South Asian Literature: The New ‘SALT’ Project’s Translation Focus

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Bringing ‘the extraordinarily rich literature of the subcontinent’ into English: a project from Daniel Hahn and Jason Grunebaum.

Reading in Colombo. February 4. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Kenula Pathirathna

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Home to Almost a Quarter of the World’s Population’
A leading translator very familiar to Publishing Perspectives’ international readership, this morning (March 28) has announced a new program created to promote South Asian literature in translation into English, the South Asian Literature in Translation project.

Daniel Hahn—a past chair with the United Kingdom’s  Society of Authors and the founder of The TA [Translators Association] First Translation Prize—tells us that he has worked with translator and instructional professor Jason Grunebaum at the University of Chicago’s department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations to develop this multi-year project.

Currently funded by a single donor, the project is being seated in the humanities division of the University of Chicago, with Hahn and Grunebaum its co-directors and a group of partner organizations that includes:

Jason Grunebaum, left, and Daniel Hahn

The rationale for the creation of the project lies in Grunebaum and Hahn’s brief joint statement today: “With this project, we aim to bring some of the extraordinarily rich literature of the subcontinent to publishing markets where it has thus far been severely underrepresented.

“Less than 1 percent of all translated literature published in the United States over the past 10 years comes from a South Asian language, despite the region being home to almost a quarter of the world’s population.”

Publishing Perspectives asked Hahn this morning if he could put his finger on why there traditionally hasn’t been more translation into the English-language markets of South Asian literature.

“There’s historically been a bias in Anglophone publishing toward translations from a handful of mostly large European languages.”Daniel Hahn, South Asian Literature in Translation project

“Your question is a complicated one to answer, of course,” Hahn said.

“There’s historically been a bias in Anglophone publishing toward translations from a handful of mostly large European languages—the languages most widely taught at universities, the languages most likely to be read by Anglo editors, and where they’re likely to have the strongest publishing networks.

“In addition,” he said, “there are many great South Asian writers working in English, who do get well published and somehow starve the rest of the literature of its due attention here.

“Add to this the almost complete lack of national or regional institutional support to promote these literatures in any way, and the very poor performance, while shameful, is perhaps not surprising.”

Shree: ‘A Truly Momentous Step’

The South Asian Literature in Translation project is intended to address some of the factors Hahn is mentioning by “strengthening each part of the publishing chain” in the English-language markets, “with training for literary translators, support for publisher acquisitions, and funding to pay for translation and for promotion of the translated work.”

Jason Grunebaum’s translation with Ulrike Stark from Hindi of Manzoor Ahtesham’s ‘The Tale of the Missing Man,’ University of Chicago Press, 2018

Specific manifestations these goals can lead to are:

  • Mentorships for translators working with South Asian languages
  • A South-Asia-focused literary translation summer school
  • The opening of a new fund for translation samples
  • The opening of a new fund for publisher grants
  • A series of workshops for publishers across South Asia
  • A travel grant program open to publishers and translators
  • Promotional grants and public programming

The program is logically leveraging some of the energy around the 2022 win of the £50,000 International Booker Prize for the Hindi-language Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell, the first book in an Indian language to have won the International Booker.

Rockwell, the book’s translator, is on the new program’s advisory board, and is quoted today, saying, “SALT is an astutely planned effort to provide South Asian literature in  translation with a much needed boost of funding and training.

“The impact will be felt not just in  the United States, but also worldwide.”

Shree, herself, has endorsed the project, calling it “a truly momentous step toward promoting a humanitarian and pluralist globalism to counter the grabbing globalism of the totalitarian market.” You’ll find Olivia Snaije’s recent interview with Shree for Publishing Perspectives here.

‘Catching Fire: A Translation Diary’ by Daniel Hahn (Charco Press, 2022)

The “astute planning” that Rockwell is referring to is reflected in Grunebaum and Hahn’s projected steps for the project’s opening this summer:

  • July 2023: Formal start of SALT Project
  • August 2023: Applications open for publisher travel grants (translators’ travel grants will start from 2024)
  • September 2023: Applications open for first eight translator mentorships
  • October 2023 (to be confirmed): Opening of publisher grant program
  • January 2024: Applications open for translator summer school
  • March 2024 (to be confirmed): Opening of translator sample grant program

And the program seems to have staunch support both in the University of Chicago’s humanities community and in the broader international translation industry.

“The SALT project will fill a notable lacuna in world literature by bringing English translations of South Asian texts to a wide audience,” according to Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the humanities division at Chicago and holder of the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service chair in the school’s department of music.

Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand,’ translated by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press, 2021)

The complete advisory board for the South Asian Literature in Translation project comprises:

  • Aron Aji
  • Ajit Baral
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Kate Griffin
  • Jason Grunebaum, co-director
  • Daniel Hahn, co-director
  • Rifat Munim
  • Daisy Rockwell
  • Arunava Sinha

Board member Farooqi says, “With its support of translations from South Asian literature, and an open mandate that  encompasses both contemporary and classical works, SALT will platform great works from  South Asian languages for a world audience.”

The South Asian markets. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

And the critic and musician Amit Chaudhuri, editor of The Picador Book of Modern Indian  Literature, says, “This is an initiative of genuine importance. It should, in the long term, go some  way toward changing the way we understand literature today.”

At its most essential level, the program is devised to “support work written in any of the languages of the region—defined, for  the purposes of the project, to include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—and translated into English, for publication anywhere outside that region.

“Translators from South Asian languages into English,” the project’s material says, “will be eligible to apply for support regardless of their citizenship or place of residence.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on translation and translators is here, more on international translation rights is here, more on Asia is here, more on the United States is here, more on the International Booker Award is here, and more on the TA First Translation Prize is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.