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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:

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.

A new translation: Once Again Love

Over at the Words Without Borders website, they’ve published their April issue. It includes Once Again Love, my translation of Shaheen Akhtar’s Bangla story “Abar Prem Ashche.” While you’re there, check out some of the other fine pieces too.

Here’s the link to the story.

I first heard about Shaheen Akhtar in late 2004 from Yasmine Kabir the filmmaker. We had met at a film festival in San Francisco. When we found a chance to talk, I asked her about contemporary Bangladeshi writers who she liked. She mentioned Shaheen, highly recommending her novel Talaash. A few months later during a visit to Dhaka, Yasmine introduced me to Shaheen and I brought back a copy of Talaash. In another year I had read the book, found myself riveted by it, and felt that it is one of the novels from Bangladesh that deserves to be taken to readers outside our borders. I was happy to learn that an English translation was being prepared by Zubaan Books in Delhi, India. It will be published later this year.

Shaheen is an author I’ve long wanted to translate. For a reading in Austin, Texas on International Womens Day in 2006, I had translated and read a short excerpt from Talaash. Then, when I was living in Dhaka recently, I read more of her work and chose this story “Abar Prem Ashche.” I’m excited to see it published. I appreciate the help Shaheen gave me in preparing the final translation, and I also want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for her support and assistance and WWB editor Rohan Kamicheril for his careful editing. It was a pleasure working with all three.

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