A Life In Translation: How Mini Krishnan Opened New Worlds For Readers

Oxford University Press’s Mini Krishnan looks back at her four-decade-long career and the books she helped bring to life.
Mini Krishnan has edited 135 translations from 14 languages over her career.
Mini Krishnan has edited 135 translations from 14 languages over her career.

Once, on a visit to editor Mini Krishnan’s office, a Malayalam book caught a reverend’s eye. The cover featured a rosary floating over a crumpled cassock. “This looks like it should be translated by a priest,” he quipped, carrying it off to read on his flight back home.

The visitor was Rev. Valson Thampu, former principal of St Stephen’s College, whom Krishnan had been futilely pursuing for years to be part of her translation programme. While she was convinced of his talents, he was never interested. But the day after the visit, Krishnan got a phone call from Thampu, who said he wanted to translate Sarah Joseph’s classic novel Othappu—about the scandal that results from a nun leaving the convent.

The book that emerged, The Scent of the Other Side published by Oxford University Press (OUP), won the Crossword Book Award for Indian language translation in 2009. Of the deft translation, writer Paul Zacharia commented, “I couldn’t finish the original. I couldn’t put down the English translation.”

These serendipitous encounters aren’t new for Krishnan, a formidable figure in Indian publishing.

“Often the choice of a translator comes together in unexpected ways,” she explains. “I try to find a translator who is sympathetic to the author and their times, preferably someone who has grown up in the same meta-space.”

Sometimes, Krishnan spots a possible ‘right match’ at a seminar and approaches them. Cold pitches have also yielded results—journalist Sajai Jose was so taken with Johny Miranda’s work that he met him and translated the novella before approaching Krishnan. Thus Requiem for the Living (OUP, 2014)—about the Cochin Creole community—came into being.

Over her four-decade-long career, Krishnan has edited 135 translations—fiction, non-fiction, poetry and short stories—from 14 languages, been a member of several award and advisory panels, and worked on educational texts prescribed at school and university levels. She has picked up many admirers along the way, including late writer U.R. Ananthamurthy, who once called her the “best editor” he had ever known.

At 69 years, Krishnan is still going strong. As the translations editor at OUP, she not only sources and edits manuscripts for OUP but also actively connects translations with other potential publishers.

In spite of her busy schedule, Krishnan was generous with her time when approached for this profile. Our many conversations over email and WhatsApp would often send me on a reading spree, inspired by a PDF she shared or the mention of an old university text. Many things surprised me—her early morning emails, organized record-keeping, a teacher-like encouragement to look at the “bigger picture” and her enthusiasm to speak about literature and history at length instead of one-liners that add little to shared knowledge.

In one email, Krishnan tells me she is having a disappointing day as her efforts to get the stories of K. Saraswathi Amma—one of the early feminist writers in Kerala—taken up by a bigger publisher didn’t pay off.

As is usual with her emails, she piques my curiosity and I spend the morning reading Saraswathi Amma’s stories. In academic Jancy James’ words, “In the entire history of women’s writing in Kerala, Saraswathy Amma’s is the most tragic case of the deliberate neglect of female genius.” When I share this with Krishnan, she sadly remarks that the writer’s bad luck seems to be following her even after her death.

***

Born in 1951, in Bengaluru, to Malayali parents, Krishnan has never lived in Kerala and considers herself “rootless”. She learnt Malayalam from a private tutor during her high school vacations.

“Perhaps some of my insatiable longing to read translations, especially stories set in villages and small towns, comes from living in big cities,” she muses as she looks back at the years spent in cities such as Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai.

At school, Krishnan enjoyed Hindi and Kannada lessons, where she felt more at home compared with English texts. While books weren’t easily available to her in the late 1960s, Krishnan would race through the ones sent to her journalist father for review. During her university days, in Bengaluru and Delhi, she read everything that came her way from the library. She counts The Illustrated Weekly of India and writers such as Kamala Markandeya, Manoj Das, Shashi Deshpande, Chudamani Raghavan, Ibsen and Chekhov as early influences.

