Dynamics of Transcultural transference: Translating from Telugu to English by Malathi Nidadavolu

After arriving in the U.S. in 1973, I became intensely aware of the incongruities on the surface in the two cultures—American and Indian—and the commonalities beneath. Hit by culture shock, and encouraged by my American friends, I launched the website, www.thulika.net, in an attempt to demystify the stereotypical perceptions, identify the underlying commonalities in our beliefs and customs. Reasons developed in course of time include the interests of the current generation Telugu youth: those who cannot read Telugu script and those who have gotten used to English so well that they are comfortable reading the stories in English. Additionally, the site has been recognized as a valuable source for scholars in multicultural education and Telugu literature by the academy globally.

Selection criteria have been based on: The stories that reflect our intrinsic values as opposed to the values newly developed in recent times; those that explain the age-old customs specific to Telugu culture; and the stories that lend themselves to translation reasonably well.

Problematic areas in translation experienced relate to: Native flavor, dialectal variations, phrases peculiar to Telugu, proverbs, (those that are easily translatable and those that are not), humor, and structure and the Linguistic areas: Pronouns, forms of address, and grammar, especially tense. I have gained valuable experience from my interaction with the authors of source texts and critics. In the summer of 1978, I started teaching Telugu as Second Language at the university of Wisconsin-Madison. While working with the students and talking to my friends at the university, I noticed the stereotypical perceptions prevalent in America. The repeated questions I was asked reminded me of typecasting we, the Telugu people, did. It made me think of ways to dispel some of the misconceptions at least. Being a writer, I wanted to pass on our stories, which would reflect the fundamental values we cherish in our culture and the broader spectrum of our writers in the process to the non-Telugu readers.

Before launching my website, I researched what was available in translations. My findings confirmed my belief that Telugu fiction is conspicuous by absence on the international literary scene. Very little Telugu fiction was available in the media and on the Internet, although there was considerable amount of fiction from other Indian languages. 2. There was no systematic attempt to illustrate the broad range of our writers in a coherent and comprehensive manner. 3. The translations were always of the stories by a few reputed authors, which meant ignoring other excellent stories by less known writers. 4. In the published translations, there seemed to be an assumption that the readers were familiar with our language and culture. To put it in another way, the academic journals and the web magazines had been catering either to the pan-Indian readers or to the foreign readers, who have some knowledge of Indian culture. However, there was no well-organized, concerted effort to translate modern Telugu fiction in a cohesive manner, catering to the readers who were not familiar with our culture. To my knowledge, the published works in translation had not reached the readers outside India, particularly outside the academy. Further, the academy appeared to be focused on ancient poetry, especially the romantic poetry in translations to the detriment of fiction.

I was convinced that there was a dire need to present Telugu fiction in English to the global audience, especially those who had not been familiar with our language and culture. With that in mind, I launched the website, thulika.net in June 2001, creating a platform exclusively devoted to modern Telugu fiction, and introducing the broader spectrum of the intellectual richness and the talent of several writers from Andhra Pradesh to the global audience.

My next step was to examine the readers’ preferences. I understood that people read stories from another culture not only to appreciate the intellectual perceptions prevalent in that country but also to draw parallels from everyday lives and comprehend how the problems in question were dealt with in other cultures. Suffering is universal; happiness is universal; so also a host of other issues in human life. One good example is marriage. Americans are curious about arranged marriages and our media plays up to their curiosity. Sad but true is the fact that most of these stories make no attempt to explain the underlying principle of the arranged marriages or why the custom was put in place to begin with, how it plays out in times of adversity and the recent metamorphosis of the custom in modern times.  After watching the wedding process in America, I have concluded that, in a marriage, the most important aspect is not how you arrive there but what you would do to make it work. In both the cultures, keeping a marriage together is hard work. Thus, my primary goal has not been to criticize one culture or the other but to draw the analogues and highlight the commonalities in human psyche.

Translations are hard. Crosscultural translations are harder. There is no translation, certainly no word for word translation, which permits us to switch back and forth with mechanical precision. In my interaction with some of the readers, I have noticed that the native speakers and writers often tend to retranslate, unconsciously I might add, when they read a translation. Usually it shows in their comments on the translation in question. In order to appreciate a translation, the reader must be willing to accept certain prerequisites. For a foreign reader, it is the need to leave his/her preconceived notions about the other culture and start afresh. For a native reader, in this case Telugu reader or writer, it is the willingness to beware that the translation has been done for a reader, who cannot read the original in Telugu and is unfamiliar with Telugu language and culture. Personally, I think crosscultural translation is transcreation and the translator is invariably a creative writer.

