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“Why not live more than one life?”

K. Satchidanandan and Githa Hariharan in Conversation with Mini Krishnan

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Image courtesy

Mini Krishnan began a newspaper column with two profound questions in the context of translations in India. She wrote, “Why not live more than one life? And through writers who lead us to the language-experiences of which we know so little?”

Mini Krishnan sources and edits fiction, plays, autobiographies and biographies from 14 Indian languages into English for Oxford University Press. She was formerly with Macmillan India where she edited the series Modern Indian Novels in Translation.

Writers K. Satchidanandan and Githa Hariharan, editors of Guftugu, spoke to Mini Krishnan about some critical questions on translations in the Indian context.

On a hierarchy of languages in translation

K. Satchidanandan: Do you believe in a hierarchy of languages when it comes to translations? For example, “vertical” translations from a “global” language, or even a “national” language into a “regional” or “local” language; or “horizontal” translations, say between two “regional” languages – say from Tamil to Malayalam, or Punjabi to Marathi? 

Mini Krishnan: I think this language hierarchy keeps shifting. At one time in our country, Bengali not only led the scene of into-English-translations but dominated it. Reasons: heads of publishing lists were Bengalis and the Bengal Renaissance, and a certain culture of literary values pushed that region into high relief. Hindi and Marathi also had their publishing strengths; but most of all, there was an academic Eng-Lit mafia from those regions (I mean this in a gentle sense!) who crowded out other languages. So yes, I recognise this hierarchy but do not believe in it. I feel great works in fiction and poetry, as well as important sociological documents like memoirs and journals, are lying about everywhere, but publishers cannot reach them, nor can the texts reach the publishers. An exception, which made me wonder about how many other such works may be “hidden” from us, was The Sharp Knife of Memory (2015) published by Zubaan. The book is a translation of Kondapalli Koteswaramma’s memoirs. (Her husband Seetharamaiah was the founder of the Maoist movement in South India.)

Then there is the hierarchy created by prizes and awards. A writer who has not been translated into English cannot even hope to be considered for a literary prize. As for horizontal translations, I don’t know enough. But shared experiences and proximity to understanding the landscape of a bordering region might make people sit up and think, “Let’s see what is happening in Tamil Nadu among educated women and the difference their lives have made,” or some such thing. A gap I have never been able to understand is why that great and sweet language Telugu has lagged so far behind the other three South Indian languages. And then there is Tulu. I have the most marvellous novella from Tulu, all translated and edited, but I simply cannot get that horse out of its box. Likewise Oriya — why hasn’t anyone other than Manoj Das and Gopinath Mohanty got the kind of attention that the language and region should be getting?


Vanman jacket.inddImage courtesy Oxford University Press


Githa Hariharan: The question seems to be: How do we, as a first step, balance translation into English as a sort of overall “link language” with translations to and from the other Indian languages? Then, as a second step, how do we foreground the latter, the horizontal exercise, as the natural expression of our multi-lingual literary culture? Can this ever happen? Would shedding a neo-orientalist view of translation help? Would tweaking the education system to use translations from one Indian language to another, and not English, make a difference?

Mini Krishnan: First — if the primary education system was more supportive of our languages and culture, it would certainly strengthen translations and translation study. But there is a traditional mistrust of translation as a hybrid genre not worth studying. In fact, this section of education isn’t paying attention to any language — not even English which may be the medium of study. The “sponge” time of a child’s years are spent memorising and attempting to understand subjects for which his or her vocabulary is not yet developed. Coming to the second part of your question — a translation into English always pushes the same work into other languages. Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi in English (OUP) fired its movement into Malayalam and Tamil. The same thing happened with Sarah Joseph’s books, and Bama has probably moved into more languages than any other woman writer. It all came from English as the decoding language. The difficulty is that the author has no way of checking the quality in the regional language into which her book moves, whereas there are always three of four persons she can depend on to give her an accurate assessment of the English translation. Perhaps if there was more coordination between academia, the regional language publishers and the English press, this machinery would be better oiled. To come back to translation in education — some women’s colleges have taken bold decisions. The Ethiraj College (Chennai) prescribed Chellappa’s Vaadivasal translated from Tamil by Kalyan Raman (OUP) for their Foundation English course; Stella Maris, also in Chennai, has gone a step further and prescribed Na D’Souza’s Dweepa translated from Kannada (OUP) for their Foundation English course. I think it is the first time a translated work from a language other than that of the region has been prescribed for the whole college. Two years ago the Thiruvalluvar University adopted a textbook outlining the basics in translation for undergraduate students.

