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.
Hareven is an Israeli author who is most well-known for The Confessions of Noa Weber, an absolutely brilliant book that won the Best Translated Book Award in 2009. It was translated by the also brilliant Dalya Bilu and is available from Melville House.
Next year, Open Letter is going to be bringing out her follow-up, Lies, First Person, a really dark, fucked-up book about a woman who decides to take revenge on her uncle for crimes he committed against her sister when they were growing up. It’s really interesting and very readable, and I’ll be writing more about this in the not too distant future.
But for now, check out the new story, an excerpt of which is below:
Today is the first day of September and for a lot of people this means the beginning of a new school year. I want to experience a new beginning too, so I’ve decided to buy this notebook in which, from now on, I’ll write about everything that happens to me along with my thoughts about it. One day, when I open and read it, I’ll be able to remember how things really were—and I’m sure this will be meaningful. And, until then, I’ll have this diary, and it will be my best friend on lonely days.
So—hello, diary! My name is May Nathanson, which is short for Maya Nathanson. Daddy thinks “May” sounds better. In October I’ll be seventeen, and here’s the surprising part…I don’t go to high school anymore.
In order to explain to you, my new friend, how I grew up so quickly, and why it is that a girl like me doesn’t go to school, I need to go back a few months, to what happened in June. So be patient. (I’m sure you don’t lack patience.)
It all started when crazy Linda locked herself in the bedroom. In case you don’t know (how would you know if I haven’t told you yet?), Linda’s my mom, and please don’t think badly of me for calling her crazy. I’m not the only one who thinks so.
That evening some guests were supposed to come over: two important professors from Germany who came especially to see Daddy’s ward at the hospital, and a couple of doctor friends of his, and all of their wives, too. My dad likes to entertain, and he’s the most charming host in the world. (Okay, okay, maybe not the most charming, but pretty close to it.) If Linda wasn’t the way she is, I’m sure we’d have had guests much more often.
So this is what happened: Ofir and I were sitting upstairs in my room getting ready for the next day’s matriculation exams in government—separation of authority into legislative and judicial branches, stuff like that. At our school we can take two matriculation exams as early as eleventh grade—in language and in government—and we did language a little after Passover. (I don’t mean to brag, but I know I’ll get at least a B+.) Anyway, Ofir and I are sitting and cramming, and suddenly we hear a big metal boom from the kitchen downstairs, and then Linda’s footsteps as she runs up the stairs, and the bedroom door being slammed shut. Ofir looks at me, obviously embarrassed, asking me whether I want to go and see what’s going on, but scenes like this are pretty common with Linda, and I had no intention of encouraging her and her silliness. And guess what? Two minutes later, just as I expected, she started playing one of her stupid records—Leonard Cohen—melancholy trash that always depresses me.
Okay: So when Ofir saw that I wasn’t going to leave the room, we went back to studying. And he didn’t ask anything because he saw that I didn’t want to talk about it, and also because we’re friends and he knows a thing or two about my family. Anyway, what’s going on with Linda is not exactly a secret.
The new issue of Asymptote is now available, and GOD DAMN is it loaded. Just read this intro note from the editors:
Every translation is a conversation, each translator in dialogue with the original author, each language speaking to another. Asymptote’s Summer issue is full of such conversations, perhaps most notably our exclusive interview with best-selling author turned translator David Mitchell, who together with his wife, K.A. Yoshida, translated a memoir of autism by the 13-year-old Naoki Higashida. We also got to speak to Tan Twan Eng, the first Malaysian Man Asian Literary Prize-winner, and avant-gardist Can Xue, whom Susan Sontag singled out as the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. Ottilie Mulzet finds her conversation partners translating Hungarian masters László Krasznahorkai and Szilárd Borbély. Q&As with playwrights Maria Cassi and Chantal Bilodeau, meanwhile, shine their light on this issue’s Special Feature: Self-Translation in Drama; or, when a translator is faced with her worst enemy: herself!
Writing doesn’t always have to be straightforward or even legible, as the asemic writing of Michael Jacobson shows. 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Fady Joudah’s elliptical essay on translation challenges the reader, just as Rachel Shihor’s parabolic fiction does (and you can learn more about contemporary Israeli fiction in Yardenne Greenspan’s overview). Our Fiction section has crystallized around the theme of departure; whether in László Krasznahorkai’s tantalizing short piece, Wu Ming-Yi’s tale about the cast-out second sons of Wayo Wayo Island, or Melanie Taylor Herrera’s “The Voyage,” set in 17th century Panama, all these stories address just what happens when we leave all that we have and are behind. The lyrical black-and-white photographs of Guillaume Gilbert, our guest artist, extend this theme throughout this issue, capturing frozen moments just before.
Beginning with an ekphrastic and closing with a meditation on sculpture, the poetry in this edition is profoundly concerned with the elemental: the basic structures of our physical and metaphysical worlds. Pierre Peuchmaurd’s eye observes and unflinchingly records, Kim Kyung Ju’s inner world is overwhelmed by its contact with the outside world; Ihor Pavlyuk, our first Ukrainian author, like a mussel, senses “the whisper/ Of distant tides.” The attitude is one of “feeling the whole hunger,” of attempting to express something large via the small and the sensual. Each poet is presented with an audio recording in the original language, sometimes, as with Ulrike Almut Sandig and Enrique Winter, with astonishing musical accompaniment.
