Library of India

How to translate the title of a novel into English

A straightforward conversion often misses the nuances, says a translations editor, dipping into her portfolio.

My octogenarian friend Mr Thomas, who would sooner part with his money than his library, had a strange dream. You might call it an intellectual dream. A creative one, even. It was exam time and a question paper to test English was being distributed. He was seated at his desk.

One of the questions  presented the first six lines of a sonnet and the exercise for the student was as follows: write your own sonnet about this same theme but in such a way as to remind everyone of its origin. In your composition you were not free use even a single word from the given lines.

The second question was even more challenging. The printed passage showed a conversation between two illiterates. The exercise was to rewrite the passage in the language of educated people, while retaining the raw zing and punch of the original. One had to find ways to retain the uneducated, uncouth voices of the given passage.

Now does this remind anyone of the struggle a translator faces when she has to translocate jasmine from Coimbatore to Scotland? Even if it survived the shock of the transportation and  looked the same, would it retain its heady fragrance? If it lost something would it gain something else? Perhaps size?

Fear not. I'm not going to write about opening paragraphs or hidden themes or even about how difficult it is to convey the unsaid. What I wish to share is how editors waterboard translators and their friends to arrive at the titles of Indian language works in English. I don’t know about others but I often get a hollow feeling before a project report is even prepared. “A working title would be….”  is my way of stepping out of the orbit of an Earth-bound comet headed my way.


Scooping up a title like Danapani  from Oriya (Gopinath Mohanty,1955 / Macmillans,1995) and carrying it carefully across a bog of different meanings waiting to suck you into failure is my first story for my readers. Bikram Das the translator and I had several discussions on snail-mail in the early nineties, encouraged by Manoj Das.

The original title of the novel is a colloquial Oriya phrase which literally means grain and water. The poignant phrase therefore implies one’s struggle: dana and pani  standing for survival. The novel is about Balidatta, a young and ambitious clerk who claws and climbs his way up the ladder.

The setting is life in a small town and how the office of a private firm in it is run. It is about enduring corporate hierarchy and petty colleagues, about cringing and pleasing oppressive bosses even if it means collecting pig’s manure for their gardens or encouraging one’s wife to be accessible to influential men in the same company. Balidatta’s wife, Sarojini, changes from a modest housewife into a sophisticated outgoing society woman who uses her charms ruthlessly. The couple learn to succeed but lose their love for each other. So we titled the English translation The Survivor.

Pandavapuram (Malayalam) by Sethu? Vasaveshwaram (Tamil) by Krithika? Imaginary place-names, both, so we left them alone.  Subarnalata (Bengali) by Ashapurna Debi? The name of the protagonist, so we left it untouched.  Gendethimma (Kannada) by SriKishna Alanahalli?  Likewise.

Jhini-Jhini  Bini Chadariya

Then came Jhini-Jhini  Bini Chadariya (1986), a Hindi novel about the weavers of Banaras by Abdul Bismillah, translated by Rashmi Govind for Macmillan in 1996. The phrase is from a poem by Kabir Das, and uses the metaphor of the loom and the process of weaving to represent the mystery of life.

A passage from the chapter 16 is full of music.

Mateen stopped for a while and began again. Khuta-khut…khuta-khut…khuta-khut…khuta-khut…the sound emanated from the loom. Softly at first, then in a rising crescendo, beginning on a low note, rising gently, finally reaching the highest note. Like a tabla player, who first taps the tabla to adjust its tautness, then tries it out for tone and finally begins the accompaniment to the song, so too, the cadence of music and design emerging from the texture of the sari fused with the consciousness of the artist till it vanished altogether.

Standing amidst the roar of traffic in Old Delhi, Jai Ratan insisted that we fit the word song into the title to match the music of the loom. So we arrived at The Song of the Loom.


We turn to Mahidhara Ramamohanarao’s Kollayigattitheynemi (Telugu, 1964), which became Swarajyam (translator: Mohan Prasad, 2012, OUP). The original title is a line from a famous song about Gandhiji, which can be translated to read, “What if he wore only a loincloth?” (1921) which was sung in full in a film called Malapilla (1938). Swept up by the strong wind of the freedom movement, the English title seemed wobbly.

