In the month of July in Delhi, three women author-translators – Arshia Sattar, Rita Kothari, and Urvashi Butalia – joined a panel titled “Translation as Exploration”. While Sattar, renowned for her translations of classical Sanskrit texts, emphasised that translation is “a political act” based on one’s positionality and practice, Kothari, as a translator and theorist of translation mentioned that it is “a very big part of reorienting what we consider as knowledge”.

These comments came against the backdrop of the success of the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series. In 2021, the independent feminist publishing house, Zubaan, and the non-profit trust Prabha Khaitan Foundation, founded by the late novelist and poet Prabha Khaitan, came together to promote the works of women authors, particularly feminist literature.

It is interesting to note the language dynamics and literary polysystems this collaboration is located in, as the project involves taking Zubaan’s English titles into the other languages of India through translation. How does an independent publisher execute such a project?

To begin with, it reaches out to other publishers for suggestions and invites applications. It generates interest and initiates conversations across and between languages. It also asks the publisher of the translation how much of the grant will go directly to the translator. And that’s how gradually it finalises grants for 35 titles over two years in about 10 languages.

It becomes important to locate the “politics” and “success” of such a project in the wake of the near recent shifts in and about the Indian translation publishing scene, where “recognition” of translation is considered but a mere beginning in reorienting ourselves. For, as Kothari remarked, “What gets published in English is leaving us tired!” The emphasis of this remark lies in rebuking an English-only consciousness more than an English-only readership. In its bluntness lies the simple invitation to explore.

Arshia Sattar and Rita Kothari in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on ‘Translation as Exploration’ at the India International Centre Annexe, New Delhi. Courtesy: Prabha Khaitan Foundation.

English as a mediator

Explaining the progress made by the project so far, Butalia provided examples, showing how it questions the standard hierarchised unidirectional movement from a “local” or “regional” language into a “national” or “global” one.

Under the aegis of the project, Arupa Patangia Kalita’s novel, The Story of Felanee (translated from Assamese into English by Deepika Phukan), was translated into Marathi by Meghana Dhoke. The Sharp Knife of Memory, Kondapalli Koteswaramma’s searing political memoir in Sowmya VB’s English translation from Telugu, was chosen for translation into Malayalam and Marathi. The afterlives of some of these projects, taken up by popular publishers such as Mehta Publishing House in Marathi, DC Books in Malayalam, and Dhauli Books in Odia, are based on well-assessed markets for readership.

Interestingly, academic books such as Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement by Kavita Panjabi; Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid; and Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios by Sharmila Rege have been picked for translation into Bengali, with Jadavpur University Press being on the publishers’ list.

On the face of it, these translations testify to reading and publishing networks that have long existed among some Indian languages, with perhaps the novelty being that English now occupies a bigger mediating role than ever before. This has been warranted by the receding figure of the translator equally proficient in two non-English languages. However, a holistic review of the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation translation series brings forth other examples that further enrich and deepen the stakes of this exploratory mission.

For instance, Avinuo Kire’s short stories based in Nagaland, collected as The Power to Forgive and Other Stories, were picked up by a Konkani imprint, Under the Peepal Tree, in the hands of the translator Anwesha Singbal. And the Tamil publisher Panmuga Medai signed up to publish Zubaan’s collection of women’s writings from North-East India. Translator Vincent has committed to take texts and contexts from the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Nagaland into the Tamil sphere. No wonder Kothari demanded that all translators be considered “thinkers” for their role as both “knowledge-makers” and “knowledge-disruptors”.

In North-East India, of course, works in English are both the “original” and “translation”, as seen in the Zubaan anthologies as elsewhere. Here, the English language mediates as a lingua franca between literary cultures as different as those of Nagaland and Tamil Nadu. This affirms how the journey of a book doesn’t end with its publication or translation into English – it often begins there.

When B Anuradha’s Telugu translation of Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon’s account, We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement (published in Marathi in 1989 and translated into English by Wandana Sonalkar), undertaken by the celebrated publishing collective Hyderabad Book Trust invites interest from Ambedkarite groups, the feminist commitments of this project are foregrounded. The questions of why translate from a translation rather than the source text become secondary, futile even.

