Translators’ Dilemmas and Entering ‘South Asian Literature’


Ever since Hangwoman, my translation of K R Meera’s modern epic in Malayalam, Aarachaar was published, I have been repeatedly asked whether I edited it to ‘shape’. The question sometimes irritated me, because it was posed as if I had carried out the intellectual equivalent of cosmetic surgery on that fine work.

I struggled to communicate the subtlety of the editing that translation demands. One is always conscious of the fact that the readership of an English translation is qualitatively different from that of the original Malayalam text, but editing in the process of translation is not primarily aimed at making the text palatable to the former. Much more significant is the fact that what may need a whole sentence in the source language can perhaps be conveyed in a word in the target language or vice-versa. And, more importantly perhaps, any translation is hugely dependent on the translator’s reading of the text. The translator is constantly faced with the problem of how to interpret – is a certain word or phrase or sentence a simple description, or a complex one, or perhaps a metaphor or a simile? Editing rests quite decisively on such micro-decisions.

But for me, the main challenge has always has been to convey the rhetorics of the original into the source language in and through the editing , to somehow preserve its strangeness even as it gains the narrative power of the target language. This is of course a well-known position in the academic debate about translation, but not one that goes down very well especially with commercial publishers. There are mainstream publishers in India, who, on the advice of their marketing team, try to hide the fact that the book is a translation by tucking the translator’s name somewhere on the back cover; one constantly negotiates with editors in publishing houses to strike an acceptable balance. Readers, they often argue, rarely want to be challenged too much; reading is really more of pleasure and leisure than mental or soul-exercise ; primarily-English readers tend to relate better to familiar themes and concerns. Yet for translators who perceive themselves as faithful to both linguistic registers, this is always a wrench. And besides, one wonders if it is really worth the trouble after all: for it seems to me that the entry secured by a successful translation into the hallowed world of ‘South Asian Literature in English’ – populated by readers, writers, and critics, whose concerns and passions — and even body language and sartorial tastes — are stridently transnational, is at best ambiguous.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me that at the Galle Literary Festival, where the DSC Prize for 2016 was recently announced. My visit there was largely of anthropological interest, even though I was accompanying K R Meera, as Hangwoman was shortlisted for the prize. I have a horror of awards in general; social researchers have a boring life sometimes because we are taught to recognize relevant patterns and sometimes predict quite closely. One look at the short list and the social researcher in me knew who would win. All, or at least almost all, the books listed there displayed excellent craft  — and I had a fair idea of relevant variables. Nevertheless, located as I am on the peripheries of this charmed world, I thought it useful to gain a peep into the world of South Asian Literature in English and literary superstardom too. Ultimately however – and the social researcher in me gained greater ground – Galle was more interesting than the GLF or the DSC Prize itself.

Still, I was delighted that my prediction was correct. But it released many dilemmas in the translator that I am, and worries too, especially about the ways in which ‘South Asian Literature’ continued to be identified with English writing – and English writing defined by specific aesthetic tastes and themes – despite the recent upswing in translations from regional languages. The DSC Prize is an important prize that contributes to the canon of ‘South Asian Literature’ – and is influential in who gets read and who is marketed. I could hardly help observing how even bilingual scholars had somehow come to place English authors and writing from South Asia at the core of South Asian Literature. In the pre-Prize announcement reading and discussion session, the invisibility of regional languages and the struggles of authors in those languages was all-too evident while the transnational nature of themes, authorship, and aesthetic styles in English writing from South Asia was hardly even noticed. It was difficult, as a person rooted equally in two linguistic registers living in a non-metropolitan location in South Asia, not to notice that these two were indeed very different worlds which were not easily bridged by translation. There was a question in this discussion whether we need such descriptions as ‘women’s writing’ or ‘South Asian writing’ anymore, if they were not burdens. This is, no doubt, question that can even arise only in the comfort of the cushioned elite transnational reading-writing-reviewing-researching community, where women authors and postcolonial criticism command considerable clout now.

It was not as if I did not know of the privileging of the transnational in our notions of South Asian Literature in English. If the DSC Prize can be regarded as promoting literature from South Asia, then just looking at the list of six awardees hitherto would be enough to see that. Four out the six novels that were awarded the prize have transnational elite protagonists whose experiences and dilemmas drive the narratives – South Asia as a region, its geographies, people, and power structures come to life through their eyes. Five, if one counts Chinaman, the protagonist of which is actually the game of cricket, eminently transnational. And all six, if one counts The Chronicle of a Corpse-Bearer, in which the Parsi community, eminently mobile historically and in the present. Add to this excellent writing-craft, and you know who the winner will be!

As a part-time translator with very little direct stake in the world of South Asian writing in English, I would have no reason to worry at this state of things, had it not been the fact that such selection sets the standards of what counts as ‘good’ South Asian Literature. (In other words, it is not something that can be resolved by dividng the prize money equally among the short listed books, as the winner suggested in her acceptance speech – in any case, I hope, most writers don’t come for the money part.) Intentionally or not, readers (including young students of literature ) count the winner as the ‘best book’ in the list! This is where one worries – by what standards can Bharathipura be compared with Chinaman? Or, The Lowland weighed against The Mirror of Beauty? Or, I daresay, can Sleeping On Jupiter against Hangwoman? Bharathipura, The Mirror of Beauty and Hangwoman have very rich histories in their regional literary publics – they are aesthetic breaks there, capable of igniting reading revolutions. Their story-telling is of epic proportions that permits many narratives and interpretations; the questions they raise are immense and fundamental to South Asia. Above all, they are strongly rooted in the local even as they transcend it. The Mirror of Beauty and Hangwoman, for instance, craft new rasas appropriate for their themes – of lavish excess in The Mirror of Beauty and revulsion, juguptsa, in Hangwoman.

