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Recap: Champaca Book Subscription Year One – Translations

general Nirica

It’s August, which means it is Women In Translation month! Started in 2014, by Meytal Radzinski, the Women In Translation movement highlights and celebrates written work by women in languages other than English. 

Statistically, works published in translation to English are a fraction of all published works in English (a University of Rochester endeavour suggests that in the United States, they form only three percent of published books). Within the larger scheme of publishing, male writers get published, submitted for prizes, marketed, and read more than women writers. The intersection – the woman writer who writes in a language outside of English – where do we find that?

The hurdles to being published and read are many. A large part of the popular literary history of our subcontinent is upper-caste, male voices – which means stories by women, Dalits, Adivasis, the LGBT+ community, have historically been sidelined. There are languages (like Konkani, or Odia) where only a small percentage of literature gets translated into English – and regions (like the Northeast, in which each state has a distinct culture and history) that are often barely even discussed in history classes or news media. It’s also worth noting that there is a history of translations, not into English, but into one of the other very widely read and spoken languages of our country (according to the 2011 census, English is spoken by around 10% of the population) – meaning that translations into English are by no means the only measure of readability and accessibility of these stories. 

Different stories find a home in different languages and cultures, and translations are conduits that offer us glimpses into different ways of living. For those of us who live between one or two languages – in a country of over twenty, and a world of thousands – translations open up new worlds. Diverse lived experiences in India are found not only in English but also within the textures of regional languages. In reading women in translation, we step into a world that is further hidden, thanks to a male-dominated literary culture. And think of how many stories we have not heard, because they are not yet translated into a language we understand. 

In 2020, we launched our Champaca Book Subscription in the theme of Translations, aiming to read translations from India and from across the world. Twelve months is hardly enough to scratch even the surface of the multitudes of experiences that are available to us in translation, but in our curation we tried to select books that were accessible, unexpected, and unforgettable. One of our most important criteria for choosing was the idea of translations as a way of opening up new worlds to us as readers.

Read on for our recommendations. Click here to see all the books, and boxes, we sent out in the Translations theme (and remember, you can sign up for year three here to join us in discovering exciting stories).   

Click here to find the translations on our shelves (Indian and international), and click here for translations of books written by, and translated by, women authors.

*Books with a (W) next to it are titles that have been written by women, and the symbol (W#) refers to books that have been written by and translated by women. 

July ’20: New Mythologies (W#)

Chandrabati’s Ramayan, translated from Bengali by Nabaneeta Deb Sen

In our first-ever Champaca Book Subscription box, we read Chandrabati’s Ramayan, translated by Nabaneeta Dev Sen and published by Zubaan. This is a 16th-century retelling of the great epic of Ramayana entirely from Sita’s perspective, and told to us in the voice of Chandrabati, widely considered to be the first published woman poet in Bangla.We’re invited to see events unfold from her perspective and in her voice, a remarkable feat for the Ramayana.  

Our companion text for the month was Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves, in which she examines Rama’s motivations for his cruelty to Sita, offering us a critical, literary engagement with Rama of the Ramayana. 

We picked these books to encourage us to remember and revel in the fact there is no single retelling of these epics, and no singular mythology. That the oral tradition of the multitude can continue in print and that we are richer and more nourished than ever, knowing that folk mythology has a thousand different versions in different languages.  

August ’20: Reflections on Time
Cox by Christoph Ransmayr, translated from German by Simon Pare

In Cox, a multitude of cultures meet. The story itself revolves around an English watchmaker, Alister Cox, and his meeting with the emperor of China, Qiánlóng. Written by an Austrian author about the meeting of British maritime trade and pre-revolutionary China, brought into English by a British translator, and put together by an Indian publisher – Cox gives us many crossings from one culture into the next. A unique work of speculative history, it also dwells on fascinating philosophical questions about grief, art, and the passage of time.

September ’20: Perspectives & Voices
Preeto, an anthology translated from Urdu, edited and compiled by Rakhshanda Jalil

How are women understood and written about by men? In many ways, as is shown in Rakhshanda Jalil’s Preeto and Other Stories. This anthology collects stories by male Urdu writers across decades, aiming to examine and deconstruct the ‘male gaze’. There is a shifting lens through which the male writers portray these women — sometimes idealising them and their suffering, sometimes remaining unsympathetic. In a way, the stories serve as time capsules, a way to see the prevailing attitudes of the time they were written, as well as the individual quirks of each writer.

Our companion read for the month was  The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia, a groundbreaking book containing the oral narratives of ordinary people. Butalia gives a voice to people often at the margins of history—women, children, and people of different castes. These true accounts of the Partition, in their own voices, complement the stories told through men’s voices in Preeto.

