When applying for the BCLT Translator in Residence programme, we were asked to talk about what inspired us to apply for the programme in the first place. My answer was quite simple – I was looking for a community of practice.
I think of myself as an accidental translator. I published my first translation – a short story by Kerala writer Sarah Joseph – in 1999. Since then, I have written a children’s novel, translated short stories, poetry and essays, and been involved in the production of a series of children’s books titled Different Tales in three languages (English, Malayalam, Telugu). However, throughout that time, I was also working full time as an activist and researcher in anti-racism and psychosocial disability movements. Most of my writing was academic and policy related, and my community of practice was within Mad Studies and critical theory. It was only in 2019 that I published my first book-length translation. Four more books have followed since.
I translate from Malayalam – the language of Kerala, the southern-most state of India – into English, and I do that while living in the UK, removed from the context and culture in which the literature I am translating takes shape. Malayalam is a minority language within the minority languages spoken in the UK. Its vast and varied literature does not figure in any significant way in translated literature published in Anglophone countries. For instance, according to the Publishers Weekly Translation Database, of all the translated works published in the US between 2012 and 2022, only three were from Malayalam. (I do not know how many have been published in the UK).
As a migrant living in the country of our erstwhile colonizer, I am constantly aware of how my language disappears into insignificance along with hundreds of other languages. As migrants, we are also, always, living in translation, or as translator Madhu Kaza puts it, we are selves living ‘in the silence between languages.’ Questions of language and translation, and the racial, gendered, casteist and classist nature of it, are always in the foreground of my mind.
A key part of my work as a researcher interested in the material and theoretical aspects of madness as a human experience was confronting and challenging Eurocentrism, imperialism, and whiteness as an institution. I find that these issues are equally important in the field of translation. What does it mean to render the diversity and idiosyncrasy of a language into English, a language with a long history of colonialism and erasure of cultures and identities? How do we work towards translations that embody difference, otherness, unease? These are questions I grapple with.
Opportunities to discuss these questions are rare in the wider world of literary translation in the UK. My hope is that the residency will give me an opportunity to discuss these questions with a community of practice. Already, some of these questions have come up in interactions with colleagues and with students on the MA in Literary Translation at the BCLT. I look forward to addressing these questions in the context of the text I am working on during my residency – a children’s book, based partly in the seventeenth century, and addressing the history of colonialism and its impact on knowledge systems. I hope this residency will help open up thinking in a way that benefits literary translators, including myself, working from minority languages.
Dr Jayasree Kalathil is the author of a children’s book, The Sackclothman, which has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. Her translations have won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020 (Moustache by S. Hareesh) and the Crossword Books Jury Award for Indian Language Translation in 2019 (Diary of a Malayali Madman by N. Prabhakaran). Her latest translation, Valli by Sheela Tomi, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and the Atta Galatta-BLF Book Prize in 2022. Before becoming a fulltime translator, Jayasree worked in anti-racism and human rights in relation to mental health and psycho-social disability for over twenty years. Her works in this area include Recovery and Resilience: African, African- Caribbean and South Asian Women’s Stories of Recovering from Mental Distress, and the co-authored textbook Values and Ethics in Mental Health: An Exploration for Practice. Jayasree hails from Kerala, India, and currently lives in a small village in the New Forest in England.