Since 2001 Mini Krishnan has served as the Publishing Consultant at Oxford University Press (India), where she sources and edits translations of Indian writing into English from fifteen languages. Krishnan has edited more than ninety such works, including fiction, drama, poetry, memoirs, and other non-fiction. Titles such as Karukku by Bama (Tamil, 2001); Astride the Wheel by Chandrasekhar Rath (Oriya, 2005); In a Forest, A Deer by Ambai (Tamil, 2007); Topi Shukla by Rahi Masoom Raza (Hindi, 2009); The Scent of the Other Side by Sarah Joseph (Malayalam, 2010); The Araya Woman by Narayan (Malayalam, 2012); and Bharathipura by U. R. Ananthamurthy (Kannada, 2016) have been awarded national prizes for translation and are prescribed reading in universities. The OUP translation program is not only one of the largest translation programs in India, but also hosts the largest number of Dalit writers in translation.
In her previous role at Macmillan India, the first project Krishnan handled was a 4000-page typescript called Comparative Indian Literature. She managed 200 contributors and seventeen language editors to produce the two-volume set. The work, edited by KM George, included a survey of all the literary forms from the recognized languages of the country. She has also published textbooks for the Indian school and college markets and edited the Modern Indian Novels in Translation series from 1993–2000.
In addition, Krishnan writes regularly about translation, peace advocacy for children, and the importance of interfaith initiatives. She contributes two columns to the prestigious Indian newspaper The Hindu, one on Translations (Literary Review) and another on Ethics (Education Plus). She has served on the Film Censor Board, the Kendra Sahitya Akademi panel for translation awards, and the panel for nominations to the Ramon Magsaysay Award. She has served as a member of the National Translation Mission and of the Indian Literature Abroad a Ministry of Culture initiative to promote Indian writers in the six UNESCO languages. She was the founding editor of the South Asia Women Writers website hosted by the British Council (2004-6) and acted as the Literary Advisor to The Hindu (1992-98).
Bhanumati Mishra: First and foremost, what does translation mean to you? What drives you to publish translations of Indian writing into English?
Mini Krishnan: I publish translations of Indian writing because in them lie our own histories, our sense of identity and belonging; because we need to breathe our native breath; because it is our historical duty in a largely illiterate country to preserve our words, our worlds, and slow their disappearance. In the indigenous writing of the subcontinent lay the memories and history of a people who are rapidly losing their languages. What better service than to retrieve and reinterpret a body of work which is emotionally important for India?
BM: Tell us about your tryst with regional languages, and also about the early influences in your life besides your father, who was the editor of the Deccan Herald in Bangalore.
MK: In the 1950s, while I was growing up in Bangalore, to function only in English was fashionable and those who didn’t were looked down upon. Gradually, Malayalam faded from my Anglo-Indian existence. No one ever suggested that I learn the Malayalam alphabet, and I must confess I wasn’t very keen either. We were coping with both Hindi and Kannada in school and trying to master another language—even if my origins lay in its culture—was not a welcome proposition. Meanwhile, I enjoyed textbook Hindi in school and sailed through the Hindi Prachar Sabha exams outside it. I was old enough to enjoy lofty and subtle poetry and something in me stirred as I studied Harivansh Rai Bacchan, Kabir, and Rahim. The melodrama and sentimentality, the lyricism and those rich overblown descriptions—it was all me.
In Standard IX, when I began to memorise English poetry, my mother often responded with a faint smile. “There is something very similar in Malayalam, only better.” Poetry in Malayalam was better than poetry in English? So I moved between two or three sides of my brain without ever reconciling them. After high school and before Pre-University I was at a loose end for six months, so my mother arranged for a tutor to visit every morning to teach me and my brother our own language. I didn’t take much interest, but the seeds were sown. It would take three decades for me to read Malayalam well enough to check translations from it without the aid of resource persons.
BM: What was the state of Indian Literature while you were growing up? What triggered your interest in translation as an academic and cultural activity?
