For a network whose English strain is diverse, highly developed, and globally circulated, Indian literature is surprisingly short on high-quality translations of works from its other languages into English. The number of memorable translations of fiction from the basket of Indian languages – Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya, Gujarati, Kannada, to name only a few – into English could be counted on one’s fingers.
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As the poet and critic Vinay Dharwadker wrote recently in Indian Literature (the little-read and poorly distributed – though increasingly well-designed and well-produced – bimonthly journal of literature published by the Indian government’s academy of letters, the Sahitya Akademi): “Indian-English literature by itself is inadequate to represent who we are to the rest of the world. Only a broad representation of the full range of Indian literatures, translated into a world language such as English, can do what is needed.”
Dharwadker’s essay frames such translations as a way of understanding India – its plural cultures, the variety of self-representations and existential dilemmas – not only for international audiences, but also, crucially, for Indian readers. Currently, the north of India is often unaware of what is going on in the literature of the south, the east of the west – and few seem to ever know what is happening in the remote but sizeable north-east. No literary scholar, let alone the general reader, possesses a map of the entire country.When these tantalising benefits are in everyone’s sights, why hasn’t translation from India’s many vernacular languages into English flourished? Several reasons might be advanced. First, although most Indians are bilingual or trilingual, they are usually so in an instrumental and not a literary way, and lack the acute cross-linguistic sensitivity to registers and cadences on which translation depends. Distressingly, even Indian writers who read literature in two languages typically work only in one. Second, until very recently, publishers generally reasoned that since the market for literary fiction written in English was not particularly large, the audience for translations into English would be even smaller and less profitable. Finally, the heterogeneity of India’s linguistic landscape is itself inimical to the development of a nationwide culture of translation: it is difficult for a translator from language X, however talented, to say anything meaningful about a peer’s translation from language Y. Only in the last few years have there been concerted efforts to bring translators from different languages together to exchange ideas about their craft. (Perhaps most notable was a translators’ conference held last year by the literary consultancy Siyahi a few days before the high-profile Jaipur literary festival.) All this had led to the flawed understanding (perpetrated most prominently by Salman Rushdie in his influential 1997 anthology of Indian literature, Mirrorwork) that Indian writing in English is the richest and most vigorous of Indian literatures, and that works in translation are to be read only out of duty, as a democratic concession to less competent spirits. Happily, though, over the course of the past decade, Indian translation work has been building up to a state of critical mass. Recent notable English translations of fiction by Indian writers include the fizzing rendition, by four hands, of the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati’s 1902 novel Six Acres and a Third (2005); the translations by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Baran Pal of the stories of the Bengali writer Parashuram (2006); and Sudarshan Purohit’s translation of the Hindi pulp-fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak’s novel The 65 Lakh Heist (2008). To this list one might add two translations from 2009, both the work of experienced translators approaching the high point of their craft: Sankar’s The Middleman, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, and Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom.
It is worth considering that the contemporary Indian writers whose names are known around the world – Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra, Aravind Adiga – are all writers of English. This surely has as much to do with the politics of literary transmission and reception as it does with the intrinsic quality of their work. This imbalance in Indian literature can only be changed from within, by Indian (or in some instances foreign) translators who can find an English that matches, step for step, the linguistic charge and syntactical challenges of the great works of other Indian languages.
(Spotted this on @blaftness's Twitter stream)
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