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Found in Translation

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (center) conversed with his moderator at the Kolkata Literary Meet via an interpreter.
Sandip Roy
Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (center) conversed with his moderator at the Kolkata Literary Meet via an interpreter.

In literature festival season in India you meet all kinds writers. Nobel laureates. Booker winners. Investigative journalists. Children book authors, Writers of bestsellers. Poets.
But as I attended the Kolkata Literary Meet recently I realized there’s a new category - translators and books in translation.
At one time the lit fests were very anglophone affairs. The pool of literary writers who write in English and those who read them are small compared to the population of India but punch well above their weight.
They dominate literary festivals but that’s changing
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata
The Kolkata Literary Meet has always honoured local Bengali writers. Many have inaugurated the festival. Many have sessions there. That’s only to be expected. This after all is the city of Rabindranath Tagore, the first asian Nobel laureate for literarture. And though his works have been translated into English, in these parts he is still 100 percent a Bengali poet.
But this year at the festival I noticed so many other Indian languages on stage. Often with an interpreter doing live translation.
Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil to name just three.
Writer Perumal Murugan, the famous Tamil author talked about what it meant for him to be a writer. In Tamil

PM1: TAMIL  and then translationi am a family where parents and grandparents not educated. So how I got into writing is a mystery for me also

Murugan won the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature last year for his novel Firebird. Both he and the translator Janani Kennan won cash awards.That year all five novels on the short list happened to be translations from various Indian languages. Translations were no longer the lonely step child. Children of a lesser god as it were. They were now centre stage.
Famous Bengali writer Shirsendu Mukherjee said he was not sure if translations quite captured the flavour of the original and then hastily added present company excluded since he was on stage with his translator Arunava Sin

SM1:jaara schikte kore otota bhalo hobe na. Aami Arunabha ke baad dichhi. Or osombhob bhalo hoyeche

Part of the lit fest discovery of works in translation might be due to the hoopla around the Hindi book Tomb of Sand winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2022. The writer Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell did the lit fest rounds last year including the Kolkata Lit Meet talking about Tomb of Sand which many had deemed untranslatable

DR1: I mean, what makes it technically untranslatable is the use of language and the punning and all of, you know, it's all it's unapologetically in love with Hindi and what Hindi can do

its wonderful that lit fests are coming out of their English cocoons. writing in translation panels have become a standard feature of most festivals now. And for me it’s a shame faced discovery of the wealth of literature India has to offer. I’d grown up with plenty of translated books but they were translated from Russian and French and German.
Very little existed that had been translated from Tamil or Telugu. And If you were a Bengali reader wanting to read a Tamil novel you usually needed to wait for it to be translated into English and then into Bengali. Very few could do a direct translation.
It does not mean all of this has gotten easier. Daisy Rockwell, a star among translators, said the books she wants to translate are not always the ones publishers are interested in. She loves old books. Publishers think newer ones whose authors are around to promote them will do better.

DR2: My big problem is I love old stuff, I love all the old stuff. Publishers outside south asia appalled …

And indeed it is a treat to be able to see the author and the translator together on stage as happened at the Kolkata lit meet.
Bengali writer Srijato and his translator Maharghyo Chakrabarty read the original and the translation side by side for an audience who could understand both.


But Mahargho also explained the trepidation of a translator. And how one has to transliterate rather than translate often. For example when he read Tintin and saw Captain Haddocks blistering barnacles translated into something quite different in Bengali. The point here was not translating the words but the humour. To the point most of us didnt realize Tintin and Asterix were originally not written in English at all.

MC2: Oi humor-ta aamar prochondo money hoto originaley kirom laagte paare

Finally it seems we are no longer lost in translation. Instead we are finding ourselves.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW