How translation as a literary form gained traction in India

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A translation work is a world recreated in another language. Translators who transcreate a literary text invariably slip into the style and cultural awareness of another writer. While working with elements of sound and rhythm, image and rhetoric, tone and voice, a translator is a ventriloquist and a chameleon in his manipulation of language within the given text island and its distinct perimeter, writes Lydia Davis in Essays Two: On Proust, translation, foreign languages ​​and the city of Arles (2021).

The identity of a translator extends far beyond a language expert. Translators are also cultural savvy since they have understood the multiple dynamics of the target literary system, notes Hemang Ashwinkumar, a bilingual poet, translator, editor and critic, who has worked in Gujarati and English. His translation of Dalpat Chauhan’s novel, vultures (Penguin Random House), has just been published. Centered on the violent tipping point of the caste hierarchy in a Gujarat village in 1964, the novel is intended to introduce English readers to one of the architects of Dalit literature in Gujarat.

In a country as linguistically diverse as India, with 22 languages ​​listed in the officially recognized category, translation is an everyday affair. We are always in mode to find a direction with such or such text, written or spoken. There is a vast treasure trove of literature written in Indian languages ​​waiting to be discovered by the country’s growing tribe of English speakers. In 2021, Ratno Dholi: the best news from Dhumketu (HarperCollins India), translated by Texas-based writer, literary translator and book reviewer Jenny Bhatt, was the first substantial collection of Dhumketu’s work to be available in English. Dhumketu, the pseudonym of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the new Gujarati, with an affinity for the marginalized.


In early April, Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree’s fifth novel, Ret Samadhitranslated into English by Daisy Rockwell as sand tomb (Penguin Random House India), is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Since this is the first novel in any Indian language to win the translated book award (published in the UK or Ireland), the announcement, predictably, sparked a wave of excitement. This led to renewed interest in his work and brought to light literary translations from and within Indian languages. Shree’s novels have been widely translated into English. They include The roof under their feet (HarperCollins India, 2013) and Free space (Seagull Books, 2017), translated respectively by Rahul Soni and Nivedita Menon. However, it took the Booker Prize to pique Indian interest in Shree’s work.

Like literary awards, translations also occur in sociopolitical contexts and function differently in different cultural systems. “A country’s translation culture at any given time is an index of its intellect, sociology, and politics,” writes Santosh K. Sareen in his 2010 study, Translation in India: History and Politics. He argues that Hindi’s claim to have the status of first among equals is related to the fact that it is a language “spoken and understood by an arithmetically greater number of people than any other group speaking any other Indian language”. In post-colonial India, which saw the rise of regional linguistic pride as a result of the establishment of linguistic states, English was anathema to many people as it was seen as the language of the colonizer. Translators, Ashwinkumar argues, have historically resisted the pressures of the poetics and ideology governing the target culture, and brought about dynamic evolution in these literary cultures: “Literary movements, new trends and revivals have been sparked in the languages ​​of the whole world thanks to the cultural mediation of translators.

Today, things have improved for translations. There are legal notices and awards exclusively for translations. But the readership remains limited.

Translation as a literary form has gained ground in India in the 21st century. Literary works from Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi and Odia are being translated into English with greater frequency. “There is certainly a greater interest in translations these days compared to the 2000s. The steady growth of English readership, increased academic and institutional attention, and globalization have prompted publishers to rush for their part market like never before, says Ashwinkumar. What we see in terms of release, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. “Much of the powerful literature in Indian languages ​​remains unnoticed, untouched and untranslated, not only in English, but in all Indian languages,” he adds.

Today, things have improved in the field of literary translations. There are publishing marks and literary awards exclusively for translation. Universities have courses that teach translation theory and practice. But there is something wrong. Although there are more books in translation published, readership remains limited, as is the case for literary works in general, says Rahul Soni, editor (literary) at HarperCollins India, which commissions works in translation. “Attempts to integrate commercial/popular works from other languages ​​into English have not been hugely successful, as the audiences are very different. This is, however, a long-term project: it is to be hoped that the continuous conversations and work in the field of translation will eventually yield results over the years and that the audience will increase,” he adds. .

