Dalit writers – Savarna translators


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IN 1936, Babasaheb Ambedkar was invited by Jat-Pat Todak Mandal from Lahore to deliver a speech. A draft of the speech was sent to the secretary of the Mandal. The secretary, after reading it, felt uncomfortable and requested Ambedkar to make some changes as he felt it would upset the caste Hindus. Ambedkar, however, was resolute that he would not change a single comma and refused to deliver the speech.

Later, in the same year, he self-published this speech and titled it Annihilation of Caste (hereafter AoC). The reason Dr. Ambedkar was so determined not to make any changes in his speech was his approach to dealing with caste, which was revolutionary rather than reformist, and his epistemological position as an ‘untouchable’ from which he understood the entire system of caste(s) in order to completely annihilate it, even in his written words.

To perceive AoC differently, it was the English translation of the first discursive Marathi-Dalit-Untouchable experience, which was to surely upset caste Hindu eyes and ears, hence it was rejected; but produced as a book, entirely with Dalit empiricism. Being a voracious reader throughout his life, Ambedkar was well aware of the power and repercussions of the written word in literature.

Though all the books he wrote were non-fictional, his love and affinity for fiction, stories of people, was not a secret. Dedicating his book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables to one of his friends from England, he had lamented that he could not spare time for his literary pursuits due to his relentless involvement in politics and social movements. Yet, he was a visionary in the literary domain as well.

During the late 1940s, Shankarrao Kharat – one of the pioneers of Dalit literature from Maharashtra – was working with Ambedkar, editing journals on the one hand and on the other, fighting legal battles for Dalits. Ambedkar said to him, ‘We have doctors, engineers, lawyers and many educated people in our community but we don’t have writers. Our community’s literature needs to be established all over India. You must take on this responsibility.’ That moment led to the birth of a writer in Shankarrao Kharat. Since then, Kharat was unstoppable, writing six novels, eight short story collections, an autobiography, and several non-fiction books – all focused on the issues important to the Dalits’ struggle.1


In the last 60 years, a plethora of Dalit writers have emerged from Maharashtra. Most notable among them being Shankarrao Kharat, Anna Bhau Sathe, Baburao Bagul, Daya Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Waman Ovhal, Urmila Pawar, Shantabai Kamble, Jyoti Lanjewar, Baby Kamble, Sharankumar Limbale, Arun Kale, Lokanath Yashwant, Yashwant Manohar, Pradnya Daya Pawar, J.V. Pawar, Nagraj Manjule, Sunil Abhiman Awachar to name a few. However, few among these writers have been translated into English. But the literature that these writers have produced share a common phenomenon from which literary principles and the theory of their narratives have been developed.

‘The Buddhist conversions of 1956 signalled the need to break the oppressive caste system to attain enlightenment; the beginning of rationality and logic, and wisdom and compassion in a society. These seem to have been the essential guiding principles in the evolution of Dalit literature. In this sense, Dalit literature helps people understand human society with rationality, logic, love, compassion and, more importantly, wisdom, not mere knowledge. Subsequently, Dalit literature helps build the imagination for an equal, just, and fraternal society.’2

Therefore, the contexts in which Dalit literature has emerged are many, but the most significant among them are: (i) Buddhist conversion changed the epistemological position of these writers and their narratives; (ii) Their narratives are focused on the creation of literary imaginations for the anti-caste world whose eventual aim is to establish an equal, liberal, just and fraternal society; and (iii) To be a creator, storyteller and producer, and a representative of their own story.


Since the birth of Dalit literature in Maharashtra it has resisted the Brahminical depiction of lives of the Dalit community, and began writing and telling their own stories. They have introduced an anti-caste language in the Brahminical literary world. The language of Dalit literature disseminates the cultural values which support and advocate the idea of India based on equal, liberal and fraternal principles. In this sense, the language of Dalit literature does not create a fecundity of literary imagination; it is an evolutionary, transformative literary imagination aiming at justice. It is a language that does not entertain – it interrogates discriminatory social values which readers uphold in caste(s) society. Consequently, the English translations need to be closely examined to understand the politics of translation since the Dalit literature in English translation which became popular and hence saleable was undertaken by upper caste translators and publishers.

The epistemological positions of Dalit writers and their Savarna translators are not only different, but opposed to each other, given the privilege Savarna translators inherit and the rejection which Dalit writers face in their lives for their outright, explicit narratives against caste(s). Therefore, at this juncture, the translation of Dalit literature by Savarna writers not only remains a mere literary practice, it acquires connotations of representation, power and privilege because ‘translation as a practice shapes, and takes shape within the asymmetrical relation of power that operate under colonialism. What is at stake here is the representation of the colonised, who need to be produced in a manner to justify colonial domination...’3

Dalits being colonised subjects under Brahminical cultural values for centuries, have recently broken this chain of oppression, especially through and in their literature. Therefore the translation in English by their Savarna translators indicates the intention of the Savarna-English literary world in which only certain Dalit narratives are demanded, translated and consumed by an urban English readership.


