Kavya Murthy writes about Women in Translation Month.
August has been a busy month for us. We've been popping up around Bangalore events with our books, experimenting with cupcakes and cookies for our menu, and filling up our 2019 events calendar.
Women In Translation Month
August was declared Women in Translation Month by Meytal Radzinski, a scholar who took up the task of asking why there were so few women-identified authors published in translation. A study soon revealed that only 26 % of books in translation were written by women.
Women in Translation Month, then, had two simple goals:
Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
Read more books by women in translation
At Champaca, we believe in reading widely and thoughtfully, and take care to stock translations from across regional languages from India and literature and non-fiction by women-identified authors.
On our best days, our shelves have between 150-200 general translations. A great number of these books are made available thanks to the diligent efforts of independent publishers who seek and support the translations or reprints of key works of literature. In keeping these books on our shelves, we speak to the popular perception that what exists in regional languages is not available in English, and that what exists in English translation is often not good enough. Of course there are bridges between source texts and translations, but this calls for more translations, more readers, and more engagement. We believe that to read literature is to widen our awareness of other people, other lives and experiences, and that the work of reading translation, as much as translating, is our responsibility.
The diverse experiences of lives in India is found not necessarily in English but the textures of regional languages. For those of us who live between only one or two languages, translation remains the conduit through which to encounter these experiences to which we otherwise have little access. And in reading women, we dip into a world that suffers greater neglect, thanks to a male-dominated literary culture. Women have been writing for centuries, and in reading them, we learn dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.
We sifted through our shelves and chose two texts by women published by two independent publishers - Katha and Thema - and written in two languages - Hindi and Bengali:
Listen Girl! by Krishna Sobti
Krishna Sobti wrote eight novels, a collection of short stories, non-fiction, literary sketches, and novellas in a richly textured Hindi that hinted at porous borders between places, cultures and times. Her work, like her personality, was outspoken, and she was the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for Hindi in 1980.
Ai Ladki was written in 1991 and translated by Dogri scholar Shivanath (also Sobti's husband) for Katha in 2002. It is a short and rich novel that captures the relationship between a mother on her deathbed and her unmarried and childless daughter who cares for her at the very end. Sobti wrote the novel after her mother's death, haunted by some of her last words and days. In the short introduction to the novel, Sobti says (in English) that her mother on her deathbed “...would not call me by my name, she simply said 'Ai Ladki, Hey girl'. Was she creating a distance between the dying and the living?”
The novel reads like a play or long short story, an almost-dialogue in which the mother speaks in fevered speech that shifts between the past and present, recounting all the many roles she has had played in her "life of service", caring for her household, in-laws, husband, and children. As she worries about and reprimands her daughter for her choices (to stay single, to work), what we hear are conflicted notions of womanhood. Though short, the novel is dense and engaging, covering themes of grief, care, and lessons in life.
We also read this wonderful essay by Trisha Gupta in The Caravan, and the fond remembrance of Krishna Sobti by her last literary translator into English, Daisy Rockwell.
Bashai Tudu, Mahasweta Devi
This novel is at one level very simple. It is about a man called Bashai Tudu, an agrarian revolutionary who fights for the rights of adivasi labourers: their minimum wages, water for their canals, and freedom from bonded labour. But Bashai Tudu is also a target of the state, a "top priority" case with a police file of his own. He dies, again and again, but cannot be killed or identified. His spirit, the myth of the undying Bashai Tudu, lives on. This book is about the violent Indian state and how it treats and responds to the lives of adivasi communities, a tale of violence and defiance speaking of a time between 1967 and 1977 in the Naxalbari region of northern Bengal.
Mahasweta Devi wrote over a 100 novels and 20 collections of short stories, of which a dozen have been translated into English. Her work is historical, speaking about the lives of peasants, agricultural workers, adivasis and women. Until her death in 2016, she was a fierce social activist and worked closely with her translators to choose what work to bring to the English language. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi, Jnanpith and Ramon Magsaysay Awards.
Bashai Tudu is published by Thema, who focus on Dalit literature, features on music, women in Indian cinema, poetry from left progressive writers, and new editions of regional books that are out of print.
We would love to hear your recommendations, and your favourite books by women in translation, with a little note on what you thought was important.
Kavya Murthy writes and edits and lives in Mysore.