October ’20: A Trip to Japan (W)
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Japanese literature is recently finding its place in the global spotlight. Stephen Snyder, the translator,  has written of what he calls the ‘The Murakami Effect’ of translations: that translations are necessary for bringing cultures across borders, but that they are as much cultural artefacts as literary goods driven by the economy of the publishing industry. Literary economies determine what is translatable, who is translated, and who does the translation. Sometimes stories are so steeped in their cultural contexts that it makes it a challenge to translate and understand them. As a result, in a competitive industry, fiction that is more “global” takes the lead.

Our October read, translated by Stephen Snyder, was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. As readers of Japanese literature in translation, we found this a fascinating read. It revolves around a brilliant professor of mathematics, who, after an accident, can remember only the last 80 minutes of his life, and his friendship with his quietly caring housekeeper. 

We also read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa, a collection of Zen Buddhist sketches in haibun style of verse-prose, from another time in Japan. We merely dipped our toes into the vastness of Japanese literature, reading two works in translation from very different times – both sharing quiet observations of the passing of time, and the beauty of nature – whether in numbers or words. 

November ’20: Tales from Malayalam
The Cock is the Culprit by Unni R., translated from Malayalam by J Devika

The Cock is the Culprit is about the realities of living in close-knit village communities where living and dreaming merge, and straying from the muddy roads of the place where you live is not easily forgiven. The narration is tight, and the political satire is biting. Alongside this, we read Chorashastra by V J James, translated from Malayalam by Morley J Nair. In these two novels coming to us from Kerala, we encountered humour, political satire, and serious questions of contemporary Indian society. Both writers have a rich history of writing in Malayalam, and their works are introduced to English-language readers in these books.

December ’20: Technologies (W#)
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

A speculative novel set in a future that feels quite close to our present, Little Eyes imagines a world full of small, furry toys called “kentukis”. In the forms of crows, dragons, rabbits, and outfitted with a webcam and wheels, customers can choose to become a kentuki “dweller” or a “keeper”. To be a dweller is to control its movements and see through its eyes through your laptop screen. To be a keeper is to allow a kentuki into your home, allowing a stranger to have access to your world. The dweller cannot talk, and the keeper cannot hear the dweller. Each kentuki connects these anonymous dwellers and keepers to one another, across the world.

This layered, tense and entirely inventive novel depicts our hyper-connected world, and examines how technology can help, but also harm connection. We also find reflections on surveillance, global connection, a profound failure of communication, and the question of where the real danger lies: in the technology that enables these situations, or in our own expectations, fears, and prejudices that we bring with us to our screens. We read Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino along with this, a stunning collection of essays that examines what it means to be ‘online’ in our twenty-first century world.

January ’21: Caste Narratives (W#)
Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated from Marathi by Veena Deo

In Indian literature and history, upper-caste and male voices have dominated the stories we read and hear for centuries. In the gentle short stories of Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, we are given an intimate view into the landscapes of Dalit lives. The stories are about women of different ages and from different times and locations, and their negotiations of caste and patriarchy. In reading this collection, we are encouraged to explore and question caste and Indian modernity. In its introduction, the translator also reflects on her own caste location, an important engagement with the politics of caste writing and translation. 

We also read Savitribai Phule and I  by Sangeetha Mulay, a book published by Panther’s Paw Publication – an independent, Nagpur-based publisher of Dalit-Bahujan voices in English. In it, a young Dalit girl, Shabari, reads Savitribai Phule’s diary, and is inspired to take new directions, guided by the political awakening she finds in Savitribai. 

February ’21: Magic Realism in Iran (W)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated from Persian by an anonymous translator 

“People think magic realism is all about your imagination—it's not true. There are many historical facts and research behind my book and my story.” Shokoofeh Azar said about her novel The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, an evocative story set in Iran in the time after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. 

History and folklore weave in and out of the novel, as we encounter jinns, ghosts, horrors, and miracles. There are few books of modern Iranian literature that critique the Ayatollah this freely, and Shookofeh Azar had to pay the price and flee Tehran to find refuge in Australia in 2011. The fact that this book’s translator has chosen to remain anonymous makes us pause to think about the power of the written word, and the terrors of living under dictators. For us, this was a strong reminder of the power of stories, and the power of translation as a political act.

