Pirates of translation

The author Laila Lalami recently discovered that her first book had been published in Pakistan in an unauthorized translation in Urdu. She writes:

Not long ago, I received a kind email from a reader in Pakistan, telling me how much he enjoyed reading my first book, which he had read in its Urdu translation. An “excellent work,” he called it, and he wanted to know whether I was working on something new. This is very flattering, of course, and I was touched by the compliment, but I confess my first thought was: what Urdu translation?

There’s some discussion of this going on in Sasialit, a mailing list on South Asian literature, and I posted a comment there. I thought I would post that comment here too.
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I have sympathy for Laila Lalami’s lament at discovering that her book was translated and published in Urdu without permission. It surprises me that the translator had initiated contact with the author but then gone on to publish ignoring the conversation.

But I am not sure about one point she makes. She writes, “The person in charge of copyright clearance at Algonquin Books replied that permissions were normally granted to publishing houses.” This might be ‘normally’ true, but it’s common enough for freelance translators to solicit permissions from authors. Those who apply for the PEN USA and NEA translation grants each year receive permissions from authors and only in some cases do they have contracts with publishers.

I want to bring up a point that Ms. Lalami does not address, one related to language, power, hierarchies. I believe this brings up something that does not often get discussed, even in conversations about translation.

She says that her story collection “was published in a bunch of different foreign languages, but I was pretty sure Urdu wasn’t one of them.” From her website I see that the book has been published in Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, and French. There are no non-European languages here.

I believe that there are certain mass market books that may well find their way into authorized translations in non-European languages. But other books, like Ms. Lalami’s book — literary fiction from the ‘West’ (though I don’t much care for the phrase literary fiction) — do not find their way into authorized translations. In many cases I suspect it’s because the markets are tiny and Western publishers cannot make the kind of money they expect. In other cases they have no relations with the local language publishing worlds in Asia and Africa.

In this situation, what happens is that there are many unauthorized translations floating out there. In Bangladesh, for sure, and I suspect in many other countries. Quite often these translations are of poor quality. Each year when the Nobel Prize is announced in October, some publisher in Dhaka will try to get a translation of some book by the prize winner into print by the Book Fair in February. In those three months, it’s clear something of quality will not come to print. I remember reading a newspaper article describing a translation of Gunter Grass where the translator had translated the word ‘backbiting’ literally.

There are often yeomen translators, one or two figures from each country, who will dominate the translation field. Theirs is perhaps a labor of love. I have not read these translations so I cannot comment on their quality, but I assume in some cases they could be quite good. But there are no editors and no collaboration with authors, and most won’t even get reviewed. So it’s difficult to make judgments on quality.

On the other hand, if it were not for the unauthorized translations, those readers who have difficulty in reading English and read in languages like Bangla, Urdu, etc. would never be able to read much of contemporary foreign literature. And I believe this is a loss for the world of letters.

Perhaps it is too much to ask authors based in the West or publishers to deal with this problem. But in my opinion it is a serious problem. Recently I was talking to a writer from Bangladesh who writes in Bangla. He said he thought that the writers from Bangladesh who came up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s read more from the outside world. He thought that his generation, the post-1971 generation of writers, did not read as much. From my conversation with other writers from both generations, I think he may be right. But perhaps one reason writers from the earlier generation might have read more from outside is that there were more translations available. Because of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviets published translations of American and Russian books. The funding might have come for narrow geopolitical motives and in the American case it might have even come from the CIA funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, but the result was beneficial for local writers who came into contact with different forms of storytelling, language, voice.

Today I don’t see much concern about this situation. Perhaps things might change if some of the stronger and more professional publishing houses in India begin to publish translation not just into English but also into the local languages. There are many good translations coming out into English and there are universities that offer courses in translation into English, but I’m not aware of similar courses in Bangla, for example.

Finally, this is not just a problem with translations into Bangla from the West. Even books in other Indian languages do not largely find their way into Bangla. A few years ago, dissatisfied with the English translation of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari I had wondered if there was a Bangla translation available. There wasn’t. Later someone sent me a copy of a very sharply observed essay by Meenakshi Mukherjee on how there was a serious weakness with ‘horizontal translation’ into Bangla.

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3 Comments

  1. Naeem Mohaiemen

    In the 1970s, I used to pick up huge amounts of Russian classics translated into Bangla. Available for incredibly cheap prices, and in retrospect we understand the cold war subsidized our reading habits.

    One of the most queasy books I remember is Ubhochor Manob (Amphibian Man, I later borrowed the title for an essay on Syed Mujtaba Ali), which itself had borrowed elements from, perhaps, Little Mermaid and Frankenstein. Kashtanka is a name that sticks in my head, was it a story about a dog? I vaguely recall an epic drawing on the cover. Then there were Russian folk tales. The old soldier who rests in the haunted house, and when the ghosts come he starts eating peanuts from a sack and when they ask what it is, he says they are bullets. “ore baba go, ma go” and they run off.

    One of the translators I recall was Noni Bhoumik, I think he had moved to Moscow with family. There were others. Wonder what happened to them when that bloc-aligned translation industry died?

    Then there were small picture books, which were basically gels/stills from Russian animated cartoons with some perfunctory read-along text. I would pick these up at the Soviet Cultural Center, which was down the block on Dhanmondi Road 7.

    One of these had an image with “second hand goods” sign which was untranslated. I looked up at mother and said, “eta mane ki? ditiyo haat bhalo?”. Oh they laughed. I was seven.

  2. Currently, this is a huge problem in most of the entertainment sectors. People are copying music, stories and remaking films from other countries and breaching copyrights. This is not good news for the original writers or the composers. Strong action should be taken against the thief to set up a strong example

  3. I already heard about unauthorized translations, I know it is a very serious problem. It’s hard for the original writers to take action when the thief lives in a far country.

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