Life Writings in Translation

Life writings in vernacular languages are often translated into foreign languages, particularly in English. It happens the other way too. However, oral narratives in local languages are also recorded and translated. In fact, we may identify so many reasons behind this recent trend across the world. Firstly, the motive is to widen the readership base of many life texts. Secondly, the publishers aim at maximum profit and subjects are treated as saleable commodities. Thirdly and very importantly, there is a definite political agenda behind this development; life texts are valuable tools to promote particular ideologies.

Translators of life histories do tend to translate more in English language because of the global reach of that language. Texts by the so-called subalterns and the othered get wider exposure and it is definitely a positive and convincing development. At the same time, a life penned in a vernacular language has its limitations in scope and reach. We have the classic example of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, originally written in Gujarati language. Had Mahadev Desai not translated it to English as The Story of My Experiments with Truth, many of us may have definitely missed the experience of reading one of the great autobiographies ever.1

In rare cases, an author himself or herself becomes the translator and there is no reason for us to doubt the credibility of the translator. Two good examples are Kamala Das’ My Story and Sr. Jesme’s Amen. On the other hand, if the translator and the author are different, the situation gets problematic and we talk about the “politics of translation” as Gayatri Spivak argues in her celebrated essay with the same title. A translator, in such a case only acts as a mediator, an interpreter of the source text and there is every chance that his interpretation gets clouded by his prejudices and ideological predilections. Nonetheless, it is to be admitted that a translator encounters many difficulties and “trials” (Berman 284) during translating a life narrative, ranging from obscure idioms, expressions, slangs, to sentence structures.2 While encountering such a situation, a translator is forced to improvise and distort a text which leads to ‘loss’ and ‘gain.’

A good translator of life writings tries to be an insider and approaches a text without any preconceived notions; he or she may surrender to the text as opined by Spivak (405). The translation will suffer if the translator has some vested interests. He may not try to become a biographer by adding something to the already existing text; the situation gets even more problematic when the author of the original life text is not the subject. In such a situation, by all probability, what the reader gets in translation is a narrative which is more often different and sometimes distorted, not what was intended by the helpless subject when he had dictated his life experiences. Naturally, we find drastic omissions and the ‘mediator’s’ ideological inclinations decide the selection of events in a subject’s life.

Translation of life writings flourished in the postcolonial era and we may notice the politics behind this emerging trend; translation has become an act of resistance, a method of reclaiming one’s identity. Translation of life stories of women acquire another interesting dimension – such narratives may be approached as protest writings against the two agencies – the coloniser and the patriarchy. We know that life writing has opened up a site where anyone can inscribe his self and such a democratic space has given freedom to women and the other subalterns to inscribe their identities, to come to the mainstream from the margins.

Translations of life narratives play another important function, that of cultural transactions. A translator’s importance is doubled when he helps in widening the scope of narratives through translation and ultimately it leads to translating a nation as such. Translating a life narrative to other forms is a trend today. Thus, for example, we have Gandhi’s life narrative translated to diverse forms like drama, films, cartoons, poems etc.

The section “Life Writings in Translation’’ includes two interesting but important entries. The first one is the first English translation of one of the earliest autobiographies in Kerala and India which emerged in the nineteenth century by a religious convert named Jacob Rama Varma. Rajesh V. Nair, the translator, in his introduction opines that it is difficult to categorize the narrative of Rama Varma; we may consider it an autobiography but at the same time, it is also a conversion narrative. However, the translation is supported by endnotes and a useful glossary. The second entry is the translation of a few Jewish Songs in Malayalam to English, undertaken by Philip Jose. The translator tries to contexualise the narrative in the cultural fabric of Kerala and aims to show us how such songs construct a collective identity of Jews in Kerala.


1 Gandhi’s autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth is the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, which covers his life from early childhood through to 1921. It was written in weekly instalments and published in his journal Navjivan from 1925 to 1929. Its English translation also appeared in instalments in his other journal Young India. It was initiated at the insistence of Swami Anand and other close co-workers of Gandhi, for him to explain the background of his public campaigns. Originally written in Gujarati, the book was mainly translated to English by Mahadev Desai in 1940 and Chapters XXIX-XLIII of Part V were translated by Desai’s friend and colleague, Pyarelal.

2 Every translation is a trial, a challenge for the translator. A translator has to face the trial by the readers particularly critics, linguists, reviewers etc. When a translator finds it difficult to translate a source text (ST) into another language (TL), he or she may be forced to adopt certain strategies to counter the challenges posed by the original text. The techniques adopted by the translator to overcome the difficulties are often considered as deformations or violations of the text.


Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign,” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. by Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge. 2000. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri.”The Politics of Translation” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. by Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge. 2000. Print.

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