Guest Post: Reading Indian Language Translations!

In July, The Book Cafe had stated an interesting idea about how one needs to read books from all the states in India-be it in the original language or translated. Click the link here to see the full list of books The Book Cafe has read from different Indian States!

Meera Baindur, a bookworm and philosophy faculty at Bengaluru Central University, shares her own thoughts about reading translations of different Indian languages. 

Inspired by readers and writers around me during my stay in Manipal, I took on a challenge of reading at least one book in every Indian language that was available. I started with South India and have now read Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Konkani and Kannada books in translation.
I have already read Bengali, Hindi and Urdu in translation. I have fallen in love with these regional books and hopefully by next year I would have moved on to at least 24 to 30 books of different Indian Languages.

Challenges apart, I love reading these stories that are set in different states and cultures from my own. If it were not for the excellent translations, I would have not been able to broaden my mind.
I have always studied Sanskrit books in translation so it was not difficult for me to shift to reading other books in translation from the Indian languages. Reading books in translation from as many languages in India, I have enjoyed the variety of lives and richness of stories that would have been otherwise lost to me. Among some books I enjoyed reading in English are those in Kannada , Tamil, Konkani and Malayalam.

A lot of people do not like translations. For them there is something sacrosanct about the original language and its nuances that is not captured in translation.
I do believe that if some part of the writing gets lost in translation, but it is only evident to a person who has read the book in the original language. For those who touch the writing of another through English, there is a unique feeling of crossing some cultural boundaries of the mind. In translation we are not only fortunate to read stories that are regional and rural but also we are exposed to our own lives along with many alternate Indias that struggle, live and make sense of life as we do. Translations help us cross over the borders of our own mind.

One of the things I had to reconcile with when I began these books is that they are not easy to read, not in terms of language but in terms of the issues and plots. Regional literature in translation is mostly focused on powerful writing that is often not a “happily ever after” type of writing. These writers more often than not mirror reality so the books disturb you and leave you with reflection rather than satiation. But I would rather risk the inner conflict to understand my own country deeply than stay on in rosy cloud all the time.
So I did take my time reading a few pages or chapters of these books, slowly. I interspersed the reading with chic lit and comics and whodunits, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the gloom.

It’s important to also give attention to translated books, they take a bit more time to get used to because as Indian languages have a different grammar, the English is not the queen’s language but more muddied, more Indian in its form as a deliberate attempt by translators to keep to the original language.

I have always felt that there is something common about the Indian experience that English cannot remove, particularly things that speak of experience. Take for instance this sentence in Perumal Murugan’s Current Show: “ The old man holds the cup carefully with both his hands, as if it were a lamp, and drinks.” Holding a lamp is something that is so Indian, one could say, it smells of the fragrance of Indianness. As we read Indian languages in translation, I believe we re-translate the English into our Indian experience, creating a delightful meeting of minds with the author.


Another interesting feature of the translations is the unique language that shows through when the characters speak. “ What’s your sickness?” asks a character in KR Meera’s short story, Yellow is the Colour of Longing. This is more like “ Kya Bimari hai” than the more sophisticated “what’s wrong with you?”
Delightful metaphors that only we can relate to, never found in Agatha Christies or other novels of the English language, assail us, challenging the grammar of our English drenched minds: “His hands steering to the sounds of
jui jui and dribbling saliva-petrol, the lorry now iss-starts.” (from Devanoora Mahadeva’s Kusumabale).

Some of the older classics in translation are read for the delights of history and their story plots such as Poniyin selvan by Kalki or the collected stories of Sarat Chandra are all infused with our culture. The familiar landscapes of Bombay, or Delhi or even rural India take us to our own pasts, our own belongingness. Increasingly since many of us don’t even know any regional language well enough, these translations do help us to enjoy the literature of our country in a meaningful way.

Here is a list of my current favourite books in translation:

  1. No Presents Please, Jayant Kaikini (A collection of short stories set in Urban India).
  2. Yellow is the Colour of Longing, K.R Meera (A collection of short stories that are women centric).
  3. Kusumabale, Devanoora Mahadeva (Novel set in rural Karnataka, it is about the feudal oppression of poor).
  4. Liberation of Sita, Volga (A retelling of the Ramayana through short stories on Sita’s experience). 
  5. Current Show, Perumal Murugan (It explores the dark underbelly of a small town , with visceral prose). 
  6. Baluta, Daya Pawar (A good example of Dalit literature, it is about the exploitation and life of The Mahar Caste).


On my to-buy for this year:

  • A Kashmiri book
  • A Marathi book
  • An Assamese book
  • An Oriya book

For Odia books suggestion see the link below:

Have you read any of the books mentioned above? Do you also love reading translations? Have you read any? What are your thoughts about it? Share your comments below!

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