Library of India

International Translation Day: Read the beginnings of eleven of the best translated books from India

Translation has ensured that the classics in different Indian languages do not remain imprisoned.

They may work in the shadows compared to the writers, but the country’s translators have brought their skills and application to build a large and vibrant library of India. To present a sample of the range and virtuosity of the work of these translators on International Translation Day, here are the openings of ten works translated from different Indian languages into English.

Assamese: Translated by Gayatri Bhattacharya

The Blue-necked God, Indira Goswami

Very few people got off at the Mathura Contonment railway station that day. Nevertheless, there was quite a sizeable crowd of holy men, sadhus and sannyasins and, together with the noise and bustle of travel-weary passengers from distant places, they created an atmosphere of excitement and frenzy at this small station. There were a number of touts walking around the platform trying to smell out first-time pilgrims.

Dr Roychoudhury’s family got down from the train. He and his wife, Anupama, had always wanted to spend their last years in Mathura. They had hoped to spend their old age in peace and quiet. But this was not to be because in their sunset years they had come face to face with tragedy. Their only daughter, Saudamini, had suddenly lost her husband. Saudamini was very young. And as if this was not bad enough, she had started having an affair with a Christian youth soon after she became a widow.


Bengali: Translated by Meenakshi Mukherjee

The Virgin Fish Of Babughat, Lokenath Bhattacharya

My name is Aparesh Nandy. Buw how can I be sure it is Aparesh, not Animesh? Or perhaps Akhilesh? You are confusing me again. But who are you? Are you ever going to read this? Is anyone ever going to read what I am writing? Then why are they making me write these pages? Is it because they themselves intend to read them? They certainly can if they want to, but so far they have not shown any interest in what I write. They are only concerned with making sure that I keep on writing. Every day they come to check, and as long as they find something scribbled on the blank sheets, they go away satisfied. Pleased by my efforts sometimes they even send me a cup of coffee before lunch which I can swear no one else ever gets and I say this because I know it for certain. I did not ask them for paper – i never even wanted to write. There is nothing I can write about any more. This pen or that bottle of ink which I can grab when the pen runs dry – none of these things belongs to me. Except this unclothed body and the lingering life that still beats within, there is nothing I can call my own today. But look at the profusion of objects in the room. Let me tell you about them one by one. Number one – do you see this large oblong mirror fixed to the walls with fancy screws? Look how clear the glass is – it must be expensive because the reflection appears so natural. Did you notice what a difficult word I used just now? Reflection – is that the right word, or should it be refraction, reproduction or reverberation? Don’t laugh at me, I am beginning to forget the language – the words seem to merge into each other.


Gujarati: Translated by Rita Kothari and Abhijit Kothari

The Glory of Patan, KM Munshi

Vikram Samvat, 11.50.

The summer evening melted into darkness. The radiance of the half-moon increased gradually. At this time, the road leading to Patan appeared deserted and frightening, the stillness of the night shattered by the distant howling of foxes that pierced through the dense woods. Unperturbed by the danger of robbers or outlaws on this empty road, two horsemen spend along towards Patan.

The powerful build of the horseman in front lent him an impressive demeanour. His large, bright eyes sought the fort of Patan, invisible in the darkness. Impatiently, he spurred his fleet-footed horse on every now and then. His clothes were those of an ordinary Rajput warrior of the time. The ends of his dark beard were turned up towards his ears. The horseman following him was a young man of seventeen or so – handsome and restless. Despite the speed at which they were travelling, his eyes did not fail to notice his surroundings. He too was dressed like the elder rider.


Hindi: Translated by Nivedita Menon

The Empty Space, Geetanjali Shree

Perhaps it was then.

When the bomb exploded.

When the bomb exploded and we scattered to pieces. It was then the moment froze in time and we, in it. Ashes, fire flesh. Fans, gulab jamun, pav-bhaji, idli, vada, all whirling in the air, like an argument gone astray in the cosmos.

