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South Asian Translations, and the Lack of Them

Over the past few weeks, Mahmud Rahman/Asymptote has been publishing a four-part series “On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S.”

The whole series is worth reading, and below are a few key bits to whet your appetite . . . First off, from Part I:

A small percentage of literary books published in the U.S. are translations. The translation program at the University of Rochester maintains yearly databases of translated titles available in the U.S. South Asian languages barely make these lists: in the last five years, out of 2121 books, only 19 were from South Asian languages (only Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Tamil). No surprise that European languages dominate, but given the vibrant literature from South Asia and a somewhat growing interest in translated literature, it’s a serious problem when so few titles and literature from so few languages find their way to American readers. [. . .]

Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon blog, which covers global literature, notes:

“Over the past several decades, a steady flow of English-writing authors with strong Indian (and, to a much lesser extent, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) connections/roots but also great familiarity with “the West,” from Anita Desai to Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Chandra, etc. etc. have filled the role of “Indian” writers for the West—and that’s been more or less good enough for them. (Even the outliers—less Western-connected R.K. Narayan, or someone like Raja Rao—have written in English). Indian writers writing in Indian languages presumably just seem too great a risk, when Indian slots can easily be filled with writers who ‘know’ Western audiences better.” [. . .]

Of course it did not help when an influential voice such as Rushdie introduced Indian writing in The New Yorker in June 1997 with words like these:

“This is it: The prose writing—both fiction and nonfiction—created in [the post-independence] period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India. . . . The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.” [. . .]

Jason Grunebaum, writer, translator, and lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago, notes the practical side of the issue. “It’s a zero-sum game when it comes to bookstore shelf space: for every work published from a South Asian writer written in English, that means one less space for a translation.”

No one in publishing admits to this possible partiality. But it’s well known that mainstream publishers tend to be conservative with their choices. It’s not likely this will change without some remarkable new development. Daisy Rockwell suggests that this could happen when “a high profile translation breaks through with a major publishing house.”

In other words, something like a Bolaño or Knausgård. [. . .]

Part II is the one that’s probably most relevant to me personally. In this part, Mahmud focuses on a few failures to get books published in the U.S./UK despite having come out (in English translation) in India, and then highlights the (literal handful) of successes.

First off, here’s one of the typical stories:

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer, and translator. From 1992-2006, she made a detour into academia, from which she emerged with a Ph.D. in South Asian literature and a book on the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk. She had become interested in his writing as a grad student.

In an interview with CNN last year, she said: “Ashk asked me to undertake a short story collection shortly before his death, which I did somewhat reluctantly as I was more interested in translating his long novel, Falling Walls (something I’m finally working on now). It ended up being his dying wish to me, however, so I saw the project through. I finished most of the work around 2000, but had a very hard time finding a publisher, even in India.”

Her translation of Ashk’s Hats & Doctors came out from Penguin India in 2013. About her approach to U.S. publishers, she wrote: “I have tried and so far failed to get my translation published in the U.S., on numerous occasions. I have another work forthcoming and I will try with that too. We’ll see what happens. I haven’t had any explanations. So far I’ve approached them myself. Next up, my agent. Mostly I’ve tried academic presses and small presses. I haven’t tried that many, but since no one maintains a South Asia list, really, the entire thing feels kind of scatter shot and I’ve gotten discouraged easily.”

It’s amazing how many books are available in translation from HarperCollins India, Oxford India, and Penguin India that are never even submitted to American publishing houses. It’s messed up and unfortunate, and a very short-sighted.

In the last three years, however, a few translators report some success.

Fran Pritchett, who’s been teaching modern South Asian literature at Columbia, first published her translation of Basti, Intizar Husain’s partition novel in Urdu, in 1995 from HarperCollins India. It was reissued in 2007 by OUP in Delhi. Last year it was picked up by NYRB Classics. Fran writes, “I didn’t contact NYRB about the new edition of Basti; they contacted me and were very interested. I was glad to agree, and to cooperate in every way, but I don’t have much insight into why they chose Basti.”

When I reached Edwin Frank, Editor of NYRB Classics, he said that Andy McCord, a writer who translates from Urdu and has ties to the subcontinent, had brought Basti to his attention more than a decade ago. NYRB will be publishing the translation of Anantamurthy’s Samskara in 2015. About their choices, he explained that they have published a number of titles from and about the sub-continent, including Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. “It’s a world that is of interest to me and, I hope, to our readers. These, with the exception of Kolatkar, are all works written in English. It makes sense to go on and publish some of the great works that aren’t, and these are among them.”

