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from the March 2022 issue

“Women with Highly Irregular Minds”: Nisha Susan on Translating KR Meera from Malayalam into English


Nisha Susan


Nisha Susan is the award-winning author of The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook, a short story collection about female friendship, social media, and marriage. She is also a translator and the co-founder of one of India's most renowned feminist zines, The Ladies Finger. Most recently, she translated KR Meera’s Qabar from Malayalam into English. One of Malayalam literature’s best-selling novelists, Meera started her career as the first woman hired by the newspaper Malayala Manorama, and her writing is informed by her personal journey: that of breaking barriers, resisting patriarchal control, and confronting loss. In her most widely praised novel, The Hangwoman, a woman is designated the first female executioner of the country. In Qabar, Meera explores the increased communalism in India, magnifying the tensions that lead to lynching, mob-making, and dehumanization. Influenced by García Márquez, her magical realist writing is also informed by old religions, djinns, and myths.

Both Susan’s short story collection and Qabar were published under imprints of Westland Books, a publishing house acquired by Amazon in 2017. Not only did Westland publish some of the finest fiction in India, it also consistently pushed out narratives that challenged the status quo. In early February 2022, Amazon suddenly announced the shutdown of Westland, sending out shockwaves in the industry. In this interview, conducted over Zoom, Nisha speaks about growing up with Malayalam literature, her identity as a creative writer, the relationship she shares with Meera, and the Westland closure.

 

Suhasini Patni (SP): You grew up between several countries, including Oman, Nigeria, and India, and today you call Bangalore your home. But your mother taught you Malayalam, and you grew up reading Malayalam books. I want to understand your relationship with this literature, as I find that many Indians who grow up speaking English tend to shed their mother tongue, especially for literary purposes, speaking it only in daily conversation. How have you retained this connection with Malayalam literature?

Nisha Susan (NS): I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this until the last couple of years. For instance, it recently occurred to me that my folks put me in an English-language school at the age of six in Bangalore. We didn’t speak English at home, so how was this supposed to work? I was curious and I asked my mum and she said, Oh, we didn’t think about it, we just put you in this school. She just assumed that I would be okay. I guess I must’ve been, because I don’t remember having too many difficulties. Then I lived with my grandparents from the age of six to thirteen in Bangalore. That was a pretty multilingual household. We watched movies in Malayalam, Tamil, and Kannada, and spoke multiple languages at home. This was considered normal. It was my grandparents who subscribed to Malayalam children’s magazines on my behalf. So, if I didn’t have anything to read in English, I would read in Malayalam.

In all these years that I’ve spent writing in English, I’ve always felt that my leaning toward literariness was informed by Malayalam. As a joke, I used to say that I considered myself a Malayali writer writing in English. And now that I’m working with Malayalam in my embryonic career as a translator, I’m thinking much more about things that for the longest time I took for granted.

 

SP: Can you talk about your relationship with KR Meera? In a recent interview, you talked about meeting her when you were working with the news site Tehelka and published a serialized English translation of her magnum opus The Hangwoman for its special fiction feature. So, you’ve known her for many years. How do you navigate the many facets of your relationship, especially now that you’ve worked with her in the professional capacity of translator?

NS: So actually, Meera and I have never met—our relationship is entirely online and by phone. She is just preternaturally cool. Her work and her literary persona are both things to watch, understand, and emulate. There is a lot of stamina involved in the work she does. She produces new writing every year, the range is huge, and her interest in the world in general is enormous. She has a very strong understanding of how gender, class, and caste positions affect both your position as a writer and what you produce. I am a big admirer of hers and she is very warm and kind to me, and we have an excellent professional relationship that has come out of many years of mutual respect.

 

SP: I read your short-story collection The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories right before I read Qabar, and I was struck by the similarities between your and Meera’s work. In Qabar, Bhavana’s mother, for example, is just in the background, reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and suddenly she’ll say something poignant about the experience of womanhood and motherhood. In one passage, she talks about how as a wife she never even took a Sunday off from work. I thought that she could exist easily in your writerly universe too. Do you see these similarities as well? If so, does that influence your translation?

NS: I mean, I hope it doesn’t influence my translation, but who knows? I think what Meera and I have in common is our interest in women’s lives. For example, she said in a recent conversation to me, “Bhavana’s mother is a familiar figure.” Meera and I both know women like her, but as a character in Indian writing, Bhavana’s mother is unusual—an elderly retired woman who is politically committed and reading a Korean bestseller in translation. She is not a common figure, and this sticks out. So Meera was asking, why is it that we know these women but they don’t appear in our books? And really, this is something that Meera has created: a whole class of fictional women with regular jobs and regular lives but highly irregular minds, just taking off in unanticipated directions. That is something I enjoy hugely. Of course, there is a similarity in the sense that I also write a lot about women. But where it takes a turn is Meera’s stamina to stay with pain and suffering. She has a heightened ability to do that. In real terms, we shouldn’t even be comparing my first collection of fiction with her work at all. It’s not in the same league.