You’re a remarkably prolific writer, having written over a hundred short stories and dozens of novellas and critical essays. Yet only a fraction of those works have been translated into English. Are there any works of yours that have not been translated that you would like to see translated?
At present, two of my full-length novels have already been translated. And it was recently announced that the latest [translation] of my novella The Last Lover, which is currently still being edited, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2014. Dozens of medium-length and shorter works have been translated into English. I estimate that some 13 million Chinese characters of my works have been translated—is that really a small amount? My output is very consistent, and that’s very difficult for a writer to do. My wildest dream is to get all of my works published in the United States.
With regard to your writing process, you’ve said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?
The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I’ll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I’ve already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.
The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it’s hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?
I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful “aura,” and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the “balance of forces“—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.
In a way, [Mitchell’s] last two books beautifully set the stage for The Reason I Jump, a memoir by then 13-year-old Naoki Higashida and now translated from the Japanese by Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. This is their first translation. As a portrait of a boy whose ‘disability’ inhibits his communication with the outside world, this slim work is unparalleled, and though its aims may be humble and small in scale (to help explain the reasons why Higashida, and by extension other, similarly autistic people, do the things they do), the revelation of a previously illegible mind suddenly legible on the page is not.
Like Reif Larsen, you’ve already had to answer many questions posed by translators about your work, but did you yourself have any experience as a translator before this book? And what do you now think of translation as a creative activity?
This is my debut as a translator. The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the ‘into-language,’ plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.
Someone once said that all writing is translating—if only translating the language of thought onto paper. Similarly, fiction, in some ways, is about bringing characters to life through ventriloquism; do you find it productive to also see translation as an act of ventriloquism, and in this case a double act of ventriloquism (both of culture and of an outsider’s psychological space)?
The theory of translation is fertile and deep, but I’m too much of a beginner to go weighing in here, especially considering that Asymptote’s readership must include some of the best translators on Earth. All I tried to do was render The Reason I Jump into a book that Naoki would have written had he been born in the UK and not Japan. That intention was my guiding principle and my Sir Alan Sugar who dealt with my hesitancies and second-guessings and prevarications accordingly: You, my friend, are fired.
Asymptote, one of the prettiest (and smartest) online magazines, has a new issue out to kick off the new year, and it’s pretty packed with interesting material:
For one, we got to talk to our favorite Francophile, Edmund White, about why Proust is “a more profound psychologist than Freud”. We also have an excerpt from the new novel by Amélie Nothomb, the Belgian phenom behind Fear and Trembling; Life Form is about yet another cultural clash—this time with an American soldier in Iraq. But perhaps we are proudest of bringing you the first ever English translation from Toh EnJoe’s 2012 Akutagawa Prize-winning novel, Harlequin’s Butterflies. In the fascinating interview Toh also granted us, the Physics PhD elaborates on his “un-local novels”, and how we must cherish the ability to enjoy strange things.
I’m particularly interested in Harlequin’s Butterfly, especially after reading this note from Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto about the translation:
Harlequin’s Butterfly is a complex work in which (to give one out of any number of possible summaries) the entanglement of idea (‘butterfly’) and praxis (‘net’) is told and retold from multiple perspectives, making it all the more deserving of the Akutagawa Prize. The first chapter, presented in its entirety in this extract (along with the introduction of the second chapter for clarity’s sake), forms the comedic version of the tale, and is dominated by the imposing figure—a veritable Pantalone—of A. A. Abrams. To translate humour is treacherous enough, but to recreate Abrams’ American English from a Japanese translation of a Latino sine inflexione rendering of his original English? Straining our ears, we managed to catch echoes of Clare Quilty.
And the opening—although maybe a bit too goofy at first (calls to mind Calvino, but the handstand joke falls flat, in my opinion)—is pretty mesmerizing:
Books that may only be read while traveling would be nice.
Books that may also be read while traveling are boring. For every thing, there must be a right time and place. A book suited for reading anywhere and anytime is nothing more than a half-baked sham.
This book, without a doubt, takes the form of A Book To Be Read In Two Minutes While Doing A Handstand and has indeed been made for the express purpose of handstand reading. Its significance cannot be fully grasped via non-handstand reading. You can open the book normally and follow the words on the page, but the feeling is nothing compared to the sensation of actually finishing the book while standing on your hands. The story ingeniously employs the rush of blood to the head. By adapting this principle, Revelations That Come In The Thick Of Anger and the like can be created easily.
This happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle. The copy of Confession To Someone With Three Arms that I have purchased from the kiosk sits on my lap. I try flipping through it, but as usual nothing sticks in my mind. It might be the flight speed, but the letters seem to lag ever so slightly behind the page, scrambling to catch up. Absorbed by their movements, I am only able to see a mass of print; I am utterly distracted.
At this stage, I give up the pointless struggle and start to think about books that make use of the movements of letters. Every time I travel, the same thing happens. I stuff two or three books in my bag, even buy additional books during the trip, but strangely, I have yet to get very far in any of them.
The ability to convert these vague feelings into wealth instead of words is called business sense.
While no multimillionaire, it is by listening to such fancies as these that Mr. A. A. Abrams amasses a respectable fortune.
This all happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle.
Mr. Abrams is a man who is continually onboard planes, without having any particular destination. Flying is his business, and so he flies as much as he can, staying in hotels near airports when forced to remain on land. He is neither flight attendant nor pilot, just a traveler with nowhere to go.
Be sure and check it all out.
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .