WAAT #63: Fathima E. V. and Nandakumar K. Discuss Various Aspects of Translator Collaboration in WAAT Session 03


In the latest WAAT session, I talked with two Malayalam-to-English translators about their collaboration approaches for the 2021 JCB Literature Prize-winning novel, Delhi: A Soliloquy, by M. Mukundan.

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Welcome back to the WAAT newsletter after a break of almost a month. Things have been busy here at WAAT HQ with personal deadlines, tax season, and acceptance into a translation Ph.D. program starting this fall (more on that in next week’s newsletter, where we’ll discuss the whys and wherefores of translation studies in general.)

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It is my pleasure to share this discussion, which is the third in the still-evolving WAAT Sessions series. Every translation is a collaboration, of course, between the author and the translator. We discussed that in an earlier session with Mithu Sanyal and Alta L. Price. But a translator-translator collaboration within the same language is not seen often. And, when their co-creation goes on to win one of the richest prizes in literary translation, it’s worth exploring, don’t you think?

I’ve only known Fathima and Nandakumar virtually. So it was a real joy to talk in person and dive deep into the intricacies of their translation processes (and a bit about my own by way of exploration) in this lively conversation. My apologies to them for taking a month to air this.

Fathima E. V. and Nandakumar K. on translator collaboration

An Introductory Note About Malayalam Language and Literature

Malayalam has some thirty-eight million speakers worldwide (source: Ethnologue, 2022) and is the official state language of the state of Kerala in India. To contextualize this in a global sense, that’s just about two million speakers less than the Polish language. Malayalam is also considered an ancient, classical language with literary traditions that go back centuries. Still, while it is one of the “official” twenty-two Indian languages, it ranks lower in terms of usage than Hindi, Bangla, Urdu, Punjabi, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, and Gujarati. It is, therefore, notable that Malayalam authors and translators are so prolific and thriving in their craft that there are relatively more books published in both the original language and in English translation.

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My introduction to Malayalam literature in English translation began with O. V. Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak, which I’ve written about at Electric Literature before. This is magical realism with history, myth, folktale, and more and it was self-translated by the author.

You can read about some more Malayalam literature in translation on a literary platform showcasing South Asian literature, Desi Books, which I ran from April 2020 to January 2023.

In Anglophone literature, the most well-known work may well be The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which is set in Kerala and uses a fair number of Malayalam words and phrases. The most well-known Malayali poet who wrote in English is, perhaps, Kamala Das.

About Fathima E. V.

Fathima E.V, is the co-translator (with Nandakumar K.) of M.Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy, which won the JCB Prize for Literature 2021. Fathima received the Crossword Prize for English Translation 2017, and the V. Abdulla Translation Award 2017, for her debut, A Preface to Man, translated from Subhash Chandran’s Manushayanu Oru Aamugham. Her other translations include Baby Doll: Stories of Gracy, longlisted for the SheThePeople Women Writer’s Prize 2022. She was shortlisted for the PEN Presents UK translation grant 2022 for an ongoing translation of P. F. Mathews’ novel, Adiyala Pretham. Fathima’s poems have appeared in international venues, and her creative non-fiction, ‘The Ire of Gnarled Things,’ was awarded the Vocabula Review Well-Written Prize 2012.

About Nandakumar K.

Nandakumar K. started his career as a sub-editor at Financial Express, followed by stints in international marketing and general management in India and abroad. His co-translation of M. Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy won the 2021 JCB Award for Literature. His other translations are A Thousand Cuts, the autobiography of Prof T. J. Joseph, The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories by Indu Menon, In the Name of the Lord by Sr Lucy Kalapura, and Anthill (winner of Kerala 2021 Sahitya Akademi Malayalam novel award) by Vinoy Thomas. Nandakumar lives in Dubai and works as a Business Analyst.

