asia globe

Why So Few US Translations of South Asian Lit?

In News by Dennis Abrams

For translations of South Asian literature to become more prevalent in the US, there needs to be a breakthrough, surprise hit: “something like a Bolano or Knausgaard.”

By Dennis Abrams

asia globeAt Asymptote, Mahmud Rahman has posted the first two parts of a three part series: “On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S.”

In Part 1, after looking at the numbers he says that in the last five years, out of 2,121 books published in the US in translation, only 19 were from South Asian languages – and only Urdu, Hindi, Bangla and Tamil at that.

Which is not to say that Indian literature is not available in the U.S. But many believe that the large number of South Asians now writing in English goes a long way in explaining publishers’ lack of interest in translations.

Rahman quotes writer, critic and translator Daisy Rockwell who said:

“I think it’s directly related to the success of South Asian literature in English. Not only does the large quantity of such literature make publishers feel like South Asia is being covered, but that type of literature has a certain shared aesthetic which is quite different from what we find in literature from SA that has not been written in English. The English varietal is ‘lush’ and ‘magical’ – the ‘vernacular’ varietal tends to be progressivist, unadorned and heavily wedded to realism. In short, it is not as ‘fun’ as the kind written in English, and requires perhaps more work on the part of the reader. Progressive realism is hard to sell in the American market, which by now expects rich silk saris, aromatic foods and heaving bosoms, and maybe a good dose of incest.”

Jason Grunebaum, a writer, translator, and lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago added that in addition, “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.”

What’s needed of course is a breakthrough – a translation that becomes a surprise hit. In the words of Rahman, “something like a Bolano or Knausgaard.”

But as Grunebaum warned, there’s a risk that comes with the appearance of a surprise hit:

“It’s not impossible that one day we’ll see a magical ‘mega hit’: a huge bestseller of a book of South Asian literature in translation published by a big U.S. house. It could be a great boon in raising the visibility of South Asian literature in translation. But then what? Then every major U.S. house goes out hunting for the next big thing, and all of a sudden, all of us translators who have been toiling for years in obscurity have our inboxes filled with queries from editors. If and when this happy day happens, I hope we have a good project or two ready to go! If not, then who knows what might make it to market: possibly questionable translations of mediocre work. My point is that a big hit could happen, and open many doors, but if there aren’t good works that will follow in the wake of the frenzy to reproduce the big hit, the door could close as quickly as it was opened.”

In Part Two, Rahman looked at “How some South Asian translations are making it – or trying to, at least – in the brutal U.S. publishing market.”

One example is Bilal Hashimi, whose translation of Sajjad Zaheer’s A Night in London, an Urdu novella from the 1930s, was published by HarperCollins India in 2011. In the afterward to the book, Hashimi wrote, “The novella, which has since run into several editions, occupies a singular position in the history of Urdu literature. There is nothing quite like it, so far as I know, in Indian writing of roughly the same period, and that alone would seem to provide impetus enough for the work’s belated translation into English.”

But, as Hashmi wrote Rahman:

“I did make an attempt at pitching A Night in London to two separate academic publishers in the U.S. after it had already come out from HarperCollins India. The first was by way of an informal email to an editor acquaintance, the second a formal book proposal. The latter did not meet with success at the time, and the reason given (in writing) was that the translation wasn’t a fit with the existing publishing areas. I can’t remember now what, if any, response I received in the other case; but my sense is that there was no immediate interest in taking on the project.”

On the other hand, there’s the success that Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad in having their translation of Manto’s Bombay Stories published, first by Random House India in 2012, and later republished by Vintage in the United States in 2014. (Their translation of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s Mirages of the Mind has been published by Random House India in 2014 and will be published in the U.S. by New Directions.)

Reeck told Rahman that:

“There’s quite a long story to the Manto book. I did have an agent, we did try to place it with commercial presses, it didn’t work out. Then the agent said that I should try university presses on my own (they wouldn’t pay enough to have the agent’s efforts be worth it). I had the book placed at OUP India and Columbia UP before the recession hit. Both of those fell through.”

But then, Rahman says, there was a “buzz” created by the publication of another Manto book, there were Manto centennial events held in NYC organized by Bilal Hashmi and Debashree Mukherjee, exposure to Mint Magazine in Bombay which led to the book being picked up by Random House India, and helped to get the book published by Vintage US and UK.

Mirages of the Mind,” Reeck added, “was awarded a PEN grant, and my contract with New Directions came through that. For Paigham Afaqui’s The House, I’m approaching publishers on my own through the same recognition I’ve earned through Manto, and the PEN and NEA translation grants.”

And then there’s the case of Jason Grunebaum’s translation of Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, published by Penguin India in 2008 and Yale University Press in 2013.

Grunebaum wrote:

“I’d tried placing The Girl with the Golden Parasol on my own with many U.S. houses – a few close-but-no-cigars. Then in 1009, the New York Times published a letter I’d written in a response to a book review,” a review that he felt had missed an opportunity to “raise the important question of why so little South Asian literature in translation is available in the United States.” Grunebaum raised the question: “Why hasn’t an American publishing house brought out a single contemporary Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation? Not to mention the scarcity of translations of important writers from other South Asian regional languages like Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu – just to name a few in which important South Asian writers write.”

The letter was read by the editor of the Yale University Press Margellos World Republic of Letters (their translation list) who contacted Grunebaum. “He was very enthusiastic, and I believe still is, in publishing quality translations from South Asia. It was all very fortuitous, in a way, and fitting, that the book’s U.S. publication happened in part because a NYT book reviewer missed a golden opportunity to talk about translation.”

And Rahman writes about another interesting story regarding Grunebaum’s translation of Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi. The book, first published by the University of Western Australia, then by Hachette India, was published this year by Seven Stories Press in the U.S. Grunebaum said of this:

“After being awarded by an NEA grant in 2011, I was contacted by the wonderful publisher of UWAP, Terri-ann White, who had seen the NEA. I pitched her the three Uday Prakash novellas, which I thought would make a terrific volume. Luckily, Terri-ann took a chance on the volume, and UWAP did a terrific job with the book. From there, they sold the rights to Hachette India and Seven Stories. Seven Stories has also been a great home for Uday’s work, and they are committed to publishing more of his writing.”

Rahman noted that with the small sample he had to draw from, “it’s hard to draw any patterns. Success – or failure – appears to be random.”

To read more from Part One of Rahman’s post, click here.

To read more from Part Two of Rahman’s post, including more stories of failure and success along with suggestions of how to improve matters, click here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.