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.

Evans writes, “I don’t know many translators from South Asia, and the pipelines for information that exist from the French, German, and various Spanish language cultural programs don’t seem to exist in South Asia, which is a shame, because as long as there are good books to be published, of course I’m interested, and so are all my other favorite publishers.”

“It would also be awesome if some cultural organizations were formed to promote the literatures of South Asia in a meaningful way. Their inspiration could be like the German Book Office, who are an invaluable resource for the promotion of German literature in the U.S. Their New Books in German publication is a great way of knowing what is coming out from German publishers, and they coordinate a massive network of German publishers, translators, and authors, and they go out of their way to connect American publishers with the right books from Germany. I’d love that from South Asia, though of course we’re talking about a massively disparate area, not linguistically or culturally unified. But such efforts could go a long way in each individual culture or territory to making their literature more prevalent in English translation in the U.S. & U.K.”

Evans also points to the example of Korea. “The Korean literary organization LTI has done wonders for the promotion of Korean literature in English in recent years, because they are dedicated to using culture as a way of expanding Korean culture abroad more generally. And you don’t see the same thing from South Asian governments.”

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI), affiliated with the South Korean government, organizes an impressive array of efforts, including funding translation grants and subsidizing publishers abroad to publish translated works from Korea. Last year, they partnered with Dalkey Archive to publish an entire library of 25 works in English.

The translator Bilal Hashmi agrees on the need for such institutional support. “There is at present an extremely limited exposure to contemporary South Asian writers in the U.S., largely because we have no major cultural centers of the Alliance Française or Goethe-Institut variety that would allow for writers from such countries to visit, share their work, and interact with (potential) readers and translators.”

I haven’t seen any signs that South Asian governments are eager to step into this role. At literary festivals there, government representatives sometimes come and drop platitudes about how writers should “spread the word” about the rich traditions of these countries. Not much follows. Should such initiatives emerge, I worry that these may fall prey to the fractious politics within those countries. Governments agencies may be more inclined to reward image-boosting and play favorites rather than promote literary quality.

But state support is not the only option. In the U.S. and Europe, grants like PEN, NEA, or the Ireland Literature Exchange have provided translators with funding that is vital for book length projects—or they subsidize publishers and contribute towards translators’ fees. It could help a great deal if translation grants emerged that are focused on South Asia.

The translator Jason Grunebaum says, “Many things need to happen, including a rich NRI or Indian MBA-type to pony up a nice chunk of cash to establish an annual prize for good translation from South Asian languages. (It wouldn’t take much money, by the way.) Something like a Susan Sontag prize meets the PEN/Heim grant—and the prize committee should consist mostly of writers with a translator or two, preferably translators who do not know any South Asian languages. The money could even be given to PEN, and they could administer the prize. That person is out there somewhere who is dying to support South Asian literature in this way: he or she just needs to be identified so that their generosity can be realized.”

A fantasy? Perhaps not. South Asian studies centers at U.S. universities appear to be successful in acquiring funding from South Asian origin donors to support language teaching and other academic programs. What you’d need is some institution initiating such an idea and then deploying a network of translators, academics, writers, and others who could create a buzz.

Until such initiatives emerge, it is publishers and translators that will have to establish new relationships. Hashmi writes, “I would encourage publishers with a genuine interest in South Asian literatures to aggressively seek out translators, to commission individual works, and build working relationships with living authors—all of which can be done now with greater ease than ever before thanks to social media.”

Indeed, even in the absence of institutions, there are ways through which books gain prominence in the subcontinent. There are of course the translation lists from publishers in India, as well as well-established awards. In India, besides the Sahitya Akademi Award in multiple languages, there are other national awards such as the Crossword Book Award for translation and the DSC and Hindu Literary Prizes that include works in English translation. There are also awards in regional languages, such as the Ananda Prize for Bengali literature from Kolkata. Similarly there are several prizes from Bangladesh, such as the Prothom Alo, Ananya, HSBC-Kali O Kolom, and Gemcon literary prizes.

One problem with these prizes, especially those going to non-English books, is that little is written about the books in English. Publishers in the U.S. aren’t going to learn much about many of these titles even if they started to keep an eye on these prizes. In fact, a different kind of “translation” is necessary: reviews of such books published in English. The literature pages of newspapers and magazines and English language literary journals from the subcontinent could play a role here.

In the next post, I will explore the translator side of this equation. What are some of the challenges that translators face, and what can they do?


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