Library of India

Why I publish translations of Indian literature

‘Because in them lie our own histories, our sense of identity and belonging.’

“My tongue in English chains”
~ Homecoming: R Parthasarathy

I must have been 13 when I read Richard II in school. Bumbling through the sonorous lines I suddenly felt a sense of recognition when I repeated Shakespeare’s 16th century English …

…so deep a maim
Within my mouth you have engaol'd my tongue,

What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?


Was that me ?

Speechless death. Growing up in Bangalore in the 1950s it was almost fashionable to function only in English and look down on those who didn’t. Slowly,very slowly, the Malayalam world faded from my Anglo-Indian existence.  Nor did anyone ever suggest that I learn the Malayalam alphabet. Coping with both Hindi and Kannada in school I cannot say I was keen on trying to master another language  even if my origins lay in its culture.

Meanwhile I enjoyed textbook Hindi in school and sailed through the Hindi Prachar Sabha exams outside it. I was old enough to enjoy lofty and subtle poetry and something in me stirred as I studied Harivamsh Rai Bacchan, Kabir, and Rahim. That melodrama and sentimentality, that lyricism and those rich overblown descriptions - it was all me.

In Standard IX when I began to memorise English poetry my mother often responded with a faint smile. “There is something very similar in Malayalam, only better.” Malayalam better? So I moved between two or three sides of my brain without ever reconciling them.

After high school and before Pre-University I was at a loose end for six months so my mother arranged for a tutor to visit every morning to teach me and my brother our own language. I didn’t take much interest but the seeds were sown. It would take three decades for me to read Malayalam well enough to check translations from it without the aid of resource persons.

College saw me in an English Literature Hons course and once again my mother’s unobtrusive guidance worked for me. Subsidiaries for English Literature “main” were History, Logic, Sociology and Hindi Literature. On her advice I took History and Hindi Literature.

There were just six of us in that optional Hindi literature class and we were taught by a Malayali nun whose favourite passages were medieval epic poetry; the course helped me to discover Premchand. A Master’s degree in English Literature in faraway Delhi once again distanced me from Indian languages and I watched without much enthusiasm when Professor Vinod Sena tried to get a minimum strength for his course on Indian English writers.

Meanwhile I got to read many translations from the Sahitya Akademi , Jaico and Orient Paperbacks during my visits to the library of a newspaper. No one even wanted to review them so they lay stacked up in piles.

Though most of the translations were unreadable, there was something in them that moved me and attracted me much more than any English literature I’d read or studied. It couldn’t be the language, so what was it? Why was our own writing so poorly produced and neglected?

There were no answers; nor did I seek any. I dimly realised that I was one of the millions of language orphans an English-medium education had produced. So deep a maim. Between this time and the year I joined Macmillan as their Branch Editor in Madras (1980), many writers in English established themselves.

In ultra-conservative Macmillan India the first project I handled was a 4000-page typescript called Comparative Indian Literature (two volumes) - a survey of all the literary forms from the recognized languages of the country, 17 at that to,e.  Managing 200 contributors, 17 language editors and Dr K.M. George, the Chief Editor, I went from harbour to the high seas in a month.

As I  helped Dr KMG to write up synopses of work after work in all the languages and polished the mangled drafts the editors sent up, I kept asking him where I might read the works. “You can’t. There are no translations,” was his unvarying response.

By the time both volumes were published in 1985 I had made up my mind to try and publish at least modern Indian fiction in English translation. In the indigenous writing of the subcontinent lay the memories and history of a people who were rapidly losing their languages. What better service than to retrieve and reinterpret in a link language creating a body of work which was emotionally important for India?

My grandiose dreams took flight. I experimented with V. Abdulla’s translation of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukkal (Roots, 1982) and failed. Not a single salesman showed interest in promoting it.  Macmillan made it quite clear that there was no money for translations. So I set about looking for funding which, after seven years and many ‘nos’ from others, came from the MR AR Educational Society.

If ever a low-key group influenced trends and shaped tastes it was this Trust in 1992 when they decided to sponsor the Modern Indian Novels in Translation project out of Macmillan India. The late AMM Arunachalam and his daughter Valli Alagappan set aside Rs 50 lakh for five novels each from Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Oriya and Marathi.

The launch list of eleven books (1996) made an impression people remember to this day. They were made available at the same time as the rise of the Katha publications prepared by Geetha Dharmarajan. No one setting out to publish translations today will ever know how difficult the terrain was 20 years ago.

The Macmillan translations are probably the most widely reviewed books of their kind (nearly 160 reviews) and that too in pre-Internet times.  From 1992 to 2000, when I left Macmillans,V alli Alagappan’s unquestioned support helped me to source and edit 37 works of fiction and one autobiography. They were prepared both for the Indian market and for Macmillan’s overseas market in the UK, which absorbed 200 copies of each of the titles.

That single autobiography, Bama Faustina’s Karukku, which was entered for the Crossword Award for fiction, opened the floodgates for English translations of Dalit writing from the South Indian languages. When I realised very painfully that Macmillan was not interested in promoting the translations list, I moved the project to Oxford University Press in 2001, where the writers, translators and I were welcomed.

Nitasha Devasar encouraged me to expand my plans, and Manzar Khan told me to go as far back as I liked and not stay with just post-Independence works. Now on my 60th translation for OUP, I have, since 2001, worked with more than a hundred authors and translators, some of them part of  multi-author volumes, such as the Oxford Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing and the companion volumes in Malayalam (both 2012) and Telugu which are now in press.

I cannot end this piece without saying that for me, the promotion of translators has been a 20-year mission. The most unacknowledged tribe in the publishing world, they received financial and credit equality with authors only very recently.

Why, even today, famous translators like Gita Krishnankutty do not always make it to the covers of the books they create! A handsome and milestone volume like No Alphabet in Sight has nothing about the many translators who made the book possible.

And when an important book or writer is discussed (see the editorial of The Hindu dated January 14, 2014) why isn’t the translator mentioned?  Translators are not recognised for the enormous effort that goes into conveying not just a text but a whole culture into another sphere.

Why do 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 word worlds and slow their disappearance.

I close by echoing Susan Bassnett, who hoped that translation would help promote the absorption of a hybrid set of values rather than a people subscribing to a single dominant ideology.

Mini Krishnan edits a programme of literary translations for Oxford University Press (India).

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