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Why we need a new, truly global, prize for world literature

This article was published in The Dhaka Tribune and reprinted by Scroll India

Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.

Some years, we hardly know the person, so we scramble to find out something about them, looking for bits of their writing online. Other years, like 2016, it goes to a more prominent person. Some are elated, others find the choice intriguing, while still others express disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else they consider more deserving.

But it is only one prize given to a single person, and truth be told, every year there are dozens of valid contenders from around the world.

I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we – whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it – behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?

In reality, the Swedish Nobel Committee is merely a handful of jurors from a small country of less than 10 million, speaking a language that is one of the smaller ones in the world. The current committee has five full members and two associates.

They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know a thing about them or their writing. They are probably all white, and, for sure, all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women.

Nominations come from writers and academics around the world, and the committee probably has staff that helps them select and read nominees.

But, at the end of the day, given who they are, given where they are based, they will no doubt have a certain predilection for European/European-origin writers, and, over the long haul, will privilege European languages. Sometimes, they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are always the interesting choices.

I understand that the Nobel Committee set up the Literature Prize to be the first global literary prize. That was certainly gutsy of them. It helped that this was virgin territory, and perhaps because there were no other contenders, the Nobel Literature Prize would become known as the world’s premier award for literary work. Of course, it helped that the prize was based in a small, more or less neutral, European country, outside of the big-power divisions of world politics.

But did people immediately accept it as the premier award for letters? Or was it seen as an interesting new fad, with people reserving judgment until it curated a list of awardees?

I doubt people all rose to applaud when the first prize was announced in 1901 for the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme.

Yes, who?

Though it broke new ground here and there – awarding the prize to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, for example – and to some truly deserving writers, for most of its first half-century, the Nobel Prize was known more for its misses rather than for its hits. It was more notable for who it left out.

What did it mean when it awarded Boris Pasternak, who’d been published outside Soviet censorship? Or then about Pablo Neruda, who’d sympathised with Soviet communism?

It is probably after the Cold War sparks dimmed, and the Nobel broke ground reaching out to writers outside the mainstream, that many of us came to expect it as the arbiter of people of letters even as only a small number were recognised. That’s vital to remember: Even in the Western tradition, more significant writers have been left out by the Nobel than recognised. And if we are to mention under-represented literatures, the Swedes must be among the unhappiest lot: their Academy has only rewarded seven over the life of the prize.

Still, despite outliers – two Japanese, two Chinese, a few from Africa and the Caribbean – the Nobel mainly privileges Western European writers and languages. When it reaches beyond, those of us from the world beyond Europe and North America applaud. But when it doesn’t, we are unhappy.

How long has it been since the decolonisation of most of the colonised world?

How long has it been that Japan has emerged as a major economic power from its WWII defeat? Or a number of Asian countries to emerge as developed economies? Or some African nations to rise as powerful countries?

Why is it that no one outside the West, no one in the South or East, has come up with a literary prize that might be more open to recognising talent from other corners of the planet?

Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are few. The Neustadt Prize is really the only other international award, and that’s run out of the University of Oklahoma.

Both its jurors and its nominees are often quite interesting, but we don’t line up like clockwork every two years to await the Neustadt Prize like we do the Nobel.

There are a few other prizes – the Man Booker International Prize, the International Dublin – but those tend to privilege the English language or translations into English.

There are some prizes specific to other languages, such as French or Spanish, and there are also some regional prizes. In Asia, until 2008, there used to be a Magsaysay Prize in the Philippines for “journalism, literature, and creative communication arts.”

There are plenty of billionaires and millionaires from the South and East today. No doubt a few among them might even be partial to literature. Maybe. But why is it that no one has come forward to fund another international award that might be smarter than the Nobel?

In the end, I think we are all complicit in handing over the role of “world arbiter of literature” to the Nobel Committee. Let’s admit it – deep down, we all look towards Europe’s approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters. Our disappointment in the Nobel is a marker of our own insecurities, our lack of confidence.

No doubt this will change one day. Perhaps someone in a country of the South and East, not tied up in international power politics, someone with passion and integrity, will bring forth a more inclusive international prize. Not just a copy of the Nobel, but a smarter prize. Until that day, we will perk up our ears every October and either celebrate or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm. And after a new prize arrives, we will switch our glee or ire to that new prize.

In Bangladesh, writing fiction about the liberation war may well become impossible

Bangladesh is about to pass a law making it illegal to ‘misrepresent’ the liberation war of 1971. Will all writers have to tell the same story now? My take on the subject, published in the Dhaka Tribune and reprinted at Scroll.in, June 22, 2016.

All signs suggest that the Parliament will soon pass the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act.

This law will give anyone the right to file a complaint with the police or the courts. While history is defined as settled, the law’s clauses about history are vague, and it goes on to consider it a crime to be “representing the liberation war history inaccurately or with half-truth in the text books or in any other medium”.

