Arpita Das: Found in Translation

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The founder of New Delhi’s Yoda Press, Arpita Das, looks at translation trends in India, a focus on fiction, and on English.

Students shop for books in Kolkata. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Radiokukka

Editor’s note: Today we’re pleased to have the first column in a series from Arpita Das, a New Delhi-based publisher and university instructor familiar to many in the international book publishing community. —Porter Anderson

By Arpita Das | @arpitayodapress

‘Literature in Translation’
As an avidly reading child in 1970s and ’80s pre-liberalization India—and a college student in post-liberalization 1990s India—translations involving Indian languages always meant works of fiction. Whenever the phrase literature in translation was used in any seminar, or an academic or literary volume, or even in an informal chat, we immediately assumed this literature was literature because it was fiction.

Arpita Das

This wasn’t surprising since the world of narrative nonfiction didn’t begin to open its doors to Indian audiences reading in English before 2000. And anything in this part of the world becomes a pan-Indian trend taken seriously by a pan-Indian industry only when it makes its appearance in English.

If you speak to trade publishers or literary agents in India now, they’ll tell you that narrative nonfiction is what they’re looking for the most while signing up new authors or books. Never before has there been more interest in memoirs and reportage and commentary being published in book-length form.

When it comes to translations from Indian languages to English, however, the focus seems to remain limited to fiction. This has been made ever more prominent with Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand in a marvelous translation by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press, 2021), winning the International Booker Prize in 2022.

In the aftermath, a number of periodicals and newspapers got in touch with me to talk about the growing interest in Indian literature in translation in and outside India. Only one of them, however, asked me about translations of nonfiction works, and purely as an afterthought.

I remember being at a publishing event in Goa as late as 2019, where a senior feminist publisher pooh-poohed my reference to the nonfiction corpus in Indian languages waiting for translation with the response, “Whoever heard of anything of note ever being written in Indian languages in non-fiction?” The response had me feeling outraged. It was evident that she read only in English.

For those of us who do read in Indian languages apart from English, we’ve encountered three memorable genres persistently since childhood: memoir, political satire, and the free-flowing essay on travel, culture, and food. Examples of these pop up frequently when readers of different Indian languages get together to discuss their favorites as they were growing up.

What was interesting about the writings in all these three genres, whether in book-length form or as extracts in literary journals or newspapers, was how with the lightest touch, they referenced theoretical frames and socio-cultural phenomena we would later read about in detail and denseness at university. How erudite these writers were, became clear to us only later.

‘We Only Think in Terms of Fiction’

When translation started taking its very first steps into light over the 1980s and ’90s, the focus was perhaps understandably on rendering the classic, celebrated writers of fiction in Indian languages into English. This was, after all, a time when the world was celebrating the novel more than any other genre of writing. Even the essays, satires, travel writings, and memoirs of the same celebrated writers were bypassed in favor of their novels and short stories.

“When translation started taking its very first steps into light over the 1980s and ’90s, the focus was perhaps understandably on rendering the classic, celebrated writers of fiction in Indian languages into English.”Arpita Das

What made matters more difficult for those who wanted to access other kinds of writing in local languages, was that the distribution of these books was always fragmented and not particularly efficient until online buying became a reality.

As a child growing up in Delhi—the capital city in which Bangla has always been spoken by a sizable Bengali resident population even though we are far away from our home state in the Eastern part of the country—my parents went to purchase books in a grocery shop in a Bengali locality.

I learned to read Bangla off newspapers and magazines my father ordered on a weekly basis from Kolkata. I read a considerable amount of Hindi all through my adolescence and college years but mostly in literary journals, which we subscribed to at home, and much later sitting in the library of the Sahitya Akademi, the government organization for local literatures.

Things have changed considerably since 2000, and yet, we only think in terms of fiction when it comes to literature in translation.

‘Translation Between Indian Languages’

In more recent years, there’s been a growing interest in the memoir genre as far as translations are concerned, but these are still few and far between.

“A non-Indian book prize shouldn’t be the driver for translating texts into other languages. There’s a giant corpus of writings and authors waiting to be discovered by readers in other Indian languages, and indeed readers in foreign languages, too.”Arpita Das

Happily, I’m not the only person troubled by this. A few years ago, the well-endowed New India Foundation based in Bangalore started a generous award for the translation of nonfiction books in Indian languages.

And more recently, the Centre for Translation at Ashoka University where I teach critical thinking and creative writing has made it evident that their program will pay equal attention to “a range of texts from literary and popular, political, and scientific, and oral and written domains.” Hopefully, these are emblematic of a trend that’s growing stronger, that has finally found its moment.

What worries me equally, however, is that there are very few initiatives committed to translation between Indian languages.

Some of it has happened, of course. Take the instance of Tomb of Sand. It was first published in Hindi, then via English it’s now being published into a number of international and other Indian languages.

A non-Indian book prize, however, shouldn’t be the driver for translating texts into other languages. There’s a giant corpus of writings and authors waiting to be discovered by readers in other Indian languages, and indeed readers in foreign languages, too.

It’s time to cast one’s net more widely than ever before when it comes to translations in India.


Join us for Arpita Das’ columns to come. More coverage of her work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Arpita Das’ opinions are her own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Arpita Das

Arpita Das is the founding publisher of New Delhi's Yoda Press, in operation since 2004. She's a visiting professor of creative writing and a senior writing instructor in the undergraduate writing program of Ashoka University. Das is also the South Asia series editor at Melbourne University Publishing.

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