There are several elements to consider in translating for crosscultural audience. I will briefly discuss each of these aspects, namely, dialectal variations, native flavor, structure, phrases peculiar to Telugu, proverbs, and grammar comprising tense, pronouns, and proper nouns. Humor is one more element that requires close attention with reference to the target audience.

The first step would be to identify the peculiarities of the source language and the target language.Clearly, the language I have learned at Andhra University, Waltair, India, is not sufficient for translating for American readers. If I want the Americans to read my translations, I need to give the stories to them in American English. At the beginning, I started out with seeking advice from my American friends on my translations. One of them was Dr. Abbie Ziffren, who had been a great help in fine-tuning my language. In 1982, my first translation, man, woman, [Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, mogavaadu, aadamanishi] was published in the Journal of South Asia Literatures.

Soon enough, I realized that there was no consensus regarding the “correct” usage. Each time, I corrected the text according to one person’s suggestions, and showed it to another friend, there were more corrections. Sometimes, I would have to “do and undo” the same words back and forth. Finally, I realized that, while the American English had its distinctive features, there were always variations in the preferences of each person regarding how a word was used or how a sentence was constructed.

Selection Criteria

Initially, my selections were based on the premise stated above, namely, introducing the fundamental philosophy underlying our mode of thinking, lifestyles and customs. Therefore, I turned my attention invariably to the stories written in the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties – during which period Telugu fiction flourished. As my work progressed, I continued to redefine and fine-tune my criteria for selection. My second criterion has been the ease of diction, which is controversial in itself and which is explained by the translation process illustrated below. Third is the literary value and/or the author’s unique style. As stated earlier, I strongly believe that it is important to introduce not only the most prominent writers but also other good writers, in order to illustrate the breadth of our artistic accomplishment and for a better understanding of our cultural values.
I might as well mention that, from the start I did not care for the stories focused on specific ideologies. I feel that such stories have received extensive exposure in other journals and websites and there is no need for me to rehash the same. However, on occasion, I would make exception as in the case of the story “yajnam” [The Rite of sacrifice] (Rama Rao). Further discussion follows under the subheading Structure.

Dialectal and regional variations

In Andhra Pradesh, the dialectal variations are based on several aspects. They vary not only from region to region, but also, within a given region, there may be variations based on caste, calling, education and economic status. Some families may even develop their own language from a mix of a few dialects. The differences in regional dialects such as Chittoor, Telangana and Coastal Andhra are accepted as dialects. Then there may also be variations, which come into play, defying regional and caste practices.

There is no consensus concerning how to handle the dialectal variations in translation. A well-known dramatist and actor, Ravi Kondala Rao argued that the native flavor in the source language cannot be imparted effectively into another language and therefore translations are pointless (Kondala Rao. Aa sogasu vastundaa? [Can that beauty be achieved? (in a translation)]? Apparently, Kondala Rao missed the one point, which is, translations are meant for those who cannot read the Telugu originals. For instance, in the sixties, the translations of Hunchback of Notre Dam [ghantaaraavam] by Surampudi Sitaram, and A Tale of Two Cities [rendu mahanagaraalu] by Tenneti Suri were received by Telugu readers with remarkable enthusiasm because of the beauty in the Telugu versions regardless of the native flavor in the original versions. I am sure that a vast majority of the readers did not read the originals in French and English and did not care for what they might be missing.

In addition to the foreign readers, in recent times, there are two more groups of readers, who are enjoying the translations in English. First group consists of the educated Telugu people who have gotten used to using English almost as their first language, and thus enjoy reading Telugu stories in English. The second group is the current day Telugu youth who have attended English medium schools and cannot read the Telugu script. They, being knowledgeable in Telugu culture, are different from the foreign readers though. Nonetheless, they all enjoy the translations in English with the same fervor.

For the purpose of this article, the target audience is assumed to be unfamiliar both with the Telugu language and culture.

Language: Pedantic versus Colloquial

In modern Telugu fiction and literature, the language started out as the language used by the polite society, known as sishtajana vyaavahaarikam, which is translatable fairly well. Basically, it is the language standardized and adopted by magazines and other media. The underlying philosophy is stories written in sishtajana vyaavahaarikam would reach a wide range of readers across the state. In English, this is comparable to the British English I had learned at Andhra University. Of course, still there are variations such as spelling between British and American English.

