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.

Translation has a natural home in the academy, but institutions do not appear to encourage translation. In an essay he shared with me, Jason Grunebaum, who has translated the Hindi writer Uday Prakash, wrote: “The academy is another important part of the ecosystem where good English translations are created. Unfortunately, particularly the U.S. academy, there has been at best an indifference and, at worst, a hostility to literary translation that’s as baffling as it is regrettable.” He added, “U.S. universities have all but turned away from the practice of translation. Tenure-track faculty are routinely discouraged from translating; they will serve their careers far more wisely by writing about translation, or writing a monograph about an important work of literature that should be translated, than actually engaging in literary translation.”

There are a few universities in the U.S. that host translation MFA/MA programs, such as Iowa, CUNY-Queens, Rochester, and Arkansas-Fayetteville. Some others have translation workshops. Such programs have potential in fostering new translators inclined to work with languages from the subcontinent.

In or out of the academy, another source of translators is creative writers themselves. Historically there is a long tradition of writers who have also translated. The best translators are those who understand the current conventions of poetry or prose in their target language.

Today there are many South Asians here who have taken up creative writing. Some have become prominent. Very few have tried translation. Moazzam Sheikh, a writer who’s also a translator, says: “This situation can only be reversed if we South Asians had a different relationship with the languages of our parents. Just imagine if only a handful of South Asian writers in the U.S. spent some time translating!”

There are also many academics from South Asia who teach literature in the U.S. Only a minority among them become familiar with non-English writing from South Asia. Arnab Chakladar, who teaches at Carleton College, noted in an essay in Postcolonial Text: “Most relevant here is the educational background of the large majority of Indian literary scholars who arrived in the USA beginning in the late 1980s and whose careers, as graduate students and faculty, parallel the rise of South Asian literary studies as a more or less discrete sub-discipline in the American academy. While this group is multilingual, the primary medium of instruction through their school and college years would have been English. In high school they would likely have had another Indian language as a ‘second language’ and read a very limited amount of fiction and poetry in this language, but would not have developed any coherent sense of its literary tradition.”

However this problem does not affect simply those who’ve been educated in English. Jason Grunebaum points me towards a major failing from the subcontinent: the absence of contemporary literature from high school curricula. “Another idea that’s fairly obvious but bears emphasizing, particularly for Hindi literature, would be the wholesale shakeup of the CBSE (secondary school) Hindi curriculum in India. I’m sure the situation is similar for other Indian languages (though I always imagine that the grass is always greener on the other side), but if the sole aim of the CBSE curriculum had been to design a language and literature curriculum so boring and irrelevant that it would be guaranteed to make all students hate Hindi language and literature, they couldn’t have done a better job. It’s amazing how many Hindi students come to the University of Chicago from India with their CBSE-tainted notions of Hindi literature and then later discover here that Hindi literature can (gasp!) be exciting and fun.”

On a recent visit to Bangladesh, I inquired into this issue and learned that students do not get much exposure to contemporary Bengali literature at the high school or even university level. Only when you’re in a Ph.D. program might you be allowed to “indulge” yourself in recent literature.

Despite various obstacles, people do emerge who want to embrace translation. There are scholars and writers who are excited to discover some book or writer from South Asia and decide to start translating. Snehal Shingavi, the translator of Angaarey, was raised in the U.S. and trained himself in Urdu and Hindi and embraced translation. I made my first foray into literary translation after reading Bangladeshi novelist Shaheen Akhtar, continuing in earnest upon discovering the fiction of Mahmudul Haque.

And you certainly do not need to be of South Asian origin to embrace translation. Daisy Rockwell, Fran Pritchett, Jason Grunebaum, and Matt Reeck are scholars of language and literature who embarked on major translation projects upon becoming enthusiastic about certain authors and books from the subcontinent. Several of them are fiction writers too.

But what do you choose to translate? Without familiarity with a range of writing, again this can become a matter of chance.

Bilal Hashmi, who translated Sajjad Zaheer’s A Night in London, writes, “To be honest, I’d hold translators, especially the academics among us, at least partly responsible for what gets lost in ‘un-translation.’ The kinds of works we’ve hand-picked and deemed worthy of U.S. readers’ time are still far from representative of what modern Hindi and Urdu have to offer. (Note to publishers: Google, for instance, the names of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and Wajida Tabassum.) It also doesn’t help that we are, in our métier, men and women of a rather conservative, too-refined taste.”

