Malayalam literature gains mainstream translation

Jul 08, 2018, 08:28 IST | Jane Borges

Seminal works of authors such as Sarah Joseph and KR Meera find takers across regions

Malayalam literature gains mainstream translation
KR Meera

Mini Krishnan is no stranger to the world of Indian publishing. As translations editor for Oxford University Press (India), Krishnan has played an instrumental role in bringing to the fore, the genius of regional language literature to English readers. The passion of this literary doyen is noticeable, when we reach out to her over phone; her immediate response is, "Anything for translations." Krishnan doesn't disappoint us. She invests the next few hours walking us through her universe over several emails.

Her biggest contribution, though, has been as consultant editor of the translation programme of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University. Despite lack of funds threatening to mar this academic and creative collaboration, not only did Krishnan bring out two iconic anthologies on Malayalam literature — The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing and most recently, The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature — she has also spearheaded the translations of several other novels and memoirs in the language, with some winning prominent literary awards. If the works of Sarah Joseph, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Narayan and KR Meera among many others, have moved beyond the confines of Kerala, Krishnan's efforts cannot be ignored. It's not for nothing that other mainstream publishers are taking note of seminal work coming from this region.

Language gets a platform
Kottayam-based Meera, for instance, has become a Penguin Random House India favourite, after her ground-breaking Malayalam novel Aarachar, which won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, was translated as Hangwoman. Meera's The Poison of Love and The Unseeing Idol of Light have now made her an household name to reckon with. Joseph's daughter Sangeetha Sreenivasan, only recently translated her own novel, Acid — another Penguin title — that is a tale of the tempestuous romance between two striking women. There is also TD Ramakrishnan's novel Sugandhi alias Andal Devanayaki that will soon be released by HarperCollins India.

Mini Krishnan
Mini Krishnan

Then, we have TV Varkey's historical novel The Vanishing Generations (Tranquebar), released late last year, about the changing fortunes of a Syrian Christian clan. "Interest in translated Malayalam literature was a phenomenon long before Meera's volume of short stories were translated," explains Krishnan. "MT Vasudevan Nair, Sethu, Basheer, Joseph and Kamala Das were extremely well known, prescribed for study and widely discussed. What has happened in recent times is that through literature festivals and social media, both writers and translators have become more visible, more accessible. They have benefited from the rise in interest in translation in general," she admits.

Ambar Sahil Chatterjee, commissioning editor, Penguin classics and literary publishing, admits that there is an increased interest in South Indian literature. "A lot of cutting-edge storytelling is happening in vernacular literature. The best way to bring them to the fore, is to have them translated."
Minakshi Thakur, publisher, languages, Westland Amazon, draws attention to Kerala's large literary market. "They have wonderful writers, who don't shy from experimenting, and who capture the spirit of their times," she says.

The need to be heard
Meera, who has now pervaded the consciousness of English readers with her strong, feminist characters, says that she was never interested in getting her works published in English. "I was too proud of my choice of words and craft, and I thought no one could translate them to my satisfaction. It was J Devika who shattered that ego. After reading her translation of my short fiction Mohamanja (Yellow is The Colour of Longing) I became curious and wanted to find out how much my works appealed to the English readers. But now, I am overwhelmed by the reception and wish to gift them whatever I write in my mother tongue," says Meera, whose works have also been translated by Ministhy S and Rajesh Rajamohan.

Sreenivasan's attempt to tell her story in English, after first writing Acid in Malayalam in 2016, stemmed from the desire of taking charge of her own narrative. The English work, she describes, is a free translation, with several changes. "I think and write in Malayalam, but there is a need for exchange of cultural ideas and values. We have powerful writers, who have not only chosen to write on bold subjects, but also employ a language pattern that is worth taking note of," she says.

Translator Catherine Thankamma, who worked on Kocharethi: The Araya Woman, by Narayan back in 2011, points to another important voice within Kerala, which she describes as the minority experience, whose works have been eclipsed by mainstream writers and sometimes even disregarded by the academic community in Kerala. Narayan's English translation, which is a felt experience of the tribal community, opened new doors for his book, and went on to be further, translated into Hindi, Kannada and Assamese. "Unless translation happens, the particular writer is confined to the region, especially if he or she is a minority. I feel I have done my bit to remove the injustice meted out to good writing from this region."

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