Now in its second year, the New India Foundation’s Translation Fellowship was initiated to provide a wider audience for Indian-language nonfiction texts from across ten languages published from 1850 onwards. The maiden round of grants – Rs 6 lakh each – was awarded to Venkateswar Ramaswamy (literary translator) and Amlan Biswas (statistician) to translate Nirmal Kumar Bose’s Diaries 1946-47 from the Bengali; NS Gundur (academician and literary historian) to translate DR Nagaraj’s Allamaprabhu Mattu Shaiva Pratibhe from the Kannada; and Rahul Sarwate (academician and historian) to translate Sharad Patil’s Marxvad: Phule-Ambedkarvaad from Marathi.

In conversations with Scroll, the winning translators spoke about how they picked a translation project and the importance of translating nonfiction texts from Indian languages into English. 2023 NIF Bengali language expert Ipshita Chanda also weighed in on how the winning projects are picked.

Excerpts from the conversations:

How do you find a text to translate?

Rahul Sarwate: It depends on several factors. But I think the choice of a project shouldn’t be made with purely market considerations. In the context of the larger objective of this fellowship, which recognises translation as a significant act of knowledge production, one should choose a text that reflects the originality of thought and has a universal outlook. The fellowship is not restricted to any specific genre, and the choice can be difficult. Indian languages have a very long and complex history of knowledge production, particularly in the modern period. So, I think it is crucial to deeply understand the intellectual tradition from which one chooses a text.

But while exercising this reasoning, one’s relationship with a text is also essential. My choice was somewhat predetermined since I was long committed to translating Sharad Patil’s Marxism: Phule-Ambedkarism, a seminal text in Marathi that critically engages with Marxism and Phule-Ambedkarism.

NS Gundur: Keeping in mind NIF’s aim to “bring knowledge texts from Indian languages to English”, I reviewed the critical texts produced by some extraordinary Kannada writers. After consulting my friends and experts, I made a shortlist of five texts. Choosing among them was very difficult, and finally, I chose the text that merits the status of reaching beyond the Kannada world – DR Nagaraj’s Allama Prabhu mattu Shaiva Pratibhe (Allama Prabhu and Shaiva Imagination). This book speaks to a wider audience, beyond Kannada intellectual tradition. While problematising the historiography of Indian philosophy, Nagaraj in this book opens up new horizons of understanding Indian darshanas. He reads the vachanas of Allama Prabhu, a 12th-century mystic poet in the company of other sharanas including Basavanna, Akkamahadevi and others, placing them in the larger canvas of pan-Indian darshanas such as Kashmir Shaivism. It offers fresh insights into medieval religious and political culture, opening new ways of understanding India.

V Ramaswamy: It just happens by itself, after I hear about a book, or an author, through my network, or via my antennae. For instance, I was at the People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata in 2018, where I heard the writer Ansaruddin speaking. I decided to translate a memoir of his, Goi Geramer Panchali (The Song of the Faraway Village). I was at the same Festival in 2023, and Chandra Mukherjee gave a presentation. I decided at once to translate her book, Narir Gaan, Shromer Gaan (Women’s Songs, Songs of Labour). In the case of the NIF fellowship, I started thinking about and looking for a text to propose. I knew it had to be a “winning” proposal. I arrived at the Nirmal Bose diaries entirely by chance, when I read a Facebook post by a journalist friend in Bangladesh which referred to the diaries. I knew at once that it would be a “winner”.

Amlan Biswas: I have a long acquaintance with Abhikkumar Dey, editor of the book Satchollisher Diary of Nirmal Kumar Bose. I am a colleague of the same office, that is, Anthropological Survey of India, where Professor Bose served as Director in the early 1960s. From the period of editing and publishing the book, I was keenly interested in its essential documents, mainly in Bengali. So, after I retired from the service, I proposed to Mr Dey for its translation into English, and he gladly accepted it. When I started the work, V Ramaswamy approached me and offered to translate it along with the book Chhechollisher Diary of Professor Bose, also edited by Mr Dey. So Ramaswamy took the lead to contact the NIF, and we found it as a “winning” proposal.

What kind of research do you undertake while translating a nonfiction text?

RS: Although I had already chosen a text for translation, I needed to justify that selection for a larger audience since despite his massive intellectual corpus, Sharad Patil is virtually unknown in the English-language press. I had already read all of his 15 texts, but I also explored the archives of Satyashodhak Marxvadi, the journal Patil edited from 1991 to 2003. I had already examined the histories of non-Brahminism and Marxism in Maharashtra for my doctoral dissertation, which helped me locate some of Patil’s ideas in the long history of Marathi political thought.

NSG: The most interesting part of the fellowship is that it is awarded for both translation and research. Translating discursive writing demands scholarship, expertise and research into the domain area. The density of the source texts and the requirement of my target readers compelled me to do some research into Indian intellectual traditions and texts, and medieval Kannada literature, especially 12th-century vachanas. I was to refer to a wide range of texts and schools of thought to make intertextual connections and supply scholarly apparatus suitable for non-Kannada readers. This translation demanded as much intellectual labour as it was required in doing research.

