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Indian Women in Translation: Books from India's National Languages

August is the Women in Translation month and we decided to celebrate it by highlighting some of the novels, short stories and memoirs recently translated from Indian languages to English. Launched in 2014, #WITMonth was a response to the lesser attention received by works by women in translation. Even in 2016, the statistics continued to be dismal. As reported by The Guardian, only 26% of English translations are female-authored books.

In India, more and more translations of fiction from Indian languages are being published in English, and unlike earlier, when the classics got all the attention, contemporary fiction is being sought out actively. We at Zubaan are committed publishers of translations, and looking around we found other great titles translated into English since 2010 in India. Often dealing with stories marginalized by the mainstream, these novels deserve a wider audience. These range from themes like life in a Madiga quarter, middle-aged desire to novels set in 19th century Assam, an imaginary village in the first decades of the twentieth century. We attempted to find titles across regional languages, and our selection of twenty translated books covers eleven languages. Our list is hardly exhaustive and we would love to know your suggestions - better yet, simply add them to this database of female authored novels translated into English that we stumbled upon!

Assamese

a11. The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar by Indira Goswami translated by Aruni Kashyap (Zubaan, 2013)

Thengphakhri Tehsildaror Tamor Taruwal was the last work of fiction by Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith Award winner Indira Goswami. Set in the late 19th century Assam, the novel is the heroic tale of a Bodo freedom fighter who was, arguably, the first woman revenue collector in British India. In 2007, Goswami visited Bijni where Thengphakhri had apparently lived until her death in late 1800s. She moored the novel on historical research but also had to rely on memory and orality. Published by Zubaan, this novel is translated from Assamese by Aruni Kashyap.

Bengali

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2. Defying Winter by Nabaneeta Dev Sen translated by Tutun Mukherjee (OUP, 2013)

Part of a translated novella series launched by Oxford University Press, Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok was translated by Tutun Mukherjee and published as Defying Winter. In the author’s note, Nabaneeta Dev Sen has laid bare the dynamics of creating her central character, Aparajita, a 70-year-old woman, in 1988 when she was still a young woman. Set in an old age home, the novella brings out the dark realities of contemporary family life which routinely brings cruelty to the elderly.

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3. Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi translated by Prasenjit Gupta (Hachette, 2015)

This collection of short stories published by Hachette India, brought together twenty-one stories carefully chosen from Debi’s extensive body of work. These range from a young girl returning to the scene of a harrowing childhood to a woman attending a wedding reception at her estranged in laws’. The translator Prasenjit Gupta identifies ‘Neejer Jonno Shok’ ('Grieving for Oneself'), a story about a middle-aged man waking up terrified that he is paralyzed as his favourite from the collection. Though written decades ago, her stories embedded within narrow domestic walls continue to hold relevance.

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4. The Fifth Man by Bani Basu translated by Arunava Sinha (Random House India, 2014)

Bani Basu’s novels have dealt with gender, history, mythology, society, sexual orientation and more. The Fifth Man sees the protagonist Neelam post her hysterectomy which hastens her into a sexless middle age and changes her relationship with her husband Ari. A bittersweet meditation on middle-age desire, the novel also ties together themes of motherhood, limitation and liberation through Neelam and other women character’s in the novel. The novel is translated by Arunava Sinha who has translated over twenty novels and has won the Crossword Translation Award twice.

Gujarati

e5. Fence by Ila Arab Mehta translated by Rita Kothari (Zubaan, 2011)

Mehta’s young protagonist Fateema Lokhandwala dreams of owning her own house, pursuing a higher education and accessing better jobs while her brother Kareem joins the jihad to become a holy warrior. The novel sees Fateema struggle to find her way amidst communal violence and conflicting loyalties. She goes on to break many ‘fences’, by finding a job in the big city. This review in the The Indian Express appreciates how Kothari successfully translated the colloquial flavour of the original in the English translation published by Zubaan.

Hindi

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6. Apradhini by Shivani translated by Ira Pande (Harper Perennial, 2011)

‘Shivani’ was the pseudonym of the writer Gaura Pant whose best works include the novels Chaudah Phere, Krishnakali, Smashan Champa, Rati Vilap and Vishkanya.  Apradhini is a collection of life-stories of ordinary women with extraordinary pasts, we read of women whose lives have been changed because of men, women who now survive on the fringes of society – or outside it. The author also gives her own verdict for each story, for the reader to think why one crime could be greater or lesser than the other. These stories have been translated into English by her daughter, Ira Pande.

