#DesiCraftChat: Rita Kothari on decoding cultural and sociopolitical issues through literary translation

Desi Books Ep 67 w/ Rita Kothari Desi Books

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Hello and welcome to Episode 67 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s #DesiCraftChat, we have Rita Kothari discussing a new short story anthology titled The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told, which she has selected, edited, and mostly translated too. In this conversation, we talked about the differences of translating different forms, the diversity within Gujarati culture, balancing the theory and practice of translation, decoding cultural and sociopolitical issues through literary translation—and much more.


Rita Kothari is a Professor of English at Ashoka University, India. She is also the co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation (ACT). She has to her credit numerous monographs, translations, and edited volumes. Kothari has been the recipient of prestigious awards and fellowships both in India and overseas. Her recent books include A Multilingual Nation and translation of literature about inter-religious riots in India in Agnipariksha: An Ordeal Remembered. She has co-translated the fiction of K.M. Munshi into English and has recently completed a monograph titled Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience, and Indian Literature

The twenty-three stories in The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told represent some of the finest short fiction in Gujarati literature. Selected and edited by translator and writer Rita Kothari, this collection features established literary masters such as K. M. Munshi, Dhumketu, Himanshi Shelat, Dalpat Chauhan, Nazir Mansuri, and Mona Patrawalla, as well as accomplished new voices such as Panna Trivedi, Abhimanyu Acharya, Raam Mori, and others.

On a personal note, as a Gujarati to English literary translator myself, I’ve known of and read Rita Kothari’s works over the years with great admiration. We’ve had brief social media interactions and, in 2020, I interviewed her via email for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative about her translation of Joseph Macwan’s The Stepchild. And her book, A Multilingual Nation, about translation and the language dynamics in India, is a must-read for all translators to and from Indian languages. So this extended and wide-ranging live conversation was a true pleasure for me. And this particular anthology has introduced me to some contemporary Gujarati writers I had never read, for which I’m grateful.

Here’s Rita Kothari now.


Excerpt from the interview:

Rita Kothari: I think my practice helps me imbalance the theory. You know, I think it helps me destabilize theory, Jenny. Because translation studies, translation theory is, I mean, it’s a very . . . translation studies is a very established discipline, as you would know, and especially in Europe and in the United States. And it has been an extremely Eurocentric, very Anglophone, sort of a tradition. And most theorists actually are from the west. And there is a tendency not to understand what happens in a multilingual environment. And you do not simply apply the same theory. That a multilingual environment needs to produce its own theory, in some sense.

So what actually translation practice does for me, I’ll give you an example from this book, right? So for instance, there is a story called ‘Nandu’ by Dashrath Parmar. And I mean, this is why, sometimes, I think translation is actually . . . the process sometimes just does something so intellectually stimulating on some days for me that . . . in that story, you’ve got this man who’s gone to kind of some other part of a mountainous Himachal Pradesh kind of region. And then he meets this young fellow, Nandu. And Nandu wants to find out which village is he from, which community is he from, and so on. And this . . . the Gujarati story says how this narrator is constantly worried about, you know, am I going to tell him my caste, will he then talk to me? And he says, in Gujarati, “Hoon maari jaat chupaavto chupaavto andar jato.” And now this is quite common. In Gujarati, you do say “ke jaat maate aatlu karvu pade. Jaat ne puchvu pade.” Which is that you have to ask this to yourself. The word self is “jaat”. Now, really speaking, the word for caste in Gujarati is naat, which comes from jaat. And while I was translating it, and I’m thinking, this man is talking about hiding his self but, hey, wait a minute, he’s also actually talking about hiding caste.

And I thought, this is so interesting. I mean, whether the author intended it that way, or he didn’t, is a different matter. So it is not as if . . . The translation you read in the book, I’m using the word self. I’m not saying self/jaat, which is the way I, in my head, I’m reading it, but . . . I talk about it a little bit in the introduction. But what that also does is that, for instance, I teach a course called “Scripting Caste” at Ashoka. And it’s a course that focuses upon how do we decode caste in mainstream writing? What are . . . what is the ellipsis and silence around caste in writing that appears thoroughly innocuous and neutral? And observations like these helped me a great deal, actually, to kind of take them back to class and say, okay, this is what is happening over here.

[The Ashoka University Center for Translation (Facebook announcement; official website link TBA)]

You’ve been listening to episode 67 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today’s #DesiCraftChat was with Rita Kothari discussing a new anthology titled The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told, which she has selected, edited, and mostly translated too.

Episode 68 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co. And please share this interview via social media so we can keep raising the tide of desi literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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