There’s a lot more to quote from—like Jason Grunebaum’s letter to the New York Times that led to Yale picking up _The Girl with the Golden Parasol_—but you should just read it all yourself.

Part III is about trying to bring South Asian literature to the attention of foreign publishers, and the role that a supporting cultural institution could play in this:

I had a few exchanges with Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum. As a new kid on the block based in Dallas, Texas, Evans is effervescent about Deep Vellum’s mission. Starting out with a list of five impressive titles translated from French, Russian, Spanish, and Icelandic, their initial plan is to publish ten books a year. In a recent interview with this blog, Evans confidently declared, “Deep Vellum is going to publish translations of literature from every language.”

My conversation with him about South Asian translations revealed that visibility is a problem. Larger publishers may have resources to scout out interesting titles (though one doesn’t see this go beyond certain languages and regions). But smaller publishers rely on information channels that are already in place.

Evans writes, “I don’t know many translators from South Asia, and the pipelines for information that exist from the French, German, and various Spanish language cultural programs don’t seem to exist in South Asia, which is a shame, because as long as there are good books to be published, of course I’m interested, and so are all my other favorite publishers.”

“It would also be awesome if some cultural organizations were formed to promote the literatures of South Asia in a meaningful way. Their inspiration could be like the German Book Office, who are an invaluable resource for the promotion of German literature in the U.S. Their New Books in German publication is a great way of knowing what is coming out from German publishers, and they coordinate a massive network of German publishers, translators, and authors, and they go out of their way to connect American publishers with the right books from Germany. I’d love that from South Asia, though of course we’re talking about a massively disparate area, not linguistically or culturally unified. But such efforts could go a long way in each individual culture or territory to making their literature more prevalent in English translation in the U.S. & U.K.”

Evans also points to the example of Korea. “The Korean literary organization LTI has done wonders for the promotion of Korean literature in English in recent years, because they are dedicated to using culture as a way of expanding Korean culture abroad more generally. And you don’t see the same thing from South Asian governments.”

Part VI is about the need for translators, and the role that they could play:

Today there are many South Asians here who have taken up creative writing. Some have become prominent. Very few have tried translation. Moazzam Sheikh, a writer who’s also a translator, says: “This situation can only be reversed if we South Asians had a different relationship with the languages of our parents. Just imagine if only a handful of South Asian writers in the U.S. spent some time translating!”

There are also many academics from South Asia who teach literature in the U.S. Only a minority among them become familiar with non-English writing from South Asia. Arnab Chakladar, who teaches at Carleton College, noted in an essay in Postcolonial Text: “Most relevant here is the educational background of the large majority of Indian literary scholars who arrived in the USA beginning in the late 1980s and whose careers, as graduate students and faculty, parallel the rise of South Asian literary studies as a more or less discrete sub-discipline in the American academy. While this group is multilingual, the primary medium of instruction through their school and college years would have been English. In high school they would likely have had another Indian language as a ‘second language’ and read a very limited amount of fiction and poetry in this language, but would not have developed any coherent sense of its literary tradition.”

However this problem does not affect simply those who’ve been educated in English. Jason Grunebaum points me towards a major failing from the subcontinent: the absence of contemporary literature from high school curricula. “Another idea that’s fairly obvious but bears emphasizing, particularly for Hindi literature, would be the wholesale shakeup of the CBSE (secondary school) Hindi curriculum in India. I’m sure the situation is similar for other Indian languages (though I always imagine that the grass is always greener on the other side), but if the sole aim of the CBSE curriculum had been to design a language and literature curriculum so boring and irrelevant that it would be guaranteed to make all students hate Hindi language and literature, they couldn’t have done a better job. It’s amazing how many Hindi students who come to the University of Chicago from India with their CBSE-tainted notions of Hindi literature and then later discover here that Hindi literature can (gasp!) be exciting and fun.”

(That last point can probably apply to every country’s high school curriculum ever. It’s kind of a miracle that anyone graduating high school—or college for that matter—reads anything at all. And there is my first truly cynical moment of the week!)

Part V is due out next week—I’ll run an update when that happens. But once again, check out the whole series here.



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