You know how cafes are these days. You get everything everywhere now. Idli-vada in the North, pav-bhaji in the East. As for bombs – anywhere, at any time.

In that cafe, though, it was the very first time. The university cafe. Poor thing, in a “safe area”. Until that moment, anyway. Buzzing with young boys and girls, admission forms clutched in their hands, fresh new meetings, “where are you from?” Uncertain, filled with hope. Nervousness, eating, drinking, movement, life.

Just one empty space, the size of a three-year-old. That three-year-old, myself.

I remember. I really do, believe it or not.


Kannada: Translated by Srinath Perur

Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag

Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. It’s called just that – Coffee House. The name hasn’t changed in a hundred years, even if the business has. You can still get a good cup of coffee here, but it’s now a bar and restaurant. Not one of your low-lit bars with people crammed around tables, where you come to suspect that drinking may not after all be a wholesome activity. No, this place is airy, spacious, high-ceilinged. Drinking here only makes you feel cultured, sophisticated. The walls are panelled in wood to shoulder height. Old photographs hang on the sturdy square pillars in the centre of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago. The photographs suggest a gentler, more leisurely time, and somehow Coffee House still manages to belong to that world. For instance, you can visit at seven in the evening when it’s busiest, order only a coffee and occupy a table for two hours, and no one there will object. They seem to know – someone who simply sits there for so long must have a thousand wheels spinning in his head. And they know those spinning wheels will not let a person be. Eventually, he’ll be overwhelmed, just like the serene spaces of those photographs that buyers devoured and turned into the cluttered mess we have around us today.

Let all that be – I don’t mean to brood. Returning to this Vincent: he’s a dark, tall fellow, a little over middle age, but strong, without the hint of a belly. He wears a white uniform against which it’s impossible not to notice an extravagant red cummerbund. On his head is a white turban, its tuft sticking out like Krishna’s peacock feather. I can’t help feeling when Vincent is around – serving coffee, pouring beer at a practised angle, betraying the faintest of smiles as a patron affectedly applies knife and fork to a cutlet – that he can take us all in with a single glance. By now I suspect he knows the regulars at Coffee House better than they know themselves.

Malayalam: Translated by Joseph Koyippally

Goat Days, Benyamin

Like two defeated men, Hameed and I stood for a while in front of the small police station at Batha. Two policemen were sitting in the sentry box near the gate. One was reading something. His posture, the way he moved his head, and his half-closed eyes, suggested that it was a religious text. The second policeman was on the telephone. His laughter and chatter audible in the street. Although the two sat close to each other, they were in different worlds. Neither worlds cared for us.

Slightly off the sentry box, a wild lemon tree curved into the street. We squatted in its shade, hoping a guard would look up from his work and notice us. We remained like that for a long time. Meanwhile, one or two Arabs briskly went into the police station and at least three or four sauntered out. It was as if we were invisible to them. Then a police vehicle came out of the station compound. We jumped up, eagerly following it with our eyes. But, stopping only to watch for vehicles on either side of the main street, it went its way. Feeling desperate, we leaned against the tree.


Marathi: Translated by Shanta Gokhale

The Man Who Tried To Remember, Makarand Sathe

When Achyut Athavale was shifted yesterday to a new cell he didn’t like it one bit. The previous cell had been exactly as one would expect a cell to be. It was like everybody’s answer to the question “How should a cell be?” It was the kind of predictable space in which Achyut could think the thoughts he wanted to. He could spin a fine yarn of coherent thought even without ignoring the realities of the situation outside. That was how the previous cell had been. First, it was like a cell foretold. So there was no danger of unexpected things happening there. Viewed from another angle, the building in which it was housed was quite different from other buildings. So it was not capable of arousing memories by itself. And yet, taking a third view, it was not very different from other buildings either. That is to say it was not very different from any imagined or existing space. That is why an individual living in it did not need to make too great an effort to recall the memories he wished to.