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7. Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti translated by Neer Kanwal Mani and Moyna Mazumdar (Harper Perennial, 2016)

 In 2016, Harper Perennial published the English translation of the novel Zindaginama that won Krishna Sobti the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980.  Set in the first decade of the 20th century in the small village of Shahpur, the novel captures the story of India through this village where people of both faiths coexisted peacefully living off the land. The personal histories of a wide set of characters are told largely through dialogue. Though the translation has met with criticism especially on its failure to capture the different registers of language, it does give non Hindi readers a chance to experience the classic.

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8. The Roof Beneath Their Feet by Geetanjali Shree translated by Rahul Soni (Harper Perennial, 2013)

Another translation offered by Harper Perennial, the story follows the friendship of Chachcho and Lalna. Chachcho lives with her frigid husband in a cluster of a hundred or more more houses that share a common roof and Lalna is the woman she takes in after Lalna’s husband leaves her. After the death of Chachcho, her nephew tries to piece together his memories of the two women to uncover the relationship between the two women that made so many people uncomfortable. The novel explores the individual’s sense of self—according to their personal perceptions rather than the roles they are expected to play in family and society.

 Malayalam

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9. The Gospel of Yudas by KR Meera translated by Rajesh Rajamohan (Penguin Random House India, 2016)

K.R. Meera’s novel steps into the landscape of Naxalite incursions in Southern India. The novella told is told through the protagonist Prema, who is infatuated by Yudas, an ex-Naxalite who now dredges corpses from the bottom of a nearby lake. She wishes to escape from her father’s tyranny, a former policeman who tortured Naxalite rebels including Yudas during the emergency. Themes of obsession and political ideology rendered in lyrical prose leaves us with a powerful novella by the author of Hangwoman.

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10. Agnisakhi by Lalithambika Antharjanam translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan (OUP, 2015)

An active participant in the social reform movements of Kerala in the early 1920s, Lalithambika sets her novel against the history of Kerala, customs and the culture of the Namboodiri community alongside the Indian National Freedom struggle. Interestingly, Sankaranarayanan had translated the same work in English for the Kerala Sahitya Akademi in 1980. Oxford University Press wanted her to retranslate the novel as they felt that both the author and the novel deserved a more careful rendering with proper contextualisation and closer attention to the different registers of language seen in the book.

Manipuri

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11. The Maharaja’s Household by Binodini translated by L. Somi Roy (Zubaan, 2014)

Published by Zubaan in 2014, this part memoir, part oral testimony, part eyewitness account of life in the erstwhile royal household of Manipur is brought to English readers through the translation by her son L. Somi Roy. It is an important addition to the untold histories of the British Raj. They were first published as a series of essays by Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi between 2002 and 2007, told from a woman’s point of view and informed by a deep empathy for the common people outside her father’s gilded circle.

Marathi

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12. Motherwit by Urmila Pawar translated by Veena Deo (Zubaan, 2013)

A Dalit, a Buddhist and a feminist: Urmila Pawar's self-definition as all three identities informs her stories about women who are brave in the face of caste oppression, strong in the face of family pressures, defiant when at the receiving end of insult, and determined when guarding their interests and those of their sisters. This collection translated into English by Veena Deo and published by Zubaan contain fourteen stories on the travails of the Indian women. The Hindu observes that the title Motherwit is apt as these stories are rooted in common sense, exude a quiet practicality and are replete with strong mother figures.

m113. I Want to Destroy Myself by Malika Amar Shaikh translated by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger, 2016)

Shaikh’s autobiography is an unvarnished story of a marriage and of a woman and a writer seeking her space in a man’s world. Shaikh’s marriage with Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers and celebrated poet soon crumbled with Dhasal being an absent husband and father, given to drink, womanizing and violence.  I Want to Destroy Myself is not only a searing account of her life with Dhasal but it is also a portrait of the Bombay of poets, activists, prostitutes and fighters. It is now accessible to English readers through the translation by Jerry Pinto published by Speaking Tiger in 2016.

