The 2022 International Booker win for Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, is widely considered a watershed moment for Indian translation. And sure enough, the buzz around translations has picked up since then. There are more translators entering the field today than ever before.
Author and translator Arunava Sinha, who both teaches and mentors young translators, says, “They are coming out of everywhere, and with an enthusiasm for books in their mother tongue. What is very interesting is that we are getting more people who are working in Marathi and Gujarati and Odia and Assamese, and even languages like Maithili and Rajasthani.”
So, what kind of opportunities exist today for an emerging translator in India? As I begin to reach out to people to find out, every translator I contact leads me to the next. I’m sent names and contact details, given information about this course or that module, and a pattern begins to emerge. I call it a pattern, but there’s a better word for it, of course — community.
The power of community, and the very real ways in which it affects and shapes an emerging translator’s career today can’t be stressed enough. Not only does it offer support and encouragement, it can also open very real and career-changing doors.
When Priyamvada Ramkumar — who translated Stories of the True, noted writer Jeyamohan’s collection of stories, from the Tamil — first began working, she knew little about how to reach out to publishers. So, she got in touch with the two veteran translators whose work she knew and respected — N. Kalyan Raman and Srinath Perur. “I wrote to them out of the blue. They didn’t know me.” But both Perur and Kalyan Raman were generous with their advice. “Kalyan even put me in touch with Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side, a literary agency.” Gupta was impressed with Ramkumar’s work and now represents her.
The support system
There are many such anecdotes — about chance introductions that more often than not lead to important conversations, and formal or informal mentorships. They also lead to fellowships, grants, funds, agent representation. Gupta says that every submission he receives from a young translator today comes with either an introduction or a nudge from a more-experienced translator such as Rockwell, Sinha or Rita Kothari. The mentors, he says, are “so ferociously protective of their mentees that they are sometimes more attentive to the terms and remunerations of those contracts than to their own”.
Access to this community, though, can be a privilege, and some of that can come a young translator’s way via academia. Slowly, as more universities begin to offer translation courses, students have a higher chance of meeting and interacting with experienced translators. Pallavi Narayan, associate professor with Ahmedabad University, teaches the Post Graduate Diploma in Translation and Creative Writing, designed by translator and academic Tejaswini Niranjana, which began in 2022. It has since its inception, had several prominent guest lecturers, including Rockwell, Jerry Pinto, Kothari, and Alvaro Salazar, Head of Translation at Chile’s Universidad Catolica de Temuco.
Akshaj Awasthi, a literary translator who works from Urdu and Hindi into English, found himself drawn to the craft while enrolled at Ashoka University, where he studied the course taught by Sinha. “Even my introduction to literary translations came by being in a premier private institution,” he says.
Along with finding mentors, collaborating with others at similar stages in their careers is also important, says Awasthi. “A lot of us haven’t met in person, but we know of each other’s works. We talk about the process, how we are pitching. We proofread each other’s work.”
Ramkumar says she found one such friend and colleague in fellow translator Suchitra Ramachandran, who worked on another of Jeyamohan’s novels, The Abyss. “We have supported each other through this process. I’m happy we’ve become allies rather than competitors.”
Together, the two have started Mozhi, an initiative they envisage as a space that platforms emerging writers and translators, encourages critical discourse, and also creates a community for translators. The Mozhi Prize was also established in 2022, and in its first year, focused on translations from Tamil into English. This year, the competition is open to translations from all Indian languages.
Awards and fellowships
For a lot of translators, prizes and competitions are their only way in. It is how Vaibhav Sharma began his journey. “I had no connections to the industry and I had no money to self-publish,” he says.
In 2021, his translation of Manav Kaul’s Hindi short story was selected for publication by the Commonwealth Foundation’s Adda magazine, judged by Pakistani author Bilal Tanweer and Malaysian writer Pauline Fan. Sharma then began to keep an eye out for competitions and calls for translation submissions. This year, he has been selected as the Saroj Lal Hindi Translation mentee of the National Centre for Writing Emerging Translator Mentorship Program under Rockwell.
