Translating feminisms

Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series

(L-R) Parminder Singh Shonkey, publisher at Rethink Foundation, Hindi translator Devyani Bhardwaj, Saraswati D, Kannada translator and activist from Bengaluru, and Manisha Chaudhry, publishing professional, translator and project head of the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series during the panel discussion at the Delhi launch of the translation initiative. Photo IPP

“Books are mirrors into lives, relationships, society, and cultural diversities. Books have the transcendental power to influence and enrich human minds. Nothing satiates the heart and soul of a reader more than reading a good book. Books are portable magic – they transport readers to worlds unknown and unexplored. Books truly make the world a global community, giving unparalleled glimpses of stories of men, society, and regions. Books are various versions of the universe and their magic penetrates the deepest when they are translated into different languages. This magic gives authors and their creations a global mileage.”

With these insights, Anindita Chatterjee executive trustee of the Prabha Khaitan Foundation introduced the audience to the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation book translation series, a collaborative venture to encourage readership of feminist literature in more Indian languages. The launch event of the translation series was held at New Delhi’s India International Centre on 6 May 2022.

The Prabha Khaitan Foundation is a Kolkata-based non-profit trust, established in the 1980s by the late Dr Prabha Khaitan – author, cultural activist, and staunch feminist. In its current language publishing series, the foundation is supported by its associates, partners, and collaborators.

Indian poet Ashok Vajpeyi browsing through Zubaan’s titles at the Delhi launch of the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series. Photo IPP

New Delhi-based Zubaan Books, an independent feminist publishing house, established in 2003 as an imprint of India’s first feminist publishing house Kali For Women, has continued the tradition of publishing books on, for, upon, and by the women in South Asia. Zubaan, headed by Urvashi Butalia, has over the past two decades cemented its foothold in women’s writing and particularly on feminist and gender concerns in South Asia. Zubaan embraces the linguistic diversity and multiple traditions of storytelling and writing of a nation, with many voices to create a bibliodiverse world of reading and publishing.

Zubaan & the Prabha Khaitan Foundation

“Literature and translation share close connections. Translation gives the opportunity to learn about each other and learn from each other. In a country where people speak hundreds of languages, translation enables words and thoughts to travel through time and geographical margins,” observes Chatterjee.

Zubaan’s association with the Prabha Khaitan Foundation goes back to when it translated Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography Anya Se Ananya into English. The project involving translator Ira Pande, Zubaan, and the Foundation resulted in A Life Apart: An Autobiography in English.


The unique Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation translation first series intends to translate 12 books written by women writers. The pipeline for translations include Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian, the JCB Prize nominated Name Place Animal Thing by Dhariba Lyndem, The Sharp Knife of Memory by Kondapalli Koteswaramma, We Also Made History – Women in the Ambedkarite Movement by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas both by Vandana Singh.

The synergies of working with many Indian languages will amplify good feminist writing across the subcontinent and bring together publishing houses from across the country. As Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, Hindi, and Punjabi publishers have shown the keenest interest in Zubaan’s content – the first series and some of the 18 translated volumes in 8 Indian languages are already printed and on their way to distributors and books shops, while others will require a longer gestation period.

(L-R) Saraswati D, Kannada translator and activist from Bengaluru, Urvashi Butalia, co-founder and director of Zubaan Books, and Manisha Chaudhry, publishing professional, translator and project head of the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series at the Delhi launch of the translation initiative. Photo IPP

“We are delighted with this collaboration with the Prabha Khaitan Foundation,” says Urvashi Butalia, co-founder and director of Zubaan Books. “The Punjabi translation of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? by the Rethink Foundation is already published and the Hindi translation is on the way. The Hindi translation of Dear Mrs Naidu by Devyani Bhardwaj is being published by Alind Maheshwari’s publishing house Unbound Script. The Tamil translation of Bitter Wormwood has been published by Panmuga Medai as well. The other translated volumes will keep coming out as the year goes on, and we are already starting work on the next year’s collection of books.

“We hope to expand to some of the smaller languages also. We have always worked with both large and small, independent, and feminist publishers to help bring about the bibliodiverse and inclusive environment that books should be. All kinds of voices, which Zubaan has always been about,” says Butalia.

At the launch event, Gita Ramaswamy, managing trustee of the Hyderabad Book Trust said in her pre-recorded video, “I can’t but stress the importance of the issue of works on feminism and feminist memoirs to be translated across languages, particularly from and to Indian languages. This is a wonderful program for support translations that Zubaan has undertaken. The Hyderabad Book Trust would be translating into Telugu and publishing two of Zubaan’s books – Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattnaik, and We Also Made History – Women in the Ambedkarite Movement edited by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon. Both books are seminal – the first because it looks at mythology from a queer perspective, and the second because it is the first work in any Indian language about the Dalit feminist movement.”