Krishnan’s stint with translations began with a failure. Her first experiment was A. Abdulla’s translation of the Malayalam novel Verukal/Roots (Macmillans, 1982) by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, which no salesman was keen on promoting. This was during her time at Macmillans in Chennai, where she joined as Branch Editor in 1980. In her first project at Macmillans, she was involved in assisting work on a 4,000-page typescript called Comparative Indian Literature, running into two volumes. It was a laborious task of compiling a survey of all literary forms—poetry, fiction, theatre—and managing 200 contributors and 17 language editors. Krishnan worked on it for five years.

For 12 years, until she managed to get funding for the Macmillan translations, Krishnan was an educational publisher. She campaigned for diverse writers in the compulsory reading lists of undergraduates in South Indian universities—even as late as 1983, the only Indian writers included were Tagore, Nehru, Aurobindo and Gandhi. In the 1990s, after the Bombay blasts, she turned her attention towards Value Education for children. She was shocked that “while science, technology and travel were on the move no publisher seemed to be worried about children growing up in a polarized country”. In the place of “watery moral science texts” that children find uninspiring, Krishnan circulated sample pages of the Garden of Life (1995) series. At first she couldn’t get an all-India print run of even 8,000 copies. Eventually the series went on to sell half a million copies a year for 20 years. Krishnan considers the series, which came 16 years into her career with Macmillans, her first real achievement as a publisher.

While doing this, Krishnan was also chasing her dream of publishing translated books for ‘language orphans’—as she calls those who cannot read a language but know or long to understand the culture. When it became clear to her in the mid-80s that Macmillans had no money or interest in translations, she began looking for funding outside the company. After an unsuccessful seven years, she found a sponsor in MR AR Educational Trust of Madras in 1992. They sponsored the Modern Indian Novels in Translation project out of Macmillan India, with Rs 50 lakh for five novels each from eleven languages.

One of the reasons she left Macmillans to join OUP in 2001 was because they were reluctant to publicise Lakshmi Holmström’s translation of Bama’s Karukku. After the publication of Karukku, there were community meetings in Bama’s village and many Dalit writers and activists said they felt vindicated. It was widely reviewed and the author and book began to be studied in universities across India and abroad. Krishnan recalls that during this period, there was a quickening of interest and the field of publishing translations opened up.

At OUP, Krishnan began to grow a wing of women’s and Dalit literature. She was thrilled that she could even publish books from the pre-Independence period, since the publishing directors were keen on socially relevant books. This gift, of noticing gaps and filling them, has been a quintessential feature of her work.

Krishnan says the course of her career would have been different had she stayed with a trade publisher.

“While one doesn’t have to worry about money or godown space, there are deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs to overcome, publishing committees to convince, sales and marketing people to win over. On the other hand a smaller publisher has more flexibility but fewer resources to extend on risk publishing.”

When I comment on the risks she has taken in publishing, she disagrees, saying they weren’t risks at all. “To me they were what an editor who looked beyond profits and safety nets should be doing anyway.”

But when I push the point, examples emerge of what others might view as risks. The first translation Krishnan edited for OUP in 2001 was Pundalik Naik’s Achhev/Upheaval, translated by Vidya Pai. “The book didn’t stand a chance with a more commercially oriented group and most review editors would not view Konkani in the same light as, say, her sister languages Marathi and Kannada”.

In 2010, believing that the quiet voice of an antharjanam had not been heard outside Kerala, Krishnan brought in two first-timers as translators—P. Radhika Menon and Indira Menon—to work on a number of scattered essays and articles by Devaki Nilayamgode (Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman). In the translation series of Oxford Novellas (2013-15), almost all the books were by well-known writers (C. S. Chellappa, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, La Sa Ramamritham) but Requiem for the Living may have been a risk as author Johny Miranda was barely known even in Kerala.

“I don’t know how much money they made for OUP but two Oxford Novellas were prescribed in universities, Pundalik was invited to spend a semester in the University of Pennsylvania as a writer in residence and Johny is now something of a celebrity. Translation certainly changed the way these writers were viewed.”

In 2003, OUP published translations of Dalit literature from Marathi, Akkarmashi/The Outcaste by Sharankumar Limbale, translated by Santosh Bhoomkar, and the first Gujarati Dalit novel, Angaliyat/The Stepchild by Joseph Macwan, translated by Rita Kothari.