That there are only a handful of them makes the mentorship programmes especially competitive, and several translators who emerge from the cohorts find themselves working on full-length projects. But as the tribe grows, Sinha poses a question: “Who will publish them?” He says that while translations have flourished in the U.S. and the U.K. because of Indie presses, that’s hardly the case in India.
“The indie presses we have don’t have the resources, and they don’t work in pure literature. They are ideologically- or ideas-driven.” Sinha says that contrary to popular perception, mainstream publishers have actually cut down on works of translation, though there is more diversity now. “The older translators are still writing, so very soon, we are going to have a kind of supply that the publishing process simply cannot meet.”
There are, though, other avenues for translators, including literary journals. The Bombay Literary Magazine is one such, and Priyanka Sarkar, the translations (fiction) editor, says that they hope to expand the range of translations they publish. “We get a lot of Hindi submissions, and I really hope that changes. I would love to see more languages.”
Industry rates and minimum pay
Translation is difficult, challenging work, and what primarily seems to drive translators is passion for the job. What does not drive them is money. “No translator lives off their literary assignments. They always have either full-time jobs or other gigs,” says Sinha.
In recent times, conversation around the translator’s pay has become an increasingly important one. Ramachandran says that while industry standard for original writing in English is anywhere between ₹7 to ₹10 per word, translators find it hard to drum up as little as 50 paise a word. She says that at Mozhi, they make it a point to offer industry rates for the work they commission.
In such a scenario, translators then have to find other ways to supplement their income, including projects on hire. Ankit Maurya, who translates from English into Hindi, began his journey by translating a legislature document that was to be presented in the Rajasthan assembly. “I really enjoyed the process, and the pay was good,” he says.
Translation work in the corporate sector too can pay well, says Prachi Awasthi, who works for ABB, a multinational company, and translates between Italian and English for the company’s projects. The steady and generous income made her decide against a career in academia and core translation, says Awasthi.
But if money is not the sole motivation, then there are other spaces too where a translator might find challenging work. Bhadra, who works as an assistant script writer for production houses in the Malayalam film and OTT industry, translates into English pitches, synopses and scripts. “Places like Disney+ Hotstar look at the English version of the script because a lot of people who work there can’t read Malayalam.” She calls it “shadow work”. While it is acknowledged, there’s no position created for it.
Researcher and translator Juhi Mendiratta, too, talks about the need to find different kinds of translating jobs to sustain a career in this field. While Mendiratta is working on her first full-length Hindi translation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, she’s also done subtitling and translated Nagraj comic books.
Despite the challenges, the potential for young translators to find work, and paid work, is only growing. And as Sinha puts it, “Most translators are self-starters. Perhaps because they already know that the going will be somewhat harder for them.”
“All the tools that I use, I have shared with people of my generation who have been translating like me, but if I were to talk to my grandchild, it would be different perhaps. They are looking for different kinds of authors to translate too, and their tools are different.”Susheela PunithaAward-winning Kannada translator
“The regional and central Sahitya Akademis have failed miserably in promoting good translations. It is like any other government department — indifferent to quality. (I’d go to the extent of saying that these bodies should be wound up. They are a lamentable drain on public exchequer.) But honestly, the “potential and landscape” for any gifted and committed young translator is enormous. True, many literary journals have shut down, but look at the cyberspace. Limitless opportunities for good work.”K.K. MohapatraOdia translator
“There is such a variety of languages within languages, which have been easily, and rather dismissively, termed dialects. Actually, they are full-fledged languages. English has, through translations, tried to unlock some of these prisons of purity into which languages are put, for reasons of politics, exaggerated ideas of identity. In the real world, people want to understand each other. Speech flows across barriers.”Vasantha SuryaTamil journalist, poet and translator
Notable fellowships and grants for young translators