The tastes of literary elites can also be unreliable. Shabnam Nadiya, a writer who translates short fiction from Bangladesh, notes: “To discover what should be translated, foreign publishers often reach out to key people in the local literary community. Such queries can lead to questions of who is ‘worthy’ of being translated. Thus, writers not anointed with some sort of ‘intellectual’ certificate may get dismissed; despite the high likelihood of those writers successfully attracting a readership. I’ve been privy to conversations where certain books have been deemed ‘not serious enough,’ i.e. they’re genre and not literary. My interest in translating Humayun Ahmed, a multi-genre writer with unprecedented popularity in Bangladesh, elicited surprise in several writers and editors, despite my assertion that I genuinely enjoyed his books, and there was a non-Bangladeshi publisher willing to take on such a project.”

I do not want to underestimate the difficulties that translators face. Literary translation does not pay much (or at all), and without support from universities or grants, translators take up projects largely out of love. It’s one thing to translate a story now and then; taking on a novel requires a major commitment.

Even when someone wants to enter the arena, there are practical obstacles to be overcome. To apply for a grant or publish, you need to acquire permission from writers or their estates. It is not always easy to acquire these rights, especially in those cases where the author is dead. There may be family who can be reached, but sometimes it turns out they have naïve expectations about royalties.

Leaving aside what we can or cannot expect from publishers, institutions, or academia, what is it that we as translators can do? Waiting on others can be frustrating.

Matt Reeck, who co-translated Manto’s Bombay Stories, makes an interesting observation. “My own feeling is that those who have translated Urdu up to this generation were content with having their translations published in South Asia or for Urdu-only circles. I don’t know this for certain, but, as far as I know, I’m one of the few people to send translations blind to literary magazines, and though that’s work, it’s necessary, and in the end it’s important. It was certainly a part of what got Aftab’s and my translations of Manto noticed. So I mean to say that while there are systemic problems, we could also point to the translators themselves and even their disinterest in the work of self-promotion, their naivety in that regard, or their resting content with a South Asian publishing context. That seems true to me.”

I believe Reeck is on point here.

Some of us who translate from Bangladesh are constantly being asked to submit translations for Dhaka-based newspapers and journals. With our connections there, it is in many ways easier to go that route instead of playing the submission game with literary journals here. We do respond to some of these requests but we also know that every story or excerpt published there means we cannot submit the same to outlets here. No one here wants second rights, even where the first rights have been given to a publication that will not easily travel here. This might not be fair, but that’s the reality we have to juggle.

Besides developing our own visibility, South Asian translators also need to find ways to continue drawing attention to what’s been written in the subcontinent, what’s being translated, what’s available, and what needs to be made available.

In Part III, I discussed the problem of lack of visibility of South Asian books to U.S. publishers because of the absence of institutions like the German Book Office. Here too, perhaps it is we translators who must take the initiative to collate information sources.

We need more reviews of translations so they will come to the attention of serious readers, critics, and publishers. Publications like Words Without Borders, Asymptote, World Literature Today carry reviews and have a wide following. There are South Asian diaspora publications that publish creative writing and reviews. Mostly they confine themselves to original writing in English. Why should we not approach the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Jaggery, or others to include translations and reviews of translated books?

A journal or website/blog devoted to promoting South Asian translation could greatly help. Just look at what Paper Republic does for Chinese translation or ArabLit for Arabic literature in English.

Jason Grunebaum says, “We need to know and share the works we think ought to be translated into English. There should be a website/database/wiki/shared blog, some place where translators, readers of South Asian literature in the original languages, scholars, etc. can come and talk briefly about works they think either should be translated, or works that have, but in flawed translations. This would serve many functions, among them being a possible ‘matchmaking service’ between works and translators.”

Shabnam Nadiya and I have often fantasized about such a website for Bangladeshi literature. We would love to have a place which could display lists of key books that deserve to be translated first and publish short essays on such books; provide a forum where translation puzzles could be discussed; and showcase reviews of translation, both good and bad, that would focus on translation issues (something like a hall of fame/hall of shame).

How do we get moving?

While I’m working on this article, Daisy Rockwell writes to me, “Why not get Columbia or NYU to hold a South Asian literature in translation symposium, invite all the translators and scholars who use translations in their teaching, and invite publishers to come?”

Indeed, why don’t we start with some of these ideas?

Next: The translation scene in South Asia and how works published there “travel” to the U.S.


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