Monday, Jul 04, 2022
Outlook.com

A 'Tomb Of Sand' Moment: How Translation's Big Break Is Coming To India

The history of translating into English goes as far back as the history of Indian English publishing, but one must take note of the recent developments in the industry.

A person reading inside a library.
A person reading inside a library. Getty Images

Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell’s International Booker win for Tomb of Sand was a moment everyone in the Indian publishing industry had been waiting for. Folks keenly following the world of books and award circuits will have noted that the last year boded well for Indian books in translation. Tejaswini Niranjana’s translation of Jayant Kaikini’s short fiction No Presents Please won the American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Award for fiction. Arunava Sinha’s translation of Shameless by Taslima Nasreen was also in the running for the same award, while Archana Venkatesan received the Lucien Stryk Asia Translation Prize. 

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The history of translating into English goes as far back as the history of Indian English publishing (please read R Sivapriya’s recent article), but one must take note of the recent developments in the industry. As someone who started her commissioning role in 2018 at HarperCollins India with two unusual books (centred around translation and poetry): Sampurna Chattarji’s translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems and Aditi Angiras & Akhil Katyal’s edited volume of queer poetry, what is most exciting for me to observe and contribute to is the surge that we’re seeing in publishing contemporary books in translation. Most publishing houses are making space not just for the canonical, or for authors who have been conferred with lifetime achievement awards, but also for writers who are in the early stages of their careers. Take Jayasree Kalathil’s translation of Moustache by S Hareesh, for example, which won the JCB Prize in 2020 and was the writer’s first novel (though not his first book), or the forthcoming Valli by Sheela Tommy (also translated by Kalathil), the author’s debut novel originally published as recently as 2019. The shift from publishing only classics to more contemporary books means that trailblazing writers like Perumal Murugan, K R Meera, Manoranjan Byapari, Vivek Shanbhag (to name a few) are not obscure figures anymore; they appear on the same shelf as Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh when readers around the world imagine a ‘contemporary Indian novel’. 

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Other translated novels of Geetanjali Shree.
Other translated novels of Geetanjali Shree.


This is primarily thanks to translators who serve as curators and are eager to showcase the here-and-now of the languages they work in. As commissioning editors, we often ask them: who else are we missing out on? Notable also, the contribution of the literary agencies in India: agents equip translators with the practical know-how they need to navigate the cogs and wheels of trade publishing and are also increasingly starting to represent writers who don’t write in English. This will hopefully, eventually, even out hierarchies of languages and regions. Even in the classics-in-translation publishing microcosm, it’s reassuring to see the spotlight at times move over lesser represented languages and genres: we recently published a bilingual edition of Nanak Singh’s Khooni Vaisakhi in Navdeep Suri’s translation – a protest poem in Punjabi from 1920 banned by the British Raj, and Harimohan Jha’s 1938 Maithili novel Kanyadan in Lalit Kumar’s translation is forthcoming from Harper Perennial India, the country’s first imprint dedicated to translations. Colleagues elsewhere have admirably published gems like Manipuri writer Binodini’s The Princess and the Political Agent and 13 Years, the 1970s prison diaries of Ramachandra Singh.

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Translation’s big break in India possibly came fifteen years ago, with Shankar’s Chowringhee translated by Arunava Sinha. In more recent times, we were lucky to witness another watershed moment with the unprecedented success of Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar in Srinath Perur’s translation. A few other recent milestones: in 2018, the DSC Prize went to Jayant Kaikini and Tejaswini Niranjana for No Presents Please, and the beautiful streak of translated novels that have won three out of the four JCB Prizes for Literature (personally, I’m rooting for Malayalam books to follow the footsteps of translated Korean literature and have a worldwide wave very soon). But even then, the caveat must be added: awards such as the JCB or the DSC have not resulted in a lauded book becoming an overnight bestseller. Perhaps, as new copyeditors are advised, consistency and patience are key. 

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An interlude here to address the elephant in the room: it’s 2022 and we’re still waiting for Western validations to gauge our success! Here’s my simple opinion as someone painfully aware of book sales numbers: while we are free to debate the colonial gaze ad infinitum, our books absolutely need awards and validations from wherever possible. In India, the English-language book market is very small, still evolving and still very volatile. Most literary books, therefore, have a very short life span (and you don’t need me to tell you why we can’t expect to see reading-to-think-or-gain-perspective to be anyone’s priority in our country anytime soon). So, let it take a Booker for an author to become a household name, let it take any and all international honours because it simply means that more copies of the book will be printed somewhere; the story will have another chance to land up in a reader’s hand who might not have known they needed it; maybe it will travel to unlikely places, to libraries, and be further translated (the challenges of selling rights of books that have originated in India is a story for another day), our books deserve to land up in places where reading books is not a privileged activity. And who can discount the prize money because as long as literary books are produced and expected to be consumed in the marketplace like straightforward commercial products, writers and translators will need multiple sources of income to sustain their creative practices. 

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At an editing-South-Asian-books-in-translation workshop organized by the Commonwealth Foundation in 2020, I had asked my UK counterpart how they signed up new translators. They answered that they often got in touch with the ‘emerging’ translators who had been awarded well-known national grants and fellowships, or they would scout new talent via the various university MA in Translation circuits. And I thought, wouldn’t it be nice for translators in India to have as many spaces to cultivate their art in less lonely ways. Fast-forward to mid-2022, and the good news is that many opportunities are indeed opening up: the NIF Translation grant, Navayana’s Dalit History Fellowship, Ahmedabad University’s diploma under the aegis of Tejaswini Niranjana (with scholarships sponsored by JCB foundation), new translation centres at Ashoka and Azim Premji universities, Jadavpur University Press and their various initiatives into print cultures, translation workshops organized by Sangam House. Following these welcome initiatives, I hope we do our bit to give literary translations the gift of time: time to translate well, time to actually edit manuscripts, time to market these books well, time to engage with ‘difficult’ or long books, and also make space for them: space in the mysterious world of algorithms, prime space in bookstores and airports, space on the front covers for naming translators, space on glamourous lit-fest stages, space for real book reviews. In the language of the marketplace, the words ‘time’ and ‘space’ can be roughly translated as capital.

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A roadside book shop.
A roadside book shop. Getty Images


Last Friday, when I congratulated my friend Saba Ahmed, editor at Tilted Axis Press (the UK publisher of Tomb of Sand) after the prize announcement, she messaged back a beautiful sentiment: ‘I feel like we are sharing it with all of Indian publishing.’ So, here’s hoping that all of the Indian publishing (an ecosystem which includes our small clutch of readers) remembers this moment as possible to be repeated and not as something to be filed away under ‘anomaly’ after the news cycle. I sincerely hope we do not forget this moment in publishing history (even though lately we’ve become a very forgetful nation) and the impact that books – literary books in translation specifically – can have on the world. 

(Sohini Basak is a writer and editor with HarperCollins. She is currently based out of Barrackpore.)

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