On the other hand, the colloquial style consists of several dialects. They vary based on region, social groups, and even sophistication of the readers. To be honest, some of the dialects are beyond my comprehension despite my stay in those regions for considerable amount of time. In that sense, stories written in regional dialects and the dialects of rural communities pose bigger problems for me. In America, the colloquial forms include words spelled as spoken, contractions and ellipses. For example “I ain’t cummin’” for “I am not coming”, “Whaddyado” for “What do you do”, “bro” for brother, “ADD” for “attention deficit disorder” and so on. However, this implies understanding a completely new language, which is beyond my comprehension. For that reason, I have decided to stay with the language of the polite society and paraphrase it, where occasion calls for it. However, I have attempted to bring about some distinction between the pedantic and the colloquial styles in my translations. For instance, the difference is evident in the translations of two stories The Soul wills it (Satyanarayana. jeevudi ishtam) and Middle class complex (Mullapudi Venkataramana. janataa express). I used the pedantic style in the former and the colloquial style in the latter. Pavani Sastry, son of Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s son, and Mullapudi Venkataramana expressed their satisfaction with my translations. Venkataramana wrote to me, “People say my stories are hard to translate but you have done good job.” (Personal correspondence with the author.). I was able to do justice to Venkataramana’s story because there was a story to tell, and the humor in the story emanated from the incidents universal in nature. On the other hand, another story by the same author, Mullapudi Venkataramana, Radha’s debt [Raadhamma baaki] (Review by Malathi) was hard to translate since it contained humor and phraseology that would go beyond the pale of my language skills. That being the case, I chose, instead of translating, to write an analytical article, explaining the humor in the story. I believe I have succeeded in conveying to the non-native readers a taste of the humor prevalent in our society.

Native flavor

As mentioned earlier, the native flavor is a big problem in translations, possibly even within the context of Indian languages. For instance a phrase like katha Kancikee, manam intikee, [Literally, the story (moves on) to the town of Kanjeepuram and we to our homes] may have similar phrases in other languages possibly with the name of a town in their area. In such instances, the translator would have to decide whether he would keep the proper noun, Kanjeepuram, or choose an equivalent phrase in the target language. Personally, I would prefer the Telugu phrase and provide an explanation.
Second aspect of the native flavor is the sonorous quality of Telugu. The vowel-ending feature and alliterations contribute to the musical nature of our language. One has to be a poet to bring about that effect. Although I am not a poet, I will try my best to achieve that effect. I will remind myself that I was translating a story, not poetry. Stories by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry fall under this category. In his stories, there is a story to tell and poetry to experience the beauty of the language.

On rare occasions, I feel a story untranslatable because of its musical quality. Had I chosen such a story for a different reason, I would elaborate on the native flavor in the editorial. If the entire story is poetic in nature, and I am trying to translate it, I will alert the readers at the beginning itself of what they might be missing in the translation along with the high watermarks in the story. Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry’s stories are known for his command of diction. The traditional values, especially the manner in which he deals with the institution of prostitution, is not exactly my cup of tea yet his presentation is captivating.


Occasionally, I would select a story specifically for its historical significance and the details regarding the lives of the rural communities. One such story is “yajnam” (Rama Rao). This critically acclaimed and highly controversial story has been translated by more than one translator, I believe. I have not seen the other translations but I am positive that there are significant differences between my translation and their translations. In this story, apart from the author’s use of Srikakulam dialect and the farming community, there is a passage where the protagonist, Appalramudu, delivers a speech, which runs to about four pages. Additionally, the speech is interspersed with episodes from the past. That requires the reader to move back and forth in time, and grasp the speech at two levels—the past and the present. That puts a huge burden on the mind of a reader unfamiliar with our culture; it would be frustrating. Therefore, I have made some structural changes in my translation with, of course, the author’s express permission.

One more factor to remember is we have not outgrown the use of some of the elements of narrative technique in oral tradition. Telling a story to a live audience has its advantages and is hard to resist. Besides, Telugu readers have no problem with the elements of oral tradition such as switching between past and present and digression in a narrative. Nevertheless, it is a problem for readers from other cultures.

In a heartrending story of a working-class woman, aarthanadam (Ranganayakamma), the author, includes an episode containing a long humorous dialogue between a grandmother and her grandchildren. The episode has no relevance to the original story and the language she used is not easy to translate because of several forms of address and trivial phraseology. It is a structural flaw in the story. Further discussion of this episode is offered under Humor.

Dhvani [suggestion] and vakrokti [indirect communication] in translations

Dhvani [suggestion] and vakrokti [indirect communication] are common in literatures but problematic in crosscultural translation. While the concept is known in all literatures, it is not easy to comprehend the full meaning in the stories from other cultures. It makes the reader constantly worry that he might be missing something, being unaware of the nuance. That would be an additional burden on the reader, and subsequently discouraging to continue to read the story. In such instances also, I would add a brief note. For the same reason, long conversations involving too many phrases like “you know what I mean” are best avoided.