So Mohan Prasad and I cast about for an alternative. Luckily the heroine’s name was Swarajyam, and the novel,with the struggle for Independence as its backdrop, was set in a part of Andhra which Gandhiji had actually visited; so when Mohan very respectfully asked Sri Mahidhara if we could change the title, he agreed.


Sarah Joseph’s Othappu (2003 / English translation 2009, OUP) was one of the most complicated title-translations I ever handled. The word is the colloquial equivalent for uthappu, a word peculiar to the Malayalam (Catholic) Bible and literally means to falter or stumble. Expanded, it means to lead someone astray.

The novel is about an ex-nun and a priest who is defrocked. Sarah Joseph subverts the traditional notion of othappu into a movement that leads the way to a new and humane vision. So the novel is both a scandal as well as a narration of a scandal.

Wrestling with ideas and equivalents, the translator Valson Thampu and I came up with a dozen suggestions, all of which were turned down by Jancy James, who wrote the introduction. Finally Sarah asked, “Can you think of something that includes the word scent?”  Thus, The Scent of the Other Side.


Another wall was Asprushyaru (1992) by Vaidehi translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha (OUP, 2012) as Vasudeva’s Family. The word actually means untouchable, but Vaidehi had a different take on the problem, based on touch and un-touch. To the question “Who is untouchable?” the book replies, “Everyone!”

How did the translator came up with the transcreation of the title? By pointing out that despite the inter- and intra-caste bitterness in the village, the head of the household (Vasudevaraya) strives to integrate his family and create the notion of vasudaiva kutumbukam (the world is one family) at home.

Mazha Pravas

Between 2005 and 2011, I nursemaided  a translation that Rukun Advani had commissioned Dilip Chitre to do but which, for various reasons, had withered on the vine. It was of Vishnu Bhatt Godse’s Mazha Pravas, written 27 years after the 1857 uprising but published only in 1907, which marked the golden jubilee of the mutiny.

Bhalchandra Nemade urged me to find a new translator for the 19th century Marathi classic because “every year that passes without a translation of this work is a loss for the community,” he wrote in an email.When Priya Adarkar tooks Dilip’s place and, halfway through, invited Shanta Gokhale to help her finish the project, there began a discussion on how best to translate the title.

It sounded simple enough: Mazha Pravas. My Journey. But perhaps not so simple. What sort of journey? It was part travelogue, part history, part autobiography. In 2011, HarperCollins had published an abridged version of the work translated by Mrinal Pande, titled 1857,The True Story. A year later Godse’s great-great-grand-daughter Sukhmini Roy published her translation through Rohan Prakashan, titled Travails of 1857.

My translators and I felt we had to say something more. So we used a descriptive Adventures of a Brahmin Priest: My Travels in the 1857 Rebellion. Because it was indeed about how the travels of a priest turned into an adventure, a patchwork of pujas, court patronage and miraculous escapes from fierce battles.

Chandragiri Theeradalli

I’ll step back 15 years and close with one of the most poignant works I ever edited. In 1999-2000, Vanamala Vishwanatha  and I worked for nearly a year on a very short novel titled Chandragiri Theeradalli (Kannada,1984) by Sara Aboobacker. An actual event, detailed in her autobiography, which gave the author the material for the novel – which is about illiteracy, patriarchy and a woman’s terrible suffering and loss – was appended to the novel.

The title could easily have been On the Banks of the Chandragiri, smoothly reflecting its Kannada source, but it sounded too literary and did not carry the political punch of the work. A dramatic alternative could have been Talaaq, given its startling and true thematic relevance. After many discussions between the author, the translator and myself, and to avoid controversies while staying close to the nuances of the novel, we arrived at Breaking Ties.

And so we go on, material, meaning and method jostling for creative space continuously as we copy, alter, transcend, borrow, decant and adapt to offer title signposts which, we hope, will attract browsers in a bookshop or on a screen,  leading them into different word worlds.

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

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