Stolen Translation


Meenaxi Barkotoki

“Please come to sign the agreement and take the translated text from me, I completed it only yesterday,” Manashi told Pratibha happily over phone. “It has taken me more than a year to finish, and I am really pleased that it is done now, it was a lot of work.”

“Thank you very much, I will come as soon as I can, I am very excited that the translation is ready.”

When she arrived, Pratibha was carrying a rather large shoulder bag besides her normal hand bag. What had she brought along? Could it be sweets, could it be a sari or some other present that Pratibha had brought along for Manashi for the work she had done, Manashi wondered. She had the agreement ready and was looking forward to being paid for her hard work of the previous weeks and months. The 800-page novel had taken her very long to translate; she had also not been well. There were many times when she had thought she should just give up. But no, she did not like not finishing something she had started.

Soon after Pratibha arrived, Manashi tried to get her to look at the agreement; she wanted to have that done and finished first, presents can come later.  “Just so that you know what exactly you are signing – here are the details – I have translated the novel for you and demand a modest payment (calculated at my usual rate per page) from you for the work and time I have put in while doing so. In return you agree to pay me the sum mentioned and also to include my name as translator in every English edition published based on my text in the future.’

“Why do we need a legal agreement? Of course, I will pay you for doing the translation. That is not the problem,” Pratibha said.

“Is there a problem?” Manashi asked.

“You see, it is not so easy – one has to deal with publishers and copyrights etc. And I want to keep you out of all that trouble as much as possible, after all, you are not keeping too well these days,” Pratibha countered.

“But I thought we already have a publisher,” Manashi replied, not understanding what the matter could be.  

“Okay, let me be frank with you,” Pratibha said turning towards Manashi. “Having your name in the book as translator can be a problem. I don’t want to get into the details of that, but think the best way out would be if I make you the following offer — you name a sum, any sum you wish, for which you will agree to let me publish this English translation under my name  – I pay you that sum, you give me the translated text, and forget that you have ever translated it. End of story.  I have brought the money along in cash,” she added, pointing to her duffel bag. “You can take from it as much as you want in exchange for giving up all your rights over the English translation.”

Manashi looked at Pratibha, not understanding what she was saying. Was she really hearing right? Was Pratibha saying that that bag was full of cash, of currency notes? Why cash? Manashi’s head was spinning. Why had she brought so much cash along? What if someone else overheard them just now and came to steal the money?  All she wanted was a cheque, for the amount that she had calculated at her usual rates, that she had already mentioned to Pratibha over phone. And why should she not have her name on the translated text. After all she had done all the work, hadn’t she? She didn’t quite understand what Pratibha really wanted from her.

“But why do you not want my name on the translated text?” she asked.

“You see, the English version can be the basis of many other translations of the book in future, and perhaps even a film, if the current interest in the book is any indication. There will be many contracts to sign, deals to work out. Having my name as the author of both the Assamese and English versions will simplify matters considerably,” Pratibha explained.


“Don’t you see – if your name was there, then she would have to give you a part of the royalties that she would get from sales of the English book, as well as other translations of productions based on it,’ her lawyer brother explained to her later. “She obviously doesn’t want to share that with you. She simply wanted to buy you off! But she didn’t know that you would not go along with that. Good that you stood your ground.”

“But where did she get so much money?” Manashi asked aloud.

“Well, that is the least of her problems, don’t you know that Pratibha’s husband is a big industrialist. They have enough money to buy a lot of people off, but not my little sister, I am proud to say!”

“And do you know, the day after Pratibha visited us, her husband contacted mine and requested him to persuade me to accept Pratibha’s offer. Of course, my dear old man would have nothing to do with it. Imagine the cheek!”

“You two are tough and straight, good for you.”

That evening, Manashi had sent Pratibha away, refusing to take any cash, refusing the offer of giving up all claims of being the translator of that novel in return for whatever amount of cash she wished. That was not what she wanted to do.

But now what? She had asked herself.  She had put in more than a year of hard work in translating the book. What if it came to nothing now? She should have made the agreement with Pratibha earlier, before starting on the job. Then this situation would not have arisen.

“Did you give Pratibha your translation?”

“Yes, everything except the last chapter. I have been sending her the translation chapter wise as and when I have completed one,” Manashi told her brother.

“Then there is nothing to stop her from taking your text, changing a few words here and there, and publishing it as her own translation. You were foolish to have sent her the translation without having any formal agreement with her.”