Grammar: Tense

In Telugu, we switch tenses freely. In English the tense needs to agree with the actual sequence of events within a given time-frame. If the story is told in the past tense, any references to the previous incidents should be told in the past perfect.

In some of our stories, we find long narrations of previous incidents, which require past perfect forms. The use of “had” in each sentence in a long passage is grammatically correct yet disruptive in the flow, especially if the previous incident runs to two or three pages. Added to the confusion is when the previous incident has references to another incident further back in time. Some of my friends suggested indenting or changing the font size in order to mark the change in tense, which means making it visible in long passages. Another suggestion is to add opening and closing lines at the beginning and end of the long narration of the past. The additional lines help the reader to move back and forth in time along with the storyline. In shorter sentences, I would avoid the use of past perfect tense sometimes. For instance, a sentence like “He had four children” seems to mean he “had children in the past but not now”. After consulting my American friends, I have learned one way to circumvent the problem is to rearrange the sentences. I could say, “his sons were helping him in chores” or something similar to that effect, based on the context. Implicitly, the readers would know that he had children at the time of narration

Non-finite verb forms

Another linguistic peculiarity in Telugu is the use of nonfinite verbs [asamaapaka kriya]. In English, it would be a series of short complete sentences or used in conjunction with a gerund, the -ing ending.  A phrase like cheppi vacchaanu translates as either “I said and came” or “After telling, I came”. In either case, the actual verb for cheppu [to say] fails to convey the ease of diction, which the Telugu phrase carries. This example is the simplest in this type of construction. There are other instances where a series of nonfinite verbs may be used to build tempo. Native speakers appreciate the escalating tension as they read the sentence. In translation, we can hardly accomplish that pace with the use of gerunds or several short sentences.

The longest sentence I have come across is the first paragraph in “anavasara dampatyam” [Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma. Meaningless Union]. The very first sentence runs to 14 lines and contains 23 nonfinite verbs, not to mention verbal adjectives! In my translation, I broke them into shorter sentences. Also, of necessity, I moved the last part of the 14-line sentence to the fore. This is necessitated by the differences in the sentence structures in the two languages – Telugu and English


The abundance of pronouns in Telugu language vouches for the richness of our language. We have six forms for the third person singular, male, vaadu, atanu, aayana, veedu, ithanu, eeyana – all translate into one word “he” in English. In addition, we have a gender-free pronoun, tanu, which acts like a third person singular, which will be discussed later.

Consider the following sentence for translation and note the resulting confusion in translation.Aayana vaadini kaafee tecci ataniki immannaaru. Vaadu kaafee tecci ataniki iccaadu. The translation could be, “He told him to bring coffee for him. He brought it and gave it to him.” In this case, once again, it would be immensely helpful to the reader if the translator makes clear who is who, and who is doing what.

The use of the pronoun “those” for “they” may be grammatically correct yet looks odd at the end of a sentence. Translation for annaaru vaallu as “said those” does not look right for me at least. Probably, my translation would be “they said” or “said those farmers”, or, whoever the people were in the story.

The second person, singular and plural pronouns, meeru and nuvvu translate into English as the same word, “you”. There is no distinction between formal and informal, or singular and plural. In this case, the translation loses the cultural nuance.

One good example is a conversation between a husband and wife. In Andhra Pradesh, the husband-wife relationship is complex. The use of second person singular pronouns, nuvvu and meeru used by husband and wife calls for attention. I am aware that the usage varies depending on the region, caste, economic status and, in modern times, sophistication. Despite these variations, customarily, it is considered normal for husband to address wife as nuvvu and wife to address husband as meeru. This usage presupposes a shade of hierarchy in a familial context. Additionally, the verb endings change, which again are missed in the translation. In some stories, the author may be making this distinction to drive home a point. In the story, kavi gaari bharya (Nayani Krishnakumari), the narrator comments that the poet’s wife referred to her husband as meeru or nuvvu depending on what she thought of him as husband or uncle’s son at any given moment. In such cases, a brief note is needed.

Two vocative forms require special attention. In an informal setting, people of the same age group use the vocative forms, orei and osei, males and females respectively among themselves. The closest form in English would be “hey”. Probably, the use of “hey” is acceptable in a casual conversation but not when the author makes a point of it specifically. In the story, yajnam, the narrator comments that the village head, Sriramulu Naidu addresses the poor farmer, Appalramudu, as emoi but never as orei (Rama Rao, “Yajnam”). Native speakers would know that emoi is informal and respectful and orei is demeaning in this particular context. By “in this context”, I mean there are other instances when orei will not be considered offensive as stated earlier.

