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Why So Few US Translations of South Asian Lit? (Continued)

In News by Dennis Abrams

At Asymptote, Mahmud Rahman discusses why South Asian literary translation is hamstrung by a lack of institutional support and a dearth of competent translators.

By Dennis Abrams

asia globeLast month, we looked at parts one and two of Mahmud Rahman’s investigation, “On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S.”

Parts three and four were recently posted – here are some highlights:

In part three, Rahman made the observation that it’s not just publishers to blame for the lack of South Asian translations; there’s also “a glaring lack of institutional support.”

“It would be exciting,” he wrote, if an academic publisher steps forward with a contemporary South Asian literature line. Until that day comes, what might be more realistic are initiatives from small publishers. In recent years, besides old stalwarts like NYRB, New Directions, and Dalkey Archive, we’ve seen the emergence of translation-focused publishers like Archipelago, Open Letter, and now, Deep Vellum.

And while Deep Vellum founder Will Evans told Rahman that “Deep Vellum is going to publish translations of literature from every language,” their discussions showed that the problem is visibility. “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.”

As Evans told Rahman:

“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 interest, 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.”

The translator Bilal Hashmi agreed with Evans on the need for institutional support, telling Rahman that, “There is at present an extremely limited exposure to contemporary South Asian writers in the U.S., largely because we have no major cultural centers of the Alliance Francaise or Goethe-Institut variety that would allow for writers from such countries to visit, share their work, and interact with (potential) readers and translators.”

But, Rahman asked, are there other options besides state support? In both Europe and the U.S., he points out, there are grants from organizations like PEN, NEA, or the Ireland Literature Exchange which provide translators – or publishers – with the funding required for quality translations. Translator Jason Grunebaum agreed, telling Rahman:

“Many things need to happen, including a rich NRI or Indian MBA-type to pony up a nice chunk of cash to establish an annual prize for good translation from South Asian language. (It wouldn’t take much money, by the way.) Something like a Susan Sontag prize meets the PEN/Heim grant – and the prize committee should consist mostly of writers with a translator or two, preferably translators who do not know any South Asian languages. The money could even be given to PEN, and they could administer the prize. That person is out there somewhere who is dying to support South Asian literature in this way: he or she just needs to be identified so that their generosity can be realized.”

Read Part Three of Rahman’s piece here.

In Part Four, Rahman asks whether it’s translators themselves who need to take the initiative, wring that:

“An unfortunate reality is that there are not enough good translators working in South Asian languages. There are some in the subcontinent and elsewhere; but in the U.S. – presumably where it is most likely that translators might approach U.S.-based publishers – there are only a handful. If you look at the directories at ALTA, PEN, or Words Without Borders, these languages barely register. You will find a few working in Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, but hardly any in Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Nepali, Sinhala, or other languages.”

Rahman also points out that besides a lack of translators, there’s still the question of what to actually translate. Bilal Hashmi, who translated Sajjad Zaheer’s A Night in London, wrote:

“To be honest, I’d hold translators, especially the academic among us, at least partly responsible for what gets lost in ‘un-translation’ The kinds of works we’ve hand-picked and deemed worthy of U.S. reader’s time are still far from representative of what modern Hindi and Urdu have to offer. (Note to publishers: Google, for instance, the names of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and Wajida Tabassum.) It also doesn’t help that we are, in our métier, men and women of a rather conservative, too-refined taste.”

Shabnam Nadiya, a writer who translates Bangladeshi short fiction told Rahman, “To discover what should be translated, foreign publishers often reach out to key people in the local literary community. Such queries can lead to questions of who is ‘worthy’ of being translated. Thus, writers not anointed with some sort of ‘intellectual’ certificate may get dismissed; despite the high likelihood of those writers successfully attracting a readership. I’ve been privy to conversations where certain books have been deemed ‘not serious enough,’ i.e. they’re genre and not literary. My interesting translating Humayun Ahmed, a multi-genre writer with unprecedented popularity in Bangladesh, elicited surprise in several writers and editors, despite my assertion that I genuinely enjoyed his books, and there was a non-Bangladeshi publisher willing to take on such a project.”

Rahman concludes by saying that what is needed is a journal or website/blog devoted to the promotion of South Asian translation. “Just look,” he says,” at what Paper Republic does for Chinese translation, or ArabLit for Arabic literature in English.”

Read Part Four of Rahman’s investigation 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.