that people who were interested in the same things got together, we found a generous and committed funder who also cares deeply about sharing literature across languages and we were ready to go. It’s about planning and pulling people together and then you need a large dollop of luck — that’s where the stars come in,” she said.

At the IIT Madras, the Department of Humanities and Social Studies is abuzz as it prepares for an event of great significance that includes three events around the idea of translation. Professor Srilata K and Professor Swarnalatha R elaborate: “Mapping the Ahampuram is a set of three events really, all organised around the thematic of women’s writing in Tamil. As part of the morning’s inaugural, the Tamil writer R Meenakshi will be releasing a book of poems by the writer Sakthi Arulanandam which was published with the help of a grant from IIT Madras. Dr V Padma (Mangai) will then deliver the keynote address.”

Following this, the event will feature two panel discussions, one on the important theme of women writing the body. “There is a history to this,” the duo explains, “Not many years ago, some of our participating writers received threats and hate mail for daring to write about their bodies and sexualities. This is perhaps the first time these writers are meeting again after that. The other panel is meant to debate the question of what it means to be a woman writer, the politics of writing as a woman — both topical questions for feminism, especially in our context.”

In the afternoon, the organisers have planned a translation workshop where registered participants can (under the guidance of Prof Azhagarasan from the University of Madras) try their hand at translating a set of carefully curated writings by participating writers.

In the evening, there is a screening of the film SheWrite by professors Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar from TISS, Mumbai. This film weaves together the narratives and work of Tamil women poets: Kutti Revathi, Salma, Malathi Maithri, Sukirtharani — all of whom are participating in the event. This event is open to all, as is the morning’s session.

Asked if they see a gap even within the academic space as far as the craft of translation is concerned and if they hope to address that wit this event, the say, “Certainly, yes, there is a gap. Academia is quite a different sort of beast from anything hands on — be it writing or translation. And yet, of course, it feeds off the work of writers and translators! There is certainly an interest among academics in the question of translation, since so many of the literary texts we read even in English Studies, have travelled into English from other languages. Today, we read Neruda and Marquez as part of the canon almost. We cannot and must not forget that they had other histories and that someone, some gifted translator out there, has made it possible for us to read them! We also see this translation project as an attempt to foreground the significance of those Tamil women writers whose writings are relatively unknown to the Anglophone world. This, we hope, will help the academia to include more regional voices in the ‘canon’ of Indian writing.”

The writer is the founding editor of The Madras Mag.


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