How to edit a cross-cultural Anglo-Indian-Australian melange

When travelling in India, I’ve often been complimented on the fact that, for an Australian, my English is quite good. Australians have a reputation for speaking incomprehensible slang. English is a plastic language that adapts itself to take on national characteristics but thankfully, with concentration, its possible to adjust your ear to most versions of it.  I never had trouble making myself understood while travelling on the sub-continent as the English language is just one of the many things we share with India.

India is the second largest English speaking country in the world after the United States of America. Approximately 125,226,449 Indians speak English – every day. That figure is expected to quadruple in the next decade. It’s also a multi-lingual country with English and Hindi as the official languages of government. But there are twenty-two other official languages of the union. In addition, hundreds of languages and dialects are used across the sub-continent. In some ways, those varied languages inform the way English is spoken in India yet Indian-English is far more ‘British’ than Australian English.

All of the Indian contributors to Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean speak perfect, impeccable English. Many of them fluently speak several other languages as well. It may seem odd to mention this but it’s surprising how often I’ve been asked about how I went about organising ‘translations’ of the Indian contributors’ work.  

Thousands of words that English speakers use daily all around the world have their origins in India. The lines between Australian English and Indian English can be very blurry – pyjama, bungalow, rice, verandah, shampoo, khaki, thug, chutney and even archaic words that Australians associate with WWI ANZACS, like ‘Blighty’ are derived from Indian languages (to name just a few).

Nevertheless, small questions arose from both the Aussie and Indian editorial teams about different usages in the anthology. Payal and Anita were mystified by terms like “veggie-maths”,  “panel beater” and bunyip. I found myself explaining that  ‘cat-calls’ is synonymous with ‘Eve-teasing’. I was unclear about what odhni meant, only familiar with the more common word, dupatta, used to describe a long Indian shawl. Then, when the stories went through another stage of editing with Susannah Chambers and Sarah Brenan at Allen & Unwin, I began adding explanations in my emails about the cultural and historical context of some of the Indian stories, not because the stories couldn’t be read seamlessly, but because understanding something about the Mughal Empire or the story of how Krishna’s mother saw the universe in her baby son’s mouth enriches the reading of the stories.

Australian and Indian fiction published in the USA tends to be edited to make it more ‘friendly’ to American readers whereas Indians and Australians read American fiction with out query, despite all it’s linguistically idiosyncratic terms. In many ways, as former British colonies, Australia and India have a closer understanding of each others use of English than we do of American English, though we are inundated by American culture. One of the satisfying things about editing Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean was realising how small the gap between cultures can be and to see the potential to deepen the connections through the power of story.

Priya Kuriyan, Kirsty Murray, Isobelle Carmody, Anita Roy and  young Indian readers at the Delhi launch of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Priya Kuriyan, Kirsty Murray, Isobelle Carmody, Anita Roy and young Indian readers at the Delhi launch of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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