Vimala is a prominent contemporary Telugu writer whose short stories regularly appear in annual anthologies of the best writing in Telugu. Yet “The Dark Girl’s Laughter” stands out not only in relation to her own body of fiction, but also in the context of contemporary Telugu literature. Much of Telugu fiction is what we might call “committed” literature; the writing tends to engage directly with contemporary politics, and stories often have a clear moral perspective. “The Dark Girl’s Laughter,” instead, presents a more open-ended, enigmatic narrative. It is not a story with much dramatic action or conventional narrative drive either. It works instead through a circular and repetitive conversation between two characters in a confined environment. (While working on this translation we were reminded of the structure and conversational relentlessness of Marguerite Duras’ novella, The Square).
The story is steeped in the specific caste, color, gender, and class concerns of the region. The narrator is a sympathetic middle class Telugu-speaking, intellectual woman who listens to the life stories recounted by a younger, impoverished, lower-caste, Tamil woman who has been subject to sexual violence, and yet the story makes clear that an uncomplicated understanding of the other is not possible. The narrator serves not as a savior of the younger woman, but merely as an interlocutor and as someone who listens.
One of the challenges of translating from an Indian language – in our case, Telugu – is that English itself is an Indian language and English words and expression are part of most Indian languages. So while Telugu (as a non-Indo-Aryan language) is quite distant from English, we also confront having to translate between expressions or words from an Indian English idiom into an American English. For us, this is not merely a technical issue but a political one. How much do we want to domesticate the English to make it read seamlessly for an American reader? How much do we want to retain some of the marks of difference in order to indicate the plurality of Englishes in the world? Do we keep “mobile phone” or translate it to “cell phone”? Should we convert “kilometers” to “miles”? Use “berth” or “seat”? We have not established for ourselves a unified and permanent theory about this and so our translation is mixed. For instance, we decided to keep the word “auto” in the text, as the vehicle that the young woman will hail once she gets off the train. In this case, “auto” refers to the three-wheeled motorized auto-rickshaws commonly used for transport in India, rather than an automobile or car. We decided to avoid translating “auto” as “taxi” because “taxi” would indicate a car and would erase the class distinction in the story; the young woman would not have the means to hail a taxi. After much discussion we rejected various alternatives as well and decided to keep the word as it appears in the original, “auto,” though we recognize that American readers will likely miss the distinctions and that the term “auto” will sound odd to their ears. It’s an example of a place in the text where a reader might be pulled out of the story for a moment. Risking that disruption is not about trying to make a big statement; rather it is part of our acknowledgement that translation is always a practice, in-process and unsettled.about the author