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.”

Bilal Hashmi is a Ph.D. student at NYU. His translation of Sajjad Zaheer’s A Night in London, an Urdu novella from the 1930s, was published by HarperCollins India in 2011. In his afterword to the book, he wrote: “The novella, which has since run into several editions, occupies a singular position in the history of Urdu literature. There is nothing quite like it, so far as I know, in Indian writing of roughly the same period, and that alone would seem to provide impetus enough for the work’s belated translation into English.”

About the book, Amardeep Singh, who teaches at Lehigh University, blogged: “Most readers today will nevertheless likely recognize it as a politically engaged work of fiction, which also happens to deploy several of the techniques of the modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel (including parallel, disjunctive plots, and a temporally constricted frame reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses).”

Hashmi wrote me, “I did make an attempt at pitching A Night in London to two separate academic publishers in the U.S., after it had already come out from HarperCollins India. The first was by way of an informal email to an editor acquaintance, the second a formal book proposal. The latter did not meet with success at the time, and the reason given (in writing) was that the translation wasn’t a fit with the existing publishing areas. I can’t remember now what, if any, response I received in the other case; but my sense is that there was no immediate interest in taking on the project.”

Snehal Shingavi teaches literature at the University of Texas in Austin. He too has been drawn to the works produced in the early part of the 20th century, especially from the milieu of the Progressive Writers Movement. His translation of Munshi Premchand’s first Hindi novel Sevasadan was published by Oxford University Press India (OUP) in 2005; this year Penguin India brought out his translation of Angaaray, originally written in Urdu by Sajjad Zaheer and three others in the 1930s. He writes, “I tried pitching Angaaray to Duke, OUP USA, Cambridge, and UC Press. None of them were interested and it didn’t even get beyond the proposal stage.”

In the last three years, however, a few translators report some success.

Fran Pritchett, who’s been teaching modern South Asian literature at Columbia, first published her translation of Basti, Intizar Husain’s partition novel in Urdu, in 1995 from HarperCollins India. It was reissued in 2007 by OUP in Delhi. Last year it was picked up by NYRB Classics. Fran writes, “I didn’t contact NYRB about the new edition of Basti; they contacted me and were very interested. I was glad to agree, and to cooperate in every way, but I don’t have much insight into why they chose Basti.”

When I reached Edwin Frank, Editor of NYRB Classics, he said that Andy McCord, a writer who translates from Urdu and has ties to the subcontinent, had brought Basti to his attention more than a decade ago. NYRB will be publishing the translation of Anantamurthy’s Samskara in 2015. About their choices, he explained that they have published a number of titles from and about the sub-continent, including Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. “It’s a world that is of interest to me and, I hope, to our readers. These, with the exception of Kolatkar, are all works written in English. It makes sense to go on and publish some of the great works that aren’t, and these are among them.”

Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad’s translation of Manto’s Bombay Stories was published by Random House India in 2012, later republished by Vintage in the U.S. in 2014. Their translation of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s Mirages of the Mind has been published by Random House India in 2014 and is forthcoming from New Directions.

“There’s quite a long story to the Manto book. I did have an agent, we did try to place it with commercial presses, it didn’t work out. Then the agent said that I should try university presses on my own (they wouldn’t pay enough to have the agent’s efforts be worth it). I had the book placed at OUP India and Columbia UP before the recession hit. Both of those fell through.” Then because of buzz created by another Manto book, some Manto centennial events in NYC that Bilal Hashmi and Debashree Mukherjee organized, exposure in Mint Magazine in Bombay, the book was picked up by Random House India. The buzz helped to get the book published with Vintage US & UK.

Mirages of the Mind was awarded a PEN grant, and my contact with New Directions came through that. For Paigham Afaqui’s The House, I’m approaching publishers on my own through the name recognition that I’ve earned through Manto, and the PEN and NEA translation grants.”

Jason Grunebaum’s translation of Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol was published by Yale University Press in 2013 and Penguin India in 2008.

Grunebaum writes, “I’d tried placing The Girl with the Golden Parasol on my own with many U.S. houses—a few close-but-no-cigars. Then in 2009, the New York Times published a letter I’d written in response to a book review.” He felt that the review had missed the chance to “raise the important question of why so little South Asian literature in translation is available in the United States.” Grunebaum had asked, “Why hasn’t an American publishing house brought out a single contemporary Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation? Not to mention the scarcity of translations of important writers from other South Asian regional languages like Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu—just to name a few in which important South Asian writers write.”