Odia

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14. Intimate Pretence by Paramita Satpathy (Rupa & Co, 2010)

Published by Rupa & Co, and translated into English by the author herself and few others, Intimate Pretence is a collection of fourteen short stories strongly rooted in the Odia landscape. These stories address the recurring problems of the booming middle-class of Orissa and the plight of the modern woman. A recurring theme is hunger and what it can do to you and two separate stories tell stories of hunger that are representative of the hunger that exists in our society today.

Tamil

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15. The Taming of Women by P. Sivakami translated by Pritham Chakravarthy (Penguin India, 2012)

P. Sivakami is a Tamil Dalit writer who served as an IAS officer from 1980 to 2008. She has written novels around Dalit and feminist themes. Published by Penguin India, The Taming of Women discusses Periyannan and his wife Anandhayi with the opening chapter introducing the readers to Anandhayi giving birth while her husband has another woman with him upstairs, brought to him by the midwife. The abrasive novel, is a realistic portrayal of life in a village on the way to developing into a town. The Hindu observes that the strength of this translation is its translator’s total empathy and rapport with the original, with its theme.

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16. A Night with a Black Spider by Ambai translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Speaking Tiger, 2016)

C.S Lakshmi who writes under the pseudonym Ambai has spent over twenty five years archiving women’s lives and stories as the founder of Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW). Her stories have been widely translated into English. A Night with a Black Spider is a recently translated collection of short stories by Speaking Tiger. As in most of her writing, women are central to Ambai’s stories, but so too is her deep understanding of, as she puts it, ‘the pulls and tensions’ between the many different things that make up life and ultimately, create a story.

Telugu

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17. Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But…  by Gogu Shyamala (Navayana, 2012)

Set in the Madiga quarter of a Telangana village, the stories spotlight different settings, events and experiences, and offer new propositions on how to see, think and be touched by life in that world. This collection published by Navayana and translated from Telugu by several people, including her colleagues, have something of the autobiographical about them as the author herself grew up in the Madiga quarter of a Telangana village of the sort described in these stories. A book review by DNA appreciates the oral quality to most of the stories with the colloquialisms, slang and song all well written.

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18. The Liberation of Sita by Volga translated by T. Vijay Kumar and Vijayasree C. (Harper Perennial, 2016)

In Volga’s retelling of the Ramanaya, it is Sita who, after being abandoned by Purushottam Rama, embarks on an arduous journey to self-realization. Along the way, she meets extraordinary women who have broken free from all that held them back: husbands, sons, and their notions of desire, beauty and chastity. The minor women characters of the epic as we know it – Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya – steer Sita towards an unexpected resolution. Volga’s story tells of a very different Sita from Rama’s Sita – or does it? This was probably Sita all along.

Urdu

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19. A Life in Words by Ismat Chugtai translated by M Asaduddin (Penguin India, 2013)

Ismat’s writings are increasingly being recognised in the academia for their ethnographic representation of Muslim women and their complex social reality in twentieth century India. Published by Penguin, A Life in Words, the first complete translation of her memoir Kaghazi hai Pairahan, provides a delightful account of several crucial years of her life. Alongside vivid descriptions of her childhood years are the conflicted experiences of growing up in a large upper class Muslim family during the early decades of the twentieth century. She is searingly honest about her fight to get an education and the struggle to find her own voice as a writer.

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20. Prisoner No. 100: An Account of my Days and Nights in an Indian Prison by Anjum Habib, translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain (Zubaan, 2014)

Prisoner No. 100 is an account of Anjum Zamarud Habib, a young woman political activist from Kashmir who was arrested in Delhi and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In the book published by Zubaan, she describes the shock and bewilderment of arrest, the pain of realizing that there is no escape, the desperation for contact with the outside world and the sense of deep betrayal at being abandoned by her political comrades. Her story is both a searing indictment of draconian state policies and expedient political practices, and a moving account of one woman's extraordinary life.

We would also like to mention some of #WIT book recommendations that we received! @merakipost suggested Human Acts by Han King, @ShubhanganiJain recommended Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, Me Hijra Me Laxmi by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri!

Happy Reading!

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