English translators are coming into their own in India, getting almost as much attention as authors. Here 12 translators discuss their work.
A retired Indian diplomat and writer, he has translated his grandfather Nanak Singh’s classic Punjabi novels into English, the latest being Hymns in Blood (HarperCollins).
Word challenge: I’ll really need to think hard about any single word that I found untranslatable. I think I can mostly find my way around the complicated ones although there must be plenty that gave me a hard time. It is some of the Punjabi proverbs and idioms that are almost impossible to translate without going into a convoluted explanation. Some are so rooted in Punjabi culture and rural life that to explain them is to mutilate them.
I encountered this when I tried my hand at translating Nanak Singh’s classic, Chitta Lahu. There’s an opium addict in the book whose entire conversation seems to rest on earthy proverbs. I felt I couldn’t do justice to it and gave up.
Recent projects: My next translation project is Nanak Singh’s Agg di Khed (A Game of Fire), which is a sequel to Hymns in Blood. Some of the key characters from the first novel continue in the sequel, which is set entirely in Amritsar during the last year before Partition. I am excited about it because of its rich narrative about the surge in communal violence in Amritsar and the valiant attempts of a few idealistic persons to close the growing fissures. Translating Khooni Vaisakhi, the ballad written by Nanak Singh after surviving the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, was also an exciting project.
Writer, literary translator, book critic, and founder of Desi Books. She is known for her translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s stories, she teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas, and has a weekly newsletter, We Are All Translators.
Word challenge: Finding the most untranslatable Gujarati word is tough because, depending on what I’m translating, my response is likely to change from time to time. For now, I’ll give you a collection of 12 words. I grew up in Bombay and, during the monsoons, my mum would sometimes say, ‘Baare megh khaangaa thaya chhe’, meaning ‘It’s a deluge of all 12 kinds of rain.’ This probably goes back to an ancient Sanskrit meteorology text, Meghmala, which classifies clouds and types of rain.
Gujarati borrows some of these rain words, but this list is the Gujarati folk literature version and not at all easily translatable into English [though easy enough, I think, into other Indian languages]: ફરફર farfar, છાંટા chaanta, ફોરા fora, કરા kara, પછેડીવા pachedeeva, નેવાધાર nevadhaar, મોલ મેહ mol meh, અનરાધાર anraadhaar, મૂશળધાર mooshaldhaar, ઢેફાભાંગ dhefabhaang, પાણ મેહ paan meh, હેલી heli. I just love having so many choices for rain. And, given this Anthropocene age of ours, I worry we may not have them all in the future.
Recent projects: My translation of a selection of short stories by the Gujarati short story pioneer, Dhumketu, titled Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (HarperCollins) came out in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Power Finance Corporation and the Valley of Words (PFC-VoW) Award. Its U.S. edition, published by Deep Vellum Books, will be out in July this year. A collection of Gujarati folktales by Jhaverchand Meghani will be out with PanMacmillan India in 2023. And I have a historical fiction novel, Crossroad, by Varsha Adalja, coming out in 2024 with HarperCollins India. I’d really like to translate some non-fiction or poetry after these projects.
N. Kalyan Raman
He has been translating Tamil fiction and poetry into English for over 20 years. His translation of Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi - or the Story of a Black Goat (Context), was published in 2019.
Word challenge: I don’t set much store by the concept of ‘untranslatability’. If one understands a word in the source text precisely and in context, one can find ways to convey all the strands of its meaning in the target language. In translation, understanding and empathy are the primary challenges, not language.
Recent projects: I am currently translating a novel by Devibharathi called The Solitude of a Shadow. It is a meditation on the nature of revenge and how an abiding need for vengeance can trail the subject like a shadow, solitary and unreal, while life goes on in the real world, moved by passions and appetites more human and natural than the corrosive yearning for retribution. I have previously translated a collection of short stories by the same writer under the title, Farewell, Mahatma, published in 2015. I am happy to engage once again with Devibharathi’s subaltern narrative, marked by an original vision and finely-crafted prose.
A writer, columnist, translator from Assamese, and a trained classical vocalist. Her English novel, The Collector’s Wife, set against the Assam agitation of the 1970s and 80s, was by published Penguin Global in 2005.
Word challenge: There are lots of untranslatable Assamese words. One is naamghar, a community hall meant for the purpose of worship but also used for social and cultural events.
Recent projects: My most recent work of translation is Guilt by Harekrishna Deka that came out in September 2021. I have also completed the translation of a short novel by Sahitya Akademi awardee Dhruba Jyoti Borah recently that should be published soon.
An award-winning translator of Bengali classics, modern and contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and poetry. He also translates into Bengali. Bonduk Dweep (Eka), his Bengali translation of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, came out in 2021.
Word challenge: One of the most untranslatable Bengali words is batela, I think. Approximations could range from something like ‘bombast’ to ‘boasting’ to ‘exaggeration’, but none exactly captures the multidimensionality of the term, which encompasses a way of life that probably does not exist anymore. It’s a cultural construct whose precise matrix does not exist in other cultures, which may not understand the context.
Recent projects: My forthcoming translation is of Debarati Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali novel, Narach, rendered in English as Chronicles of the Lost Daughters, which will be published by HarperCollins India in June. It’s a fast-paced historical novel set in the 1880s that brings out in very striking and horrifying detail every kind of oppression, whether of caste or gender, in 19th century Bengal.
Her Twitter bio goes, “Painter; literary type; Hindi and Urdu translator; escaped academic.” Her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand(Penguin) is the first book from India to be on the Booker International shortlist.
Word challenge: I am of the opinion that nothing is untranslatable. Words that people refer to as ‘untranslatable’ are those that do not have a single word equivalent in the target language. An example from Tomb of Sand is in the Hindi title, Ret Samadhi. Samadhi means many, many things, and has no one word equivalent in English. Does that make it untranslatable? No. Samadhi means tomb, trance, meditation, the final stage of yoga. There, I translated it! The title translation contains only one of these words, because translators have to make choices. But if you read Tomb of Sand carefully, you will see that I translate samadhi in all different ways in the text and eventually teach the Hindi word to the readers.
Recent projects: I am working on many things at the moment, a novella by Usha Priyamvada, Krishna Sobti’s first novel, Channa, and coming up, an Urdu novel by Nisar Aziz Butt. Translating Tomb of Sand was extremely challenging because it is full of word play and demonstrates Geetanjali Shree’s deep love of the Hindi language. Figuring out how to communicate that was a challenge, and Geetanjali encouraged me to create similar word play in English, which was challenging but also enjoyable.
Abhirami Girija Sriram and Bijukumar
They met at Jawaharlal Nehru University a quarter century ago and share, among other things, a deep abiding interest in languages and literary translation. They have co-translated K.R. Meera’s Jezebel from Malayalam.
Word challenge: One of the most untranslatable Malayalam words is anaacharam, a word which carries a lot of complex historical baggage. While aachaaram, its root word, means tradition, anaacharam has variously been translated as ‘bad tradition’, ‘malpractice’ and so on, still eluding a satisfactory transfer of meaning.
Recent projects: Our most recent translation is K.R. Meera’s Malayalam novel Suryane aninja oru sthree, which is soon to be published by Penguin Random House with the eponymous title, Jezebel.
A poet and essayist, he has translated The Unforgiving City and Other Stories (Viking) by Vasudhendra from Kannada into English.
Word challenge: There are many words in Kannada that cannot be translated without adequate explanations. One example is muttaide, which refers to a married woman whose husband is still alive. This also implies that she is entitled to certain kinds of jewellery and adornments such as a kumkum/bindi on her forehead, a nose ring, earrings, toe rings, a taali around her neck, flowers in her hair, and so on. She is eligible to perform certain auspicious rituals during religious and social events whereas a woman whose husband has expired will not be allowed to do the same. There is no one word in English (or any European language) that carries all these implied meanings.
Recent projects: I just translated an English poetry collection, Childhood, by the American poet, Emily Rolfe Grosholz, into Kannada, with the title Shaishava. It is published by Abhinava in Bengaluru and was released at a literary festival held by Kannada Sahitya Ranga, U.S., in Dallas, Texas, on April 16. The original collection was a UNICEF project and I happened to be the first one to translate it into an Indian language. I am currently working on the translation of a Kannada novel into English.
Dasu Krishnamoorty and Tamraparni Dasu
The father-daughter duo founded the literary non-profit IndiaWrites Publishers Inc. to support translation and short fiction in Indian languages. Krishnamoorty is an anthologist, translator from Telugu, and storyteller based in New Jersey. His daughter, Tamraparni Dasu, is also an author and translator.
Word challenge: The word thaayilam means a special treat for a child, usually sweet. It’s not quite candy nor a plain treat, but it is a word loaded with the secret conspiratorial joy shared with a child. There is no equivalent English word that conveys that meaning.
Recent projects: Our recent work is a collection of 21 Telugu stories translated into English by me and my father, Dasu Krishnamoorty. Published by Aleph Book Company in March 2022, it is called The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told.
A Sahitya Akademi Award-wining Indian English poet, novelist, short story writer, translator and journalist. He translates from Marathi and Hindi.
Word challenge: I think the grace notes of any language are the most difficult to translate. For me, the stumbling block has always been the little words re and ga, which are added to conversational lines and that hum with familiarity, warmth and sometimes annoyance. We have no equivalents for these in English and so the lines must be worked harder, moulded and shaped to make up for that.
Recent projects: My most recent translation is from Hindi — Swadesh Deepak’s Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, a monumental account of his descent into madness and his return. I have just finished Akherche Aatmacharitra by Rajendra Banhatti, the delightful story of a man who is confined to a single room in a house he has built. It is a meditation on the marginalisation of the old.