March ’21: Stories in Kannada (W#)
Singarevva and the Palace by Chandrashekar Kambar, translated from Kannada by Laxmi Chandrasekhar | Carvalho by KP Purnachandra Tejaswi, translated by DA Shankar | An Afternoon with Shakuntala and Other Stories by Vaidehi, translated by Sukanya Kanarally

In March, we read a little of the rich literary history of Karnataka, with three titles in translation from Kannada. In Singarevva and the Palace, we read of the love story between an upper caste woman and a Dalit man; in Carvalho, we follow a motley crew in search of a flying lizard; and in An Afternoon With Shakuntala we read eighteen stories that reflect on relationships, freedom, and the meaning of home. These three texts come to us from writers of different regions of Karnataka, and also in translations of different effectiveness. A translation carries a heavy burden – to translate a language, with all its cultural weight, its gender, class, and caste signifiers, and signifiers of dialect, is no easy task. 

Translators do not always have the necessary resources they need to sharpen dazzling original texts into equally dazzling translations. This made us think about translation as an enterprise itself: who gets translated, how ‘well’, and how far translations reach. How does this contribute to the way we experience a language and its literature? How can we read translations of varied qualities with an open, enquiring mind, to try and explore the subtleties of linguistic diversity? 

April ’21: A Glimpse of Africa (W#)
Season of the Shadow by Léonora Miano, translated from French by Gila Walker

We glimpsed a small part of an enormous history in April, travelling to Cameroon and Uganda. In Season of the Shadow, written by Léonora Miano, translated to English from French by Gila Walker, we read of how the lives of a small community are indelibly altered by early intrusions of the transatlantic slave trade into sub-Saharan Africa. Inspired by a UNESCO report about the oral heritage of the memory of transatlantic slave trade in sub-Saharan Africa, and backed up by deep research, we see a way of life destroyed by the trade and displacement of African people driven by capitalist greed. The words, like the story, force us to confront an unfamiliar worldview, and lull us into deep empathy. Though set in a time centuries past, this book is a reminder that imperial-colonial conquests continue unabated even today, people are still displaced from their homes, and live through unimaginable violence. 

We also read The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, which is set in a small village in rural Uganda in 1975, the middle of Idi Amin’s dictatorship. The story tells us about Kirabo, a much loved child raised by her paternal grandparents. The book sweeps us into her life as she uncovers her identity. 

June ’21: Stories from the Northeast (W#)
The Loneliness of Hira Barua by Arupa Patangia Kalita, translated from Assamese by Ranjita Biswas

The fifteen short stories in The Loneliness of Hira Barua explore the lives of women during years of agitation in Assam, where decades-long conflicts from the 1970s to today rage between separatist groups and the state government. The stories are of ordinary days and ordinary people brought alive with vivid details. But this is an ordinary life in the midst of unavoidable terror, the threat of which skirts on the edges of each story. We read of the minutiae of everyday life: women make tilpatha and hilsa fish; families carefully tend to torn curtains; an old man plants rows of palm trees at the edge of a pond. With such details, the book focuses on the experience of people living in the midst of strife and violence resulting from political conflict.

Our companion novel was Son of a Thundercloud by Easterine Kire, a magical fable drawing from Naga legends and blended with Christian myth. Easterine Kire’s Sky Is My Father, published in 2003, was the first ever novel by a Naga writer in English. 

These books bring alive lived experiences from Assam and Nagaland. They are important stories of everyday lives, mythologies, and conflicts that remain outside the mainstream. 

June ’21: Poetry for the Soul
Selected Ghazals and Other Poems by Mir Taqi Mir, translated from Urdu by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

This is a selection of Mir’s poetry from six divans (or collections) that were published in his lifetime. Mir dwells on a thousand shades of lust, desire and love, offering us thinly sliced layers of heartbreak, loss, honour and other personal and social emotions. They capture the intensity of moments and involvement in love through striking metaphors. The translator Shamsur Faruqi in a sharp and succinct introduction tells us about Mir’s poetry, his context, and preoccupations. He explains his approach in translating Mir, and the challenges of rendering the layers of meaning which are typical of Mir’s word play – the fascinating effort of translating poetry to another language. The poems in the original Urdu Nastaliq script are printed in parallel to the translations, offering a comparison for bilingual readers and allowing an aesthetic appreciation of the script. 

Our companion text was Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, a collection of Bengali nonsense poetry, beloved and appreciated by adults and children alike, especially in Bengal. The edition we selected is the first translation of Abol Tabol by Sukumar’s son, the renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray, published by Kolkata-based independent publisher Writer’s Workshop.

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Over twelve months, we travelled across the world and across our own country, discovering new stories and worlds that live in languages we may not speak. It is astounding how many stories and experiences are out there – and translations are a wonderful way to access those. 

Click here to see all the books, and boxes, we sent out in the Translations theme (and remember, you can sign up for year three here to join us in discovering exciting stories). 

Click here to find the translations on our shelves (Indian and international), and click here for translations of books written by, and translated by, women authors.








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