I have mentioned that only a handful of Dalit writers have been translated in English. The reason is the literature they, as a collective of the same consciousness, have written challenges the cultural values of the Savarna English readership; the other reason being the popularity of these Dalit writers, already established in the Marathi world, that promises huge profits if translated into English.

Another factor in this exercise is the provision of token representation of Dalit literature in the domain of English literature, imagined by its Savarna masters in India. Hence, I argue that the English translation of Marathi Dalit literature has some unexplored claims, which are an antithesis to the very idea of Dalit literature. Let us explore and examine these claims by English translations of Marathi Dalit literature.


Claims: ‘Blockade by J.V. Pawar was translated into English in 1978 by Professor V.D. Chandanshive, and published by J.V. Pawar himself, only in 1992. What makes Blockade a significant work is not just the fact that it is one of the first anthologies by a Dalit writer to be translated into English, but also that it presented the thinking of the Dalit Panthers in a poetic form, which gave rise to a more radical anti-caste movement in India.’4

However, Blockade, as one of the first Marathi Dalit poetry collections, translated into English, hasn’t made much news nor did it find a place in the national imagination and among the English readership. The reason for this is the era and time in which it was translated and published. The ’90s was a time when the world was opened for Dalits via English, and that world became visible to the world due to liberalization, privatization, globalization (LPG) and with web technologies.

Prior to this period, ‘Dalit literature from Maharashtra had been used in bits and pieces in translation – a poem here or a paragraph there – or there were translations of relatively smaller texts for reference by upper caste translators. Despite Dalit literature forming a large part of writings in Marathi, it has never been translated as a substantial body of literature, a process that is necessary to introduce and create the egalitarian "sensible" that is missing in Brahminical literature. It is only recently that Dalit literature has grown into a large, saleable commodity because, if translated for the vast English readership, it promises not only revenue, but also recognition for upper caste translators of Dalit literature. The fact that most translators of Dalit literature belong to the upper castes has largely gone unexamined.’5


To understand and comprehend the somewhat ambigious claims of English translations of Marathi Dalit literature, let us examine Table I, created by using the information about 11 Marathi Dalit texts (books) translated into English. These are books which, in English translation, are referred to not only in India but across borders too, being used as Dalit texts in literature courses in foreign universities.


Original Marathi title

English title




Year of Publication of english translation


The Weave of My Life

Urmila Pawar

Maya Pandit

Columbia University Press


Afwa Khari Tharavi Mahnun

Let the Rumours BeTrue

Pradnya Daya Pawar

Maya Pandit

Authors UpFront


Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali

When I Hid My Caste

Baburao Bagul

Jerry Pinto

Speaking Tiger




Daya Pawar

Jerry Pinto

Speaking Tiger


A Current of Blood

Namdeo Dhasal

Dilip Chitre



Poisoned Bread

Arjun Dangle (editor)

Multiple Savarna translators

Orient BlackSwan


Dalit Sahityache Saundarya Shashtra

Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature

Sharankumar Limbale

Alok Mukerjee

Orient BlackSwan



The Outcaste

Sharankumar Limbale

Santosh Bhoomkar



Jag Badal Ghaluni Ghaav

Strike a Blow to Change the World

Eknath Awad

Jerry Pinto

Speaking Tiger


Jina Amucha

The Prisons We Broke

Baby Kamble

Maya Pandit

Orient Longman



Growing up Untouchable in India

Vasant Moon

Gail Omvedt

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers



Let us comprehend this table step by step. All these books have been authored by writers who belong to a Dalit/Buddhist community. All the translators are either Brahmins or Savarnas. Another factor is that all these books were published by large, established and Savarna publishers. The crucial factor which is imperative for us to understand the politics of English translation of Marathi Dalit literature is the period and context in which these books were translated and published. All these books were translated and published post circa 2000.

This fact has many unexplored claims. Among these 11 books, there is only one book in the non-fiction category. Dalit Sahityache Saundarya Shashtra (Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature) by Sharankumar Limbale was published as early as 2004. When Dalit literature in English translation gained a sizeable market share, the need to theoretically understand it in the academic domain also gained momentum. By 2004, Dalit literature via English made its way into foreign universities. It was at this juncture that the need for more and more English translations of Dalit literature was felt by Savarna academicians as well as publishers.