But how was she to know that things would turn out as they did? In all other cases, things had worked out smoothly. And Pratibha had told her that she was Rehana’s friend. How could she not do it? “You know, Rehana, don’t you?” Manashi asked her brother. “After all, it is because of Rehana’s insistence and encouragement that I started doing translation in the first place. How could I refuse to translate something Rehana wanted me to do?”

“But are you sure Rehana really wanted you to do the job?”

“That’s what Pratibha told me.”

“I’m not so sure. If she really had, then wouldn’t Pratibha have asked Rehana to intervene now and help sort the matter? Well, I think you should have checked with Rehana before agreeing. Pratibha is not like everyone else. She had somehow found out that you would not refuse if she mentioned Rehana’s name. And did so. Didn’t you know that she is very ambitious and manipulative?” her brother asked.

“No, I didn’t. I have been putting my head down and working on the translation continuously these last months. I have missed out on all the gossip. But such things don’t interest me, anyway.  But tell me, what will happen to the contract I have signed with the publisher now? That was a three-way contract, she as author, me as translator and them as publisher. That was what was agreed upon. How can she back out of it now?”

“If the publisher has any integrity then they should be able to persuade her to stick to the original agreement,” her brother reassured her. “Perhaps they will be able to get her to see reason… But then, given how influential her husband is, they might not dare to speak up. Let’s wait and see….”

When she did not hear from neither Pratibha nor the publisher for more than a week she called up the publisher. Had Pratibha been in touch with them over the English translation?

Yes, she had. But Pratibha had told them that she did not like Manashi’s translation of her novel. She also told them that she was going to do the translation herself. So, the earlier 3-way contract stood cancelled!

How could they do that without informing her at all, Manashi asked, feeling sick.

Well, they thought Pratibha had informed her. In any case they were sorry that it had not worked out.

“Just being sorry is not enough,” Manashi screamed. There was a legal agreement which has been breached. She threatened to take them to court.

“Going to court will resolve nothing,” her lawyer brother told her. “It will take forever. Meanwhile Pratibha will go ahead and publish your translation as her own. Other deals will be made based on the English version.  Before the court comes to any decision the whole matter will be long superseded.”

“But someone would still have to translate the last chapter,” Manashi consoled herself, “before the translation could be published.”

“Can’t she do it herself?”  her brother asked.

“No,” Manashi continued, “Pratibha’s English is very poor. In fact, she has asked me if I would help her to write her acceptance speech for that big award she got in Delhi. I told her I was not interested in being her ghost-writer. After all, if she was good enough to get such a big award for her writing, she should be able to write her acceptance speech herself, don’t you think?”

“Don’t you know that awards can be managed these days? With the connections her husband has she will soon be winning the Jnanpith, with or without your help, just wait and see; As for ghost writers, they are so many waiting in line, for that kind of money who wouldn’t… don’t think you’re the only one,” her brother tried to rub it in.

In any case, the fact remained that Pratibha could not translate the last chapter herself. She would have to ask someone else to do it. All that would take time. That would give her some time to work out how best to proceed.


Rehana waited for her students to come. Rehana, who taught English at a local college, had started a Reading Club on Thursday afternoons with some of her best students. But that Thursday there was a much smaller turn out. And her best students Nandita and Alok did not turn up. When she met them on Friday, they told her that they were busy with a translation job that they had suddenly landed up with. “Translating Pratibha Das is not easy, you know Ma’am,” they told her.

Translating Pratibha? I thought Manashi was translating her, Rehana wanted to say but stopped short.

“But Pratibha’s novels are so long – it will take you forever to do that, you might have to take a year off from classes,” she jokingly remarked.

“No, we are doing only one chapter,” they told her. “Pratibha Ma’am has done the earlier chapters herself.”

“Then why did she not do the last chapter as well?” Rehana countered.

“We didn’t dare to ask, Ma’am, although you have a point there. Anyway, what do we care. She has offered to pay us a handsome amount for translating the last chapter.”


“What? This can’t be true, can it?” Rehana heard herself screaming. Manashi had just finished recounting her last encounter with Pratibha.

“I was surprised that you took on this project in the first place, you know. There is something very calculating about Pratibha. Given how choosy you are about your friends, I would have thought she was not your kind of person.”

“There you’re right. But I took on the job only because Pratibha told me that she was your friend.”

“My friend!” Rehana screamed again. “She told you she was my friend and you believed her? Why didn’t you check with me first? Serves you right for believing her. Pratibha was never my friend, although she claims we were batch-mates in college. I don’t remember her from those days at all.”