MK: A Master’s Degree in English Literature in faraway Delhi once again distanced me from Indian languages. I watched without much enthusiasm when Prof. Vinod Sena tried to get a minimum strength for his course on Indian English writers. Meanwhile I got to read many translations from the Sahitya Akademi, Jaico, and Orient Paperbacks during my visits to the library of a newspaper. No one even wanted to review them so they lay stacked up in piles. Though most of the translations were unreadable, there was something in them that moved me and attracted me much more than any English literature I’d read or studied. It couldn’t be the language, so what was it? Why was our own writing so poorly produced and neglected? There were no answers; nor did I seek any. I dimly realized that I was one of the millions of language orphans an English-medium education had produced. A maim so deep!
BM: Could you talk a little about your first editorial project at Macmillan? How did it inspire you to take up the cause of publishing translations?
MK: The first project I handled at Macmillan India was a 4000-page typescript called Comparative Indian Literature (two volumes). It included a survey of all the literary forms from the recognized languages of the country. I was managing 200 contributors, seventeen language editors, and of course Dr K.M. George, the Chief Editor. From harbor to the high seas in a month!
As I helped Dr KMG write up synopses of work after work in all the languages, and polished the mangled drafts the editors sent up, I kept asking him where I might read the works. “You can’t. There are no translations,” was his unvarying response.
By the time both volumes were published in 1985, I had made up my mind to try and publish at least modern Indian fiction in English translation.
MK’s Suggested Reading
1. Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu-K Lalitha
2. Bharathipura, by U. R. Ananthamurthy | A “modern” novel encompassing all the problems of India.
3. Karukku, by Bama | The autobiography of a feminist Dalit woman writer.
4. Short Fiction from South India, edited by K Srilata and Subashree Krishnaswamy
5. Four Steps from Paradise, by Timeri Murari | The story of a family in transition, challenged by the arrival of an English stepmother into their traditional household. It is the closest an Indian writer in English has come to the ethos of the country: describing a big family, the way girls and boys are treated, and how different generations rub along.
BM: You describe yourself as a back-room woman, an editor first and then only an occasional scribbler. Could you describe your journey?
MK: I had grandiose dreams to publish English translations of modern Indian fiction, which were met with a big dip. I experimented with V. Abdulla’s translation of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s novel, Verukkal (Roots, 1982) and failed. Not a single member of the sales team had any interest in promoting it. Macmillan made it quite clear that there was no money for translations. So I set about looking for funding which, after seven years and many “nos” from others, came from the MR AR Educational Society.
If ever a low-key group influenced trends and shaped tastes it was MR AR, in 1992, when they decided to sponsor the Modern Indian Novels in Translation project via Macmillan India. The late AMM Arunachalam and his daughter Valli Alagappan set aside Rs 50 lakhs for five novels each from Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Oriya, and Marathi. The launch list of eleven books in 1996 made an impression, one people remember to this day. They were made available at the same time as the rise of the Katha publications prepared by Geetha Dharmarajan. No one setting out to publish translations today will ever know how difficult the terrain was twenty years ago.
The Macmillan translations are probably the most widely reviewed books of their kind (nearly 160 reviews). And that was in pre-Internet times. From 1992 to 2000, when I left Macmillan, Valli Alagappan’s unquestioned support helped me source and edit thirty-seven works of fiction and one autobiography. The publications were prepared both for the Indian market and for Macmillan’s overseas market in the UK. When I realised very painfully that Macmillan was not interested in promoting the translations list, I moved the project to Oxford University Press, where writers, translators, and I were more welcomed. Nitasha Devasar encouraged me to expand my plans, and Manzar Khan told me to go as far back as I liked and not stay with just post-Independence works.
I have, since 2001, worked with more than a hundred authors and translators, some of them part of multi-author volumes, such as the Oxford Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing and the companion volumes in Malayalam (both 2012) and Telugu.
BM: You have edited numerous translations from Malayalam and Tamil literature into English that primarily engage with the problem of caste and untouchablity. What impact do you think it has had on the reading public?
MK: I cannot say for sure. But The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature (due in October) could not be finalized without a healthy representation of Dalit writers, and that was only possible after the Oxford Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing was published (OUP, 2012). All of Bama’s works in translation have been prescribed for study; since academia is the last to change, I think we can tell ourselves that there is some hope. I would echo Susan Bassnett, who hoped that translation would promote a hybrid set of values rather than a single dominant ideology.
BM: Has Indian literature in English translation been able to penetrate the world market? What imprint has it left on world literature?
