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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.
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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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.
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.

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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.
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.
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.
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.

Reviews of “Killing the Water”

My short story collection Killing the Water: Stories was published in January 2010 by Penguin Books India. In the last few months, several reviews of the book have appeared in Indian and Bangladeshi publications. Some highlights:

  • From Open Magazine, Delhi, India

    Rahman’s stories, all 12 of them, have backdrops as varied as the lingering smell of dried fish curry accompanied with the thud of a wooden spoon against a clay pot in Modhupur in the 1930s’ east India, to the sudden blast of hot air that fogs one’s glasses when you enter a laundromat from the winter chill of Providence in Rhode Island.

    In between, there are stories set in the years of insurrection and war in Bangladesh. In Kerosene, a striking tale that opens with a violent paragraph, a revolutionary is in conflict with the sudden upheaval of war and circumstances that lead him to commit a heinous act.

  • From the weekend magazine of The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh

    Now, finally, it seems as though a new generation of Bangladeshi writers is beginning to emerge, and Mahmud Rahman’s debut collection of short stories, Killing the Water (Penguin India), strongly suggests that he is a talent worth keeping an eye on.

    The voice that emerges from this collection is a quiet yet arresting and thought-provoking one. Rahman’s writing style is spare and elegant, and his calm, understated approach fits well with his poignant, bittersweet stories that will stay with you a long time after you finish reading them.

  • From The Telegraph, Kolkata, India

    The imagery most of Rahman’s stories evoke is that of movement. Movement, which, in almost every case, is irreversible but necessary, when meanings are lost as people are forced to leave, or when there is a search for a chance to make a new life in a new land. Then there are also the unaccountable, strange ways in which movement changes people. The stories appear in a linear, chronological fashion. The first few evoke a certain period in Bangladesh while those that follow are set in the US and are stories about migrants.

  • From New Age Xtra, Dhaka, Bangladesh

    These short stories are about people, not politics. In Killing the Water, Rahman displays a deep empathy and understanding of people – whether they are speaking from Bangladesh or America is secondary. The Grand Narratives of ’71, the widespread malignancies of a country experiencing convulsive growing pains, or even the immigrant blues are not fore-grounded but largely the personal baggage of its characters. When the unnamed narrator of the rather-poignant story ‘Interrogation’ says, ‘I have no stomach for ideology. My conversations with them are brief. I try to coax them into talking about real experiences’, he might be articulating the topic tying this collection of short stories together.

  • From The Hindu Literary Review, Chennai, India

    From being a witness to a bloody war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 to being a Third World migrant in the United States, Mahmud Rahman has had first-hand experience of what is called “the effects of war, migration and displacement.”

    This is why he is successful in weaving all those experiences together in the beautiful and illuminating set of stories for his debut collection.

    The best story is “Kerosene”. Set against the backdrop of the 1971 war and told from a Bangladeshi nationalist’s point of view, it exposes the chilling horrors of war and shows how even a non-violent and mild-mannered society can lose its sanity during great socio-political upheaval.

Remembering Leila Abu-Saba (1962-2009)

Earlier this week, the morning, already dreary from the dampness and rain, brought the news that Leila Abu-Saba had died at her home in Oakland. Cancer finally took her. She had beat it before, but it returned.

It is a familiar, painful story. Eight years ago, my younger sister, about the same age, died after a three-year battle with breast cancer. I write these lines from her house where I’m temporarily staying, and I often remember her in these rooms as she struggled through chemotherapy, fought nausea and dehydration, and watched her world fade. She too had beat the cancer once, but when it returned, she chose to accept the inevitable. Leila, I understand, tried hard to fight it all the way through.

In our family we have often wondered, would my sister have lived if she had resisted? We have always had to face the sad truth: there are no guarantees. Some people do beat it and continue to live — others do not. A fierceness of spirit may help some, but with others it proves inadequate. There is so much that we do not understand about cancer. And yet when someone dies young, it is impossible not to be brought low by the utter unfairness of it all. We’d like to blame someone, something — but there’s nothing to blame. Sometimes death insists on its mystery.

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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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