The editor of the Yale University Press Margellos World Republic of Letters—their translation list—contacted Grunebaum. “He was very enthusiastic, and I believe still is, in publishing quality translations from South Asia. It was all very fortuitous, in a way, and fitting, that the book’s U.S. publication happened in part because a NYT book reviewer missed a golden opportunity to talk about translation.”

Grunebaum’s translation of Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi was first published by The University of Western Australia Press, then by Hachette India, and this year by Seven Stories Press in the U.S. “After being awarded an NEA grant in 2011, I was contacted by the wonderful publisher of UWAP, Terri-ann White, who had seen the NEA. I pitched her the three Uday Prakash novellas, which I thought would make a terrific volume. Luckily, Terri-ann took a chance on the volume, and UWAP did a terrific job with the book. From there, they sold the rights to Hachette India and Seven Stories. Seven Stories has also been a great home for Uday’s work, and they are committed to publishing more of his writing.”

With the small sample, it’s hard to draw any patterns. Success—or failure—appears to be random. Matt Reeck says, “My own experiences in publishing have been instrumental in my changed attitude about the industry: beforehand, I thought there was some order, or system, to it; now I don’t. I think most things happen through personal connections or chance encounters. So I guess that makes it a very ‘human’ enterprise!”

Several translators mention a formidable challenge: the absence of dedicated lists. Reeck writes, “The interesting thing about my second foray was that many academic presses were interested but none had the right list. And that’s the only thing that matters. Academic presses generally never make money on a book, so they justify publication by filling out whichever list/commitment they’ve chosen. Those lists that do include India invariably include it as ‘ancient classics’ and so stop before the modern period, usually quite before. This is actually a huge problem, and one major reason why modern Indian works fare so poorly: the institutional lack of commitment to South Asia within U.S. universities.”

Many translators are academics, used to approaching university presses. This isn’t surprising since the largest number of readers of translated South Asian literature here may be found in academia. Shingavi says, “I don’t know the full math, but my guess is that because South Asian literature isn’t really taught in large lecture classes (100 students or more) the academic market for them is probably seen as unreliable and small.” There lies a circular problem. There aren’t large enough courses to create a demand for lists. But in the absence of lists that publish translated titles, it’s hard to promote syllabi with such books.

And yet such a list could have a huge effect on the climate. Bilal Hashmi says, “A modest book series at an academic press, committed to publishing, say, even less than a half-dozen previously untranslated works from the region, every few years, would do much good. These individual translations from a selection of languages, if properly introduced and annotated, would allow for a contextualization of the relevant literary trends—allowing the U.S. reader to come up to speed, and thereby possibly creating a demand that might then be met by smaller, non-profit publishing houses.”

With university presses shrinking, it may be hard to believe that anyone’s going to come out with a list in the near term. But even in the age of tight budgets, universities do invest where they believe there may be breakthroughs. How much money is now being spent on “branding”? Is it that out of reach for a well-placed academic press making a splash, gaining themselves recognition, for being the first to launch such a list?

Next time: bringing South Asian literature to the attention of small 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

  • http://moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com moazzam sheikh

    good work Mahmud. One other aspect that needs to be poked is the lack of connection/respect/intimacy with the many literary traditions from South Asia by the South Asians who now reside in the west. We as South Asians have such a large pool with great command of the native language and the target language (of course translation takes practice!) -but to share two examples with you. Qurratul’ain Haider’s Aag Ka Darya, she had to transcreate it, not even translate it, by herself. I once met a Pakistani woman at a party and was excited to hear she wanted to do her PhD in Urdu. When I asked her if she was up on the contemporary Urdu literature, she couldn’t go past the names from the 40s & 50s. The interest among non-South Asians (whether academic or otherwise) is only a reflection of how much interest we South Asians have in our own literary works.

  • Tahira Hussain Naqvi

    Since 1983 my translations of Ismat Chughtai’s work have been published by Kali for Women and most recently Women Unlimited but thanks to Ritu Menon’s efforts, “TeRhi Lakir” was published in the eighties by Heinemann, then Sheep Meadow published The Quilt and Other Stories, and in 2007 Lakir was published again by the Feminist Press. I, for one, have not ever tried to send my translations anywhere else because it’s too much work and I’m quite content to have the translations published in India since availability is never an issue. We teach these texts at NYU and order them every year and have no difficulty getting them. Although the lack of interest in South Asian translations among publishers here is lamentable, as an academic I’m happy to see the texts return every year in US classrooms regardless of where they’ve been published.

  • Pingback: Why So Few US Translations of South Asian Lit? | Publishing Perspectives()