Rehana was very angry and cross with Manashi but stopped, looking at Manashi’s sad and bewildered face. “Forget all that, what do we do now to stop Pratibha from going ahead and publishing your translation as her own?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps it was I who was being stupid. I should have checked with you first. I should have made her sign the agreement before starting on the translation. There is nothing to be done now, I guess. My mistake. It is not the money, it is all the time and energy I had put into the project – all that wasted. And then to be told that my translation is so bad that it has to be dumped. That is what makes me sad,” Manashi’s quivering voice trailed off.

“Listen… we mustn’t give up so easily. We have to stop this somehow.”

“Thanks for standing up for me,” Manashi said.

“It’s not for you that I am doing it. You are so naïve that you probably deserve what you are getting. But I want to stop Pratibha because what she is doing – first trying to buy you off and now claiming to be her own translator — is unethical and wrong.  She is beginning to believe that money can buy everything.”

“But how will you ever prove that she tried to buy me off, there were no witnesses?”

“Let keep thinking…perhaps we can find a way. Strange things happen sometimes, you know. We mustn’t lose hope.”


It was really lucky running into Amalendu at the wedding like that. Amalendu was a professor of English at the University and Rehana’s research colleague — they knew each other well. After the usual small-talk, Amalendu told Rehana that Pratibha had approached him to read through and smoothen out the translation of her latest novel that she had got done with the help of some students… He was not too excited about having to do it – he was in the middle of a lot of work at the university and would be away for extended periods in the coming weeks. And Pratibha hadn’t given him a lot of time. But he did not want to offend her either – some men somehow find it hard to say no to women…He was really in a fix. Rehana came up with an offer … she could do the work for him, nobody needed to know– they had supported each other in the past — surely she could do so much for him now as well…no problem, she would be happy to be of help. Of course, Rehana would get the money that Pratibha had promised Amalendu for the work…


The room was filled with reporters…this was the prestigious Press Club where Pratibha wanted to release the English version of her award-winning novel. It had gone fine so far, very well in fact. She had told the reporters that an international film-maker had approached her already, and that she had already been invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair to present her new book. The original Assamese version was already in its 5th edition within a year of publication. The book was creating waves, and with the English translation, it would reach the world. Her husband’s office staff who were on duty at the venue would make sure that each reporter goes away with not just a copy of her book but also enough presents that will ensure rave reviews in the media…

The Q & A was about to start. “Why did you choose to write a different story in the English version than in the Assamese original?” one reporter asked. Seeing Pratibha fumbling with her English, another asked, ‘Did you really do the English version yourself?” Pratibha was furious. What was going on here… How dare they talk to her like that … Some order has to be brought to the room. How dare they doubt her abilities…And what was it about the stories being different… what were they talking about, and how did they get to read the English version already in the first place?

But could it be true that the endings were different? How could it have happened? She had asked Amalendu to check the language. But she had not asked him to check whether the English translation corresponded to the Assamese original. So how could she blame him now? Perhaps it was the students who had understood the story wrong and had translated the last chapter incorrectly. Well… since she had put down her name as the author of both versions, she surely would be expected to know what she had written…no point blaming anyone else now.

She first needed to cancel the press meet; she would say that the press had just informed her that the print copies were not ready for distribution. She would then call off the Q & A. That would resolve the immediate problem.

Crazy that nobody had mentioned the matter with the endings to her before…she could surely not be expected to read so many pages of English herself, to make sure that everything was in order. That is what she had paid others such large amounts to do. But there was no time to lose… she needed to make sure the two versions were the same. But who could do it for her now at the very last minute? There was only one way out, to go to Manashi and beg her to give her the last chapter as well. Then she remembered she had not paid Manashi anything for all the work she had done. And Manashi would not agree to give her the translation without adding her name as translator to the book…and even if she agreed, how would she then explain to the publishers that Manashi’s translation, which she had earlier rejected, was fine after all. That too, after all the trouble she had to get them to agree to a fresh contract with her after she had walked out of the earlier one. She did not have much time… how could she get around the problem? …who could she ask for help?

Just then Rehana sailed into the room, with some papers in her hand…she waved at the journalists to take their places because she had something important to tell them…

Besides being a writer and translator, Meenaxi Barkotoki is currently working with some small ethnic communities in NE India. She divides her time between the Northeast India and Germany.