MK: I think India, which was once captured by the British, has now captured English, and opened up a parallel universe for its writers and translators to travel in.
Having said that, both serious studies and hastily cobbled articles based on interviews with writers and publishers over the last two years reveal that outside India, very little of our huge literary output—contemporary or otherwise—is being read anywhere in the world. We are a literary supercontinent, but we’re as dark as Krishna and as difficult to reach.
Yet one half of the literary brigade of India—in which I include myself—loves to daydream that its indigenous literature simply has to find its way to readerships outside the country. Should we worry so much about exporting our writings? Right here in our midst there are readers who could enjoy Indian writing—except that they do not know what is available out there. Millions of Indians can read, but know nothing or very little about Indian writers simply because they have not been introduced to them or trained to admire them: great, not so great, old, modern, and very new, and nearly all of them unheard of outside their regional-language islands.
Well, the picture of us with our Indian-language writers shows that the rest of the globe is fairly safe from us: our writers have not penetrated any other culture’s consciousness deeply.
BM: Why has India failed to take off on the world literary stage? India is among the few countries that doesn’t have a translation program. Is that a result of willful bureaucratic interference or a lack of national pride, or both?
MK: Indian Literature Abroad was a government of India venture, supported by Ministry of Culture. It was the brainchild of Ananthamurthy and Ashok Vajpeyi. I was on the advisory and working panel along with Namita Gokhale and other luminaries. We even prepared an exhaustive catalogue for it. But the program was shifted to Sahitya Akademi. In fact we do have a marvelous machinery in place: the Sahitya Akademi and the regional Academies. If they could collaborate with private publishers it would be a wonderful thing.
BM: You have expressed your concerns about Universities in India not being open to new ideas and not following a vigorous translation program. Do you still believe that the academy can be jolted out of its complacency and its unwillingness to change?
MK: Of course. All it takes are committed academics, and I’m sure they are around. It is up to them to negotiate the prejudices and inertia which I’m sure they fight every day. But if they do not encourage their students to think about social problems, if they allow the cry on the street to be muffled by the cry on the page from some other country, it would be a tragedy. Funding for new areas of work—marginalized writing, forgotten memoirs, and social history of different kinds—is available, but students need mentoring. How many more PhDs do we need on RK Narayan and Salman Rushdie?
BM: Translation is a solitary battle. Most publishers don’t seem to care; they just want to bring out a book.
MK: There will always be an editor who cares enough to apply the brakes and do careful checks for idiom and cultural equivalence. Publishing is finally a business and has to make money. Prestige won’t put breakfast on the table. Unless the house is committed to culture and literature and can afford to stay with a few losses, I’d say that publishing houses cannot be faulted for hesitating over translations. It’s why my program from 1992 to 2012 was funded by the MR AR Education Society.
Things are looking up though. Translations are being prescribed and there are now prizes for translation, translators are being recognized. There is a huge market of what I call “language orphans,” who know to speak their language but cannot read it. For them, well off as they might be, translation enables a return to their roots. It may be illusory, but it is a great attraction.
BM: Your indefatigable efforts in giving translators their due are well known. Has it borne fruit? Why is translating literature such a thankless job?
MK: For me, the promotion of translators has been a twenty-year mission. The most unacknowledged tribe in the publishing world, they received financial and credit equality with authors only very recently. Even today, famous translators like Gita Krishnankutty and Kalyan Raman do not always make it to the covers of the books they create. A milestone volume like No Alphabet in Sight has only a casual and cobbled note on the many translators who made the book possible. And when an important book or writer is discussed, why isn’t the translator mentioned? Translators are not recognized for the enormous effort that goes into conveying not just a text but a whole culture into another sphere.
BM: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about the political dimension of art and writing. How does that come into play in your role in the process of translation?
MK: Language is highly political! Every selection is a political choice because 200 others will not make it through the door that year. Gate-keeping is about being as fair and as vigilant as you possibly can. I lost a friend of many years when I simply could not make her understand that I could not keep on publishing her while ignoring others. I also try to bring in first-time translators as often as I can.
BM: Why is there so much emphasis on translating into English? What is the translation scenario in India today?