I have also noticed that long Indian names such as Sitaramudu and Sriramulu Naidu (Rama Rao.“yajnam”) will be confusing to the non-native speakers. Several forms of the same name like Erri, Errakka, and Erramma are also prone to be mistaken for the names of three people.
Proper nouns based on physical attributes:

In empu [Choices] (Somayajulu), the author used physical attributes as personal names—Kunti for a crippled man and Guddi for a blind man. Technically, these terms are not different from names like Visalakshi, meaning a woman with large eyes or Syamasundar for a man with dark-colored skin. These terms however are not considered offensive. On the other hand, the terms referring to physical limitations are derogatory and often accepted only by the people who are not in a position to protest. Perhaps, that is one of the messages the author intended to convey. However, the literal translations of these terms as “crippled” and “blind” would not do justice in my opinion.  A non-heritage speaker would interpret them as insensitive. I am not saying they are not insensitive. That is not the cultural trait I would want to convey. I would rather keep the original terminology as is and explain them in a footnote.

Professional terminology as Proper Nouns:

Another habit in our culture is to use professional terminology as personal names. For example, Beena Devi used daactaru garu and jadjee garu in her story, ribbanu mukka [A Piece of ribbon]. My dilemma was whether to treat them as English words and follow the practice of the English language or treat them as given names, and follow the spellings the way they were written in Telugu. If I were to consider the words as professional titles, I should spell them as doctor garu and judge garu. Also, I would have to use the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’ appropriately. Then I would be failing to convey to the reader an important cultural trait in our culture, which is, forging close friendship with the professionals we come across in our lives and using the terms as personal names without reference to their professional status. As a translator, I think it is important for me to create an environment in the translation so the foreign reader would understand all these implications.

In this regard, I have consulted several Americans, both friends and strangers. Once again, there is no consensus since the concept is foreign to them. I have decided to treat them as personal names and explained in a footnote or in the editorial.

Relational terminology as Proper Nouns:

Relevant to our discussion are the forms of address prevalent in our society. We have different terms for the children of brothers or sisters (baava, maridi, vadina, maradalu) as opposed to the children of two sisters or two brothers. Terms like attagaru, tammudu, and akkayya tell immensely about our culture. I also would like to see these terms find their way into English across the world the same way karma and masala are incorporated into English. Maybe I am being naïve; maybe I am being ambitious, but certainly, I would like to work to that end!

In America, all these relational terms, including persons from different generations, are rolled up into a single term, “cousin”. If I translate chinnakka and peddakka, as “little big sister” and “big big sister”, it does not make sense and certainly hurts the flow. Further, in a dialogue, it is hard to use them as vocative forms; it would be jarring. It is also hard to let the reader understand that sometimes, the same term such as peddakka may be used by others even when the relationship between the two is not the same. Another contradiction is the standard MLA requirement that all foreign words should be italicized.For instance, in the story, hundaa [Tulasi. “My sister: A Classy Lady”], akkayya is known only as akkayya. In all, I have been treating the relational terminology as personal names, unless the story calls for a different interpretation. Additionally, I would suggest referring to the glossary for further explanation. Incidentally, I might add that the glossary on my site is the most frequently accessed file yet! A unique pronoun in Telugu language is tanu, which is technically third person singular pronoun. When the author uses tanu as narrator, the entire story is told from the point of view of that character as if tanu is a first person singular pronoun. Unlike the third person pronouns, tanu is not gender-specific. Sometimes, but not always, it is possible to deduce the gender by the verb-endings in a given sentence in Telugu. It is a long ride for the reader before he can figure it out on his own.

Writers may occasionally use this term loosely, giving rise to some confusion. In the story, soham [Ramakrishna Sastry. “He is I”], the narrator switches between the first person, “I” and “tanu”. This form of narrative, distinctive in oral tradition, is easily understood by native speakers but confusing to the readers from other cultures. Therefore I take it upon myself to be consistent even when it meant a departure from the original text.

Phrases and Idioms

We may classify Telugu phrases into three categories: 1. Phrases that allow straight translation; 2.Phrases and idioms, which may be translated with some effort; and 3. Phrases and idioms, which require considerable effort to make them comprehensible to the foreign audience. In the latter two instances, the question is to what degree we can make the necessary changes in the original. How do we find a meaningful phrase or sentence, which will capture the reader’s imagination and, at the same time, convey the cultural nuance? Second question is whether we should use the English equivalents wherever available or translate the Telugu phrases to highlight the Telugu nuance and provide the English equivalent in a footnote.

