Found in Translation

In an article in The New Yorker titled “To speak is to blunder,” Yiyun Li claims that she has renounced her mother tongue. She asks, “Why cannot I feel in English when I can speak in it?” A question that many of us, who are bilingual or trilingual, may never have the answer for. It is not easy to renounce your mother tongue. But in India these days, where English has become the medium of communication, when we are asked to read a regional text, we find it difficult. On Mother Language Day last year, I participated in an initiative to write a poem in my mother language. It took me several minutes to write the matras and a few letters. Since then, I have added a few regional books in my to- read list. And, as I tried to access more regional literature, I began consuming translations. A few of these books were available in online bookstores and a few were found at second-hand book stores.

I stumbled upon The Tamil Story, a collection of 108 translated stories of Tamil Literature, through its cover page. It was intriguing to learn about the idea behind the cover page – a painting of a door in a village in Kumbakonam. The celebrated painter, Santhana Krishnan, believes that the doors in villages have stories and this particular door-painting offers a peek into the verandah of the house. And as I began reading the book, I found stories from the mid-1800s. These include stories by stalwarts like Subramania Bharti, and cover diverse themes such as love by the lake, the tragedies and the confusion of the human mind, and the dynamics of various members of the family. How many of us know what Tamil Nadu looked like in early 1900s? But this access through the minds of writers is amazing. Today, while we are looking for our ancestral roots and histories in an ever-changing landscape, these translated works give us something we can hold on to.

Mini Krishnan, from Oxford University Press, says, “I publish translations of Indian writing because in them lie our own histories, our sense of identity and belonging; because we need to breathe our native breath; because it is our historical duty in a largely illiterate country to preserve our words, our worlds, and slow their disappearance.” If not for translations, Haruki Murakami would not have gained millions of English-speaking readers.

Similarly, in the book, The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, translated by Arunava Sinha (who continues his relentless work in translations), there are well-known stories like “Kaabuliwala” by Tagore and lesser-known ones such as “Einstein and Indubala” by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay – the story is about the popularity of the local actor, Indubala, whose visit has garnered more attention than the visit of Einstein to the city. These stories portray the daily struggles, the innocence, and the naivety of people. Not everyone has the opportunity to live in different times and experience different cultural contexts but, through translated works, we can at least briefly inhabit their contexts and their worlds. The daily lives of people depict their struggles with culture, traditions, and caste, along with some horror tales of the past. However, in order to fully experience these lives we must either know all the Indian languages or have access to translations.

In my journey of looking for more books on translations, I stumbled upon Colours of Evil in a second-hand book store in Hyderabad. The book is translated by Kalyan N. Raman and written by the Tamil writer, Ashokamitran. It is a collection of stories of ordinary people and their trials and tribulations. The prose brims with humour, observations, and the unique perception of the author.

The recently launched Mohanaswamy, written by Vasudhendra and translated from Kannada by Rashmi Terdal, is a book about the struggles of being gay in a village. While the central character lives in Bengaluru, whenever he visits his hometown, he becomes aware of and is able to narrate the hassles and prejudice associated with being gay in the village. The details are horrifying and one can only imagine such inhuman treatment meted out to someone who dares to be different. The stories in the book deal with various ordeals that gay people go through while coming out of the closet. This book was also a coming-out for the author. It weaves homosexuality, murder, and domestic violence in a tightly packed interconnected bouquet of stories.

In a conversation with the founder of Pratilipi, a crowd-sourced publishing platform for regional literature, Ranjeet agrees, “True. We are not aware of our local heroes. We are aware of the Nobel and the Commonwealth Prizes; we know nothing about the Jnanpith or the local Sahitya Akademi awards.” Pratilipi is working with Sahitya Akademi award winners to equip young regional writers with the necessary tools to write better.

I found that Ghachar Ghochar, written by Vivek Shaunbag, and translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, had an international release early this year and has received positive reviews. I am sure, and quietly hopeful that there will be many more translated books to be discovered on one’s own in this regional literature bazaar.

A Hyderabadi-at-large, Nivedita N lives in the Midwestern part of US. Her poems and stories have been anthologized in a few noted publications. Her research papers on gender and publishing have been published in a few universities including the University of Hyderabad. A printing and publishing enthusiast, she blogs at: This piece was originally written for Cafe Dissensus.

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