Jul 17 2015

Bangladesh: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads

In the wake of the murders of several bloggers in Bangladesh, I wrote this essay published on June 7, 2015 at Scroll.in

The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. This time it was Ananta Bijoy Das in Sylhet who also edited a rationalist journal named Jukti. Some months back, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

May 09 2015

Bangladesh: Stifling A Country

An essay of mine on the history of free expression in Bangladesh was published on April 24, 2015 at Kafila. It was also reprinted at Scroll.in.

When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favor of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organize, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.

Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.

There is something in that sort of ‘spring’ that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.

For the full article, read it at Kafila or at Scroll.in.

Apr 11 2015

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

 

Aug 20 2014

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:

Nov 09 2013

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?
Read more »

Nov 09 2013

Letter from America: DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA IN DHAKA

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on October 12, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
Minault
Step back fifty years.

Monday evening, 28 October, 1963. Hundreds take their seats at the Race Course in Dhaka, excitement buzzing through the crowd.

On the stage stands an upright bass and a drum set, along with a piano brought over from the Goethe Institute. There is a slight dampness in the air, and a piano tuner has been asked to stand by. After an introduction, more than a dozen musicians from the U.S., mostly black men, take to the stage. The horn section brings along their well-loved trumpets, saxophones, and trombones. The silence of the night is broken by the melody of Billy Strayhorn’s composition, “Take the A Train”, familiar to some because it is the theme of the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour. It will be followed by other tunes like the wistful “Mood Indigo” and the swinging “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” For an hour and a half, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with some of the world’s finest jazz musicians – including Paul Gonsalves and Sam Woodyard – will make the Dhaka air reverberate with the soulful and sizzling sounds of jazz.
Read more »

Nov 09 2013

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.
Read more »

Nov 09 2013

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.
Read more »

Nov 09 2013

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.
Read more »

Jan 21 2011

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.