In 2014, Israeli scientist Meytal Radzinski noticed the glaring gender disparity in translated literature, and collated (and continues to track) data that captures the significantly lower number of books by women writers that are translated into English versus those by male authors. The data also showed the disproportionately low media coverage and award recognition that women’s writing in translation receives.
Founded by Radzinski, Women In Translation Month (WITM) has been celebrated for the last five years in August to draw attention to the fact that only thirty percent of new translated literature is by women, to promote books by women in translation, and to encourage publishers to translate important women writers from around the world who are currently only available in their regional languages. Additionally, many publishers are offering significant discounts to facilitate the sale of relevant books during WITM.
We’ve put together a list of five books by women from five different Indian languages whose works are available in translation and worth checking out this Women In Translation Month.
The First Promise, Ashapurna Debi, translated from the Bengali by Indira Chowdhury
The first in a trilogy that explores the lives of Bengali women in the final years of colonial rule and the early years of independent India, Ashapurna Debi’s The First Promise won her the Rabindra Puraskar in 1966 and the Jnanpith award in 1977. Though Debi herself remained partial to the second novel, Subarnalata, which most closely resembled her own experiences, The First Promise is widely believed to be her best work. Satyabati is an eight-year-old child bride who must navigate marital and societal pressures to slowly and incrementally move towards a kind of freedom by shifting from a joint family in a village to a nuclear family in a city. When she has a daughter of her own (whose story is told in the second book) she must come to terms all over again with the limits placed on women’s emancipation in the early twentieth century.
Wild Girls Wicked Words, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstorm
The poems of four contemporary Tamil women from diverse backgrounds have been collected in the bilingual Wild Girls Wicked Words. In 2003, the work of poets Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani was met with a wave of outrage and public objections because their poems were deemed obscene and unbecoming for women writers. This anthology is unlike any other in India in that it seeks to bring to a wider audience the accomplished poetry of writers who faced extreme criticism including death threats from readers of Tamil literature. In Lakshmi Holmstorm’s masterful translations, their poems come alive – whether it’s Kutti Revathi’s description of breasts “as bubbles, rising from marshlands,” or Salma’s interrogation of the marks of childbirth:
“These birthmarks cannot be
repaired, any more than my own decline –
this body isn’t paper
to cut and paste together, or restore.”
A sample of work by all four poets from the anthology can be read here.
Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket But..., Gogu Shyamala, translated from the Telugu
Writer and activist Gogu Shyamala’s collection of short stories are set in the Madiga quarter of a Telangana village similar to the one she grew up in. They capture the community’s deep ties to the land as well as the caste oppression they are subjected to within the village. In one, a young boy must watch his mother walk barefoot through rough, thorny land because to do otherwise would offend the upper-caste landowner. In another, a father whisks his daughter away to a school with a hostel where he begs the warden to keep her in order to save her from being declared a jogini – a lower-caste woman who becomes the common sexual property of the village. Shyamala tempers the realism of her stories with a humour that subverts expectations of how narratives of discrimination and poverty are meant to play out. She scopes out possibilities for Madiga people within their village instead of seeing the move to a city as the only option.
Roof Beneath Their Feet, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Rahul Soni
Set in Laburnum house, a complex of approximately a hundred houses that share a common roof, Geetanjali Shree’s Roof Beneath Their Foot is a novel about the possibilities of female relationships within a society that watches and critiques constantly. It’s also an ode to common spaces such as the roof of a housing complex and the freedoms and restrictions they represent. Chachcho lives with her husband in one of these houses and her life occupies fairly ordinary rhythms until she takes in Lalna who has been deserted by her husband. Their friendship becomes cause for gossip, and Lalna disappears suddenly. When Chachcho passes away many years later, Lalna returns. Chachcho’s nephew who adored his aunt and Lalna must pool together their separate memories to understand who Chachcho really was.
The Weave Of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs, Urmila Pawar, translated from the Marathi by Maya Pandit
Urmila Pawar’s memoir recounts the lives of three generations of women in her Mahar Dalit family. She writes, “My mother used to weave aaydans, the Marathi generic term for all things made from bamboo. I find that her act of weaving and my act of writing are organically linked. The weave is similar. It is the weave of pain, suffering, and agony that links us.” Pawar’s family was housed in the centre of the village so upper-caste people could call upon them at any time. The text is a mix of personal anecdotes of discrimination along both caste and gender lines, and of the stories of those around her. The opening sections in the Konkan region of Maharashtra make use of the local dialect in narration, while later chapters that chronicle Pawar’s move to Mumbai as an adult are accompanied with a shift in the book’s language to a more cosmopolitan speech. She defies the odds stacked against her to become an influential advocate for Dalit rights and to rise to prominence within the Marathi literary community.