Precisely for the reason constructed by the material dialectics of demand-supply equation, Savarna publishers started to commission more and more English translations, but only by Brahmin or Savarna translators. Of these 11 books listed above, eight were published between 2008 and 2018. This temporal dimension of growth in the publication of English translations of Marathi Dalit literature indicates a market-oriented phenomena rather than a social and cultural need, or social transformation via literature, which is the objective of Dalit literature in any form.

From 2008 to 2018, the number of social media platforms has also rapidly increased. This gave a boost to people from the Dalit community to express their views, opinions, perceptions and ideas. Thus, as the number of writers among them shot up, so did the readership. This applies to other communities as well. Consequently, it has increased the number of readers and the market for publishers. An increase in the English translation of these Dalits texts has in large part been seen in recent time due to the advent of social media.


Let us look at these books as an avatar of an anti-caste discourse. All these books from Marathi Dalit literature which are translated into English are introduced to the English readership with the Savarna gauge. The introductions to these books are written by Savarna writers, supported by notes of their Savarna translators. The blurbs which applaud these books are again by Savarna writers and quoted from Savarna platforms. Since translation also works as a filter of meanings and nuances created by the original language, the Savarna framework of producing Marathi Dalit literature into English has many connotations which do not go hand in hand with the philosophy of Dalit literature.

Baburao Bagul’s Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali, translated as When I Hid My Caste by Jerry Pinto, has two quotations printed on the rear cover page in praise of the work of Baburao Bagul and his book. The first quotation is by Shanta Gokhale (Brahmin) from the introduction of the same book under which her name is mentioned. The second quotation is by Yogesh Maitreya (Dalit) borrowed from the website firstpost.com. Under this quotation only the name of the website is mentioned, but not the name of its writer.

Another crucial element and agenda behind the idea of Dalit literature is representation. It is therefore mandatory to interrogate why Marathi Dalit literature has been translated by Savarna translators, and produced by their counterpart publisher. Does the English translation and production of Marathi Dalit literature by Savarna agencies indicate their persistent hegemony over the discourse in the English language? Looking at the history of emergent Dalit literature and its philosophy, these facts and aforementioned example of negation of a name of a Dalit writer, explains that in English translation, Marathi Dalit literature seems to lose its element of representation. Though written by a Dalit writer, it is not entirely interpreted and produced by Dalit community agency for an English readership.

This is due to the transformation of Marathi Dalit literature which has become a saleable commodity in recent times. I argue that to understand this politics of translation, production and interpretation of Marathi Dalit literature in English, we must critically look at the case of Savarna publishers versus Dalit publishers.


Politics: Roberto Calasso – writer, critic and publisher of Adelphi Edizioni – in his brisk, beautiful and mind blowing book, The Art of the Publisher, argues, ‘if a book is primarily a form, then a book comprising a sequence of hundreds (or thousands) of books will also be, first and foremost, a form. In a publishing house of the kind I am describing, a wrong book is like a wrong chapter in a novel, a weak point in an essay, a jarring splash of colour in a painting. To criticize the publishing house would thus be rather like criticizing an author.’6

In the context of India, there are many Savarna publishers whose bibliography of titles are full of contradictions in the choice of authors and their ideologies that fundamentally oppose each other. If a survey of the publishing industry which publishes English narratives in India were to be done, a sharp observer would hardly neglect the serious phenomena which decides the formation of prejudiced literary imagination – of opinions, ideas and imagination about the community and society – among its readership.

This phenomenon manifests the fact that in India there are two types of publishers. The first produce mutually contrasting narratives from mythology to science to art to fiction, majorly written by Savarna writers. This category is dominated by big shot publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin, Picador or Rupa to name a few. A publisher from the other category hardly occupies the imaginative space among the large readership and whose books rarely dominate the national imagination of the country. These types of publishers are persistently producing narratives which disseminate their ideologies but attract only a limited and specific number of readers. The big shot publishers work strictly and ruthlessly in a capitalistic mode of production; fiscal profit being the only agenda they have for publishing a book.


The second type of publishers are more inclined to disseminate their ideologies which are more or less consolidated by the narratives (books) they publish. Since big shot publishers produce all kinds of narratives from logic-less mythologies and Brahmanical narratives to books about science, as per the demand of various readerships, they end up providing what different sets of people need. In a caste affected society like India, they simply do not cater to the various demands of the market of readers. This outlook eventually results in giving birth to a publisher who implicitly disseminates ideas, stories, and imaginations which contribute to keeping the balance of caste society intact.

And if English (a bridge language) is the language which keeps this balance intact across the nation through such big shot publishers, then the role and existence of small publishers, whose narratives intent to blow off this balance, determined to annihilate the system of caste(s) through their books, becomes crucial to discuss.