Phrases, which allow straight translation

There are not many but a few like pustakappurugu, which translates as bookworm easily. The phrase chevini vesukonakapovu is comparable to “turning a deaf ear”. On the other hand, a phrase like mannu tinna paamu has no equivalent in English to my knowledge. However, it is not hard to coin a new phrase like “a snake snacked on dirt”, working on the alliteration to give it a proverbial sense. There is no ambiguity in these translations.

One more note on this subject. When I first started my website, thulika.net, I did not provide the Telugu equivalents for these translations. Then, a young Telugu reader, who attended English medium school, suggested that I give the Telugu proverbs in a footnote so readers like her would be able to improve their Telugu language skills as well. That substantiates my claim that providing additional information does not hurt.

Phrases, which require some effort to make them comprehensible in translation

I am not enunciating a new theory but giving what has been my practice and I will explain why. Some phrases may not be translatable while others leave some room for us to be creative. For instance, the phrase, Kondaveeti chentaadu in trikonam [Seela Veerraju. “A Triangle,”] is one such phrase. I translated it as Kondaveeti rope. The phrase refers to the topographical significance of the village Kondaveedu in Guntur district, where water is scarce and the wells are dreadfully deep. For the villagers of Kondaveedu, drawing water from those wells is a long and laborious task. Implicitly, a task compared to kondaveeti rope is long and laborious. I thought, by translating the translatable part, chentaadu as jute rope, a foreign reader would have a better motivation to learn more about the implicit meaning. Additionally, the name of the village Kondaveedu, slightly id different from the oblique form, Kondaveeti, and that is another problematic area for a foreign reader. If I were to leave the entire phrase as Kondaveeti chaantaadu, the reader is sure to miss the entire connotation.

Untranslatable Phrases

We have phrases and idioms that are almost untranslatable. Just translating them alone would not suffice to communicate the spirit of the original to the readers. Two languages of two diametrically opposite cultures do not lend themselves to accurate translation one hundred percent. Culture-specific phrases and idioms belong in this category. Let us take a culture-specific phrase like lempalesukonu (Bhanumati. Attaakodaleeyam [A Story of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law]). No matter how we translate it, it would be impossible for a foreign reader to visualize the actual scenario. I translated it as “She tapped on her cheeks lightly and reverently.” One young writer asked me why not translate it as “she slapped her cheeks”. My explanation is the phrase lempakaaya iccu in Telugu means slapping another person and in anger. On the other hand, lempalesukonu is an act to express his/her remorse. or respect like in temples, and there is no force. The person touches lightly her/his cheeks. It refers to a socio-religious, cultural practice and apologetic in spirit.For a reader who is not familiar with this practice, “slapping” invokes a completely different imagery in his mind. This is not one of the instances, a foreign reader can understand from the context, without some explanation.

Proverbs, which have corresponding proverbs in the target language

Proverbs or adages are time-honored, time-tested facts. They are the props that come in handy for a writer when the language fails or is inadequate. Proverbs often contain a rhyme or an alliteration either to capture one’s attention or as a mnemonic device. This is one aspect the translator must remember while translating the proverbs. When I translate, I try to bring about similar effect in English. That explains some of the digression from the original in my translations of Telugu proverbs. The following examples illustrate my point.

My translation for the proverb mundu nuyyi, venaka goyyi is “a well in front and a trench behind”. In English, the corresponding proverb is, “between a rock and a hard place”. Nevertheless, I would prefer to give a translation of the original Telugu phrase instead of using the English proverb. My aim is to highlight the commonalities in different cultures and perhaps the topography.

Culture-specific Proverbs, which have no equivalents in the target language.

Some proverbs, which are culture-specific in terms of beliefs and lifestyles, are equally open to more than one interpretation.

I translated kadupu cincukunte kaallameeda padutundi as “You tear your guts and they fall on your feet” in yajnam [Rama Rao]. In the Telugu sentence, the subject is not stated explicitly but the verb cinchukonu is a reflexive, meaning one is doing something to oneself. I supplied ‘you’ in the conditional clause and ‘they’ [the guts] in the principal clause. The translation is fairly literal and thus imparts the implied meaning—“when you hurt your children, in turn, it hurts you”.

Another angle in these proverbs is lack of a subject or subject without a given name. In such cases, it is necessary to improvise a subject for the purpose of clarification. English language will not permit sentences without subject as illustrated above. The translator needs to pick the correct subject based on the context.

