Mother Tongue Twisters: poetry for children in India’s many languages

Writer, literary translator and World Kid Lit advocate Mohini Gupta tells us about Mother Tongue Twisters, a new initiative aimed at raising the profile of poetry for children in Indian languages

1. You’re founder and host of Mother Tongue Twisters. What is it, how does it work, and what inspired you to start it up?

“Rhyming Rolling Rice” by Mohini Gupta in Dum Dum Dho: Rhymes and Rhythms (Tulika Books

In 2015, I started working with Tulika Books as a translator and became an active contributor to the kid lit space for the first time. For one of their poetry collections, I wrote a short poem in English about a childhood memory I had, and once it was published, it resonated with so many friends, their parents and grandparents. I realised that there was a lack of poems for young readers, rooted in a deeply Indian experience—however heterogenous and complicated a term that may be. I went a step further and dreamed of building a website that would contain contemporary, original poetry in the Indian languages specifically targeted at young readers. Thus was born Mother Tongue Twisters—a multilingual, digital platform that seeks to create and curate Indian language poetry for young readers.

The first time I conceptualised this platform was when I applied for the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in 2017, hosted by Literature Across Frontiers at the University of Aberystwyth (now hosted at UWTSD). I wanted to challenge myself to write children’s poetry in my mother tongue (Hindi) for the first time as a part of this fellowship, and ultimately invite my fellow poets and translators to do the same—while I knew many English-language poets and translators from Indian languages to English, not many of them had written in or translated into their mother tongue. For me, it was a way of ‘giving back’ to our languages through the process of translation.

2. How has the reception been? Do you think you’ve tapped into a pre-existing community interested in Indian children’s writing and translation, or have you created a new community of listeners and readers?

The reception to the platform has been incredible. I was so nervous to put it out in the world at first, I did not even discuss the name with anyone and wasn’t sure how people would react to it. It was World Poetry Day on March 23rd and I had already collected children’s poems from some of the most wonderful poets and translators in Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Bhojpuri, Hindi and English for the platform a year ago. I wanted to share them with the world on that day, at a time when people were looking for content to engage with online.

The platform immediately caught the attention of people and there was an early feature in FirstPost within 15 days of its launch. In another few weeks, it was featured in leading Indian publications like Business Standard, The Telegraph, The Indian Express and The Economic Times. I’m not sure whether this community already existed or whether it has been created, especially in a virtual world, but I am fortunate it has. I was hoping to appeal to people’s nostalgia and memories of language(s) and that worked beautifully. Eventually, I would like to build a website repository of these poems and take this platform to its primary target audience: young students and parents and educators who can use the poetry on the platform to engage young people with their mother tongues.

Our first initiative, Translation Thursdays, was an impulsive idea that started off as a weekly discussion on translation, amongst people who enjoy listening to and playing around with different languages. The overwhelming response I have received to this series on translation made me realise that there is a lack of initiatives that make literary translation and translators accessible to people. I continued the discussion for fifteen straight weeks without a break, and the community of students, emerging translators, professors, writers, publishers and literary professionals has continued to expand significantly.

3. What topics have been touched on during the Translation Thursdays discussions so far? What were the standout moments of Season 1 for you?

We managed to cover a wide range of topics related to translation in the fifteen weeks of Season 1. This included translation as activism, transcreating across cultures, translating for adults and children, translating gender, oral traditions and folktales, and the role of memory and history in translation. Our speakers were not limited by geography thanks to technology. We had speakers joining us from Imphal in the Easternmost corner of India (L Somi Roy) to Rajasthan in the West; and from places beyond India such as Aberystwyth, Madrid and Michigan. I think the highlight for me was the diversity of languages and cultures we managed to introduce our audiences to—from European minority languages to children’s literature in Africa and nonsense verse in Bengal. I have learnt so much in this series, and hope to write about it some day. You can view all our past videos here.

Another highlight was when some emerging translators who attended the sessions connected with the speakers directly, and started working on their first ever work in translation. When Ros Schwartz spoke about translating the French classic, The Little Prince, one of the attendees turned out to be the son of someone who had translated the book into an Indian language. It is forming and nurturing these connections that makes this effort so meaningful.

4. Who do you have lined up to speak in Season 2?

We have exciting sessions lined up in the new monthly avatar of Translation Thursdays. We are opening with a session on translating Orhan Pamuk this week with translator Maureen Freely on 20th August, 7pm IST (register here). I am really excited about another upcoming session on translating the Asterix comics with translators Dipa Chaudhuri and Puneet Gupta, who co-translated it directly from French into Hindi. I am amazed at the way they have navigated the wordplay, puns, jokes and songs in the text, along with the added challenge of fitting everything into a speech bubble! There are also sessions on translating the iconic Tamil writer Perumal Murugan into English (N Kalyan Raman); and the legendary playwright Henrik Ibsen from Norwegian into Hindi (Astri Ghosh). Keep following our pages for more!

6. As well as starting MTT this spring, you’ve also become an energetic and active member of the World Kid Lit community, and have been leading on social media publicity for #worldkidlitmonth. What else are you working on at the moment and how do you fit it all in?

The launch of MTT in March propelled me into the orbit of global kid lit so quickly that now I feel like I have always been a part of this universe. It has been exciting to discover the number of thoughtful kid lit initiatives that exist around the world, whether it is Apalam Chapalam in India or The Stephen Spender Trust in the UK. It is an open, inclusive and supportive community. With World Kid Lit, there was an immediate alignment of goals. The team has been generous to take me on as a member and I hope to help spread the word about the coming #worldkidlitmonth in September.

Before the lockdown, my life involved a LOT of multitasking, which still continues—just in a virtual format. Doing many things at a time is the only way I can keep myself motivated. I was working full-time with a women’s leadership programme in New Delhi, along with translating, writing on languages and translation, conducting poetry and translation sessions for students, and hosting physical events and podcasts on literature and Indian languages. I am now on a break before I start my PhD in October, but working on a long-form profile of a Hindi writer, running MTT, working for WKL, working with the Translators’ Association of India (Bhartiya Anuvad Parishad) and trying (in vain) to play the piano at home in my free time!

6. You’re just about to move to Oxford, UK, to start a PhD in South Asian language politics. What are you planning to research and how does it fit with your interest in translation and children’s writing?

I have always wanted to conduct in-depth research on South Asian language politics, especially the relationship of the Indian youth with the languages it speaks. My research in this field over the last few years along with my experience in Wales, where I found inspiration on making mother tongues engaging for the younger generation, has brought me to the idea of exploring how we can use poetry and translation as a tool to transform language pedagogy. It is at a young age that we form our lifelong attitudes towards the language(s) we speak, and through my research as a student and my work at MTT, I hope to look for solutions to overcome the ‘postcolonial shame’ we grow up associating with our ‘mother tongues’. This is a complex and fraught topic in the context of Indian language politics but I hope to understand it better through my research and work towards a nuanced pedagogical solution in the future.


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Mohini Gupta is a writer/translator based in New Delhi. She has been a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in 2017, and a Sangam House translator-in-residence in 2015. Her translations have been published by Tulika Publishers. She runs the digital Indian language poetry collective for young readers, Mother Tongue Twisters.

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