Other writers have expressed anxiety about what this means for the freedom to research the complex and polyphonic history of the entire movement for independence. I share those concerns but as a writer of fiction, I also fear for the burden this will impose on creative writers.

The Aerogram Book Club discussion on Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol

girl.with_.the_.golden.parasolI was asked recently by The Aerogram Book Club to organize a discussion on a translation of a book from South Asia. I proposed Uday Prakash’s The Girl With the Golden Parasol, originally published in Hindi. The book was translated by Jason Grunebaum.

Here’s the conversation between me, Daisy Rockwell, and Kevin Hyde:

 

Aerogram Book Club on The Girl With the Golden Parasol

 

On the Dearth of South Asian translations in the U.S.

 

Part of my library of translations published in India

August 2014: I’ve published a series of columns at the Asymptote Blog on the near invisibility of South Asian translations in the U.S. From the first post:

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.

 

Here are all the posts:

Letter from America: FICTION FACTORIES

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on November 3, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
hardy-drew
I took a journey back in time.

At the local library, I wandered to the children’s section and spotted a neatly stacked row of hardcovers with familiar blue spines: The Hardy Boys. I was transported back to the library on the second story of the old St Joseph High School building in Narinda, Dhaka. I was again eleven, beginning to devour the juvenile books the Brothers had stocked there.

That year the school moved to its current Mohammadpur location, and I continued my frenzied reading of the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Tom Corbett. My classmates and I soon consumed the entire stock. Then we came to grips with puberty and moved on from the chaste world of these boys to sexier material: James Bond and our own Bangladeshi superspy, Masud Rana.

I decided to loiter in my childhood by borrowing two Hardy Boys novels. I added a Nancy Drew, familiar to my young self through my sister who studied at Holy Cross. What would it feel like to read these books again, so many decades later?

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Letter from America: LIBRARY LOVE

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
library
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.

I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.

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Letter from America: NOIR ALGERIA

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on July 7, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
Khadra-cover
I remain preoccupied with Algeria.

This spring when the police battled Jamaat supporters on the streets and war crimes opponents rallied at Shahbagh, a lot of easy talk began to fly around about civil war. Having witnessed 1971, I shuddered at the thought of Bangladesh plunged into another war.

To imagine what such a war might look like, I searched for fiction that would bring me to ground level. Algeria came to mind. In the 1990s, the banning of Islamists triggered a war that led to the entire country living in daily peril, to the deaths of thousands, to many writers and artists choosing exile instead of death.

My search led to a writer I had encountered once before: Yasmina Khadra. Three years ago I journeyed to an artists residency in Montana to work on my novel. I was in a tiny town, 6000 miles high in the mountains, the nearest bookshop thirty miles away. With reading my only entertainment, I treasured the books left behind by past residents. They included The Attack by Khadra where an Arab surgeon in Israel discovers his wife among the victims of a suicide bombing, only to be horrified when he realizes she was the perpetrator.

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Letter from America: A DETOUR TO ROME

For a few months now I’ve been publishing a “Letter from America” in the monthly Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh. I’m reposting them here after they’ve been published. This one was published on May 6, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
clash
A few years back I made several road trips across the United States. One afternoon I was leaving a small town in Massachusetts when I stopped at a roadside store. It was run by a Bangali couple who had come on lottery visas. Not finding work elsewhere, they had agreed to manage this store owned by another Bangali. They looked miserable.

Now and then, I hear of Bangladeshis in remote places. In Mali, on the edge of the Sahara. In the Amazon, waiting to cross a border. Meanwhile in countries like the U.S. and even in Japan and Italy, there are now settled communities.

Bangladeshis abroad are also showing up as fictional characters – not just in narratives created by our own émigrés but by outsiders too. In some, they are major characters, as in the Korean film Bandhobi, Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, or Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds.

Recently I was transported to Rome in a novel originally written in Italian by an immigrant from Algeria. Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has a cover with six hand-drawn characters. They include Iqbal Amar Allah from Bangladesh. I’m not sure why Lakhous spelled his name this way; we’d know him as Iqbal Amirullah.

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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.
———————–

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.

Remembering Mahmudul Haque (1941-2008)

"One day everything becomes a story"

An abridged version of this article appeared The Daily Star on 2 August 2008.

Three years after partition, a ten-year-old boy nicknamed Botu moved from Barasat, now across a border, to Dhaka, settling with his family in the new flats built in Azimpur for government employees. At West End High School, the teacher slapped him. "That was my shopnobhongo." His crime, he learned later, was that he had gone to school in half pants and did not wear a Jinnah cap.
     He also found the teacher hard to follow. To his ears, Dhaka rang with strange new dialects. Dialect could bewilder, though later he would learn that it could infuse richness in his own prose. In Mahmudul Haque’s writing you will thrill to the melodious voices of 24 Parganas, Bikrampur, and Dhakaiya.
     If Pakistan meant such abuse, he wanted no part of it. Without any money, the boy set off all by himself to reverse the journey that had brought the family to Dhaka. Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalundo, train to Barasat.

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