With reference to “horizontal” translations:

Read an extract from Koogai in Tamil and in Malayalam.


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 Image courtesy Zubaan Books


On the ideal reader for translations

K. Satchidanandan: Who is the ideal reader you have in mind when you edit translations from an Indian language into English: an Indian reader who does not follow the original language, or a Western reader who does not even know the culture and ethos behind that language? How do you find a means — if there is one — by which both these kinds of readers can be satisfied? 

Mini Krishnan: My ideal reader is a committed and emotional person who is willing to take a flight from her armchair. My primary target reader is the Indian language orphan who can speak, maybe even function well, in the language and culture, but cannot read her language. It is worthwhile getting a headache and damaging my eyes for that reader. I also always, always hope that I will catch the eye of the researcher and academic reader who might take that text into an Indian classroom. The non-Indian reader is welcome to the feast but I’m not going to reduce the chili for him!

Githa Hariharan: I am struck by your phrase “the Indian language orphan”. Can we extend this to include not just those who are no longer bilingual, but also those who have to go to English to read texts in a language they do not know rather than reading it in the Indian language they know?

I also have a question about the chili. How do you translate, for example, colourful swearing into English? I remember my disappointment when I read two translations of one of Mahasweta’s stories — there was an old woman in the village who could curse seven generations of a bullying policeman. In English, the more faithful one sounded both quaint and ridiculous; the better translation used “Fuck” all over the place but lost out on the old woman’s imaginative variety. 

Mini Krishnan: Swearing is abusive as well as exaggerated — go sleep with a donkey, may your food turn to menstrual blood etc. And oh, English is quite muscular in that department and can handle a lot of swearing. When the special ethos of a place comes up, such as the bad luck associated with rites gone wrong, or what’s considered a bad omen, then you have a problem. “May you wake to the hoot of an owl!” has a special significance which the non-Indian is unlikely to know. Not just swearing: think of a phrase like “ghee in a frog’s belly”. Now ghee is a precious commodity in India. Someone who grew up in the West may not grasp that straightaway. I admit that it would be tedious to have to explain that.


On footnoting in translations

K. Satchidanandan: Does footnoting really help in such situations? How much can we footnote after all? I am asking this question keeping in mind two facts: one, there is an increasing tendency to avoid/ reduce the number of footnotes. Two, with the Internet, a lot of information can be accessed by the responsible reader, making such notes superfluous. 

Mini Krishnan: In this regard I’m very cautious and traditional. Never mind what the worldwide trend is. But if you are using up resources and printing x number of copies of a translation, and the author and translator are hoping to see their child run, you shouldn’t cripple that child, tie its hands and say, now let’s see you run. If words like irrikapindam or shaligramam appear, you darn well tell your reader what they are. How can we destroy the pleasure and flow of reading by expecting a reader to break off and check the net for information which may not even be right or complete? Let us gloss or die. I think it is both laziness and arrogance to leave words tucked so deeply into a text that one cannot extract their meaning as one reads. Who is important in the exercise of reading? Is it not the reader? So when there are so many other distractions competing for attention, you have to make the road comfortable, not strew it with stones.

Githa Hariharan: Ah, I can see we are in dangerous waters now. Even those of us who write in English but happen to be Indian, fought for the right to not have a glossary. There are ways in which the meaning can be embedded in the text, not just for foreigners, but other Indians. I really hate footnotes in a work of fiction. I suppose you could have some Notes at the end, but only if it is unavoidable. Maybe an Introduction or Afterword if it is really important? After all, we read so much from elsewhere and sort of figure out new words and cultural practices in context. Why should we continue to museumise our work?