Another proverb I translated is gati leni manushulu taguvukedite matileni peddalu teerchevaaraa ani as “like hapless men seeking justice from brainless men” (Rama Rao. yajnam). Here again, I tried to coin a new adage based on the original text loosely.

Let us examine the proverbs or phrases, which are not translatable. For example, a phrase like adugulaku madugulottadam carries deeper cultural nuance. I think the word madugulu refers to madatalu (folded clothes). I understand the phrase refers to spreading a sheet for the guest of honor to walk on. In everyday usage, it has come to mean something similar to the red carpet treatment. However, I would prefer coining a new phrase as opposed to using the English phrase “red carpet treatment”, in order to emphasize the slight differences in the two cultures.

Distinctive and Culture-specific Phraseology

Culture-specific phraseology requires more than the use of a dictionary to translate. For instance, mancimaata chesuku vaccu is an archaic phrase referring to an old custom. In the old days, poor brahmin women used to run what is known as poota kuulla illu, where the woman serves food for money in an informal setting. The phrase, mancimaata chesuku vaccu has come to mean discussing food arrangements with a homeowner. Another example is vaaraalu chesukonu, also refers to an erstwhile custom. It is also food arrangements young Brahmin boys would make with seven families for seven days of the week while they pursued their education. Whenever I come across phrases like this, I would like to keep them in the story and explain in a footnote. From my perspective, that is important for the story to keep its cultural nuance.

Other concepts peculiar to our culture are engili, antu, madi, and dishti.The corresponding English words, which have gained some currency, are saliva pollution [engili], touch pollution [antu], quarantine-like condition [madi], and evil eye [dishti]. I hope one day these Telugu words will be incorporated into the English language. The word karma has gained currency in America to mean divine ordinance. In Telugu, it has several shades of meaning. Based on the context, I may use the term karma or translate it into English. That helps the reader to move forward without wasting too much time guessing what the meaning might be.

I am aware that some writers and some readers feel that these distinctions overburden the reader or undercut his/her imagination. I would rather prefer to think that these concepts are important in setting one culture apart from the others. It helps the readers to understand how these concepts play out in the source culture.

I translated sodi manishi as village psychic (Prabhavati.) with some hesitation. I am aware that telling sodi is not the same as predicting future by a psychic. My point is the sodi practice is culture-specific. There are other terms like fortuneteller, occultist, medium, and spiritualist. None of them exactly means the same as sodi manishi. When two cultures do not have the same practice, vocation, or lifestyle, we need to choose just one term in the target language based on comparable practices. A psychic invokes spirits to predict future events; the sodi woman invokes goddesses for the same purpose. The spirits and the goddesses are not the same but both are unverifiable sources. In that sense, I thought sodi woman would be comparable to a psychic or fortuneteller. Frankly, this is one of the instances no matter what word I had chosen there would always be a question. I chose psychic since it rolled easier on my tongue. Nevertheless, I was aware that the term did not import the complete cultural nuance and therefore I provided further explanation of the sodi tradition in the glossary at the end of the book.

Culture-specific Humor.

Unquestionably, humor is hard to translate, since it is deep-rooted in a given culture. Bhanumati narrates an incident in attaa kodaleeyam, in which she describes her mother-in-law’s madi, a temporary, quarantine-like condition, one creates for oneself. And her husband makes fun of the smelly pickles his mother was eating. In both the cases, the son and the daughter-in-law were not being polite to the older woman from a westerner’s standpoint. Thus translating the paragraph as is without paraphrasing is not sufficient to convey the humor in the story.

In the same passage, the daughter-in-law also comments about her mother-in-law sitting on the floor facing the wall to eat. The narrator’s reference to the Lord Narasimha in this context once again is hilarious for those who are familiar with the mythological character. For those who are not familiar with the story of Narasimha, an explanation is necessary.

In aartanaadam (Ranganayakamma), there is an episode in which the grandchildren visit their grandmother, after they were informed that she was dying. As it turned out, she was not ready to die and the grandchildren seized the occasion to tease her. The episode has no relevance to the story, except the storyline calls for the female protagonist’s absence from home for an extended period of time.

In a personal letter addressed to me, the author agreed that the episode was irrelevant and gave me permission to delete it at my discretion (Ranganayakamma. Personal Correspondence). I however chose to keep it in order to drive home a point—the free exchange of almost irreverent words between adults and children in a family. Grandchildren asking grandmother whether she would really want to die at all, or where she kept all her money, what she was going to do with it, and the tone in the conversation—all would be considered rude at one level and entertaining at another level. This is in direct contradiction of the custom of showing respect to the elders by the young people. Nevertheless, it is normal in some families and the story highlights that point. I discussed this topic in detail in my book, Telugu Women Writers, 1950-1975 (Malathi).

