Translating Women’s Writing Opens Up A Much Needed Window Into Their Lives, Otherwise Silenced

More accessible translations of women's writing in Indian languages help us understand the lives of women to whom we need to pass the mic instead of speaking over them.

More accessible translations of women’s writing in Indian languages help us understand the lives of women to whom we need to pass the mic instead of speaking over them.

There is a rich tradition of women’s writing in Indian languages other than English, which will be lost if we do not work in earnest to translate them. Doing so is essential to break the echo chamber of feminism that emerges from privileged spaces.

Why ‘women in translation’?

August is women in translation month, when we bring into the spotlight translations of women’s writing. Why is this significant?

Publications in any particular language necessarily speak of the life experiences of those who are comfortable enough in that language to be able to write. Being comfortable with English signifies a certain privilege – which applies to those who write in and publish in English. This means that the stories of those who are not so privileged, who are a majority, actually, never come into the limelight, and we have a skewed idea of society. The danger of a single story.

Translations of the stories from these silenced voices is equivalent to handing them the mic. A mic that wasn’t ours to appropriate in the first place. These include those from those marginalised, like DBA communities, LGBTQIA+ communities, sex workers, and the majority of our women. Especially when they are also from these marginalised communities. Voices that should be heard.

Tarabai Shinde’s Stripurush Tulana (A Comparison Between Women and Men), originally published in Marathi in 1882, is regarded as India’s first modern feminist text.  The essay was a critique of what we today call Brahminical patriarchy. It is a shame that this piece was forgotten and was only rediscovered in 1975.

I haven’t been able to find much information about the translations of this essay. There is an English translation, first published in September 1994! If it really took that long, to translate something so important and relevant, then it is a travesty. Whether there are translations in other Indian languages – heaven knows! I certainly hope that they exist.

What I do know is this: that until I read this 2017 Feminism In India piece about Tarabai Shinde, I didn’t even know about this ovaric piece of work, that is a must read for anyone who calls themselves an intersectional feminist.

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A systemic, deep reaching silence

In fact, this silence, and lack of information (or difficulty in accessing it, certainly), is something that I kept running into again and again, as I researched for this piece. On popular (India based) book groups across social media, the discussions center mainly around books originally written in English. If a translation is discussed, that too, is often in English, and more often than not, it is of a book written by a man.

A thoughtful thread in the book group Readers Forever! that discussed non-English books, was a valuable resource. Even there, I found more mentions of male authors than of female/ non-binary authors.

When I searched some of those names, even Google threw its hands up. The information was either repetitive or basic. It was for only a few of these authors, who are already well-known names across India, that I was able to find any detailed and nuanced reviews/critiques.

When I asked, on my personal Facebook wall, and in book groups about women authors whose work has not been translated into English, the responses were lukewarm. Many of the names suggested, were in fact translated. Though, as respondents pointed out, even the works of well-known female authors, such as Nabaneeta Dev Sen, or Ashapurna Devi, haven’t been explored or translated extensively.

This silencing is worrying – because what women have to say is important. Their writing offers perspectives that are not ‘mainstream,’ but which are important and necessary for building a society that is truly equitable.

Ordinary women’s everyday lives

Women’s writing everywhere, usually dissed as ‘sentimental kitchen fiction,’ is in reality an empathetic and insightful look into the daily life of people. So, when these are translated, into other languages, a conversation is enabled, between people from different states and counties. If unity in diversity is what we truly seek, we cannot ignore the contributions women have made to literature.

The work of author ‘Shivani’ Gaura Pant, in Hindi, for example, offers a peek into Kumaoni culture; Ramani Chandran’s hugely popular Tamil novels speak about the romantic lives of middle class, urban, women; Rajam Krishnan’s Suzhalil Mithakkum Deepangal (Tamil; Lamps in A Whirlpool), and other works offer a look into the lives of homemakers and how patriarchy functions within the family, and Bengali writer Suchitra Bhattacharya’s writings reflect the lives of, “the women of modern Bengal, the young divorcee from Siliguri, the single mother from Patuli, the homemaker from Burdwan, the ageing widow from Ballygunj.”

Ambai’s SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), recognizes that women’s writing is not necessarily found only in books; women’s stories documented in ‘soft material’ or unofficial documents such as private letters, or journals are equally important to understand their lives. She understands the difficulty faced by women in getting published because they write about their daily realities, and might not have access to traditional modes of publishing. She herself faced resistance in publishing her own novel Siragugal Muriyum (Wings Get Broken), which is the story of a woman married to an insensitive man. Today, her works are translated into a number of languages, including Siragugal Muriyum, which is available in Marathi as Tutlele Pankh.

As Anjum Katyal shares, in this session from the Belongg Lit Fest, held last month, English can  be very useful as ‘bridge language’ that allows translations to happen in multiple languages.

Speaking the Unspoken – Women’s Sexuality

One aspect of women’s lives that go largely unexplored, unless women write about it themselves, is sexuality and sexual desire. Given that there is already a paucity of writing in this area, it is all the more important, that what work there is, be translated widely.

The name of Kamala Das aka Madhavikutty, who wrote both in English and Malayalam, cannot be missed in this context, and she is quite well-known. Also famous, is Salma. Writing in Tamil, she has written both poetry and novels that explore women’s sexuality. The English translation of her book, Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai, titled, The Hours Past Midnight, was longlisted for the Man Booker Asia Prize. In Bangla, Sangeeta Bandopadhyay’s work is similarly both bold and subversive.

Writing about women’s sexuality is even more important when it emerges from the margins, because it can offer new perspectives on issues like sex work, that are usually looked down upon from a moral standpoint, even by women. Writers like Nalini Jameela, critique that tendency, by pointing out that it is the same patriarchal society that considers sex work ‘wrong,’ that pushes women into it in the first place. Similarly, in the Belongg Lit Fest session on Translation and Inclusion, linked above, Arunava Sinha talks about a 1921 book by a female sex worker, which he is translating. He shares that she writes that she took up sex work, as she was advised that it would give her not only income, but also some level of protection from being taken advantage of, something we wouldn’t ordinarily realise.

Similarly, Shareer Ki Jankari, written in 1989, in Hindi, by 75 village women from Rajasthan, is a radical piece of work, as it openly challenges taboos and disinformation about women’s sexuality and bodies. I am unable to find out if the book was ever translated into other Indian languages, but given the lack of sex education in India, this is exactly the sort of book that should be widely read!

Dalit women’s voices – a challenge to Savarna feminism

When we speak of feminism, there are perspectives that we Savarna women miss, simply because we do not understand how caste and gender interact. We do not have the lived experience for the same. However, reading the work of Dalit women writers is one way of educating ourselves.

“One could carefully compare it with Black feminism which taught ‘established’ white feminism about gendered racial oppression and gave egalitarian visions for feminism,” writes Lata P.M. She also points out that the autobiographies written by Dalit women (and men) went beyond being literary contributions, and influenced research in women’s studies, history, political science, and sociology. She names Kumud Pawde, Sushila Patekar, Urmila Pawar, Meenakshi Moon, Nanda Meshram, Yashodhara Gaikwad, Kaushalya Bansetri, Hira Bansode, Pragnya Pawar, Saroj Kamble, Abhinaya Ramesh, Lata P.M., Pratima Pardeshi, Sandhya Nare-Pawar, Nutan Malvi, Chaya Khobragade, Kunda P.N., Ashwini Torne, Shilpa Kamble, Shyamal Garud, Nisha Shende, and Dr. Sushma Andhare as some of the prominent Dalit-Bahujan feminists writers in Marathi.

Baby Kamble, was the first Dalit woman to write her autobiography, Jina Amucha (translated into English as The Prisons We Broke). Along with Shantabai Dani and Shantabai Kamble she was among the direct followers of Dr Ambedkar, who were not seen, even by Dalit male activists as, “agencies of socio-political transformation.”

As Maya Pandit points out, “Unlike the men, these women explored their community culture in a more nuanced and sensitive manner, exploring myths, superstitions and lived practices against which Babasaheb had asked them to rebel. Baby Kamble’s exploration into the myth of Tulsi Vivah in the Brahmanical culture as against in the subaltern culture is a case in point. It brought out a completely different cultural history.”

Similarly, Bama and P Sivakami are some of the prominent writers in Tamil, who not only challenge the dominance of the Savarnas, but also of DBA men.

Even the way Dalit women authors use language is subversive and different. As Teresa Hubel explains in her paper, Tracking obscenities: Dalit women, devadasis, and the linguistically sexual, the usage of sexually explicit and ‘profane’ language, in the work of Bama, or Viramma (who was illiterate, and who narrated her story to Josiane and Jean-Luc Racine), is to be read as “a powerful disruption of the feminine in that it refuses to play to patriarchal expectations about feminine decorum, and, as such, it models a defiance that mainstream feminism, rooted as it has been in predominantly middle-class values, might very well copy.”

Voices from the LGBTQIA+ community

Like DBA women, the voices of queer people, especially queer women have similarly been suppressed.

The most famous feminist text, in the Indian context, that discusses homosexuality, is perhaps Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf, which was translated into English as The Quilt. However, as Rutba Dar points out in this insightful piece, Chugtai herself was not completely familiar with homosexuality at the time of its writing, and so some of her biases seem to have entered the text.