The translator’s dilemma surfaces here powerfully. In Galle I was asked if the book wasn’t edited sufficiently. This left me in two minds. On the one hand, precisely because I felt responsible to the author for the book’s fortunes, it appeared to me that it should have been edited more. On the other, I as a translator had to be responsible to the text itself – and so I felt, with increasing insistence, that the right decision was to not edit it to match the standards of English writing from South Asia. Nevertheless, it was only too evident to me that making such books as Bharathipura, The Mirror of Beauty, or Hangwoman ‘compete’ with Chinaman, The Lowland or Sleeping on Jupiter reduces them considerably – it erases their splendid histories and significance, and turns their difference into a disadvantage even! Yet one must continue to translate women authors from Malayalam to other languages – and this applies for other regional languages as well — for that is one important escape-route from the unrelenting and overbearing patriarchies that have shaped and continue to shape regional literary publics.

But the domination of the transnational elite in our imagination of South Asian literature is, after all, a product of a certain moment in global history and politics. There will be a future generation of readers and critics for who its wisdom and angst will be neither self-justifying nor unambiguous. I place my trust in time and its incessant flow.

3 thoughts on “Translators’ Dilemmas and Entering ‘South Asian Literature’”

  1. Does the very thematic selection of the novel ‘Aarachar’ also suffer from an intra-regional elitism or put it in other words, it also gains from this intra-regional elitism? Two stories, one by O.V.Vijayan (vellayiyappan) and the other by Adoor (Nizhalkkutthu) treated the ‘theme’ of hanging and the latter was obviously from a hangman’s perspective; but the time frame was pre-modern. Meera’s selection of the hangman theme itself is a bit exotic (Anand comes to my mind with his novels dealing with non-regional yet intra-regional therefore pan-national themes) and like Benyamin’s works, this exoticism has worked well for Meera. I do not know whether Francism Ittikkora (T.D.Ramakrishan) is translated and what would be the translator’s editing in it as it deals with theme of the ‘colonial elite’? If your optimism has to be justified, then we should get justification for the self translations of Vijayan and VKN, translations of Basheer by Asher, and also those innumerable translations of representative literature from Malayalam into English for Sahitya Akademies and publishing houses like Zubaan. I too hope for that day as most of the literary works both original and translated are hyped productions than genuine pieces of writing.


    1. I think this is a shockingly – and utterly unfair – reading of Meera’s use of the theme. My reading is that it uses it to great effect to capture a moment in our history in which women are increasingly celebrated as the key agents of the neoliberalising state’s biopolitics, while at the same time it shapes a necropolitics out of a protectionist discourse around women’s security and honour. Just because the hangman is a relic of an earlier time, the theme need not be always be used for merely exotic value. I do strongly disagree with you on that too. And Aarachar, I still say, is much more than just a novel, its story telling techniques are not standard western ones. Acknowledging Bengal’s influence on Kerala by itself does not mean fawning admiration! If you really want to see such disturbing admiration, read Susmesh Chandroth’s novel Athmajhaaya – one I wouldn’t want to translate simply because from my location, i can’t generate a strong interpretation of. Francis Ittykkora never felt like a coherent bit of writing to me and I am appalled that you compare it with Aarachar. It pandered to typical Malayali male fantasies, misrepresented George Geevarghese’s exemplary work, and ended up voicing craven admiration for Europe anyway. I don’t think it is worth reading, much less translation. I can translate only works which I can interpret from my location as significant statements of the time – maybe another person can, but not me. Your last point also sounds strange to me. You seem to hint at all translations are possibly equally good or bad. Clearly that’s not the case. It is not a matter of simply gaining recognition for any translation; it is one of conveying to another readership styles of story telling and aesthetic qualities that may not be visible in the worlds and words of transnational writing in English.


  2. In his introduction of translated lyrics of Bhupen Hazarika from Assamese, GULZAR notes that translation from any language to other language is ‘almost impossible’ (Takreeban Namumkin -to use his urdu phrase). But, works are translated to make the reader aware of the importance of that reader. Sri Sri translated some of his own telugu poetry into English and he became to be known as an important poet internationally. The lyrics of Cherabandaraju, who was imprisoned and died due to police torture, were rendered into English by KVR (Virasam). Such translations get wide readership and people to fetch the writings as well as writers (as ‘EkKali Do Pattiyaan’ of Bhupen Hazarika gave him the platform to expose his lyrical talent). Much of the dalit literature of south India needs to be exposed to foreign literary lovers not just for awareness of oppression and exposition of brahminical tyranny, but the sheer poetry and emotional fervour in the lyrics. Gadar lyrics of telugu folk ballads is a case in point.


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