VR: I wouldn’t call it “research”, but yes, sometimes I have to find out about things in the course of translation. It may even be about the exact pronunciation of certain words in a particular dialect, which I am transliterating. Or for fact-checking. While translating Nirmal Kumar Bose’s diaries, I tried to follow up various references with internet searches and thus amassed a collection of books, articles, and journals that could help me get deeper into the period, and the events of that time for my own learning. A translator forms a vision of the book they are producing, and so the “research” flows from this vision.

AB: Though it isn’t threadbare research, some extra reading of the related subject and references was essential for proper understanding. The description period in the diary is crucial for the history of India’s freedom struggle in the wake of gaining our country’s independence. At the same time, it covered some ruthless faces of own countrymen and the degradation of humanity that was fought by a fearless soul, Mahatma Gandhi, indeed a “one man army”. So naturally, we must collect and amass many documents and journals for our learning and deeper understanding. It was necessary for such a book.

Translated fiction has created a readership of its own. Do you see something similar happening with translated nonfiction?

RS: I dearly hope so. But I don’t see this happening at least as yet. We are increasingly becoming monolingual in the academic and intellectual space, leading to a very narrow understanding of intellectual cultures in Indian languages. The intellectual production in Indian languages – from Rammohan and Phule to Subramania Bharati and Kuvempu – is the very foundation of the making of Indian modernity. But we are losing our ability to engage with and understand these intellectual productions, which highlights the significance of these translations.

NSG: Translating non-fiction is in now. During the 1980s and ’90s, as Ramachandra Guha has remarked elsewhere, it was fiction that caught the attention of the reading public. In the last two decades, slowly there has been a demand for non-fiction. Translating non-fiction is a natural fallout of such a trend, and the Indian intellectual milieu needs this enterprise.

VR: Yes, translated fiction has created a readership of its own – and I have been part of that process – but actually there have also been several important non-fiction works. The autobiography of Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Sipra Mukherjee, comes at once to mind. In my own translation practice, there are works of both fiction and nonfiction, they are all important to me. I am hopeful that we shall see more and more significant nonfiction works of translation in India in the coming days, and the NIF initiative will undoubtedly provide a major boost in that regard.

AB: Since childhood, we have read so much fiction in translation that it is only natural for it to have created a niche of its own. I read translated nonfiction much later in life. I have never been attached to the translation of any fiction. Still, my next endeavour attracted me to an anthropological study of a less-known Vaishnavite sect by Ajit Das through his book Jaat Vaishnava Katha (The Jaat Vaishnava Saga). We expect more and more critical non-fiction to come up, and the initiative by NIF will play a significant role in this field.

Besides the grant, how is NIF cooperating in your project?

RS: The support from NIF has been tremendous. Apart from the grant, there has been constant encouragement and active editorial support. And more importantly, the patience with which we have been allowed to operate is precious. The task of translation can be challenging, but the support from NIF has been terrific.

NSG: NIF is an incredible institution in contemporary India. Grant is one thing, but the intellectual support I received from the NIF made all the difference to my work. It is like a family of intellectuals, whose virtue is their commitment to scholarship. I am thrilled to see their concern for producing good books. While Yauvanika Chopra’s (Associate Director, NIF) conversations kept me alive, Rivka Isreli’s fine editorial support gave a new life to my translation. I am grateful to the trustees of NIF, and one of them professor Srinath Raghavan’s comments have added grace to the intellectual content of my work. Apart from financial support, NIF helped me to find a suitable intellectual idiom in my work.

VR: NIF is like a friendly neighbourhood genie, ever ready to help in any way, providing copyediting assistance, arranging meetings with experts, and so on. The NIF Fellows’ Retreat is also something rich and valuable, one meets so many writers and scholars of substance.

AB: NIF is very helpful in many ways. Apart from assistance with copyediting, the arrangement meetings with the experts were constructive. The NIF Fellow Retreat was valuable and enriching to the “soldiers of words”.

A conversation with Ipshita Chanda, 2023 NIF language expert

What makes a proposal stand out to a NIF language expert such as yourself?
The translator’s attitude to herself about the translation – how well they can convey why they want to do this, in terms of “passion for the project” and what they want the world to know and understand about the “source language” world, including the writer’s intention towards that world.

What do you think are some topics of interest for translators-applicants?
The relation between an individual/community and its “others” as reflected in the source language text as well as the translator’s responsibility to source and target language milieux: assuming that making a relation between differences is the translator’s job.

In what ways do the Indian language texts add to the already impressive stash of nonfiction that is published each year?
Every local milieu contributes to the conversation of plurality – Indian language literatures and culture is plural by definition – English language publishing can help in relating these plurilingual, pluricultural milieux between themselves, and take them individually and severally beyond the Indian milieux.

As a language expert, what aspects of style and language do you keep an eye out for while reading a proposal?
Any so-called expertise in translation makes it compulsory to know both the source and target language. In non-fiction translation, this is a self-conscious challenge. The humility of the translator can only show up in one language – so one tries to hear the tone where one can discern the commitment and responsibility of the translator to source and target languages, which creates a matrix of relations between these two languages.