Translation as Solidarity: Sanju Thomas

Sanju Thomas
The story of women and translations is said to be connected. They seem to have the same trajectory of struggle and growth, from the shadow of a ‘perfect’ other to becoming one’s own being. This struggle has not been easy and it is far from over. Still we are past those infamous postulates comparing creative translations to beautiful but unfaithful women, and have come to imagine a space where beauty and truth can co-exist in myriad ways. However complex this space may seem to be, translation has become a means to empower women and women writers. Translators have contributed to making translation a tool for challenging and subverting the dominant that is deemed the normal. Women writers and translators provide a new vitality to the field of translation widening its horizon, and imbuing it with vibrant ideas and new means to communicate to the world.

I am happy to belong to this space though I would not call myself an established translator. I have done translations, and both my major translations have been of works by women writers, the first one being an anthology of short stories by women writers from Kerala, spanning a century. While discussing the project, the publisher had given me a choice: I could work on an anthology of stories by master storytellers or one by women writers. An opportunity to work on a collection of stories of writers ranging from Basheer to MT Vasudevan Nair to Zacharia and Madhavikutty was tempting, and according to the publisher more viable. Not that women writing would not have sold at all. The time was late 1990s when the translation boom was supposedly taking place in India. Women Writing was slowly making its way from the literary margins to the shelves of book sellers. The ripples created by the two volumes of Women Writing in India by Susie Tharu and Lalita were still going strong. It was a “watershed” moment when women’s role in history itself came to be re-imagined through an interrogation “of the version of India’s past that the Orientalist / Western scholars as well as the enlightened Indian reformist leaders had collaborated to construct. This gave centrality to a male, upper caste perception of society, hence of literature, which suppressed, ignored or erased out of existence texts that did not conform to their specification of respectability or high culture.” (Mukherjee 123).More than the viability prospect, it was this eagerness to contribute to the women’s literary history that guided me towards choosing to translate Malayalam women writers.

Women Writing in Malayalam goes back to early 19th century. From folk songs to keertanas to poetry, the early women writers excelled in all kinds of established literary forms. By the end of 19th century when prose writing became popular, many women writers started writing articles, plays and short stories. In the 20th century the genre of short story emerged as the most pliable in the hands of women writers. The genre is usually considered to be the vehicle of the marginalized for “the short story remains by its very nature remote from society - romantic, individualistic, and intransigent”. (Hansan 3) One could argue that the genre of short story lends itself more readily to subversion and women writers from Lalithambika Antharjanam to Madhavikutty to Gracy and Sarah Joseph and many more have experimented with the craft and theme to lay bare the inner conflicts, unique experiences and complex relationships of women as individuals and as a collective in the society. The term pennezhuthu when it first appeared in the Malayalam literary circles generated a lot of debate about the very validity of such a term. From being ‘branded’ a feminist to being dismissed as melodramatic, whimsical, and too subjective women writers have had to face a lot of disapprovals everywhere in the world. In Kerala, where women still reel under the burden of patriarchal norms in spite of their educational achievements and contribution to economic and social activities, things are not any different. Molestations, rapes, incidents of domestic violence, dowry deaths are all rampant in a state where women are quite visible on many a public platforms. Intellectual and outspoken women, women who speak about sexuality, divorcees, single women, women whose husbands are abroad, women who have male friends are all suspected to be wayward. The derisive term feminichi used to mock at and attack women with strong or unconventional opinions is suggestive of the deeply entrenched misogyny in the society. It is only natural than women writers would have a lot to reflect and record in such a context.

By mapping the women writers from the early twentieth century onwards I attempted a kind of literary history. I tried to select stories that would puncture the allegation than women writings are too experiential, that all they can write about is about their own narrow world as against male writers who soar in the world of imagination. It is another fact that women are not allowed these flights of fancy as they are also many times mothers and caregivers, and do not have any mental space to soar, let alone a physical space to call exclusively theirs to sit down and write. In the anthology there are stories in first person where the narrator is a male, there are stories of betrayal, assault, disappointment, but also stories that can make light the daily dose of man-woman tussles in a public bus as well as wedded life. The stories also reflect on relationships between women, antagonistic as well as romantic, and the interdependence of man and beast. The world the women writers portray is thus not in the least constricted but rather they open doors to a vast world that is complex. The stories do look outward even while reflecting the world inside. The context even while local can relate to any other woman in the world, and also to men, for we inhabit this world together, after all.

The second book that I translated was the memoirs of the Naxal leader K Ajitha. Though it was not my personal choice now when I look back I can see that it was a natural progression. I was not keen to do the translation because I had a pre-conception about the Naxal movement and most importantly, about Ajitha herself. I remember my childhood days when the name used to strike fear in our minds. The pictures of Ajitha that came in the newspaper and the much publicized “blood soaked imprint of Ajitha’s hand on the wall” remained with me even when I grew older. Still, I decided to read the text out of curiosity. My naïve idea about a Naxalite changed completely when I met her in person. Even while I had disagreements with the path she took I also found her journey absolutely awe-inspiring. Here was a young woman, hardly 18, going into the forests of Wayanad along with male comrades, with complete conviction. She weathers the grueling trek through the forest and takes part in a police station attack. She is arrested along with others and is imprisoned for nine years, and that too in solitary confinement. She later left the party, and is now a woman’s activist.