Mini Krishnan: Well, everything is important if you want the whole picture. Indians who write in English are safe because you can translate your ethos with delicate explanations as you go along. Food for instance. The preparation of, say, idiyappam, or the way a paan is assembled, can provide a nice cultural filler if you are arranging the setting for a scene in a novel in English. So also wedding or puja rites. You can, magus-like, construct the setting before turning to your characters. Just describing the door of an old house or the scent of those hanging thattis, or the way books stored in a wooden cupboard through many monsoons smell, would be so evocative for an Indian writing in English. Let me give you an example of the difficulty when the opposite is the case. In U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura, when Jagannatha decides to rebel openly, he enters the puja room to grab the shaligrama from its casket: “The priest was horrified to see the way the master had polluted the room the way he had entered it.” What was that pollution? He hadn’t taken off his shirt. Now not even every Indian knows that it is disrespectful for a man to keep his shirt on in a temple. If URA were an Indian writing in English he would have slipped in something about pollution and purity rules, but since he was writing in Kannada he didn’t have to inform his readers.

What’s so irritating about glosses? I think it would be more irritating to have to dig about and guess. To readers who have never visited India or read anything connected with the country, except perhaps a menu in an Indian restaurant, or a novel in English set in New Delhi (which has already translated itself), an Indian language translation certainly has linguistic tics folded into it. To add to the reader’s difficulties, sometimes explanations are wrong or only partially right, or they blithely presume that another Indian word would make this one fly. What’s the use of explaining pottu as bindi? In a recent translation of a novel set in Varanasi, the footnotes are, at best, lazy. A deva is a celestial being, not a god, and a yogini is a powerful female spirit, not necessarily a goddess. She could be part of Durga Devi’s retinue, but she could also be a witch. Tricky, right? The book which carries these blurred meanings also includes a footnote describing puja as a religious ritual, when the more accurate explanation could be a ritual of worship. In a translation of a Ki Rajanarayanan novel that reads beautifully (to me, because I don’t need the region-specific explanations), words like brahmastram, kadukkan, Ezhumalaiyaane and udan kaadu are left unexplained.


On translating specificities of dialect 

K. Satchidanandan: How do we translate dialects and slang and community inflections, kinship terms, the names of flora and fauna, tones and modulations that abound in Indian fiction and now also in poetry, especially with the rise of Dalit and Nativist kinds of poetry? 

Mini Krishnan: We can’t. These words come from the land, which cannot be replicated efficiently, so all the more reason to run glosses and perhaps even illustrations as I did in Antharjanam (2012), Devaki Nilayamgode’s memoirs of a time long gone, or C.K. Janu’s Mother Forest (Women Unlimited, 2003). A project I’ve toted for about 15 years without success is a retelling of our classics in the form of supplementary readers for children, supported by artwork/ sketches done by regional artists. These could be used as non-detailed readers in English language classrooms in India.

Githa Hariharan: I see your point entirely, but I am also a little nervous of the ethnographic project or even the didactic project overshadowing the literary one.

Mini Krishnan: I hate to agree with you even partially, but let me quickly turn this around and say that the voice is what locates the literary work, isn’t it? Why is Basheer’s Kerala more convincing than Arundhati Roy’s? I feel that this voice has to be served and serious readers would want to know everything. Entering another culture should be done with respect.


DweepaImage courtesy Oxford University Press


On the politics of translation

K. Satchidanandan: Is there a politics to the editing of translations as there surely is for translation per se — reflected in the selection of texts as well as the contexts and modes of translation?  

