#DesiLitBiz Community Question: On literary translation collaborations

This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


“What draws you to a translation collaboration where you’re translating a part of but not the complete book? What are some features or aspects that you look for in such a project? What’s your approach or process: do you translate in isolation first and then work with the other translators or do you do your work and let the editor deal with ensuring any consistencies in voice or style, if they’re needed? What are the one or two pieces of advice you’d offer to someone considering translating a book in collaboration with other translators?”

~Jyothi Yalla (Hyderabad, India)

Six of the nine translators who collaborated on Gogu Shyamala’s story collection, Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, but . . ., discuss the whys and wherefores of the collaborative process in #DesiLitBizCQ @DesiBooks

Of course, all literary translations are, foremost, collaborative creations between the author and the translator. But this is one of those rare cases where a recently published Telugu to English translation was a collaboration between nine different translators. Six of them were kind enough to share their thoughts below.

Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, but . . . is a story collection by Gogu Shyamala, translated from Telugu into English. These are Dalit feminist stories of a south Indian village that dissolve the borders of realism, allegory, and political fable.

The stories have been translated by: Diia Rajan, Sashi Kumar, A. Suneetha, N. Manhohar Reddy, R. Srivatsan, Gita Ramaswamy, Uma Bhrugubanda, P. Pavana, Duggirala Vasanta.

More about Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, but . . .: A young girl is sent away to school to save her from being declared the sexual property of the village’s upper-caste men. The village water tank laments to a passing child. A Brahmin boy is considered ‘polluted’ by the touch of a Dalit girl—the same action that saved his life. Rendered with idiomatic vitality, humor and lightness, these stories revel in rural childhood without nostalgia or romanticism, forcing the reader to question their expectation of violence in the representation of certain lives, and of what the short story can be and do. Shifts in tone and perspective reveal relationships—between the different castes that make up a village, between an individual and the wider community, between identities and the seasonal rhythms of the land. Imbued throughout with a Dalit feminist philosophy that is above all a philosophy of life, to be lived with wit, ingenuity, and defiance.


1. What draws you to a translation collaboration like this one where you’re translating a part of but not the complete book? (click to expand and read further)

R Srivatsan: I am not primarily a translator, though I do translate occasionally. I also don’t know Telugu very well (Shyamala writes in Telugu), but I do have a good grasp of the Telangana culture having lived my childhood here (which is the region Shyamala comes from, and the politics of her writing is about this region.) There is a language politics in this region where the Telugu from coastal Andhra has systematically belittled Telangana Telugu as inferior, corrupt, a pidgin of Telugu and Urdu. This language politics has also been interwoven with a political and economic struggle of the Telangana region to move out from under coastal Andhra domination. This struggle succeeded in 2014 when Telangana was separated from Andhra and two separate states were formed. All my translations have occurred before this, and these are part of my response, as a Telangana based non-native-Telugu-speaking intellectual, to this politics. I have usually been called to translate stories others have found difficult to take on. So, in all my translations from Telangana Telugu to English, I have sat with the authors, read the stories alongside, and translated them.

Duggirala Vasanta: At the request of the editor, I first translated the story (‘The Bottom of the Well’) on my own and had another person read and comment on it. Finally it was shaped into the present form by the editor to ensure that it matches the voice and style of the other stories in the collection. This book has a larger vision about its readership that includes not just children but adults who want to expand their cultural worlds, as suggested in the included note on translation and the afterword.

N. Manohar Reddy: I am not a professional translator. When I was approached, I happily agreed to translate because I believe that Dalit literature in Telugu needs to be given the kind of attention it rightfully deserves and be made available to a much wider English readership. Shyamala’s stories, in particular, add new dimensions to the existing Dalit literature as they offer the reader a critical perspective of the life and world of the Madigas, who are more marginalized and oppressed than the Malas within the two Telugu-speaking states. I consider translating such stories as a political act that aspires to build a more egalitarian India which is currently hierarchical and deeply divided based on caste.

A. Suneetha: I have not done a translation of a full book. I have always translated as part of collaborative teams. I have been a translator and an editor of translated volumes of stories, essays, and pedagogic materials with multiple translators. I find that translations done as part of a collective exercise are a good learning experience. While translating a story collection, since the stories are about the same life world, one can exchange and compare notes with other translators to see if one’s translation is rendering this life and world well into English. This is especially important when those lives and worlds are of the marginalized communities that are dealt with contempt and indifference in the mainstream.

Sashi Kumar: I recognize that translating a whole book requires dedicated time and energy. Since I value reading and literature, I am happy to participate in a venture that allows me to contribute with the time I have at present. Since others too are working on the project, there is the pleasant anticipation that the work would be completed in a shorter time and one can view one’s work in some fruition.