Such questions haven’t bothered HS Anupama, who runs Kavi Prakashana, an independent publisher with a focus on Dalit voices. A doctor by profession and an activist and writer, she’s authored about 60 books, one-third of which are translations of works as diverse as Sufi poetry and Bama’s celebrated autobiography, Karukku, all rendered into Kannada via English.

Kavi Prakashana, keen on publishing We Also Made History in Kannada for several years, was delighted when Zubaan reached out to them with the necessary rights and translation grant. D Saraswathi, a friend and companion of Anupama’s at the All Karnataka Women’s Federation, translated this book, viewing translation as a part of its activism. Publishing, Anupama adds, is her “social responsibility”.

From the Malayalam publication of Vandana Singh’s Younguncle Comes to Town (translated by Baiju Natarajan) by Insight Publica to the Kannada publication of Easterine Kire’s When the River Sleeps (translated by Ravi Kumar Hampi) by Vaishnavi Prakashan – many of the translated books in the series have reportedly invited record attendance at the launch events, been discussed in newspapers and magazines, and have sold between 400 and 1000 copies within a few months of publication.

But even if these numbers might appear remarkable in non-English publishing spheres, the real success of this initiative seems to lie elsewhere. When your politics are different, so are your measures of success.

Vandana Singh’s 'Younguncle Comes to Town' (translated into Malayalam by Baiju Natarajan) being released by Insight Publica.

Creating a network of independent publishers

Publishing consultant Manisha Chaudhry, coordinating the programme on behalf of Zubaan, recognises the potential of the grant support to start conversations and lauds the exploratory efforts of small publishers. In contrast to established publishers, who are assured of sizeable markets in their respective languages, individual-run publishing houses have displayed the “readiness and openness”, as Chaudhry put it, to be the backbone of this initiative.

After all, feminism – from feminist translation practices to publishing feminist literature – demands taking risks with language and literature-making. Punjabi publisher Parminder Singh Shonkey took one such risk by starting Rethink Foundation with an undertaking to publish primarily non-fiction, particularly translations. Keen on considering projects not being taken up by others, an encounter with the book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? (by Essar Batool et al), led him to the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation grant, which he appreciates “for giving small publishers a platform”. Remarking that other publishers have begun following suit, he’s thrilled to be publishing two exceptionally critical books, Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? and The Business of Sex (edited by Meena Seshu and Laxmi Murthy), for the Punjabi- and Hindi-reading public.

Easterine Kire’s 'When the River Sleeps' (translated into Kannada by Ravi Kumar Hampi) being released by Vaishnavi Prakashan. Courtesy: Zubaan

Translation has been “at the frontier of major intellectual shifts in the world”, Kothari stressed at the event. And Sanjay Joshi, a founder member and national convener of Cinema of Resistance, referred to translation as a “natural” mode of living. Growing up in the “cosmopolitanism of Allahabad”, Joshi found translations at every corner, from translations of Russian literature to those from Bengali, Marathi, and Malayalam, into Hindi. Moscow, he recalls, felt only as far as Lucknow or Bombay, attesting to the history of Soviet translations. (Or how Anupama thought of Márquez and Tolstoy as “Kannada people”, for “everything comes to Kannada”.)

Screening narratives from the margins through Cinema of Resistance pointed to the need for translation, often on the spot, as well as for including marginalised voices in print alongside audiovisual. This is how Navarun Publications was set up. In this case, it was the translator, Madhu B Joshi, who, through the grant, recommended Navarun and found a home for her Hindi translation of Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai by Uma Chakravarti – a work Joshi was already hoping to see in Hindi.

Joshi sees the possibility that one publisher can offer support, however little, to other publishers, building, in this manner, a network of translations, translators, and publishers. Translations are a bidirectional story in Navarun’s catalogue, and Joshi, too, hopes to initiate one such grant when he can to continue the project of “spreading an idea”.

Perhaps that’s where the politics and success of an initiative like this iare most visible. Zubaan is actively working on the third year’s list of titles for the series. Kavi Prakashana may end up distributing more copies to students free of cost. “Give us the right to translate, we don’t want profits,” said Anupama. Support in the form of funds from the Prabha Khaitan Foundation and implementation from Zubaan, for the choices made by translators of what to translate, and by publishers of what to publish, have highlighted the potential of championing translation being an act of social responsibility.