 

SP: I see what you mean! But I was wondering whether you feel like you seek out this thread of similarity. That you particularly want to translate a woman’s story.

NS: I looked at my collection retrospectively and said, Oh, it’s all about women. Once I thought about it, it made sense: I am mostly only interested in women and mostly only read women writers. And similarly, I was madly attracted to Meera’s characters because they just don’t exist elsewhere and the thoughts they have are ones that nobody else is having. In the first paragraph of Meera’s Sooryane Aninja Oru Sthree (English translation forthcoming), for instance, there is a woman called Jezebel who’s standing in family court trying to get a divorce, and she tells herself that the way to get through the torture of it is to imagine that she is Jesus. It’s irresistible, really, to be involved in that kind of literary world. I will say that the one way in which my translation might be impacted by my own interest is that while I enjoy the surprise of Bhavana’s mother reading The Vegetarian, I get over that surprise swiftly because I know these women. I am not tempted to exoticize this detail.

 

SP: You’ve said that finding the book you want to translate is like finding a song you can sing. I’ve read interviews with Meera about how much García Márquez has influenced her, and I could see that in Qabar. But the book is also grounded in a sociopolitical history that’s not made apparent but always lurks in the background. It nods to the Babri Masjid1 dispute, for example, but that wouldn’t be your first guess as a reader because there is so much else to dive into. So, when you mention that this book is the song you could sing, I wonder what kind of journey you took to arrive at that feeling.

NS: To use the same example, it’s like a range of octaves. The syntax and the sentences in general, the turn of phrase, the particularly black humor of her books: that’s a set of work I intuitively understand. I understand how to turn that humor into English without difficulty. I understand the modernity that oozes in the sentences, even when they’re talking about traditions or events from five hundred years ago—I understand the modernity of the characters, settings, and literary influences that create Meera’s world. I did think I might make some mistake, like not recognizing a literary or cultural reference, but I felt confident that I could translate this book without making an ass of myself.


“I’m a big believer that translation works.”
 

I have looked at other contemporary books with this eye because I’m trying to educate myself in how this is done. Some books maybe in a while, a few years, I’ll be able to translate. But some books I just wouldn’t have a feel for. This comes from inside the translator as much as inside the writer. Perhaps in time my range will improve, but there are some writers that I would probably struggle with.

 

SP: I was also thinking about Malayalam as a language and how different it is from English. If I understand it correctly, it is an agglutinative (in which words are made by joining morphemes) language.

NS: Oh my god, yes, you basically die when you’re transliterating, When I am on the phone and want to transliterate something my mother has said, I’m exhausted by the end of it.

 

SP: Yes, I think that’s why a lot of books from language systems that are very different from English end up getting that reputation of being “lost in translation.” Was this something you were thinking about? Were there moments when you thought, this word itself could become three lines in English?

NS: That’s a good question, but that kind of thing is not a hallmark of Meera’s syntax. Hers is a very modern syntax. There is a kind of precision to her word choices that makes it quite easy. Even the sheer size of the words is small.

 

SP: I was also thinking about the choices you have to make as a translator. One of them, perhaps even the biggest one, is what you decide to keep in the original. I noticed that some words, like Mappila, korandi, and pathinaru kettu, weren’t translated, and then there’s title of the book—I was wondering why it didn’t become “tombstone” or something. But then there’s also your use of the English word “hottie,” which I thought was a really interesting translation choice.

NS: The retention of the title is something that Meera decided. And when I ran through the English options, I felt none of them quite worked as well as the original. But I think it’s very cheapo when people say that translation doesn’t work. I’m a big believer that translation works. I don’t like that insistence that a lot of people who don’t read much have that “it’s not as good as the original.” How do you know?

I think this title in particular is a very smart and considered choice on Meera’s part. Having said that, she leans toward a process of translation where you do not retain Malayalam words. She thinks keeping them is cheating, which I think is very interesting. It’s one of the first things she said to me before I began: that I should find suitable words in English. I went with that, but sometimes I liked the sound of certain Malayalam words. A word like korandi, for instance, sounds nice when you say it aloud. Pathinaru kettu is a very specific architectural form. It was hard to translate without it becoming super clumsy. With these words, I just thought people would get a sense and learn a new word. It wasn’t very systematic decision-making.


“It’s a bit of a tightrope walk to retain your intuitive response to a language but also to make sure your response is not super idiosyncratic.”
 

