On the Missing Translator’s Notes and What Publishing Houses in Kerala Can Do

rosetta stone

There are structures real, there are structures imaginary. There are structures we dismantle, there are structures that dismantle us. For our ancestors, the Tower of Babel of the latter league, the fascinating origin myth in the Genesis, was answer to these age-old questions: “What pulled us apart, the human race, into distinct speech communities? How do we explain the complexity of our linguistic diversity?” Remember then, we also have structures that connect us. In a world that speaks more than 7000 languages, translation is our bridge, translation is what connects us. Translations shape our cultures. Anthony Burgess has observed: “Translation is not a matter of words only: It is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” (4)

To quote Lawrence Venuti, “Translation is a cultural practice that occupies a tactical position today... and wields enormous power in the construction of national identities… the most useful form this recognition can take is the elaboration of the theoretical, critical, and textual means by which translations can be studied and practiced as the locus of difference (13).” Discourses on translation, therefore, should be more than just “word-for-word or sense-for-sense?” And these discourses aren’t something to be mulled over in academia, neglecting the field of publication. If we are not to change the ill-informed practices of the publishing industry, how are we to change the very perceptions on translation - that it is merely a “second-order activity?” This piece of writing is a call out to the publishing houses in Kerala, to oversee their commissioning of translations with a little more sincerity and sophistication.

While visiting a few publishing houses in the state, as part of a research on the practice of translation here, something striking caught my attention. It was the absence of a translator’s note, an important paratext.

A quick look at some of the recent translations available in DC Books in Trivandrum has confirmed that the absence of a translator’s note is not anything unusual. A three by fourth of the translations published by DC and its sister concern Current Books do not have translator’s notes.

This textual omission speaks volumes about the insignificance with which the act of translation is perceived. No textual space is available for the translator to reflect the process of translation or to converse the creative or the political agreements/disagreements s/he has with the author of the source text. No attempt is made to contextualise the translation, or even the source text, when it is known that a translation does not exist in a vacuum. A paratext, which in this case is the translator’s note, is “more than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold... a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” (Genette 1-2)

In the Malayalam publishing industry, a translator’s note has become the privilege of a certain few celebrated, high-profile writers. The irony of this is in the following fact; that the literary, cultural and political aesthetics of modern Kerala are shaped by translations.

To drive this point home, let’s take examples familiar. In “A Local Cosmopolitan: “Kesari” Balakrishna Pillai and the Invention of Europe for a Modern Kerala”, Dilip M. Menon recalls how the writings of A. Balakrishna Pillai, in the 1930s, during the “high noon of Indian nationalism”, had shaped “a new literary aesthetic” (383) in Kerala. Pillai, “a critical nationalist”, had invoked a radical and egalitarian European modernity through translations and critical commentaries of influential German and French texts. His periodicals “Prabhodhakan” and “Kesari” in the 1930s translated a number of European avant-garde literature. Simultaneously rejecting the “spiritual idealism” of Gandhi and the aesthetic sensibilities of the British ruling class, Pillai had translated the Western European ideals of Enlightenment, locating himself within the well-defined progressive literary movement of the 30s and the 40s.

Likewise, while commenting upon the literary radicalism in India during the 30s and 50s, E. V. Ramakrishnan observes how translations of European literature enabled the writer to articulate their sense of resistance in contemporary terms once. These translations of European literatures brought about a shift in our literary sensibility. He notices how Paavangal (1925), Nalappat Narayana Menon’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), provided “a new set of subtexts that could render into tangible narratives the unfocused disquiet of a period that was yet to find expression”, and how it revamped “the apparatus of fictional representation by making available to the reader a new discourse about being human” (5). M. Leelavathi says: “In Kerala, the translation by Nalapatan set off a social reformation of sorts. Despite being a translation, it gifted Malayalam a new prose style . . . With its philosophy of human equality, the heart-wrenching tale of the oppressed left a profound impact in our society. Its influence was both sociological and philological” (qtd. in Anandan). As one comes to know that Paavangal has influenced the likes of E. M. S., V. T. Bhattathirippad and Joseph Mundassery - the very same people whose vision had radically altered the social fabric of post-independent Kerala, it is needless to stress the point any further.

Therefore, the little importance with which translations are being commissioned and published by Kerala’s leading publishing houses needs to be changed. This negligence is injustice and it is time we acknowledge our translators; it is time we acknowledge what we really owe to the very act of translation. And then, when this is taken care of, we will talk about underpaid translators and of translation quality.



  1. Anandan, S. “How Paavangal Enriched Kerala.” The Hindu [Kochi] 23 May 2012: Print.
  2. Burgess, Anthony. "Is translation possible?." Translation. The Journal of Literary Translation New York, NY 12 (1984): 3-7.
  3. Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. Vol. 20. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  4. Menon, Dilip M. "A local cosmopolitan: Kesari Balakrishna Pillai and the invention of Europe for a modern Kerala." Tapasam, Vol. II (3&4), January-April 2007.
  5. Ramakrishnan, E. V. "Radicalising literature: The role of translation in the creation of a public sphere in Kerala.” The EFL Journal 3.1 (2014): 1-13.
  6. Venuti, Lawrence, ed. Rethinking translation: Discourse, subjectivity, ideology. Taylor & Francis, 1992.