A Discussion with K. Purushotham on Translating Caste Worlds from Telugu to English

Editor’s Note: In the following discussion, Gita Ramaswamy interviews K. Purushotham about his recent translation of Yendluri Sudhakar’s Speaking Sandals: Narratives from the Madigawadas of Ongole. An excerpt of this book has been provided to Maidaanam by SouthSide books and can be read here: Who makes these drums, Bava?

Gita Ramaswamy is co-founder of the Hyderabad Book Trust which recently launched the new English imprint SouthSide Books. Her autobiography, Land, Guns, Caste, Woman: The Memoir of a Lapsed Revolutionary, was published in 2022. K. Purushotham is Professor of English at Kakatiya University. He is a scholar, critic, and translator of Dalit literature in Telugu.

Yendluri Sudhakar (1959-2022) was one of the great modern Dalit writers in Telugu. His Mallemoggala Godugu (1999), translated by K. Purushotham as Speaking Sandals, is a collection of stories that bring to the forefront fascinating oral histories and vignettes from Dalit folklore. When it was first published, it was heralded as the first outpouring of the Madiga voice in Telugu literature. The text inspired a whole new appreciation for the unique literary qualities of Dalit writing in Telugu. On the social front, Speaking Sandals represented a powerful assertion of Dalit identity and coincided with the emergence of Dalits as a political force during the 1990s.

Written with the imagery and cadence native to his community, Yendluri Sudhakar’s stories are narrated in the endearing style of visits to his village and reminiscing conversations with relatives and elders. He writes about origin myths, drummers, fierce fighters, skilled artisans, strong matriarchs and other fascinating characters. Underpinning these stories is a robust awareness of the constant re-negotiation of caste hierarchies.

K. Purushotham

Gita: What kind of impact did Sudhakar’s book make in the Telugu intellectual world? Where do you place Sudhakar’s writing in Telugu Dalit literature?

Purushotham: Though Dalit writing in Telugu is over 100 years, the genre was made invisible during the nationalist period and the subsequent political, literary and social movements movements mostly led by the left. However, Dalit discourse re-emerged powerfully in the nineties. Speaking Sandals coincided with the larger Dalit movement in the state as well as the country.

Sudhakar made a signal contribution in two ways: 1) generating debate among Telugu intellectuals in terms of reclaiming Dalit identity, which resulted in setting a trend for the identitarian cultural movements in the state, and 2) in representing Dalit idiom, orality, and dialects as a model for literary writing.

Subsequently, most Telugu writers–from Dalits to OBCs–began writing in styles that deviated from mainstream aesthetics. In this respect, Telugu writing has taken a different trajectory ever since the publication of Sudhakar’s Speaking Sandals.

Gita: How do you locate Sudhakar among the many Dalit writers who wrote during the 1980s and 1990s? Writers such as Pydi Theresh Babu, Katti Padma Rao, Kolakaluri Enoch, and many others?

Purushotham: Dalit writing is essentially deviant both in style and content. Even first generation Dalit writers like Bhagyareddy Varma, Nakka China Venkataiah, Jala Rangaswami, Kusuma Dharmanna and others who wrote when a bookish pedantic style was the norm for mainstream writing, wrote in a readable fashion. This set the trend for Dalit writing in times to come. Maverick activist-writers–Vemula Yellaiah, Pydi Thereshbabu, Madduri Nagesh Babu–adopted a radical style in challenging the canon. However, Sudhakar, an academic by profession, wrote in a way that neither conformed to the mainstream nor was unsustainable. This also set an important trend for Dalit writers. The fact that the Dalit language adopted by Sudhakar in the nineties continues as a model to this day testifies to Sudhakar’s place in the history of Dalit writing in Telugu.  

Gita: What challenges did you face in translating the caste worlds of India before economic liberalization and globalization?

Yendluri Sudhakar

Purushotham: Translation poses a bundle of problems in rendering culture-specific expressions, even in mainstream writing. I have made use of my own familiarity with the rural idiom as well as the Dalit ethos that I have been exposed to since my childhood in translating and publishing a large body of Dalit writing in Telugu.

In translating Sudhakar’s work, I faced a new problem of reading and translating the oeuvre of Ongole District – one I’m not personally familiar with. For example, I confronted complexity in translating “mallemoggala godugu,” the title of Sudhakar’s work itself. This is an idiom that also figures in a song that is generally sung at weddings of Dalit families in Ongole. The phrase literally means “a canopy of jasmine.” The author used “mallemoggala” in the local cultural sense of meaning “beef strips” (dried beef jerky). But I preferred the literal meaning, i.e. a canopy of jasmine because ‘beef strips” in figurative translation would not only sound like a mistranslation but would result in unpleasant imagery for the English reader.

The Dalit dialect and style of orality that Sudhakar employed were handled with meticulous care so as not to mistranslate him. My target was readability and faithfulness to Sudhakar’s work.

Gita: What makes this book important to read for those outside of the Telugu world? Why translate it to English?

Purushotham: Speaking Sandals assumes importance in view of the genre it belongs to: a blend of memoire, autobiography, and folk tales all rolled into one. Sudhakar presents historical accounts by recalling them through his and his senior relatives’ memories. Thus his work speaks not just in one voice but many. these voices include those of old men and women and exuberant youth who were his cousins. By adopting the narrative technique of telling a story, Sudhakar, in fact, “shows” the scenes to the readers. In this respect, just as the original Telugu helped reclaim Dalit identity, this English translation presents a unique work of Dalit imagination to non-Telugu and non-Indian readers.