Library of India

Six lessons on translating the untranslatable

A masterclass on how to protect the details and nuances when taking a book from one language into another.

On September 5, 2008, when Mini Krishnan, Editor of Translations at Oxford University Press, asked me to translate UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura, I was nervous because she told me he was not very happy with an earlier translation of the novel.  I had never translated anything before.

But Mini put me through the paces. She sent me three stories by Vaidehi and she liked what I had done with them. She felt I could do it. She trusted me when I did not know what it was to be trusted as a translator. I was new to the experience but I knew Mini would steer me. She had been my student of the English Honours batch of 1971 at Mount Carmel College and we were good friends.

Late one evening, I sent her the first chapter of my Bharathipura as a sample. I told her she could take a call after reading it. The next morning, I received a call.

‘Naanu, Ananthamurthy.’ Prof. UR Ananthamurthy introduced himself in Kannada.

‘Namaskaara, Meshtre,’ I said, ‘I sent the first chapter to Mini last evening.’

‘I’ve got it. I’ve read it. I don’t know how to tell you how good it is… I couldn’t have written this way.’

‘But it’s yours,’ I protested. I was new to translation, you see.

‘Yes, that’s true,’ he said, ‘I can write this way in Kannada but I can’t do it in English. My English is academic. You’ve written from your heart, from your spirit.’

That was an invaluable insight. It helped me see my mission as a translator: I was to transport the heart, the spirit of the text in Kannada into its English version. Much later when I did read the first translation of Bharathipura I could see why he had not liked it; the variety of prose was academic

Learning to fail

There was so much else to translation I was yet to discover.

The most humbling was to realise there was something in Bharathipura that I could not translate. It is the way the Brahmin protagonist, Jagannatha, sees the Holeyas.

Part of the problem is with grammar. The English plural, they, does not differentiate between human and non-human animates. For instance, in English, when we say, “They came”, we could be referring to a group of people or a herd of animals. But in Kannada, we say, “avarubandhar” for human and “avu bandhavu” for non- human animates.

The other part of the problem is with usage. One context in which we use avu bandhavu for human beings is while referring to children, to express endearment, to be indulgent. Here, the attitude is positive. But in any other context when we use it to refer to adults it is generally negative. The use implies contempt, as if we are equating people with animals. And that’s exactly what Jagannatha thinks when  a group of Holeyas come to him every evening to attend the adult education classes he conducts for them; ‘avu bandhavu’, he says to himself as if they were not human.

This is tragic, because he is a well-meaning social activist committed to breaking down caste barriers and yet he has not transformed himself; he cannot see them as people. Jagannatha’s inability to change his attitude towards the lower castes is central to the angst in the story and yet I could not transfer it to the English version because the language is not equipped to describe that kind of othering.

English has no way of showing how the protagonist dehumanises the Holeyas by using the non-human third person plural personal pronoun to refer to them. And so, they came as it occurs in the translation, is neutral in attitude. It is not coloured with contempt as it is in the original. I had to add, as if they were a herd of cattle to the text to bring out the negative attitude of the protagonist towards them.

I have faced similar problems many times since then. The idiom of the Holeya, Chooda’s mother in Bharathipura as she defends her dead son has no equivalent variety in English. And so, I could not transfer her pronunciation and style of speaking to the master, Jagannatha. It is unfair to her that her lines are in chaste English.

I had similar problems while translating Vaidehi’s Asprushyaru. I could not be faithful to the local variety of Kundapur Kannada with its mix of Tulu and Kannada. It was indeed a tightrope walk to find a fine balance between being faithful to the flavour of the text and being concerned with its intelligibility to the reader.

Learning to read as an outsider

As a Kannadiga, I had to learn to read Kannada novels as an outsider. For instance, I did not realize what avu signified contextually in Bharathipura. I owe this insight to Mini. I was reading the novel to her and she was following it in translation when she stalled me to seek clarification. ‘What is avu?’ she asked.

As I was explaining to her the sophistication of a structure in Kannada grammar that is absent in English, I became aware of its implication is terms of meaning and attitude. Mini does not know Kannada and the Kannada reader in me was too much of an insider to see the purpose in the incongruity of the non-human third person plural pronoun with reference to the Holeyaru.

Thanks to her question, I could become enough of an outsider to interpret the cultural significance of its use in the context. I became sensitive to language as a vehicle of culture-specific implications.

