How Are South Asian Works of Translation Amplifying the Voices of the Marginalized?

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Dee Das

Staff Writer

Trying to live, love, and say it well in good sentences. Pronouns: she/her. Contact:

The marginalized exist on the fringes of society. Which is to say, their voices are omitted by white man’s literature. Most of our academic textbooks never open us up to the worlds of the people whose narratives have been sidestepped by history, by society, and even by literature. In recent times, South Asian works of translation have been trying to rectify this situation. With great precision, translators are amplifying the voices of the oppressed who have always been on the wrong side of history.

Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi: Or The Story Of A Black Goat, translated by M. Kalyan Raman, is an ironic look at society. Poonachi, a kid, was gifted to an unnamed old man by a mysterious stranger. She braved lack of nourishment, the slaughter of her lover, and the sale of her kids and kept surviving despite the dire circumstances foisted on her. An authoritarian government kept count of all the livestock under its regime. In Poonachi’s world, male animals were forced to keep breeding and female animals were compelled into fecundity. As their human masters battled to make ends meet, the animals didn’t know what to feed their newborns. Poonachi’s vitality wasn’t to be subdued, though, as her inner life only deepened with every challenge she faced. Murugan has anthropomorphized a goat to shed light on how hunger and despair take a toll on the psychological and physical wellbeing of humanity. He makes his readers ponder on the effects the systems of surveillance have on the masses and how they work to subjugate the weak. Murugan also brings into fore the silent acquiescence of the oppressed in favor of its own oppression, which only magnifies their struggles.

In The Lesbian Cow And Other Stories, written by Indu Menon and translated by Nandakumar K., we see how patriarchy on top of systems of surveillance work together in seizing agency from the oppressed. In this anthology of short stories, Menon exposes the sociopolitical climate of India and how the state limits its citizens. Hegemonic structures like the army, the moneyed employer, and academic institutions operate in tandem to exercise control over the physical and intellectual resources of an individual, rendering them completely helpless. Menon talks about an activist who was kidnapped by the goons of a mining company and was forcibly made to star in a porn film, with the goal of defaming him. We see women who were forcibly sterilized because apparently, that was how our leaders thought of resolving India’s population problem. We read about a cobbler who skinned his daughter’s hanging corpse to make her a pair of shoes he had previously promised her. Many of these stories are centered around women who had been left both physically and psychologically battered. Rape became another tool via which the powerful and the privileged maintained the status quo and nurtured ideas of morality that solely benefited their kind. This further left the underprivileged and impoverished bereft of rights to their own bodies. 

Manoranjan Byapari’s novel, Imaan, translated into English from the Bengali original Chhera Chhera Jibon by Arunava Sinha, offers honest insights into poverty, hunger, death, and humanity’s primal need for companionship. Written with Byapari’s classic wit and candor, which has been translated impeccably by Sinha, this novel chronicles the story of Imaan Ali, who had never known a world beyond the jail where he grew up. Born to a mother who was convicted for murdering her husband, Imaan was released from jail at the age of 16. But what did freedom mean for the underprivileged if it came at the cost of having a bed to sleep in and food to eat? For the scrap dealers, ragpickers, prostitutes, men who sell corpses for a living, and their ilk, the jail was preferable as at least it guaranteed shelter and food. Imaan often becomes just a means via which the readers are offered glimpses into the world of the ‘lowborns’. In this world, the law wasn’t fair, as the upper caste Brahmins could get away with the vilest of crimes. Equity and justice never reached the poor, the lower caste, the ones whose lack of class privilege relegated them to the status of half-humans. The moments of tenderness we’re pulled into, featuring Polashi, Kamini, and Brojo, stand in sharp construct to the harshness of their universe where death was more profitable than life.

South Asian works of translation act as a window to the stories of people who have been betrayed by a social model that benefits from their exploitation. Reading South Asian translations is not just enriching, but also a necessity at a time when our realities coincide with their fictional parallels.

If you want to venture more into the world of translated fiction, check out 14 Must-Read Japanese Books Available In English Translation and 24 Must-Read 2021 Books In Translation.