Translating Dalit Women Authors: Aparna Singh

Aparna Singh

Translating a text allows the translator to inhabit two worlds, to use Du Bois, a double consciousness that is both empowering and inhibiting. It allows a sneak-peak into multiple linguistic realms, and consequently myriad cultural spheres. This unravels a complex compendium of intersecting cultural zones for the translator that is challenging and invigorating. For translators of Dalit literature, the crossover extends beyond the usual inter and intra linguistic journeys. The path is fraught with social, cultural, and political choices. Moreover, the translator- conditioned as s/he is by his/her caste/class/gender - is not simply a connecting link between two languages, but between culturally insulated power structures.

While translating a Dalit author’s text the translator has to embark on multiple journeys simultaneously. I propose to read into the strategies of Maya Pandit - an upper caste woman translator – who has translated Urmila Pawar’s Aaydaan (The Weave of My Life) and Baby Kamble’s Jina Amucha (The Prisons We Broke) from Marathi to English. Both Urmila Pawar and Baby Kamble explore various aspects of marginalization that Dalit women face within and outside the Dalit community. Being a Dalit woman is to be relegated to the last and the lowliest rungs of the social fabric. Narrativising their lived experiences is a process of claiming agency and self actualization for these women. Language can both mirror and obfuscate their attempts of self expression as language by and large speaks for the normative and the privileged (Pandit). How do we then situate the translator, who is socially, culturally, politically and economically removed from the Dalit woman’s reality? The translator hence, not only confronts and questions her own choices of the texts she chooses, and the languages she decides upon, she must also acknowledge and mitigate her outsider status with respect to her class and caste. In her essay “Translation: A Case of Border Crossing in the Global Village”1 Pandit observes:

It is possible that the translator translating a text from his/her own language is sometimes rudely awakened out of his/her self-proclaimed familiarity with the terrain in unexpected ways in the act of negotiating the roadmap. S/he has to be aware of the obvious routes and the escape routes; the main roads and the hidden paths and the difficulties involved or the traps they set in for the translator. At least that is what I have discovered while translating literature from Marathi into English.

The act of translation is a passage into the unknown, and as one navigates this path, one needs to let down one’s guards and be accepting of the unforeseen, the unfamiliar. What kind of traps must the translator prepare for while translating Dalit women’s testimonio? Translating a testimonio from one Indian language into another has different implications than it being translated into English. English being the language of privilege in India can be considered an alien and an alienating language by many. Most of the Dalit texts have been written in native languages. Joothan by Om Prakash Valmiki was translated from Hindi by Arun Prabha Mukherjee, Aaydan and Jina Amucha from Marathi by Maya Pandit, Karukku from Tamil by Laksmi Holmstrom to name a few. All these translators have negotiated the insider/outsider space through a language that is socially and culturally removed from the caste specific Indian experience. Rita Kothari in her essay ‘Caste in a Casteless Language? English as a Language of 'Dalit' Expression’ raises the pertinent issue of locational politics reflected through the upper-caste translator (re)presenting the supposedly authentic voice of the autobiographer. The very process of translation brings the Dalit authors, translators and the target language English - the language of power and prestige in India, within a common yet problematic platform. Although these translators belong to high-caste none of the Dalit authors have publicly objected to being translated by them. This could have resulted from the desire to ascertain a global reach (promised by the target language), despite the outsider status of the medium of translation, or even the translator. Kothari observes:

Translation is one of the many consolidations that show a dalit subject as an active participant in Indian democracy - one who has changed the grammar of electoral politics, or one who wants caste discrimination to be acknowledged as a human rights issue, and one who is grappling with both the stigma and the assertion of her/his identity. As far as the English language is concerned, its ideological potential to "translate" the dalit life from fatalism to an identity of rights outweighs considerations of its distance from Indian reality (67).2

Coming to the issue of caste and class how can we exonerate the high caste translator from his/her social and cultural myopia which inadvertently enters the translation process? No amount of knowledge accumulation can possibly substitute the ignominy of being and living the life of a Dalit woman. Writing itself is an act of transgression for them. Translating trauma into words has always unearthed the worst kept secrets of the official narratives of any nation, amply manifested in the survivors of racism, sexism and casteism. For the translator translating may also be seen as experiencing the trauma surrogately and bringing it to life in another language. Testimonios unequivocally make certain claims on the readers. They aim at triggering a conversation, a public debate and a participatory response from the readers. One can hence, assume that the translator, being first and foremost a reader, must engage at a visceral level with the narrative of pain and oppression.

Pandit perceptively states: “…dominant cultures within a society very often suppress the reality of the oppressed and this poses a problem of representation for the translator. The translator has to enter the text and look at the hidden paths and, in some cases, clear out a lot of dead wood in order to bring to light certain domains that lie dormant or hidden in the text, under the linguistic façade.”

Here Pandit underlines the ways in which Dalit women might not be forthcoming with the pain and oppression they are subject to. As a woman translator Pandit confidently assumes the role of digging into and subsequently unraveling the hidden and unseen elements (‘dead wood’) of their life. She envisions the translator’s function and impact on a scale much larger than that of a negotiator between two cultures. The translator, as she states, addresses the politics of representation and the translation can serve as an act of subversion and as a counter-narrative to the nation’s public discourse.

While describing her experience of translating Kamble’s Jina Amucha she states her conscious decision to change the title of the testimonio to The Prisons We Broke that should have translated into This Wretched Life of Ours. Pandit’s decision to rework the title was inspired by the collective heroic struggles of the Mahar community which was getting lost in the verbatim translation of Jina Amucha. She made it a point to showcase the agency of Dalit women rather than present them as mere victims of circumstance. “This may be termed as a ‘compensatory’ translation strategy, but it at least partially managed to bring alive the political context of the struggle, the self assertion, and the agency of women and their communities” (155).Within the context of rethinking translation as a compensatory strategy Pandit imbues it with a transgressive flavour. She also dwells on the lexical, semantic, and syntactic gap between the two languages that couldn’t be resolved without using the “Marathi sentence structure with short N + V constructions that gave the text a singsong jumpy rhythm.”(156)

An elite herself Pandit is conscious of the historical and cultural specificity of the rituals, the jatras, the sacrifices, worship, and other such details in Dalit autobiographies. She is also aware of the patronizing gaze that she inherits from her position of belonging to the upper caste and class. She foregrounds the fault-lines that these translations can fall prey to either a trivialization or an exoticisation by the translator who is culturally divorced from the Dalit historical context.

1.    Pandit, Maya. “Translation: A Case of Border Crossing in the Global Village”, (accessed on 10.10.2020)

2.    Rita Kothari. ‘Caste in a Casteless Language? English as a Language of 'Dalit' Expression’ Economic and Political Weekly, SEPTEMBER 28, 2013, Vol. 48, No. 39 (SEPTEMBER 28, 2013), pp. 60-68

Bionote: Aparna Singh is working as an Assistant professor of English in Diamond Harbour Women’s University since 2016. She has published in various national and international journals till date. Some of them are, the International Journal of Multifaceted and Multilingual Studies and International Journal of Innovative Knowledge Concepts. She has an edited volume to her credit; Explorations: Literary and Cultural. She has reviewed the English translation of Vinayak, a Sahitya Award winning Hindi novel for Sahitya Akademi.

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