Learning to retain

This insight helped me retain the title of one of S Diwakar’s stories as Runa. The story is based on a real-time connection that Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, the eminent writer in Kannada, shared with a cobbler. I could not translate the title to either of its equivalents in English, Duty or Obligation, because neither expression brings out the depth of meaning embedded in the culture-specific term runa.

While runa does mean duty, its reach goes far beyond the meaning of the expression; it describes the sense of responsibility we feel towards some people due to an inexplicable bond with them that goes beyond lives. We talk about it as runaanu sambhandha. I retained the original title, much to the writer’s delight, and added a few lines in the story to unfold its deeper significance.

Similarly, with the title to the lead story in a collection of Vaidehi’s stories, Kruancha Pakshigalu and Other Stories; there was no way I could have rendered the title in English as The Curlews, for instance, without tampering with the mythological framework on which the story rests. The very expression, Krauncha Pakshigalu, is rich in connotative value since the fate of a pair of those water-birds is said to have inspired Valmiki to write the Ramayana.

I wish I could have similarly retained the expression gudi in Bharathipura. It is a significant instance of polysemy in the context of the theme; gudi refers to both temple and the dwelling of the Holeya. But, to avoid confusion in English, I had to translate it as either temple or hut, whichever was relevant to the context.

Learning to let go

Fortunately, any story gains significance not only through its language but also through the images it creates. And, sometimes, the way I saw these images helped me interpret the texts in ways not envisaged by the authors. And, in collaboration with them, I could transcreate the titles instead of translating them.

One such title is Diwakar’s, Krauya. The story is about the disgust an Iyer professor and his wife feel towards their only child, a daughter. She disappoints them at birth for they had longed for a son for several years. She disappoints them as she grows up for she is not even attractive. And, as if to add insult to injury, she becomes a victim of polio. The parents share a companionship and Alamelu feels alienated.

And so, everyday, while walking to the vegetable market, she takes a detour through the slums to enjoy the sense of community the dwellers share. She feels one with them when one of them calls out to her in Tamil, “Enna, Iyer kutty”’  He sees her as an outsider, an Iyer woman, and tries to tease her but Alamelu is happy to be acknowledged at all. She is thrilled when some of men pass lewd remarks as she walks by. And one day, as an innocent victim of a local brawl she lies dying in the lane.

A vegetable vendor leaves his cart and sits down by her side leaning her against his chest. The gathering mob feels sorry for her, brings her a cool drink when she asks for water. She breathes her last filled with a deep sense of belonging. I asked Diwakar if I could focus on that final epiphanic revelation of kinship Alamelu experiences. He said that made better sense and now the title is transcreated as Epiphany; a literal translation of Kraurya would be Cruelty.

The other example is Vaidehi’s Asprushyaru. A literal translation of the title would be Untouchables, reminding us of Mulk Raj Anand’s classic, The Untouchable. But the overall image the novel creates is not so much of segregation based on caste and class as of connections forged through humane considerations.

Vasudevaraya, the head of a Brahmin household, tries to make the ideal Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, (The whole earth is one family) as real as possible in his house. In his compassion for Thukri, the Koraga woman who is with child, he brings her home to be tended during childbirth and after. The word rakham in Hebrew refers to womb in the singular and, in the plural, stretches to mean compassion. The patriarchal connotation for the term would be gut.

With gut-wrenching compassion Vasudevaraya takes Thukri, who belongs to the lowest of the low castes, into his home and his family; into his womb as it were. But the title cannot become Vasudevaraya’s Family because the protagonist’s name is Vasudeva. The suffix, raya defines his Brahminical antecedents. Vasudeva, the person, has the courage to go beyond the restrictions of his caste to fulfill his basic urge to be humane. And so, with her permission, I had to let go of Vaidehi’s title, Asprushyaru, and transcreate it as Vasudeva’s Family to acknowledge the positive energies the novel contains.

Learning to wonder

I wonder if there is a deeper writer-self writing itself out through the writer. Is that why there are patterns in their stories that the writers are not aware of? How else can I explain why Diwakar or Vaidehi could not see the positive patterns in Kraurya and Asprushyaru that made me change the titles to Epiphany and Vasudeva’s Family, respectively?