To clarify this further, let us take the example of Rupa Publications who published Ambedkar: An Overview in 2018. It also published a version of Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth in 2011. Gandhi has been published by such Savarna publishers in English for decades, but Ambedkar has only found favour recently because the demand for his writings accelerated due to the relentless struggle of Dalit movements and the writings of intellectuals from the Dalit community. But to talk about the book as a form, Ambedkar: An Overview is again produced within a Savarna framework that aims at sales rather than the dissemination of an ideology. It is merely a compilation of Ambedkar’s writings, published by the government, with the copyright remaining with the publisher.


Since Ambedkar has become the discourse in recent times that no one can afford to ignore, there is a tendency among all these big shot publishers to publish Ambedkar, which was not the case until recently. This tendency of commodification of Dalit text is operating through its English translation since translators and publishers are all Savarnas. However, a contradiction to this case are publications run by Dalits, because their publications essentially work towards disseminating an anti-caste ideology. They do not look to profiting from publishing saleable pro-caste authors.

In the domain of English translation of Marathi Dalit literature, the latest example is Panther’s Paw Publication established by Yogesh Maitreya in 2016. It is the first anti-caste, English publication from Maharashtra that specifically focuses on English translations of Marathi Dalit literature. Let us look at their list to understand how English translations of Marathi Dalit literature is more of a discipline, a book form of an anti-caste movement. (Table II)


Original Marathi title

English title




Year of Publication of english translation

Ambedkorottar Ambedkari Chalwal

Ambedkarite Movement after Ambedkar

J. V. Pawar

Yogesh Maitreya

Panther’s Paw Publication


The Bridge of Migration

Yogesh Maitreya

Panther’s Paw Publication


Collected Poems of Loknath Yashwant

Broken Man: In Search of Homeland

Loknath Yashwant

Yogesh Maitreya

Panther’s Paw Publication


Din Part Awange (Punjabi)

Days Will Come Back

Kamal Dev Pall

Rajinder Azad

Panther’s Paw Publication


Collected Poems of Sunil Abhiman Awachar

We, the Rejected People of India

Sunil Abhiman Awachar

Yogesh Maitreya

Panther’s Paw Publication

2020 (forth coming)

Flowers on the Grave of Caste

Yogesh Maitreya

Panther’s Paw Publication

2020 (forth-coming)

All their six books, four published and two forthcoming, are by Dalit writers. All four books are translated by Dalit persons. Panther’s Paw Publication relies on public crowd funding, and people mostly from anti-caste movements support it through subscriptions and by buying their books. From its book cover imagery to introductions, to blurbs, all are written by Dalit writers and those who subscribe somewhere to an anti-caste ideology and believe in the element of representation of Dalits in all sectors of life in India, especially in translation and publication of their own stories. None of these books suggest the pro-caste inclination. This means that all the books are produced not by market-based perceptions but rather, have been published to create an anti-caste imagination for society which will uphold the principles of equality, liberty, fraternity and justice.

Such publications erase the confusion and prejudices created by those who publish whatever is in demand without considering the lifelong impact of books on the minds of readers. In the case of Savarna translators and publishers, I must conclude by saying that they, with their presence in the sphere of Marathi Dalit literature, have not only consolidated their unabated privileges in the field of literature, but also in the domain of representation through their perceptions and interpretation. In this sense, Dalit literature as a movement, at the front of translation, is headed and led by Savarnas and Brahmins. This negates the very principle and aim of Dalit literature.



1. Y. Maitreya, ‘Shankarrao Kharat’s Literary Legacy: Giving Words to the Dalit Experience in Maharashtra’, Firspost, 13 October 2017. Retrieved 6 August 2019, www. firstpost. com. https://www. firstpost.com/living/shankarrao-kharats-literary-legacy-giving-words-to-the-dalit-experience-in-maha-rashtra-4111981.html

2. Y. Maitreya, ‘Heralding an Anti-Caste Aesthetics’, Economic and Political Weekly 53(33), 18 August 2018.

3. T. Niranjana, ‘Translation, Colonialism and Rise of English’, Economic and Political Weekly 25(15), 14 April 1990, pp. 773-779.

4. Y. Maitreya, ‘Dalit Writing, Global Contexts: In Days Will Come Back, Kamal Dev Pall Unmasks an Unseen, Unspoken of Punjab’, Firstpost, 30 June 2019. Retrieved 7 August 2019, www.firstpost.com,

5. Y. Maitreya, ‘Towards a Theory of Dalit Literature’, Economic and Political Weekly 53(51), 29 December 2018, pp. 77-78.

6. Roberto Calasso, The Art of the Publisher. Penguin Books, Great Britain, 2015.