English words in Telugu stories:

Various writers use English words in Telugu stories to serve different purposes. If the English words are used simply as a reproduction of current colloquial style, probably, the translator may take them as they are and incorporate them without thinking twice. However, if it is part of the author’s narrative technique as in the case of Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, they need to be interpreted appropriately. It is necessary to examine if the author is using the English terminology to shift gears in the flow of the narrative or to invoke ridicule of an existing practice. Viswanatha Sastry uses this technique superbly. Also, if the author is simply reproducing the English words from the original, the translator needs to see if the actual words used in India are comprehensible to the global audience. For instance, “far relative” for “distant relative”, “long hand shirt” for “long sleeve shirt” and “time pass” for “passing time” are some examples, which do not go very well in a translation for global audience. In fact, only recently, I have learned that the phrase “giving a hand” in Andhra Pradesh, does not mean giving help but “not keeping one’s word.

Working with the Authors

In general, my practice is to translate first line by line, then go over the translation, and make the necessary changes for smooth reading. In the process, I may change the order of the sentences, add a word or two in some places, and even move around sentences to make it readable. Then I send it to the author, with a note about the changes I have made. The authors suggest one or two changes. I would accept their suggestions, if appropriate. Or explain my translation. That has been my practice for the past seven and a half years. On rare occasions, if the author is not with my translation, and keeps suggesting alternative forms, I may decide not to proceed with that project.  In short, working with writers has not been a problem for me. The only problem is locating the writers or copyright holders for permissions.


To sum up, the translator needs to remember who the target audiences are. Even as we tell children’s stories in a language intelligible to the children, and women’s stories in the diction with which women are comfortable, we, translators, have a moral obligation to honor the language behavior of the target audience. Leaving it to the readers to deduce the meaning from the context may work fine when the readers are from within the culture. As stated at the outset, an important goal of the translations is to serve as an educational experience for the readers from other cultures. In that sense, we are obligated to focus on the cultural nuance. The reader may still choose to skip the explanations. In my experience, a translator is a writer also. He works at three levels: 1. the source work; 2. target audience, and 3. the vocabulary he has at hand. Often, readers, writers and critics tend to miss this angle. He will draw on the diction at his command and produce a translation, while striving to make it appealing to the target audience. In that attempt he may lose some of the native flavor of the original yet he will succeed only if he has the freedom to be creative and present the story in a language he is comfortable with. If the author disagrees, there is no meeting of the minds and there is no translation. He just moves on to the next translation.


Published on thulika.net, 2009..]

Malathi, Nidadavolu. Telugu Women Writers. 1950-1975. A Unique Phenomenon in the History of
Telugu Fiction. Madison, Wisconsin: Author, 2008. 123-136.
Tulasi, Chaganti. “My Sister: A Classy Lady” [hundaa]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People: A Collection of Short Stories from Andhra Pradesh. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 2006. 139-154.
Prabhavati, Vasa. “The Village Psychic.” Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People. Mumbai: Jaico, 2006. 283-297.
Ventaramana. Mullapudi. Middle Class Complex [Janataa express]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People. Mumbai: Jaico, 2006. 69-102

Kondala Rao, Ravi. a sogasu vastundaa? [Can the translation get that beauty?]. Andhra Jyothy. Vividha. 15 October 2003.
Viswanatha Sastry, Rachakonda. Man, Woman [mogavaadu, aada manishi]. Trans. Nidadavolu
Malathi. The Toronto South Asian Review. Summer 1987. V.7. No. 1. 1-12. Reprint. Rachakonda
Viswanatha Sastry. Values & Other Stories. Srinivasavanam, Kuppam: Dravidian University, 2007. 88-103.

Internet sources:
Krishnakumari, Nayani. The Poet’s Wife. [Kavi gaari bharya]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi.

Malathi, Nidadavolu. Radha’s Debt [Raadhamma baaki] by Mullapudi Venkataramana”.
Rama Rao, Kalipatnam. The Rite of Sacrifice [yajnam]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March 2009.
Ramakrishna Sastry, Malladi. He is I. [soham]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March 2009.
Satyanarayana, Viswanatha. The Soul Wills It [jeevudi ishtam].  Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March
Subrahmanya Sarma, Puranam. Meaningless Union [Anavasara dampatyam]. Trans. Nidadavolu
Malathi. 3 March 2009.

Other sources.
Ranganayakamma. Personal correspondence with the author. 17 January 1983.
Venkataramana, Mullapudi. Personal correspondence with the author. 15 February 2003.