Uma Bhrugubanda: I was drawn to this collaborative translation work firstly by the brilliance of Shaymala’s stories and, secondly, because of the close association and friendship that I had with the author and other translators through the Anveshi Research Center for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. I was happy to be part of this particular group and to contribute to bringing Shyamala’s stories into English because the stories definitely deserve a very wide readership. 

2. What are some features or aspects that you look for in such a project? (click to expand and read further)

R Srivatsan: Complexity of dialectal, occupational variation, the impossibility for “normal” Telugu speakers to find good ways to translate texts. The greater the linguistic challenge, the more I felt like doing it. I have also only translated short stories by people I care about (three people, to be precise.) I have, on other occasions, refused to translate stories when requested to do so.

Duggirala Vasanta: Actually, another Anveshi project, Different Tales: Stories from Marginal Cultures and Regional Languages (DT henceforth), comes closest to my idea of collaborative translation. In the DT project, a group of us researchers spent time engaging with debates surrounding children’s literature in India and elsewhere before selecting the authors whose works we wanted to translate. The idea of this project was to commission stories about children from marginalized backgrounds who hardly ever find place in school textbooks or storybooks. The dimensions of marginalization we addressed included gender, caste, minority, and disability. Once the selection and initial translations were done, we discussed the drafts among ourselves and occasionally with a group of artists who did the illustrations. Our discussions related to issues such as terms that should be or should not be glossed, and what kinds of illustrations would complement the text by inducing a proliferation of meanings in readers’ minds. Participation in the DT project offered me an unforgettable learning experience about the cultural politics surrounding issues such as ‘childhood’, ‘gender roles’, ‘child work’, and ‘language use’ in the Indian context.

N. Manohar Reddy: Please see my response to 1. above.

A. Suneetha: My fiction translation work is mostly commissioned. I have sometimes liked the particular story or the author or done the work because I was asked by a friend. I have also co-edited the translation of a writer as I was impressed by the author’s political project of collating and anthologizing the works of Telugu Muslim writers and poets.

Sashi Kumar: What I really consider in such a project is whether I like the piece or not. If it does not resonate with me, I do not touch it. In the case of this book, I find Shyamala’s work striking because her stories have universal themes set in contexts and around events that cannot be imagined unless one has lived in them. So they have both a ring of familiarity and an otherness that is very appealing.

Uma Bhrugubanda: Speaking to this particular project, reading Shyamala’s stories for the first time, I was struck by the absolutely new world her stories opened up. Here were men, women, and children battling against an oppressive world with uncommon courage and resourcefulness while being supported only by the love and affection of their family and community. Shyamala displays an intimate and vivid knowledge of the lives of Telangana Dalits and their relation to the land, to different professions, and to education. In Shyamala’s perspective, Dalits no longer remain victims; rather the ingenuity, skill and art that structures their daily lives are revealed to us in rich detail. Translating her work has been a pleasure, a challenge, and above all a learning experience.

3. What’s your approach or process: do you translate in isolation first and then work with the other translators or do you do your work and let the editor deal with ensuring any consistencies in voice or style, if they’re needed? (click to expand and read further)

R Srivatsan: I work with the author, sitting alongside her, or with another Telangana Telugu reader who has a good sense of the author and with her, find the best English to translate. Invariably my co-translator is excellent in Telangana Telugu and I am better at English. I pay attention to phrase, word, sequence, and sense, and try to convey all these as much as possible. My aim is to recover, for the target audience a sense of the text that has lost all sense of inferiority and, instead, is the best and cleanest expression of thought and story. Then the editor takes over.  I rarely consult other translators.

Duggirala Vasanta: Please see my response to 1. above.

N. Manohar Reddy: While I did not collaborate with the other translators, most of us were actively engaged in many significant discussions that were happening on Dalit literature and the caste question within the public domain at that time. To a certain extent, we were also aware of the debates at the international level on the politics of translation, as some of us were associated with literature departments at the universities and the others were researchers. Thus, the insights that we had gained on both caste and translation fed into and enriched our translations. While translating, I had lots of discussions with the author as well as Professor Susie Tharu, who was overseeing the entire project. I was also assigned the task of cross-checking the English translations of all the stories with the Telugu scripts. I benefited immensely while working with Professor Tharu, who has huge experience in the field of teaching literature and politics and in editing translations of many literary works.

A. Suneetha: If there is an opportunity, I exchange notes with other translators after doing my drafts. Or I leave it to the editor to deal with the rest of the issues.

Sashi Kumar: After I finish the translation, I leave it to the editor.

