Posts by Mahmud Rahman

It’s Time to Talk: On Translations from South Asian Languages

Mahmud Rahman concludes his insightful series by addressing your questions and responding to the discussion he sparked.

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

In this final post, I want to respond to some issues that have come up among readers. Besides a few comments on the blog posts, this series also generated conversations that came to me via personal emails or messages on Sasialit, a mailing list about South Asian literature.

Huizhong Wu, a literature student at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote me:

I appreciate the insight you give about the lack of institutional support/interest both in the U.S. and in India (at least for translations to the U.S.) but I am curious about the question of audience, which I don’t think you’ve addressed in-depth yet. In your second article you noted that South Asian novels aren’t really widely taught and that the audience for the translations would be a small audience of academics—I’m curious then, who is the audience for translations in general (not South Asia-specific)? Even if other literatures do get translated more into English, is it still for a small academic audience (smash-hits aside)? And does the audience really dictate what academic/smaller presses publish?

If the collective audience for South Asian translations are academics, who will already go out of their way to pay attention to and seek out these books, is there significance in introducing six or ten more translations per year? Especially if the author already had a huge following in his/her home country.


Why are so few South Asian translations published in the U.S.? (Part V)

In Rahman’s penultimate post, he speaks with publishing insiders and literary translators to glean some surprising information.

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

In the early 20th century and into the first decades of independent India, there were a small number of translations into English. Across language boundaries, Indians read writers like Tagore, Sarat Chandra, and Premchand. Though the translations were often clunky, these books played a role in building a sense of India as a nation.

Initially there were a handful of publishers who published translations from a few Indian languages into English. Quality translations came from one or two individuals, such as the writer A.K. Ramanujan. Rita Kothari in her book Translating India includes this telling quote: “Prabhakar Machwe, secretary of the Sahitya Akademi in the seventies complained that, ‘even after 25 years, we have not been able to develop a team of ten good, competent translators of Indian languages into English.’”

Things began to turn by the late 1980s.


Why are so few South Asian translations published in the U.S.? (Part IV)

Perhaps it is we translators who must take the initiative.

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

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.

The emergence of translators here is also largely a matter of chance.


On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S. (Part III)

We can't just blame the publishers when there's a glaring lack of institutional support.

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

It would be exciting if an academic publisher steps forward with a contemporary South Asian literature list. 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.

I had a few exchanges with Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum. As a new kid on the block based in Dallas, Texas, Evans is effervescent about Deep Vellum’s mission. Starting out with a list of five impressive titles translated from French, Russian, Spanish, and Icelandic, their initial plan is to publish ten books a year. In a recent interview with this blog, Evans confidently declared, “Deep Vellum is going to publish translations of literature from every language.”

My conversation with him about South Asian translations revealed that visibility is a problem. 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. READ MORE…

On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S. (Part II)

How some South Asian translations are making it—or trying to, at least—in the brutal U.S. publishing market

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer, and translator. From 1992-2006, she made a detour into academia, from which she emerged with a Ph.D. in South Asian literature and a book on the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk. She had become interested in his writing as a grad student.

In an interview with CNN last year, she said: “Ashk asked me to undertake a short story collection shortly before his death, which I did somewhat reluctantly as I was more interested in translating his long novel, Falling Walls (something I’m finally working on now). It ended up being his dying wish to me, however, so I saw the project through. I finished most of the work around 2000, but had a very hard time finding a publisher, even in India.”

Her translation of Ashk’s Hats & Doctors came out from Penguin India in 2013. About her approach to U.S. publishers, she wrote: “I have tried and so far failed to get my translation published in the U.S., on numerous occasions. I have another work forthcoming and I will try with that too. We’ll see what happens. I haven’t had any explanations. So far I’ve approached them myself. Next up, my agent. Mostly I’ve tried academic presses and small presses. I haven’t tried that many, but since no one maintains a South Asia list, really, the entire thing feels kind of scatter shot and I’ve gotten discouraged easily.” READ MORE…

On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S. (Part I)

“It’s a serious problem when so few titles and literature from so few languages find their way to American readers.”

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

Until about ten years ago, whenever I visited Bangladesh, a journey “home” every three to five years, I would make my way to a small bookshop in Dhaka’s New Market. Zeenat Book Supply was one of the few places that carried English titles from India. There were better shops for books in Bangla, and subcontinental writing in English I could find in the U.S. What I sought at Zeenat was books in translation. These would sometimes be wrapped in plastic, other times coated with dust, the edges dirt-brown. Here I would find fiction that had originally been written in languages I didn’t know: Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam.

When I had the good fortune to visit Calcutta, I would discover more.

What discoveries I returned with! Raag Darbari, Shrilal Shukla’s biting small-town satire. Karukku, Bama’s brave memoir as a Dalit Christian. Desert Shadows by Anand that took me into the corrupt world of an Indian prison.

Unless a used copy lands somewhere by chance, such books are not found in U.S. bookstores. Unless you were teaching Indian literature or someone who keeps up on South Asian writing outside English, you would probably not know about these titles.