Translations of some of India’s great works of literature provide readers with an insight into the country’s socio-political history. The Times of India notes that the art of translation is putting more stories of previous generations’ struggles for freedom and against injustice on bookshelves.

These translations act as a bridge between language and cultural divides, allowing people today to gain an understanding of what life in India was like centuries ago. As publishing consultant and editor of translations at Oxford University Press Mini Krishnan explains: “Translations connect India and its people.” Of course, translations do not only help the people of India – where it is estimated hundreds of different languages are spoken across the country – to get to know their country more, but also the tourists who visit. As Krishnan tells the Times of India, there is no point travelling from one place to another when you have no idea what the culture is like. “Literature introduces you to it,” she explains.

A passage to India

India has long been a place of intrigue and inspiration for westerners. Indeed, The Beatles wrote 30 songs during their time there in 1968 when they visited Rishikesh to train in Transcendental Meditation. Perhaps this is because so much of the country’s ancient culture remains something of a mystery to the west, but those who have not been lucky enough to travel there can make use of translated copies of the country’s greatest works of literature to learn more about it.

Books that are particularly insightful include those by Rabindranath Thakur, who was the first person outside Europe to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, back in 1913. What makes his work so important is that he was among the first to use colloquial language while writing in Bengali. Prior to this, much of the literature to emerge from the region was very traditional and written in classical Sanskrit. Thanks to translations of Thakur’s work, more people are now able to experience Bengal poetry and literature.

More recent classics set in India include Q&A by Vikas Swarup, which was later adapted as the film Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle. This book was printed in English, but it paints a vivid picture of Mumbai. However, it was most likely 1980’s Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie that brought Indian literature to international attention. The novel explores India’s journey from a British colony to an independent country.

Sharing stories through translation

The Times of India notes that Bengal has one of the strongest associations to literature, but other regions are quickly catching up. Indian publishers are coming to the conclusion that the best way to preserve the states’ cultures and teach others about them is to translate the local literature. These books are not just being translated into European languages either, but also to Indian ones like Oriya, Punjabi and Gujarati, as well as Malayalam, Urdu and Tamil.

Katha is a non-profit organisation founded in 1988 that is dedicated to bringing literature to children in India across linguistic and socio-economic divides. Executive director of the group Geeta Dharmarajan says: “Stories are the only way to understand peoples, cultures and the flavours of a region. They can and do help develop active tolerance in us, an ability that comes from a greater maturity and understanding of ground realities.”

It’s publishers like Katha and the translators who work for them that are helping to both preserve and share India’s stories. Ms Krishnan explains that the art of translation is emotional and subjective. To produce the best translation, the translator needs to have knowledge of the culture, religion and region that is the focus of the original book, she adds. By ensuring this they will be able to correctly capture the essence of the original text, but the translator also needs to be a creative writer in their own right to create a finished product people want to read.

Anyone wishing to learn more about Indian culture will find there is plenty of literature out there that can help them do this. Here are three that are definitely worth a read.

2 States by Chetan Bhagat

‘A boy and girl meet, fall in love and marry’ – it’s a classic staple of romantic fiction, but in India the story goes a bit differently. In Bhagat’s partly-autobiographical tale, the boy and girl in question are from two different Indian states and in order to get married they need to convince both of their families of the match as well. 2 States provides a great insight into the marriage traditions of India – and shows that there is nothing simple about falling in love.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

If you prefer your fiction a little darker, Man Booker Prize-winner The White Tiger could be the one for you. The first person narrative is written in the form of a murder confession, as narrator Balram Halwai reminisces about his poverty-stricken childhood in Laxmangarh and his battle to break free of his caste on a journey that leads him to kill his boss. The White Tiger also takes an interesting look at the effect of globalisation on India.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children is the book that prompted a surge of western interest in Indian literature. Published at the end of 1980, the book won the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and later it was voted the winner of the Booker of Bookers Prize by the public. Rushdie’s tale spans the era of India’s fight for independence and its subsequent partition, and centres on a group of people all born at midnight on the eve of India’s birth as an independent state. Each of them has a special gift, which Rushdie uses as allegories for the diversity of culture, politics, language and religion in India.