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How quality translations can enrich Indian literature

Haresh Pandya is a freelance journalist and teaches English in a college in Gujarat in India.


Of all nations, India can boast of having the richest and most diverse literature. This is not a recent phenomenon. It has been so since time immemorial – long before the written word came into existence. The tribe of Indian writers writing exclusively in English has been flourishing by the day. But that is hardly the point. What is important is the scores of others who write in a variety of regional languages.

Even without considering the 2000-odd dialects in use in various Indian states, the country has 20-odd officially recognised languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Gujarati, and Marathi.

Good English translations of the works of regional writers would not only enrich India’s national literature, but also contribute substantially to world literature. As the poet and critic Vinay Dharwadker has rightly remarked:

“Indian-English literature by itself is inadequate to represent who we are to the rest of the world. Only a broad representation of the full range of Indian literatures, translated into a world language such as English, can do what is needed.”

But Indian literature remains surprisingly short on quality translations of works from its own rich repertoire of regional languages into Hindi and English. Consequently, the goldmine of India’s literature remains largely unexplored.

Hindi is unofficially India’s national language, and is gaining ground even in southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where people take pride in speaking their own regional languages. But how many quality literary works written in other Indian languages are translated into Hindi, let alone English?

Not many people are aware that when Arundhati Roy approached a renowned Indian publisher with the manuscript of The God of Small Things, she was offered a pittance – for the book which eventually won her The Booker Prize when she got it published in England. Roy was not unknown even at that time and, more importantly, her novel was in English. If a writer of Roy’s standing had to face such a problem in her own country despite writing in English (and coming up with a masterpiece), one can imagine the plight of lesser mortals when it comes to publishing their translated works from regional languages into Hindi or English!

So we need both Hindi and English translations of good works from a wide range of Indian languages. It is the only possible way to bridge the multi-lingual India, and bring her literature to an international audience. This is not always easy. A translator may be well-versed in the original language as well as the one into which he or she is translating. But he or she may not necessarily be aware of the cultural background of the work at hand.

But despite these problems and shortcomings, it is heartening that slowly but steadily, Indian translation work has been building up to a state of critical mass. We now need more talented translators to come forward and help India’s outstanding regional literature emerge from its cocoon and reach not just a majority of Indian readers, but also a global audience.

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Haresh Pandya


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