The word “hottie” has come up in every conversation about the book. I always find it funny. Because the word in the Malayalam text was “chullan.” How that word sounds and feels in your mouth to me is just the same as hottie. It’s a throwaway word. Like, if you were in a bar and saw a guy you’d say “chullan” under your breath. That’s the feel I went for.

Another phrase that came up is when I describe the two girls as “serious beauties.” The original Malayalam phrase was “bhayangara sundari.” Sundari is easy enough to translate for Indian readers. Bhayangara, to me, in casual Malayalam, would translate to “major” or “serious” beauties. There was a little bit of resistance to that phrase, not from Meera but from other people. But those are things you figure out as you go along. You do a little bit of second-guessing, you think a little more, and that second-guessing is necessary also. I did my first draft and then put it away and waited for Meera and others to look at it. When I eventually came back to it, there were some big bloopers. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk to retain your intuitive response to a language but also to make sure your response is not super idiosyncratic and incomprehensible to someone else.

 

SP: Going back to your relationship with Meera, I know a lot of translators do not like to have the author in conversation at all because they think it influences their work too much. You’ve said that Meera is usually hands-off, but she also suggested keeping the title in the original. Is this the kind of relationship you like, or would you prefer to translate in isolation in the future?

NS: When I was doing the translation, she wasn’t involved. That was a considered decision. When I was finished, she took a look. And because she’s always doing a million things, she took a while to come back to me. But she came back with very specific and useful feedback. There were a few things we disagreed upon, but in the end, she was comfortable letting me run with whatever translation I preferred. I don’t know if this is a relationship that can be replicated. I would assume that for every author and translator, that relationship would be specific.

 

SP: Since you’ve spent your whole life reading Malayalam books, I wonder if you now look back at something you read and think, “This needs to be in English and I want to be the one to do it.” Are you thinking about what you’re going to do next?

NS: I was talking to my agent about what I should be doing this year, because I have a tendency to want to do seven things at the same time. And now I’m more aware that there isn’t that much time to do many things. There are books I want to translate, but I am mostly in the process of educating myself and reading more Malayalam and more translations attentively. But hopefully this will also be a year where I do some of my own writing and translation (I’m working on a book that’s in a good place right now).

 

SP: Would you want to translate more of Meera’s work?

NS: Yes, of course. Before the launch for Qabar, I got all my Meera books out and had a good time looking at all of them. That gives you a sense. Usually by the time you’re done, you think, okay, I want nothing to do with this work. But it’s always a pleasure to read her, and there are always surprises in her work.

 

SP: I feel like we have to talk about the Westland closure. I can’t imagine that it’s been easy. They published both your debut collection and your debut translation. Is there any message you want to give to readers? I know the Malayalam original of Qabar sold 30,000 copies, and when it sold out, readers messaged Meera asking for copies. She has a huge following, and I’m sure it was devastating for readers to see that the English translation would no longer be available with Westland.

NS: I believe that the English edition has done well and continues to do well. It’s hard to say, because once the shock hit, I actually calmed down a bit. I thought, if there was a landslide and you lost your house, it would obviously be a tragedy, but it’s also out of my control. In some sense, I made a conscious decision to shelve any sadness and rage about it for later. Maybe after things settle, I’ll feel all the things one is supposed to feel. I don’t know. I’m surprised because I’m not someone who has huge amounts of self-restraint. But I am somewhat calm about this and just waiting to see what happens. Overall, I think it was such a stupid decision to close Westland. Corporate stupidity is a literary theme in itself.

But it’s very hard for writers who have many books to find a new home for each of them again. And to find editors again. Everybody I worked with at Westland was great. The marketing people were obsessive about selling your book. I went to a small bookstore in Bombay called Happy, which has been around since 1947. When you talk to them or other small bookstores in Bangalore, you have a sense of how closely Westland worked with bookstores. All of this is very hard to replicate. It’s not a corporate decision that can really be justified, but the world is full of stupid people with a lot of power. What to do? I am oddly calm right now. We’ll see how it goes.
 


1. The Babri Masjid dispute is centered around a plot of land in Ayodhaya, Uttar Pradesh. The location of the Babri Masjid mosque is regarded by the Hindus as the birthplace of Ram, their deity. On December 6, 1992, during a political rally, the mosque was illegally destroyed, triggering riots all over the country. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the land belonged to the government and should be handed over to a trust to build a Hindu temple. A different site was allocated to replace the destroyed masjid.

 

Nisha Susan is the author of the short story collection The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories (2020, Westland). Her nonfiction is deeply engaged with ideas of gender, culture, and the internet. In 2021, she wrote a tiny book called Seventeen Years and a Pandemic: What Watching Grey's Anatomy Taught Me. She has also recently translated KR Meera's Qabar from Malayalam.

 

© 2022 by Suhasini Patni. All rights reserved.

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