But it was Bama’s Sangati (OUP, 2005) that “swung things around”, recalls Krishnan. OUP’s commitment to Indian and Dalit literature led to many letters and phone calls expressing interest in attempting translations of Dalit writing—and by then there were over 100 M.Phil studies on Bama. It still took time to convince the people involved, as translators and publishers were nervous about successfully transferring the force and tone of the original.

But things have changed for the better in the past decade. Krishnan has published three mega volumes of Dalit writing through OUP— translated writing from Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. She invited Dalit editors and advisors to check her edits and selections to ensure accuracy.

The English translation of Pulayathara by Paul Chirakkarode—one of the earliest Dalit novels with an insider’s perspective of caste in Christianity and the plight of converted Dalits—has an interesting back story. Prof M. Dasan, who edited the Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing (2011, OUP) selected a chapter from Pulayathara to include in the book. Reading Catherine Thankamma’s translation of the excerpt, Krishnan felt the novel “should be revived, restored and renewed in English”. But tracking down a copy of the original 1962 novel was an arduous task. The last eight pages were missing in M. Dasan’s personal copy and library hunts from Calicut to Trivandrum proved fruitless. Finally, a battered, personal copy was sourced for the missing pages. The project took 6 years to complete but the English translation, published by OUP in 2019, “was so widely appreciated that a publishing giant—the Manorama group—met with Mrs Paul Chirakkarode and signed her for a reprint of the book in Malayalam, 57 years after the first edition”, Krishnan recounts.

***

In a 2016 interview, Krishnan had said she will not “reduce the chillies for the non-Indian reader”, referring to the tendency to pander to Western linguistic sensibilities. I ask her if she still stands by this, and she gives a resounding “yes” but emphasizes on the importance of introductions. She cites Julius Lipner’s introduction to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath which runs to 120 pages—“But then the book needed it !”

Krishnan asserts that “critical and editorial supports must include a good introduction contextualizing the work and writer, and notes and glossaries to explain untranslatable words and customs (madi, shaligramam, sambandham etc) which are the complex aspects of our culture.”

For instance, in Outcaste/Brushte (Macmillans, 1996) by Matampu Kunjukuttan, translated from Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, the royal women or Thampurattis are addressed as Thampuran because they have the status of men. “There is also a degree of sarcasm here—they buy and discard husbands,” she adds.

Krishnan has dipped her toes in many languages, editing translations from Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Konkani, Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Dogri and Tulu (unpublished). Her process of editing is long and meticulous, more so in books from languages that she cannot read.

“In order to undertake a task so daunting, one has to approach a translation with both dexterity and respect. I prepare for an edit session by reading translations of those works that were published at the same time as the original of the translation. I study strategies and successes of other translators from the same language.” She also encourages the translator to do the same but since some translators are very keyed up, she is “careful not to do anything to dip their confidence levels”.

“I wish I had a crore of rupees. I would have commissioned a 100 translations, given bursaries to translators, settled authors with handsome fees and handed over the translations to publishers and said “Thou shalt publish!”

- Mini Krishnan

Before assigning a project to a translator, Krishnan “tests waters” either by looking through samples of previous translations or asking different people to translate the same ten pages. She makes sure they stick to deadlines but does not hurry them on in a way that would detract from their work. For example, a translator might spend close to a year working on a manuscript (Prabha Sridevan translating Chudamani Raghavan from Tamil) with no publisher in sight and Krishnan recognises this as the sheer love towards the work of the author.

In Krishnan’s list of titles, I notice different translators—many first-timers—from the same language rather than the same names being repeated. She says she finds it exciting to watch what will emerge from “the unpredictability of vocabulary and untapped potential of a fresh mind”.

“But how does one ensure that nuances, swearing, and cadences are imbibed in a foreign language,?” I ask. Krishnan quickly corrects me saying “One cannot ensure, one can only try!”

It was Gita Krishnankutty who gave Krishnan the idea to include a list of ‘kinship terms’ at the beginning of a translation. In Holmström’s translation in the first draft of Karukku, Krishnan gently suggested that ‘He ran hell for leather’ was too western, as well as words such as ‘briars’ for thorny. Each translated sentence goes through several iterations, as I find when I’m shown the notes exchanged between historian J. Devika and Krishnan on whether kodungaattu should be translated as ‘storm’ or ‘gale’ and whether “howl of a lone wolf” or “lone howl of wolves” or an “eerie howl” best communicates the intent of the author.