“Praxis Collective is an initiative in Kerala to facilitate the publishing of academic and creative expressions in Malayalam. We have published some titles jointly with Insight Publica, an independent Malayalam publisher. Excited to collaborate with Zubaan in this initiative, we have jointly selected two titles – Younguncle Comes To Town, and Younguncle in the Himalayas by Vandana Singh. Our belief is that these translations will help recreate the conventional paradigm in Malayalam children’s literature which tends to stick to traditional understanding about marriage, fulfillment, and politics. Considering the strength that toxic masculinity has today in Kerala, I think it is high time we address the young reading public about intelligence and creativity. Let this be the beginning of a new dialog about Indian languages including English,” added Reshma Bhardwaj, a translator working with Insight Publica in another pre-recorded video.

The business of translations

Manisha Chaudhry is driving the Zubaan-Prabha Khaitan Foundation Translation Series on the ground. Excited by the implicit collaboration of publishers across the country, she says, “The kind of investment that the business of translation takes intellectually as well as financially and otherwise is something that we hope to address through this translation program. The discussions that we have about the whole act of translation and the politics of translation are important.”

“I think there is this very serious lacuna in terms of finding feminist content in Indian languages. I think they could do with a lot more work on feminism, whether it has to travel from English into Indian languages, or intra-language translations between Indian languages, these are some of the pathways that we hope to tread as we go along. We need to explore how to grow the reading audiences in the languages that we publish the translations in.”

Kannada translator and activist from Bengaluru, Saraswati D, speaks about the legacy and close interplay of the Dalit and feminist movements in Karnataka in a panel discussion on translating feminisms held at the launch. “We have been bringing out a women’s magazine for more than 25 years, and we wanted to introduce content from other Indian languages to our Kannada readers. I have translated Amrita Pritam’s A Stench of Kerosene and a few other poems into Kannada. We have wanted to translate We Also Made History – Women in the Ambedkarite Movement by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon for over eight years now.

“As a creative writer and a theater person, I have contributed to the start of a dialog on Dalit feminism in Kannada and we wanted to introduce this work to our readers in Kannada. It has a very interesting history, which even the Dalit movement has not noticed. The whole process of building the story through the narratives of 45 Dalit women and connecting it to the feminist politics and also critiquing the mainstream feminism was a very interesting subject to translate. My translation of the book is almost complete, and will most probably be published before the end of June.”

The Punjabi translation of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? by the Rethink Foundation. Photo IPP

Parminder Singh Shonkey, publisher at Rethink Foundation continues, “Rethink Foundation is the first publishing house in Punjab which works only on translations. Punjabi readership is predominated by fiction, mostly novels, short stories, and poems. Nonfiction has traditionally not found many takers in the state, as the people are neither in the habit of reading nor understanding nonfiction.

“The biggest challenge that we faced as publishers of nonfiction translations was how to take our titles to the readers. We are now established publishers in Punjab and many others are now following our lead and starting with publication houses specializing in translations. We converted our publication into a foundation with the hope that whatever work we do is free from materialistic objectives. As Punjabi is a marginalized language in our publishing industry, we have also diverted our publication work towards the dominant Hindi language so that we could succeed with our dream of bringing translated nonfiction in Punjabi to the state’s public.”

The gender of language

Parminder Singh Shonkey shares his belief in feminism as described in Nivedita Menon’s recent book Seeing Like A Feminist – feminism is neither about women nor about men rather it is about how we think. According to Menon, the nature of society and how it interacts with women through the behavior of its inhabitants defines feminism.

Devyani Bhardwaj with the Hindi translation of Zubaan’s Dear Mrs Naidu published by Unbound Script. Photo IPP

Devyani Bhardwaj, the translator who has translated Zubaan’s title Dear Mrs Naidu into Hindi says, “When we are reading in English, gender is marked at certain places, whereas while reading in Hindi gender is marked in every sentence or at several places in a sentence. So, the entire sentence formation becomes gendered as objects are also gendered in this language. Then there is also the widespread practice of using the male gender to represent the entire class of people in a piece. So it becomes a question of how to address the general masses. I usually convert sentences written in singular into plural as we can include more groups while addressing the audience in this manner.

“When I translate, I take into consideration the audience of the work, the original, and the target language. These are some of the challenges of a translator’s work – you cannot ignore the author’s original perspective and intention, and you cannot ignore the target audience of the translation. If the text has a feminist vision, you have to make sure to stay true to that as well, while making the transition from one language to the other as smooth as possible.”

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