Mini Krishnan: Like everyone else, I too am carrying baggage, so I tend to keep close to the shore of a certain standard English that developed in India over the 1950s and 60s, which is when I studied the language. But having worked on many translations, I know that at least 20% of the words covering the material aspects of our culture have no equivalents at all, so my key to that door is just a footnote or a gloss. After all, do we know what jollof rice is in texts that come to us from Nigeria? No. But give me a description and I would be happy to look at jollof rice through that lens. But I have some other concerns. One is the unthinking use of Latinisms. Even very experienced translators tend to use “assuage” instead of “satisfy” without checking whether the speaker or the context can take the weight of “assuage”. No uneducated or partially educated person would use that word in real life. So that is an erasure I apply quite regularly. I also look carefully for bombast because Indians tend to be melodramatic and introduce rhetoric where none existed in the original! We like fine-sounding words, don’t we? I understand the instinct but it would be wrong to let it go. Then there is structure, where I meddle quite a lot. For example, I would move the translator’s “Dipu di was hurt” and “Apala was embarrassed” to the end of the sentences about them, with the advice that the translator should avoid, as far as possible, add-ons like “he said” and “she answered”:

Dipu di was hurt — “Apu, are you leaving?” Dipu di was hurt.
Apala was embarrassed — “I have to Dipu di, you know how it is, don’t you?” Apala was embarrassed.

I keep reading translations into English from languages other than ours to see how they achieve their rhythms. I equip myself before I start the day’s work. Then I put down that book and read a contemporary work published in the UK. Then I read something published 50 years ago. Then I read a page or two of Macaulay, then Nehru’s Glimpses of World History, switching from simple to literary, to a non-native speaker’s use of the language in letters to a young girl. Call it a sort of tuning! I discourage the use of other foreign words and terms (usually French) and encourage the translator to stay with formal language in the narration and experiment but to take risks when it comes to dialogue. I often think of what Frances Pritchett once said: “I want to give the reader an agreeable double experience.”

Here are some variants Devika and I worked on a few years ago, when she was translating Sarah Joseph:

“Please look at a revision of the opening sentence. I want to keep the sense of your ‘bizarre’ but a wolf’s howl is never that. It is haunting, it is eerie…”

— Along with the howl of the lone wolf, a terrible gale rose up in the desert and came tearing out.

— Accompanied by the howl of a lone wolf a terrible storm roared out of the desert.

— A terrible storm roared out of the desert accompanied by the eerie howl of a lone wolf.

— Accompanied by the eerie howl of a lone wolf came a terrible storm.


Githa Hariharan: Yes, this is where I too feel it’s worthwhile to be traditional, and not make the English translation so literal that it again museumises, and intrudes into the pleasure of the reading experience. But I think Satchidanandan’s question needs more by way of response. Why do you pick this text and not the other? An accident? The theme? The author? It’s important to address this, particularly in the context of translation into English. In our power structure, this would mean taking the chosen text into a wider world, not just of readership, but also “representation”. And, as you have said yourself, into a world of wider recognition and rewards.

Mini Krishnan: It is impossible to stay in touch with everyone everywhere! Some books suggest themselves. Quite often friends, translators, academics, or even publishers from the regional languages send word, or write, or call to discuss an important work. Sometimes when I read interviews with authors, a book catches my attention. Though the best and the latest are usually sought out by publishers, I also look out for someone who has not got his or her due. One such writer was Johny Miranda, the first Paranki novelist who wrote a sort of Creole Malayalam. His community (Portuguese descendants in Kerala) is a minority within the Christian minority. One of my ambitions has been to record through translation a way of life that has either faded completely or is on its way out — both in rural and semi-urban India. Hence my interest in memoirs and autobiographies as well as fiction. We need these records of our social history and the struggle pre-modern societies went through to reach where they have. A large section of India is still in near-medieval conditions and we must not forget that. I always feel amused when there are discussions about “working women” as if it were something recent. Perhaps it is, for the moneyed classes? Women from the poorer classes of India have always worked. They have not had a choice. That too is in the many stories that lie untranslated. The unique Indian Muslim experience is something I would like to do justice to. It’s very difficult to find the right translators.