Translation, in Krishnan’s words, “is essentially a re-conceptualization of some untranslatable original, a feat of ‘linguistic yoga’, as every language comes with its own idiosyncrasies of grammar, syntax and vernacular”.

She believes that translators are creators and “second writers”. She cites many examples, one being a conversation with German novelist Saša Stanišić from ten years ago. Stanišić said, “I’m almost afraid of my translators because they read me so carefully that they end up knowing the text better than I do.” His English translator Anthea Bell asked “Saša, don’t you think this should be a Friday on this page and not a Saturday, you’re not yet into the next day in this part of the novel.” In another incident, translator Susheela Punitha, egged on by Krishnan, asked U.R. Ananthamurthy whether he had used the neuter gender deliberately in his application of a particular pronoun (in his protagonist’s thoughts) in his 1973 Kannada classic, Bharathipura (OUP, 2011). The celebrated writer was shaken as he couldn’t link the expression with his creative state of mind when he had written the words. “Is it possible that he didn’t notice?” Punitha and Krishnan wondered.

J. Devika, who has collaborated with Krishnan on many projects, describes her as a rare professional with a keen eye who balances work and friendship, thus making every project a joyful experience.

“I can tell you outright that many translations edited by Krishnan that have received much applause would have been unreadable (and even mistranslations) without her generosity,” the academic, who has translated several books from Malayalam to English, said in an email.

***

A regular day in Krishnan’s life begins and ends with books. She is an early riser and feeds three cats with different personalities and recites prayers before beginning work. She begins work at her home-office from 10 am and continues until 1pm. With the vast body of work to her credit, I am surprised to learn that Krishnan prefers old-school pen and paper edits, which are later digitized by her secretary Isabel Fernandes. In the afternoon, she listens to lectures on the Upanishads and resumes work after tea. Evenings are reserved for watching films or documentaries with her husband. After dinner by 8. 30pm, she reads until she falls asleep.

Like most bookworms, she reads multiple books at a time—one on the verandah, one upstairs, one in bed. At the moment she is absorbed in Unnava Lakshminarayana s Malapalli, translated from Telugu by V. V. B Rama Rao, Ashapurna Debi’s The First Promise, translated from Bengali by Indira Chowdhury, and Wendy Lesser’s The Genius of Language. She enjoys religious translations in particular to study how stately language gives way to less formal expression.

“I often feel that my views on language belong to the past. Last month, when I balked at a phrase (which the author endorsed) in a translation—‘They were serious beauties’— I felt dated. Seriously.”

Currently Krishnan is working on a collection of Gracy’ s stories, translated by E. V Fathima for HarperCollins, and an anthology of Tamil stories for Aleph. She is in discussion with another publisher to republish older Macmillan titles, including Krishnankutty’s translation of The Eye of God (1997) by N.P Mohammad—“one of the most poignant works I ever published about the Hindu rituals and practices of Malabar Muslims”. Krishnan is also involved in a major project with the Educational Services Corporation of the Tamil Nadu government to publish works—selected by a committee of experts— from Tamil. This is modelled on the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University programme (2015-2017), a collaborative project between academia and six publishers, where Krishnan served as consulting editor.

“Translation certainly changed the way these writers were viewed.”

Krishnan knows that there is a lot left to do in the field of translation—more non-fiction books, and translations of works by Muslim and Christian writers need to be published; she worries that dominant literary languages such as Hindi and Malayalam could muffle “rich voices from other languages that may not be well represented in the media”; and much more. And yet, she is hopeful.

“I wish I had a crore of rupees. I would have commissioned a 100 translations, given bursaries to translators, settled authors with handsome fees and handed over the translations to publishers and said “Thou shalt publish!”

I bring up the controversial topic of translators being omitted from the covers of many books, even by prominent publishing houses who fear this could hit sales. It clearly strikes a nerve.

“What can I say! It is tragic and insensitive,” she retorts.

She also has a challenge for anyone who runs down translations.

“It is easy to denigrate translations but let anyone who takes a dig at them try translating 500 words!”

This story was updated to correct an editing error in Krishnan’s joining year at OUP.