There is still a long way to go, says V. Ramaswamy, who translated the stories of Subimal Misra (America’s Golden Gandhi Statue: Early Stories, Wild Animals Forbidden: Stories, Anti-Storiesand Two anti-novels), by Manoranjan Byapari The boy on the runand co-translated from the late Bangladeshi author Shahidul Zahir (Life and political reality: two novels), all from Bengali to English. “While translation and translators have become more prominent and reading translations has become somewhat fashionable in niche circles around the world, today even the English-speaking world still largely ignores most Indian writers important. But the process has begun,” he says. Ramaswamy regards India as the ultimate land of translation and hopes that through translation efforts, translatability and translation will evolve and progress.

Nandini Krishnan agreed to translate Murugan’s text Estuary and four strokes of luck because their publishers agreed to its terms. For both, she got translator credit on the cover.

A few days after the announcement of the long list of the International Booker Prize, Frank Wynne, the first translator to serve on its jury, urged publishers to pay translators royalties on the sales of the books they translate, which the Booker Foundation quickly approved. Rockwell’s experience in this regard has been quite good. She was offered royalties on her books with Penguin India and owns the copyright of the translated work, although her name did not appear on the covers of the first four titles with Penguin. They include translations by Khadeeja Mastoor Aangan (the women’s court) and Upendranath Ashk’s classic novel, Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls). She got the royalty and the copyright for sand tomb, published by Tilted Axis Press in the UK, founded by International Booker Award-winning translator Deborah Smith. “As a translator herself, Deborah makes sure to treat translators well,” says Rockwell.

Ramaswamy says he recognizes the fact that not all publishers can pay in advance: “When I think it is important for a book to be published, and if I respect the publisher, even if he It’s a small press, the advance is not a problem for me.” While he would very much like to see translation become financially remunerative for translators of merit, he places the responsibility squarely on the translators: “to produce outstanding work and claim the reward”.

Nandini Krishnan, who translated award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan Kazhimugam (EstuaryWestland Books, 2020), agreed to translate both books (the other being Murugan’s four strokes of luck, published by Juggernaut in 2021) because its English publishers agreed to its terms. “I’ve been approached by publishers, especially foreign ones, who wanted to pay me a per-word rate instead of royalties, and who wanted me to waive copyright. I declined because they would never ask an author that, and the translation is as much my baby as the original is the author’s. For both of her books, she got translator credit on the cover.

Major Indian publishers like Penguin Random House and HarperCollins India follow the international standard for royalties and copyrights: a one-time payment for the translator, with the copyright in the translation belonging to the publisher. “At HarperCollins, we have, where possible, tried to keep the author and the translator on an equal footing, with advances and royalties being shared equally, and the copyright of the translation resting to the translator,” says Soni. But with regional language publishers, who often struggle to stay afloat, that’s not the case. “In Gujarati, one can hope for translation royalties from certain publishers, but dreaming of royalties on sale is vain; even the authors themselves don’t dream of it,” says Ashwinkumar.

Although the Sahitya Akademi awards annual prizes for translations, the efforts of state-funded institutions to promote translation come down to symptomatic gestures and window dressing. If you want to read a Khasi or Konkani writer, for example, you’ll need to seek out their English translations from a commercial publisher.

The translation scene may have moved on, but translators are still a long way from getting their due. Highlighting their role, Ashwinkumar says, “A translator literally rewrites and recreates the text, molds it so that it can take root and flourish in foreign soil. Without the significant and sincere intervention of a translator, it is a safe bet that the source text would plunge into the valley of oblivion and the second death; for a long and meaningful “afterlife” of a book, nothing less than genius should be ordered.

(This appeared in the print edition as “In Another Tongue”)


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