Why didn’t URA see the full significance of the character, Chikki, in his Bharathipura? I remember the twinkle in URA’s eyes when I pointed it out to him. To me the image of Chikki, Jagannatha’s maternal aunt, making ganji and sending it with some mango pickle to the Holeyas on the night they are victims of arson is like Christ feeding the five thousand. Here is a child-widow rising beyond the restrictions of ritual purity of her caste to fulfill her maternal compassion for the homeless by making pots of gruel for them. She is the counter-point to the protagonist, Jagannatha; naturally being what he is striving to become but failing.

And then there is URA’s female protagonist, Chandri from Samskara. URA gave me a high-five when I showed him where AK Ramanujam had misinterpreted Chandri’s character in his translation of Samskara. In 2012, while interviewing URA for the Oxford Perennials edition of Samskara, I read out a passage from the original and matched it with AKR’s translation of it (p 46 in AKR’s text).

AKR’s version reads: Her mother used to say prostitutes should get pregnant by such holy men. And there is no equivalent of holy in the relevant paragraph in the Kannada text (p 39). My version of the original would be: Chandri said to herself, ‘Remember what Amma used to say about the kind of men from whom a prostitute should receive the fruit of the womb (garbhaphala)? Such a man is Acharya, in looks (roopa), in character (guna) and in charisma (varchassu).’ (p 137 of Samskara, OUP Perennial)

My version brings out the essence of Chandri’s character in URA’s text. Chandri is prakriti and sees Praneshacharya as purusha, a stud. She has the primeval desire to procreate, natural and pure. She has no sense of guilt; she was born to a way of life and she lives it fully. AKR changes the intention of the original version by adding an ethical overtone; he imputes to Chandri the need to feel redeemed by a holy man. URA says, ‘Well, not everyone would agree but that was the problem with Ramanujam. He tried to write English like an Englishman.’ (ibid) Did AKR have a Victorian code of morality in mind? Does a translator translate for his readership? I wonder.

And learning to add

Although I had quibbled about the intrusion of an expression in Samskara that had altered the author’s intention in creating Chandri, I found the technique of elaboration useful in bringing out the contextual meaning of a word while translating Na D’Souza’s Dweepa. The novella is full of eloquent silences; the silence of the voiceless and the silence of the stifled. What can one say about a despicable situation in which the families of the bonded labourers, Brya and Hala of the Hasalara community find themselves when they are bundled out of their environment like commodity in a story where a landlord, Ganapayya, becomes a victim of displacement in the name of progress and development?

In Kannada, one word suffices to describe Byra and Hala: Huttalugalu. The expression connotes with their social and cultural predicament. But translating that expression literally as labourers bonded from birth would puzzle a reader unaware of a specific social system in India. The contextual value of the original expression, huttalugalu, requires an extended explanation in English: They were bonded labourers, bonded from birth to their masters as repayment of debt owed by their father or grandfather.


I found that the translation of the intention in a piece of literary writing is achieved through multiple levels of reading that lead to multiple levels of writing. The spontaneity of retelling a story is stalled by the meta-reader in the translator as she sees gaps in meaning, significance and flavor and closes them by choosing from both languages to make the third language of the specific translated text. And this third language keeps changing to meet the peculiar demands of each text.

The most difficult part of this exercise was in transferring the flavour of the original in Vasudeva’s Family where Vaidehi uses a local variety of Kundapura Kannada which is a mix of Kannada and Tulu expressions. And then there were the cultural nuances of Sanskrit in URA’s Bharathipura and of Tamil in Diwakar’s Kraurya.

As you can see, I could have not worked isolation. Translation is a collaborative effort. My interactions with the authors taught me more than I could have asked for. Mini, my editor, honed my skills by advising me to work the meanings of expressions into the context wherever possible to keep the footnotes to a minimum. She also suggested chapter headings as sign-posts.

Translation is a means to an end. Let us hope that the connections we make through translations will equip us to see more similarities than differences in our multicultural milieu. That would serve to make translation a powerful tool for a cultural confluence. To be worthy of its mission, translation has to fulfill that deeper necessity.

Susheela Punitha has translated Vaidehi's Kruancha Pakshigalu and Other Stories for the Sahitya Akademi and the other stories mentioned in the article for Oxford University Press. Her translation of U R Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura (2011) was shortlisted for both The Hindu Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2011.

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