Uma Bhrugubanda: Usually I translate the story by myself and then work with the author to clarify any doubts that I have regarding a particular word, phrase, or the context of the story etc. In this case, I had informal discussions with Shyamala before translating the story and also informal chats with some of the translators. After I had a draft ready, I sat down with Shyamala to ask her about specific words and phrases. Shyamala’s Telangana Telugu is not a native language for me because I grew up in coastal Andhra. However, having lived in Hyderabad for many years, my ears had become attuned to Telangana Telugu. Still, I needed to work with the author to get many things right. I must say that I did not really work with other translators much. I left it to the editor to ensure consistency in voice and style. Having worked as translator and editor for another project, Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims (Orient Blackswan, 2015), in which we worked with a group of translators, I do know that a lot of editorial work went into bringing about a consistency across the stories.

4. What are the one or two pieces of advice you’d offer to someone considering translating a book in collaboration with other translators? (click to expand and read further)

R Srivatsan: I am not primarily a translator, so this may seem presumptuous, but here goes. Do the best you can.  Pay attention to the social and political context in order to decide on the vocabulary’s strength and quality in the target language. See if there are needs for a common vocabulary across translators. Have a discussion with the editor when you feel a common term is needed. This is not usually important when there are several short stories and the differences in translation are absorbed into the differences in the settings, scenes and narrative styles of the author(s). It would be difficult for different people to translate a novel though, unless the novels have a sort of post-modern range of place and time which differ in each chapter.

Duggirala Vasanta: I strongly feel that translating a book in collaboration with other translators will work best if the translators know each other well, have a common understanding about whom the book is addressing and possess a desire to engage with the sociocultural world of the author, however unfamiliar or unsettling it is to them. Discussions among the translators on individual chapters they have translated in a workshop sponsored by the publisher might contribute to maintaining uniform style of language use.

N. Manohar Reddy: I do not have much advice but I do believe that working with the author closely and with an experienced editor helps tremendously.

A. Suneetha: If you are an editor, ensure that the stories or essays are a good fit with the translator. Their background, interests, expertise, inclination need to be considered. If you are a translator working as a part of a collaboration, it can be useful to exchange notes with other translators and/or work with the editor after your first round of drafts. 

Sashi Kumar: Advice on translating in collaboration? Do it! It’s a great first step in practicing reading, translating, and directing energy towards presenting a literary work to another world.

Uma Bhrugubanda: Such collaborations work well when there is a shared perspective on the author and the work being translated among everyone involved in the group and, more importantly, when there is a very good editor or editors who can synthesize the different translations and make them work together. 

R Srivatsan is a political theorist with specific interest in development, culture, welfare and health care. His research interests are focused on studying critically processes of development in politics and government, in health care, visual culture, and religion. He works in the Critical Development Studies, Health and Healthcare Systems, and Public Domain and Outreach Initiatives at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies. He is an occasional translator of Telugu Dalit prose and poetry and has published several books of his own.

Duggirala Vasanta is a retired professor of linguistics. She worked at Osmania University, Hyderabad for over three decades. She has also been associated with Anveshi Research Center for Women’s Studies for more than three decades. Some of the research projects she was involved at Anveshi offered her opportunities to engage with the task of translation. Many of her English to Telugu translations of children’s stories and some Telugu to English translations of short stories have been published in India.

N. Manohar Reddy is an Assistant Professor (English) at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Previously, he taught at the University of Hyderabad and in Saudi Arabia for a few years. He was a Charles Wallace India Trust visiting fellow at the British Center for Literary Translation (BCLT), University of East Anglia, UK, in 2013. He was a doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, from 2008 to 2011. His academic and research interests are in the fields of language politics in India, Indian literatures, film studies, cultural studies, critical theory, and translation.

A. Suneetha is a Senior Fellow at the Anveshi Research Center for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad. She is a political theorist who is invested in the questions of gender and minority. Her research interests include gender and violence, secularism and the Muslim woman’s question, and Muslim politics in the Telugu region.

Sashi Kumar lives and works in Hyderabad, India. He is of a liberal left-of-center persuasion with an interest in the politics of conflict resolution, development, and technology. He has been working with civil society organizations for about thirty years, prior to which he worked in banking for a decade.

Uma Bhrugubanda teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad. She received her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Columbia University. Her major research interests are Indian cinema, gender studies, and translation. She has authored and co-edited several books and her scholarly articles and reviews have appeared in various academic journals like Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies, Critical Quarterly, Indian International Centre Quarterly, Economic and Political Weekly, and Contributions to Indian Sociology. 

Six of the nine translators who collaborated on Gogu Shyamala’s story collection, Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, but . . ., discuss the whys and wherefores of the collaborative process in #DesiLitBizCQ @DesiBooks


This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


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