Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Literary Translation in India



Surprising though it may sound, I dare to say, though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, that the country with the most literary translation into English is not the UK nor the USA but India.


Two of the most popular posts on this blog have been the ones by Prabha Sridevan. (To retrieve them, entern sridevan in the Search box on the right.) She is representative of the current Indian translation scene. Like most literary translators everywhere, she is one of the category that we call Native Translators, that is to say translators who have not trained formally as translators but have picked up how to do it by example and by reading original literature. As she says herself, “I wandered into ‘translation’. I did not know it had a technique; or that it was both a science and an art.” But she knew Tamil literature and she knew impeccable English.


In the discussions of whether the Raj was beneficial or detrimental to India, an element that is generally left off the balance is the widespread and profound knowledge of the ruler’s language. By chance it provided India with a language of international communication and, even more important, it bequeathed the country a language that was not tied to any of its competing ethnic communities. We need to bear in mind that India has 22 regional languages. In spite of all the political pressure to make one of these, Hindi, the national language, use of English as a lingua franca persists: “The business in the Indian Parliament can only be transacted in Hindi or in English. English is allowed to be used in its official purposes.”


The success of translators like Prabha has been supported by Indian publishers, notably the Indian branch of the Oxford University Press, publisher of her Chudamani translations, and Ratna Books with its Translation Series under Dhanesh Jain. But this is not enough. A recent study concludes thattranslated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers, and this also requires promoting writers and translators, and inviting publishers to India to engage with the publishing and literary ecosystem.”


Ratna is the publisher of Prabha’s latest volume of translations, Meeran’s Stories. It’s a collection of Tamil short stories by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944-2019). Both Chudamani and Meeran are skilful short story writers. The first story in the Meeran collection has a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry. However, there’s a major difference between the backgrounds of Chudamani and Meeran and it’s that the latter was a Muslim. Here we come up against a major Western misconception about the Indian subcontinent: it’s that India is all Hindu and it’s Pakistan that’s Muslim.  The fact is, India contains a large Muslim minority, about 14% of its population. So here we have two authors writing in Tamil and brought up in Tamil Nadu with backgrounds that are in large measure the same but with a noticeable difference.

“Meeran’s stories give us a glimpse, a once, of the inner life of two entities, two identities. First, of South India. Second of Muslim South India. They are about a particular people but more, they are about people. They are about a particular place but more, about the place of feeling in the desert of custom.”



Translated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers: Study. New Delhi: Devdiscourse, 2022. 


R. Chudamani. Seeing in the Dark. Translated from Tamil with translator's introduction by Prabha Sridevan. New Delhi: OUP India, 2015.


Thoppil Mohamed Meeran. Meeran’s Stories. Translated from Tamil by Prabha Sridevan. Delhi: Ratna Books, 2022.


Gopalakrishna Ghandi. Rear dust jacket of Meeran’s Stories.

Religion in India. Wikipedia, 2022.

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