MK: Sadly, but truly, half of the book-reading brigade lives in English and thinks that Indian-language writers have nothing of interest to say to them. “All those sad stories of bullock-carts and rivers and caste conflicts—go get a life.” The training ground for this situation begins very early, when—to paraphrase writer and literary critic, Judith Thurman—we deprive a child of her language at the sponge-time of life, the precious learning years, and never allow her to build a bond with a past of many centuries. So it might take a decade or two before she realizes she could relearn, and rediscover what she has missed. This can happen through the only language she has: English. Now you see, why the emphasis? Even though English sets literary limits, even though it is taught imperfectly, it is still the fastest way to drill through language barriers.
Alongside that is the social change brought on by technology, which has shaped a mindset, and not just altered a change in the way life itself is viewed. What was considered valuable by a former generation may just not be that important to the present one. Perhaps here, too, translation could play a role in what many see as a no-man’s land—the space between the past and what lies ahead. Can we tackle the future if we have no understanding of our past?
BM: How do you assess the translatability of a text into English?
MK: Every translation is a re-conceptualization of some untranslatable original and every language comes with its own idiosyncrasies of grammar, syntax, and vernacular that can render translation a feat of linguistic yoga. Therefore, in order to undertake a task so daunting, one has to approach a translation with all the dexterity you one can muster. Let me give you a couple of examples:
Miriam bi stood there a minute and wondered if she should participate in the duva. But where did she have the time? She was thinking of the lamb soup that she could never once give Haseena who had just delivered. Not even an egg or a spoonful of ghee. In fact for the last two days she had not eaten even a single dry roti. A fire erupted in her stomach. Daane daane pe likha hai khaanewaale ka naam. Every grain bears the name of the person who would eat it. O what imagination! The leavings of the rich went through the sink to the gutter to mix with human waste. O God, who created the rich, why didn’t you create morsels in the names of poor like me?
(From Banu Mushtaq’s story about Miriam who waits for women in her community to die so that she might earn a fee by washing and dressing corpses is translated from Kannada by Tulasi Venugopal for Sparrow and edited by Arundathi Subramaniam.)
The agraharam reverberated with the news of Sharma’s rescue. Madiga Elli pulled Somasekhara Sharma out of the tank; she dragged him out when he was drowning; she touched him. No she dragged him by his hair; that Madiga Elli touched our boy… a massive debate ensued about the ways of cleansing a brahmin who had been touched by an untouchable — and that too a woman…
(Gogu Shyamala’s story is translated from Telugu by A. Suneetha for Navayana)
I’m glad we haven’t lost the stories of our homeland yet.
BM: In the wake of Bama’s Karrukku or Perumal’s Madhorubagan, did you notice any increased interest in Indian literature from English-speaking readers?
MK: There are spikes of interest but they tend to be only about very recent writing in the regional languages. Speaking of the human condition, an Urdu poet said that we have lost the Earth but not yet gained Heaven. There is still time. A young man named Ravi Shankar is making India’s first animated feature film in Sanskrit, based on a Kannada folktale: Punyakoti is crowd-sourced and crowd-funded by animators and people from all over the world. Interest in one’s roots can only strengthen what everyone is searching for: emotional and cultural identity.
BM: Is language the main focus of the translation editor? What else do you think gets translated besides language? What is there unique about Indian translation?
MK: U. R. Ananthamurthy said that there is a co-existence of centuries in us and that an Indian language writer might set his story in a century long gone but use very contemporary strategies and language. Precisely because of this, before us are questions which crucially define creativity, productivity, and therefore the market.
Qurratulain Hyder said nearly the same thing: “In India various epochs co-exist and intermingle freely on the sociological and psychological planes. You have to be born and bred in this land to understand the syntheses and cultural richness as well as the contradictions inherent in this situation.” Perhaps it is time to admit that someone who doesn’t share this DNA will find it difficult to enter this experience.
Interviewer Bhanumati Mishra teaches English Literature at Arya Mahila PG College, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India. She is an author whose articles, research papers, book reviews, poems, and translations have been published in various national and international research journals like TBR, Cha, Muse India, and Nether. She regularly writes for prestigious Indian newspapers like The Hindu and Hindustan Times. She has authored a book titled Amitav Ghosh and his Oeuvre. She is a keen painter and a music aficionado.