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.

A small percentage of literary books published in the U.S. are translations. The translation program at the University of Rochester maintains yearly databases of translated titles available in the U.S. South Asian languages barely make these lists: in the last five years, out of 2121 books, only 19 were from South Asian languages (only Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Tamil). No surprise that European languages dominate, but given the vibrant literature from South Asia and a somewhat growing interest in translated literature, it’s a serious problem when so few titles and literature from so few languages find their way to American readers.

Yet within South Asia, especially in India, there has been a small explosion of translations into English. The quality has improved. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, however, most translations are still poor. From the Indian scene, a few titles have been republished in the U.S. In a future article in this series, I will explore the translation scene in the subcontinent and look at how works from there travel here. For this and the next several posts, I focus on conversations with translators, critics, and publishers based in the U.S.

Until the 1980s, a reader in the U.S. looking for Indian literature would find a handful of writers who wrote in English—Kamala Markandaya, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, R.K. Narayan—and even fewer translated writers, mainly Rabindranath Tagore. From the ’80s on, as more South Asian and emigrant writers began publishing their work in English, new names were added.

Those who follow subcontinental writing believe that it is the very success of writing in English that could explain the lack of publishers’ interest in translations.

Daisy Rockwell, writer, critic, translator, puts it very bluntly.

I think it’s directly related to the success of South Asian literature in English. Not only does the large quantity of such literature make publishers feel like South Asia is being covered, but that type of literature has a certain shared aesthetic which is quite different from what we find in literature from SA that has not been written in English. The English varietal is “lush” and “magical”—the “vernacular” varietal tends to be progressivist, unadorned and heavily wedded to realism. In short, it is not as “fun” as the kind written in English, and requires perhaps more work on the part of the reader. Progressive realism is hard to sell in the American market, which by now expects rich silk saris, aromatic foods and heaving bosoms, and maybe a good dose of incest.

Others echo similar sentiments.

Amardeep Singh, professor of English at Lehigh, observes that “It doesn’t help the situation that there’s been such an explosion of English-language writing from India in the past two decades. The fact that it’s not entirely representative of the entire country, and that voices are being lost by the growing dominance of English, isn’t on the minds of many people in American publishing.”

Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon blog, which covers global literature, notes:

Over the past several decades, a steady flow of English-writing authors with strong Indian (and, to a much lesser extent, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) connections/roots but also great familiarity with “the West,” from Anita Desai to Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Chandra, etc. etc. have filled the role of “Indian” writers for the West—and that’s been more or less good enough for them. (Even the outliers—less Western-connected R.K. Narayan, or someone like Raja Rao—have written in English). Indian writers writing in Indian languages presumably just seem too great a risk, when Indian slots can easily be filled with writers who “know” Western audiences better.

Matt Reeck, writer and translator, says:

In some instances India’s culture may be seen as too “thick,” too “other” to be approachable by U.S. audiences. I don’t think that’s true; and I don’t even know if publishers have this in mind, at all. But I think there is a sense that what needs to be said about India is said in English. Or, in other words, that publishers are satisfied by the marketability of those English language books, whether they truly think that they sum up South Asia in any sort of real (or really satisfying) way.

Of course it did not help when an influential voice such as Rushdie introduced Indian writing in The New Yorker in June 1997 with words like these:

This is it: The prose writing—both fiction and nonfiction—created in [the post-independence] period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India…. The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Jason Grunebaum, writer, translator, and lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago, notes the practical side of the issue. “It’s a zero-sum game when it comes to bookstore shelf space: for every work published from a South Asian writer written in English, that means one less space for a translation.”

No one in publishing admits to this possible partiality. But it’s well known that mainstream publishers tend to be conservative with their choices. It’s not likely this will change without some remarkable new development. Daisy Rockwell suggests that this could happen when “a high profile translation breaks through with a major publishing house.”

In other words, something like a Bolaño or Knausgård.

However, as Grunebaum warns, a big hit carries its own risks.

It’s not impossible that one day we’ll see a magical “mega hit”: a huge bestseller of a book of South Asian literature in translation published by a big U.S. house. It could be a great boon in raising the visibility of South Asian literature in translation. But then what? Then every major U.S. house goes out hunting for the next big thing, and all of a sudden, all of us translators who have been toiling for years in obscurity have our inboxes filled with queries from editors. If and when this happy day happens, I hope that we have a good project or two ready to go! If not, then who knows what might make it to market: possibly questionable translations of mediocre work. My point is that a big hit could happen, and open many doors, but if there aren’t good works that will follow in the wake of the frenzy to reproduce the Big Hit, the door could close as quickly as it was opened.

It may be well be that South Asian translation is ignored by the majors because there’s plenty in English that “carries” India. But what about others who may not be so bound to fashion? There are academic presses as well as smaller publishers who specialize in translation. It’s worth remembering that before Bolaño and Knausgård were discovered by the majors, they were published by New Directions and Archipelago.

The experiences of those who have recently tried to place their work with academic and smaller presses suggests a more complex picture. Some have found no doors open, while others offer some promising possibilities. In the next post, I’ll be talking about the experiences of six Hindi/Urdu translators and their encounters with U.S. publishers.


Mahmud Rahman was born in Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan. He is the author of Killing the Water, published by Penguin India, and the translator of Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice. He has an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. See his website here