Punjabi: Translated by Navdeep Suri

A Life Incomplete, Nanak Singh

May 1922. It is around midnight and pitch dark. Not a leaf stirs. And the occasional puff of breeze that has lost its way and entered the confines of the prison, too, is scalding, like the heart of a jilted lover.

The forbidding walls of Borstal Jail hold thousands of prisoners within their grim perimeter. Many of them languish in hundreds of tiny funeral cells. Burglars, dacoits, fraudsters and murderers are the denizens of this township, locked up in its cages, reaping the punishment for their crimes. Of late, however, a new kind of inhabitant has come to occupy this parish. Innocent of any wrongdoing, the fresh arrivals have cheerfully stepped into the ogre’s den as reward for their unflinching commitment to their country and to their religion. Numbering in their thousands, they are the activists of the Guru ka Bagh campaign.


Tamil: Translated by Lakshmi Holstrom

A Thousand Words, One Life, Ambai

When Kamakshi found herself pregnant for the third time, she was somewhat shaken. She did not know at what impulsive moment, during which upsurge of emotion, her womb could have received the seed.

The Second World War was going on at the time. There was severe rationing. Life in Bombay afforded them little chance of savings. A household managed by carrying bags of wheat to the Panjabi family that lived three floors above them and receiving their rice in exchange. It was a life which avoided scarcity. A life that avoided luxury too. There were no objects in their house which were in the least bit showy. She wondered if this third pregnancy was itself an unnecessary luxury.

She tried various potions during the next two months: green papaya, powdered sesame seeds, crushed henna leaves dissolved in water. The foetus was like a stone, unmoved by any of this. After a while, she gave up all such attempts. But a fear lurked in the corner of her mind: in what shape would this foetus finally arrive, having resisted all attempts to shift it?


Telugu: Translated by T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayasree

The Liberation of Sita, Volga

Sunset time. The forest, with crimson brightness on one side and engulfing darkness on the other, was like a red furnace emitting black smoke. Birds flying in rows were returning to their nests, filling the forest with their clamour. Herds of deer were getting ready for a moonlight excursion, shedding their daytime lethargy. The sage’s ashram in that thick forest looked beautiful – and tranquil – like the creation of an accomplished painter.

In the ashram the evening rituals had begun. Sacrificial fires were glowing. Mantras were being chanted in solemn tones. The women of the hermitage, having watered the plants, were relaxing. Some of them were weaving garlands for the puja. Children, having returned from their forest wanderings, nestled in the embrace of their mothers, who had been eagerly waiting for them. Some mothers were hurrying their children along for the evening ablutions. In one small cottage, a mother was waiting for her children who had not yet come back from the forest. From the look in her eyes, it was clear that she lived only for the children. There was anxiety in those kind, fear-filled eyes.

Her name was Sita.

She was waiting for her two sons.


Urdu: Translated by Sukrita Paul Kumar

Blind, Joginder Paul

Each of us has his own way of seeing. Who can tell how the other sees? As for me, I see the whole world within myself – lofty mountain peaks that pierce my insides, wide rivers in whose eddies I sometimes get trapped; dashing against the rocks, I smash into pieces, but my banks gather all the pieces from the flowing water, put them together and carry me to a safe and secluded maidan.

Within me lies the world-of-worlds. Many places in this world have been torn and worn by cruel seasons, but somehow I managed to patiently build kutcha-pukka bridges so that no part of me remains isolated. I arrive wherever I wish to reach the very moment the thought of getting there comes to me. I live in every speck and atom of this universe of mine.

No, I am not making any claim to godhood! The truth is that I was born blind and I lie inside myself quietly. Quietly? No, that’s a lie! And...and it is also a lie that all of my fragments lie scattered. The truth is that all my bridges are broken. I comfort myself in vain. In fact, blind as I am, I’m unable to reach anywhere; even if I have to reach my mouth from my ears, I fall with a thud on the way.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

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Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.