Memoirs of Ajitha, I believe, is an important document of a woman’s subjective experience of an extremist movement. Women are usually discouraged from getting involved in politics or public matters of any kind. They are conditioned to believe that politics is not their domain, that discourses of political ideologies are way beyond them. Ajitha’s case was different because both her parents were involved in the movement. Still, even though Ajitha’s memoirs do not foreground a gender divide in the movement, there are subtle hints at what she found problematic as a women. While she was aware of the patriarchal norm women found themselves in, and was averse to it one understands that may be she was too young to theorise about it. But she expresses her disappointment that she was not trusted completely at first, that she had to wait longer to go into the villages for grass-root work. One finds a kind of urge to justify her involvement in an armed rebellion ‘despite’ her being a woman. There was one particular instance in the text that really struck me. When after the arrest, her male comrades were put through third degree torture, Ajitha feels that she is spared because she is a woman, and she feels let down by it. Not that she was not molested or tortured. In fact, she was paraded in front of the police station in a saree blouse and a pair of trousers, surrounded by men and photographed. The police alleged that she roamed around with male comrades in this attire. Predictably, the easiest way to destroy a woman’s will is to question her morality. Still, the cries of pain of her comrades undergoing physical torture seem to have affected her more. That she was ready for any consequence was absolutely clear. This kind of commitment is not easy to come by. She came to know later that it was the prominent Communist leader, K R Gowri Amma’s intervention that prevented her from getting raped in custody. Gowri Amma, a revolutionary communist leader of the times, has been reported to have gone through torture in jail many times during her political life. Ajitha’s interest in women’s rights gets intensified by her experiences in the women’s prison. Though she is not active in politics anymore, she continues to be an activist championing women’s rights.

Ajitha wanted to revisit and reiterate her belief in the ideology and also bring to light facts that only an insider would know. But when the translation came out, she got an opportunity to re-assess her experiences yet again. In the epilogue, she is more vocal about the discrimination women face in the movement: “Those days I couldn’t have related with feminist ideas, though in my memoirs I had pointed out many instances I felt discriminated against for being a woman. The male comrades considered women as slaves and sex objects. Women were never involved in the decision making process. Usually, their opinions were scoffed at and rejected. Yet, those days I considered feminist movements as a means for sexual promiscuity for vain woman.” This statement lends a different perspective to the nature of the movement itself. “Translation challenges the conventions of historiography by proposing a historical perspective that is never univocal, for in translation events often occur in a different order, not only chronologically, but epistemologically as well”, observes Christopher Larkosh. It gives an opportunity to the translator, if not the author, to contextualize a particular moment in history, and re-evaluate a process, to understand newer meanings and interpret events differently. The very act of writing a memoir is an evaluative exercise. It is a document about the self, but then it is also about what has gone into the making of the self. When the self is a woman, it gives her a different vision of history, from the margins. What gets swept aside as insignificant find new implications in her vision. Many times, the act of translation highlights these meanings more vividly and offers an opportunity to connect with similar perspectives that emerge from different cultural contexts. Every translation, we know, is essentially an act of reading. It is through an emotional connect of reading and relating to the text at some level that a desire to take it to a larger group of readers emerge. It is heartening to note that this translated text has been used as a resource in many different researches on women and politics. As posited by Walter Benjamin, the text thus may have many different kinds of “after-life.” This might not have been possible if the text had remained only in the source language. My own role as a mediator thus finds endorsement.

It is observed that there is a gender imbalance in literature, and especially translated literature. Not many works by women writers are translated, and not many translations by women are published. If they are published, not many sell. This should not act as a deterrent, if one wants to participate in the process of empowering women. Translation is always a political act. What one chooses to translate is one’s political choice. In the texts I chose to translate, what is common is the desire to uphold the woman’s point of view. As a translator, it was my conviction that these points of view matter, that their voices deserve to be heard not just in their immediate context, but also far and wide. At some point, I hope, they might merge with other similar voices to create an amplified voice that would be hard to ignore.


Works Cited

Larkosh, Christopher. “Translating Woman: Victoria Ocampo and the Empires of Foreign Fascination” in Maria Tymoczko, Edwin Gentzler (eds.) Translation and Power. University of Massachusetts Press. 2002. pp. 99-121.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. Literary History and the Politics of Gender. Indian Journal of Gender Studies. 2:1. 1995.pp 121-131.

Hansan, Clare. (ed.) Re-reading the Short Story. St Martin’s Press. 1989.
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Bionote: Sanju Thomas is an assistant professor in the School of Letters at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her areas of interest are Indian literature, Translation studies, Malayalam fiction and cinema, and Women’s writing. Her publications include the English translation of the memoirs of Ajitha (Kerala’s Naxalbari, 2008) and an edited anthology of Malayalam short stories by women writers (Myriad Mirrors, 2003).

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