Two other books, written in English, are based on oral narratives.

Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India, by Maya Sharma, “documents the life-stories of ten working-class queer women living in north India. In doing so, it dispels the myth that lesbians in India are all urban, westernized and come from upper and middle classes,” as the book description puts it.

Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Lifestories, written by transgender activist A. Revathi, explores the lives of Aravanis (transwomen), in South India, and documents how they experience transphobia and misogyny.

Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi’s autobiography Mi Hijra, Mi Laxmi, written in Marathi, translated into English, as Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, also speaks of her life as a transwoman.

Vijayaraja Mallika’s body of work in Malayalam, –her poetry collections, Daivanthintte Makal (Daughter of God), and Aan Nadhi (Male River) and her autobiography Mallikavasantham (Blooming of Flowers), is yet to be translated.

On the whole, as Moulee (Founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles) says in this interview, “There isn’t much queer literature in India; even Indian English queer literature isn’t easily available. The ones that are available are mostly limited to specific experience and does not reflect the diverse experience of queer lives in our country…Most of the books are self-published. And there are instances where some books are later picked up by visible publications. Similar to the queer movement in India, it is the trans women community that paved way by documenting their lives through literature.”

Ergo, there is much work to be done, to identify and translate writing by queer women.

Women getting political

The personal is political – so all the writing we have discussed above, is political in a sense. However, women have also written specifically about politics. Given that women are usually discouraged in our culture from having opinions on politics, it is necessary that these voices are boosted.

Mallika Sengupta a Bengali writer, known for her “unapologetically political poetry,” has said in an interview that “From ancient times, poets have been regarded as profound observers commenting on social issues. Almost all good poets try to convey their convictions and ideologies through poetry. I think a good poet can always insert ideology into poetry without destroying aesthetic conditions.”

Some of her work has been translated, though there is a lot that remains.

Rita Choudhury’s Assamese novel Makam, translated into English as Chinatown Days, is set in the backdrop of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and deals with the forceful deportation of Chinese-Assamese settled in Assam.

As someone who contested elections, Sarah Joseph is quite ‘political’ and her dissident retellings of the stories from the Ramayana, in her books, Oorukaaval (translated as The Vigil), and Ramayana Kathakal, are a challenge to Hindutva politics. As Niyathi Krishna and Dr. Pashupati Jha write, her novels Aathi (translated: Gift in Green), and Oorukaaval also contribute to the ecofeminist discourse.

Women’s writing in Indian languages through the ages

There is a great treasure trove of women’s writing that lies hidden in non-English literature in India. This article barely scratches the surface. There are so many writers that I haven’t even mentioned. Among those who are better known, Amrita Pritam, Mahashweta Devi, Shanta Shelke, Bani Basu, Punyalata Chatterjee, Mannu Bhandari, Malti Joshi, Usha Sharma Priyamvada, Anuradha Sharma Pujari, Usha Sheth, Leela Majumdar, K R Meera, Teji Grover, Krishna Sobti, Qurratulain Hyder, Volga, etc. are just a handful of other prominent names. So many are yet to be discovered by those, like me who (unfortunately!) only read in English.

Nor is women’s writing in India a ‘new’ phenomenon. From the 7th century Sanskrit poet Vidya (translated by Andrew Schelling), to Therigathas written in Pali by Buddhist nuns, to the works of poet saints, such as Andal, Meerabai, Akka Mahadevi, or Lal Ded, to the writings of the Mughal Princess Zeb-un-Nissa, women in India have always written! Much of their work remains to be explored.

The Ant Who Swallowed The Sun is a collection of the abhangs written by ten Marathi women saints, including Muktabai, Kanhopatra, Soyrabai etc. Books like Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing (edited by Annie Zaidi), and Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the early twentieth century (edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalita), are useful ‘starter’ books for anyone who wants to begin exploring the vast diversity of women’s writing in India.

We have seen how women have something to say about so many facets of their personal and public life. As Bhaswati Ghosh opines, “This confluence of the woman and her worlds – the ones she shapes, nourishes and often struggles to sustain – is what makes feminist writing in Indian languages such a pulsating and diverse landscape.”

Women’s writing, especially writing by women in the margins, is often erased. Translations, into English, and into other languages, both Indian and foreign, are the only way to fight that erasure. Not only must those translations be widely published and distributed, but they must be promoted and shared, with the same enthusiasm and joy, that is reserved for books published in English, not just by publishers, but also by readers and professional reviewers. Feminist presses such as Zubaan, Kali for Women, Asmita, Stree-Samya, Tara, Tulika, Tilted Axis etc. continue to do great work in this area. But there is much more to be done.

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