About Delhi: A Soliloquy

A contemporary classic in Malayalam, Delhi: A Soliloquy by M. Mukundan, co-translated by Fathima E. V. and Nandakumar K., won the 2021 JCB Prize for Literature. It is a rare exploration of Delhi’s refugee and migrant communities, especially the Malayali migrant community. Starting in the 1960s, it covers major milestones like the Sino-Indian War, the Indo-Pak War, the refugee influx of the 1970s, the Emergency and its excesses, the riots of 1984, and more. This is Delhi through the eyes of everyday people: artists, journalists, activists, students, prostitutes, housewives, and government officials.

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Edited Conversation Excerpts

Jenny Bhatt: Was there any time where, as you were reading and translating, you felt, oh, I’m going to have to go do more research about this? Or was it always “I could just ask the author”?

Nandakumar K.: Before I came into translation, I was a copy editor. So fact-checking and double-checking is all kind of in the interview. […] In one passage, actually—I don’t know if you’re familiar with Delhi—the person is walking. The character is moving from Malaviya Nagar towards the east of Kailash. But Mukundeyattan took him to IIT Gate. Okay? So I asked: why are you taking him this way? He said, oh, sorry, sorry, we’ll take it back. […] So, since I’ve lived in Delhi, I could . . . there are a couple of other places also where I had to make small changes. […] The Indian Coffee House—Sanjay Gandhi, during the Emergency, had got it destroyed.

Fathima E. V.: Often, we don’t have editors in Malayalam publishing. The authors are self-editing. So these kinds of things are missed by the authors as well. So when we translate, we are actually editing as well to some extent.

Because both of us are translators working with living authors, we constantly engage with them, and we also ask them. And they re-edit when their next Malayalam edition comes out. So, for them also, for the Malayalam as well, translation actually helps, I guess.

And also, if you look at Mukundeyattan’s novel, it was written twelve years ago. When the translation came, there was increased discussion. So the afterlife, the translated afterlife, is also giving a new life to the original.

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Jenny Bhatt: I know it’s different in your case because you’ve known each other for so long. But still, having been through this [collaboration] process, what are some do’s and don’ts you would advise? To somebody else who might be thinking about it?

Nandakumar K.: One thing is the normalization of the prose. […] Obviously, nobody’s style is going to be exactly the same. Everybody will have a partiality toward certain idioms and certain words. So both have to agree to somebody taking the lead. You can’t have two equal powers sitting on a collaborative translation. So one of them has to agree that, okay, he or she takes the lead and, where there is, let us say, a bit of controversy, whose decision prevails. That is something collaborative translators should first decide before taking on a project.

The other [point] is, if they’re not familiar with previous collaborations, at least read each other’s translations to know how the other person translates. That is important to know. So these are the two things that come to my mind.

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Fathima E. V.: Yeah. I think it’s because we know each other, it works. Even if we fight, even if we have disagreements, when we meet, we think in terms of “You’ve known me for so many years, man. And how can you fight?” Of course, we fight. And, of course, egos do work.

But then I think we also had a wonderful editor* who overruled all our differences and she made the final decision. She’s a very experienced and skilled and absolutely engaged editor. So that way, we were very lucky to have Karthika [V. K.]with us. So, but for Karthika, maybe we would’ve fought and parted. So she makes the final decisions, and that’s good for collaboration. If not for an editor, collaboration would never work.

*The editor here was the publisher of Westland Books, Karthika V. K., who is one of the most highly respected individuals in the Indian publishing world.

Some Malayalam Book/Author Recommendations (available in English translation)

Fathima E. V. favorites (a sampling): Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, O. V. Vijayan, S. Hareesh (Mustache, translated by Jayasree Kalathil; also a JCB Prize winner), Sara Joseph

Nandakumar K’s all-time favorite: M. T. Vasudevan Nair

Other Favorite Book/Author Recommendations

Fathima E. V.: Murakami

Nandakumar K.: Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason: Translation and its Discontents


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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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