4 April 16 | Chad W. Post

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

This has been my first year as a co-judge for the BTBA, and it’s been an enormous privilege. We’re all incredibly proud of our longlist; the quality is top class, but the breadth of languages (Tamil! Zapotec! Dari!) and the fact that 7/10 of the books are by women is also exciting and important. I’m a passionate believer in the inseparability of aesthetics and representation, and in Calvino’s concept of translation as stylistic evolution; rather than a worthy box-ticking exercise, actively seeking work from literatures as yet little-known in English is one of the most effective ways of sourcing writing which feels genuinely new—a seemingly impossible feat these days.

The incredibly violent reaction to the four female Tamil poets whose work is collected in Wild Words gives alarming confirmation to Malayali translator and scholar J. Devika’s assertion that “translating women authors from regional languages is an important escape route from the overbearing and overwhelming patriarchies that have shaped and continue to shape regional literary publics.” We should be doubly grateful, then, to translator Lakshmi Holmström, for bringing these brave, wild words to a wider audience, and for producing translations of such arresting imagery and tonal variety.

Paths by Salma

Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
falls, scatters.

But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.

Equal gratitude goes to the book’s publisher, HarperCollins India—their commissioning editor and rights manager Manasi Subramaniam first brought the book my attention when she contacted me to suggest some potential authors for Tilted Axis Press (we’re publishing two novels by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, both translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). She’s a passionate advocate for translating India’s regional literatures, which, as you’ll see in this interview I did with her, is not the easiest job in the world.

How do you feel about the longlisting?

Hearing about the longlisting of Wild Words for such a prestigious award gives us immense joy. I’m so glad and grateful that awards like this one even exist.

How did you come to publish the book? What made it stand out for you, and what has the reception been like?

The reception has been absolutely fantastic. The reviews have been unanimously positive and admiring. I just wish poetry would sell more!

This is an unusual book for many reasons: it’s poetry, it’s translation, it’s an anthology, and it’s all women. All four of these things excite me for very different reasons, and I love that there exists a collection such as Wild Words that manages to bring them together. I actually chanced upon this book in its earlier edition, which was published as a bilingual Tamil-English book by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House. I’m a Tamilian myself, so I was very taken with the book, as well as with the reasons for putting together these 4 poets in particular.

In 2003, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets—particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma (an activist and political who is also the subject of a brilliant documentary—Ed), Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani—charging the women with obscenity and immodesty. The response of the Tamil literary world was markedly violent. A lot has changed since then—but a lot remains unchanged still.

What’s the status of India’s regional literatures, as opposed to work written originally in English?

Indian fiction in languages other than English represents the richness and diversity of our tongues in ways that only multiplicity can. There’s so much wonderful work happening in the Indian languages (English is an Indian language too!) and it seems only fair that the languages all translate into and out of each other. If we don’t keep doing that, these voices will never be heard outside of their languages. Intercultural understanding seems increasingly important in a country like India that’s both global and multilingual. While critics and reviewers are incredibly receptive to translated literature, it does seem harder and harder to get the reading public as excited about translation as we ourselves are. So—while we are able to do high-quality translations and work with other publishers and translators—it remains a problem of numbers. We also have to depend on scouts when it comes to languages we are not familiar with.

What’s it like trying to get publishers outside the subcontinent interested in these translations?

I haven’t had a great deal of luck getting publishers internationally to pay attention to our translations. I do want them to have a wider market and be published in the U.S. and the UK, but I think perhaps that the English-speaking world’s interest in translations is still restricted mostly to the European languages. There’s the odd success story here and there, but it isn’t as yet easy for me to pitch translations to the U.S. and UK publishers that we work with.


Here’s the trailer for the documentary of Salma mentioned above:

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