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Tag Archives: Women in translation in India

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!


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


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.



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.


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.



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.


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!

Found In Translation : Stories from India

August is Women in Translation month. The campaign was started in 2014 by the translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski after she discovered the low numbers of women published in translation. Translated books only form three percent of published literature in English markets and only 30% of these works are written by women. As the month comes to an end, we have put together a compilation of some of the most compelling books we have translated. A collection of memoir, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, it offers fascinating stories from god-forsaken villages and chaos filled cities of India. Each of these books, originally published in a regional language, deserves a wider audience especially because these are stories marginalized by the mainstream. The authors— including a political prisoner in Kashmir, the wife of a communist leader in Andhra Pradesh, a domestic worker in Gurgaon, an eighth century Tamil poet and a contemporary one— are all women. Some of them spin beautiful fiction out of lived realities while for some just the honest story of their life leaves us astounded by the limits of our ignorance but all of them provide a new understanding of what it means to be not only a woman but a citizen of India.

10yr-a life less ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, translated from Hindi by Urvashi Butalia

Baby Halder had worked as a domestic help for a series of exploitative employers in Gurgaon before she landed, purely by chance, at the home of the retired academic Prabodh Kumar. With his encouragement she read the Bengali books at his home and eventually started writing her life-story. The story of a vanished mother, a murdered sister, marriage at the age of 12 and an abusive husband.  In the words of The New York Times she “recounts her story in plain language without a trace of self-pity”. Sangeeta Pisharoty writes in her review for The Hindu that during a conversation with the author she found it difficult to absorb her methodical narration of her life’s struggles. Halder’s nonchalant narration is evidence of the extent to which violence is intrinsic to the life she had growing up as a dalit woman in Durgapur, West Bengal. Nothing can highlight the importance of what the book stands for more than these direct words of Halder “Many girls back home go through a similar life and yet nobody sees it as any different”. The book became a bestseller which highlights how removed society is from the everyday realities of those who work for us. That Halder was surprised by the response the book received should not come as a surprise to us.

Prisoner No

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

The book is a passionate and moving account of the five years Anjum Habib, a young woman political activist from Kashmir, spent in jail after she was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In an interview Anjum Habib said “Being a woman and that too from Kashmir makes your life in jail a living hell.” She describes how police officials in Delhi verbally assaulted her saying “You are a separatist leader of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz; we will strip you naked, take snaps and distribute them all over India, defaming you forever.” When she entered the jail premises, she was the only Kashmiri woman; the hostility of the other jail inmates, she said, will remain etched forever in her memory. A review of the book in Kashmir Lit says “To know that it is not fiction, but an exposition of the condition of living, breathing people, makes it profoundly disturbing.” Bashrat Peer, author of Curfewed Nights, has remarked “Everyone interested in Kashmir should read it” and has called it "A brilliant critique of patriarchy in politics, a searing tale of the terrible humiliations visited upon political prisoners, a poignant story of a woman who dedicated her life to political change in Kashmir, a passionate love letter to Kashmir."


Fence by Ila Arab Mehta, translated from Gujarati by Rita Kothari

The cover of this book by the award winning Gujarati author sketches a girl on a scooty dressed in a burkha. The Indian Express review of the book remarked “The symbolic cover deserves appreciation. Seen through the burkha is only a pair of eyes— apprehensive, circumspect and moving ahead with confidence.” It symbolizes what the protagonist of the novel aims to achieve: mobility on her own terms. Fateema is a young ambitious woman who climbs over the fences of poverty and illiteracy to pursue an education and a job in the big city. Mehta was inspired to write the story when she read a piece by a Muslim woman in a Gujarati magazine on how difficult it was for her to find a house. Her protagonist dreams of buying her own house but in the deeply communalized society of Saurashtra a house can only be on either side of the fence—the Hindu or the Muslim. Fence explores the deep seated communal prejudices that work against Fateema’s arguably ordinary dreams. In the review for Indian Express, S.D Desai finds the book “Heartening, for Gujarati literature is largely unconcerned about the trauma the Muslim community suffers. Gujarati Hindu teachers supporting Fateema in her struggle bring a breath of fresh air, indeed. "

hour past midnightThe Hour Past Midnight by Salma, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom

For many years no one knew that a woman (named Rokkaiah by her in-laws) confined within the four walls of her husband’s home in the rural interiors of Tamil Nadu was the sensational author known as Salma. She wrote secretly in the toilet at night and sent manuscripts to editors through relatives. She started writing because of the anger she felt when she had to stop going outside her home once she attained puberty. Her works include poems, short stories and novels all of them depict the life of women within the conservative Tamil Muslim community. Her poems, which are known for explicit sexual imagery, have received wide critical acclaim. The novel The Hour Past Midnight is based on her childhood in a village near Tiruchi. However, it is not an autobiography but as this review puts it “It is the story of the girl child in the deep South, the story of daughters and sisters and hapless mothers and grandmothers, all caught in an inexorable web of growing up, getting married, bearing children and dying. It is the story of "woman in the set framework", her life’s purpose limited to four walls, the walls slowly rising brick by brick, inexplicably; this is not a story about breaking barriers.”

 Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated from Marathi by Veena Deo

motherwit front cover

Pawar identifies herself as a Dalit woman writer, a Buddhist and a feminist and all three identities reveal themselves powerfully in this collection of short stories. The Hindu called them “unashamed and bold stories of the travails of the Indian woman.” Her heroines are clever women from all classes of society in urban and rural Maharashtra. They brave caste oppression, defy insults and are unhesitant in opposing their in-laws while guarding their interests. “These are the women sitting next to you on the Churchgate-Virar fast local, or processing your forms in the Pune municipal offices, or checking into the maternity ward in Pimpri-Chinchwad” says the review at LiveMint remarking that “the women sparkle with agency and complexity that is a delight to read.”  Pawar’s writing is sprinkled with the characteristically coarse Marathi humour (which lends the book the titular wit). Asian Age writes about the translation “Deo meets the challenge by keeping to an earthy, conversational style”. The review at LiveMint recommends “slip her in alongside Mahashweta Devi and Ismat Chugtai and Jhumpa Lahiri and Anjum Hasan and every other writer with the skill to render the minutely personal as piercingly political.”

The Sharp Knife of Memory

The Sharp Knife of Memory by Kondapalli Koteswaramma, translated from Telugu by Sowmya V.B.

Kotasweramma has always been popularly identified as the wife of Kondapalli Sitaramaiah, founder of the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh, even though she herself was a core member of the communist movement. Inspired by the Bolsheviks, Koteswaramma took up party life early on in life. She went underground in the forties, living a secret life, running from safe house to safe house. In her own words this struggle paid dividends when her famous husband deserted her after an extramarital affair. She educated herself, got a job, raised her grandchildren, wrote poetry and prose and established herself as a thinking person in her own right. The story of her life spans a century of the independence movement and the communist insurrection in Andhra Pradesh. The stories of her struggle against the odds accompany her deep understanding of the workings of the party and the fragility of the political institution. On its first publication in India, this moving memoir took the Telugu literary world by storm.



Seventeen by Anita Agnihotri, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Anita Agnihotri travelled extensively in Orissa and Jharkhand for her work as an IAS officer. Her travels inspired her to document the lives of those who remain in the shadow of India Shining. The characters of her stories and the images they evoke seem real because she works with details to eke out their lives of poverty and injustice. She does not believe in writing from the desk; she meets people and connects with them. She spins her stories around these experiences and as a reviewer puts it, her stories are perfect illustration of how fiction can begin in fact and not be limited by it. Apart from far-flung towns and villages, her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia, documenting the lives of landless peasants, migrant workers, abandoned wives and their companions in struggle. Seventeen is a collection of some of her stories from among more than a 100 of her published works. Apart from far-flung towns and villages her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia. Translated by Arunava Sinha, the book won the 2011 Economist Crossword Book Award for Translation.


Swarnalata by Tilottama Misra, Translated from Assamese by Udayon Misra

Considered one of the finest historical novels in Assamese Swarnalata is set in 19th century Assam when the forces of tradition were being challenged by the concepts of modernity. It takes the reader into the social milieu of the times when issues like widow remarriage and women’s education held centre stage. It traces the story of three Assamese girls, each facing personal struggles which reflect the larger societal truth of the times. Swarna, the daughter of privileged, educated parents cannot escape the biases faced by other women, her friends Lakhi and Tora are respectively a child widow and a convert to Christianity with a mind of her own. These girls are surrounded by revolutionary young men eager to break bondages of tradition. Swarnalata also provides a delectable blend of history and fiction by placing real historical figures like Rabindranath Tagore side by side with fictional characters. Arunava Sinha in his review has said “In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.”

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess

 Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, translated from Tamil by Priya Sarukai Chabria, Ravi Shankar

Andal, the eighth century Tamil poet, is the only female saint among the twelve Alvar saints of South India dedicated to the worship of Vishnu. Chabria and Shankar’s elegant translation of the corpus of poetry by Andal cements her status as the Southern corollary to Mirabai. However, as this review says “Her love for Vishnu is about an unequivocal affirmation of women’s sexual agency. Unlike Mira’s Krishna, Andal’s Hari is a full-bodied masculine presence. Like Andal’s wearing of the deity’s garland doesn’t defile it, her carnal longing for his form, while rejecting mere mortal lovers, also does not sully the bhakt-bhagwaan relationship.” This book translates Andal’s Tamil poems into contemporary English idiom, reimagining them as lyric poems keeping the philosophic meanings in the background. About the translation, Sumana Roy in her review for The Scroll said ‘The brilliance of the translators is also easy to see in the way they remain invisible, in the way we meet Andal directly, without the service of middlemen” hailing the Introduction for the book as “a great handbook for future translators on the subject”.

Here are some recommended reads from other parts of the world:

13 Translated Books By Women You Should Read

A Celebratory List of non-fiction books by leading thinkers and writers

An Essay on the Gender Politics of Translation





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