April, 2016

Why a Liberal Arts student must read translated texts


Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English, Ashoka University, and author of The Firebird


One often witnesses young readers quoting Japanese authors like Haruki Murakami or Yukio Mishima (appropriately or inappropriately) in their discussions. Even their love for Spanish, Russian or French literature is romanticized and verbalized to a great extent. Paradoxically, one seldom comes across young Indian readers who follow the work of the diverse vernacular writers of the country. They seem to be oblivious of the writers in Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali- the poetry of Amrita Pritam and the fiction of Indira Goswami.

Recently, there has been a collective sigh of relief by the promoters of vernacular literature with the success of novels like Vivek Shanbag’s Gachar Gochar translated by Srinath Perur and the Marathi classic Baluta, a work of Daya Pawar’s translated by Jerry Pinto. These are mere specks in the horizon, we still have a long way to go. The best stories about India are written in regional languages and consequently the role of translators is also getting crucial. English readership is an inevitable reality with a significant number hooked to English reading and it is enough reason to ensure that translated texts are integrated into reading lists to make us travel beyond the confining boundaries of cultures, religions and regions within India primarily, instead of floundering amongst the gems off shore.

Most people are afraid to venture into translated works for fear of encountering a watered down version. When English writer and composer Anthony Burgess said that “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture,” he was absolutely right. Translation is an art which is highly underrated.

However, in its English Programme, Ashoka introduced a course for Spring Semester 2016: “Contemporary Indian Literature in English Translation”. Aruni Kashyap, Assistant Professor of English and Critical Thinking at Ashoka University and an author himself offered this course as a part of the English major, and co-taught it with Arunava Sinha, who is a prolific translator of Bengali to English and has won two Vodafone Crossword Prizes for Translation .

Kashyap’s love and support of Indian literature in translation is fueled by a healthy and empowering skepticism of the English literary canon. It enables him to question how and what is taught in English departments in India or any postcolonial nation. He thinks aloud as he questions,“Why do we keep seeing adaptations of British texts, and not Indian texts? Is this tendency to nativize canonical texts emerging out of a certain postcolonial guilt, how useful is that guilt?” As a part of the course, students read English translations of poetry and fiction written in nine Indian languages. The emphasis in the course is on understanding each of these literary traditions in addition to identifying and analyzing the nuances and shifts in language from region to region.

Jonathan Gil Harris, Dean, Academic Affairs at Ashoka University and author of many books amongst The First Firangis says, “The crucial feature of this course is the lecture series that exposes students to something that most English students in India are denied — the perspectives of writers and translators themselves, which can be every bit as nuanced and critically rigorous as those of academics.”

Kashyap and Sinha brought the vernacular world alive for the students by inviting authors, translators, vernacular experts to the campus. From the legendary Tamil fiction writer Ambai to Literary historian and critic Rakshanda Jalil was invited talk about different aspects of translated texts. This provided a platform to connect and interact with the students to focus on topics of Indian Literature which enhance the level and intensity of discussions in the classroom and outside in the form of debates, movements, themes, around it. The readings by the authors was particularly engaging as it brought the text to life with their pronunciation and stress and sometimes comments.

Gia Singh, a second year undergraduate was enthusiastic as, “Reading out loud in the regional languages triggers memories of India- the place of the woman, the caste system, the role of religion that is seeped within the Indian mind and the moment in history that changed our literature forever- the partition.” Her interests are varied and she extols the virtues of the course, “Languages like Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil (to name a few) were explored in this course, that we don’t consider our own but are very much able to connect to, surprising us all with the significance of a literature that is not English, even though it is read in that language- without losing the dexterity of the originally written work,”

The course arouses a surprising enthusiasm within the faculty and the students of Ashoka University. Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English at Ashoka University and author of The Firebird sums it up as he ruminates over the spectrum of languages and the lack of response within the country. “I think it is an essential course for undergraduate students in India, not only those specializing in literature or creative writing, but for every Indian college student.” He stresses that sometimes it is hard to believe that India holds together as a nation at all, given the mindboggling diversity of cultures within it. Having lived in America for 17 years, where diversity is the subject of mainstream conversation, Majumdar says that his ‘mind blows’ at the thought of cultural differences within India, where a few hours train ride takes you to a different alphabet – not just a different language, but a whole different alphabet and way of writing. “This rarely happens even in Europe, where the Latin script holds large sway. What better way to make sense of this impossible dialectic of region and nation than to read Indian literature in translation? There is historical irony in the fact that to many of us, this translation is likely to happen in the former colonial language, English, which now thrives as another Indian language. But there is poetic justice in this irony as the very idea of the modern Indian nation owes something to colonial modernity.” he says. Read full comments by Saikat here.

The publishing world of translated texts

Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world,” American author and director, Paul Auster

Where do the Indian authors falter when they write in English?

Kashyap feels that the IWE (Indian Writing in English) are forced to cater to the implicit demands of the publishers sitting in London or New York. In order to gain global acceptability and global readership, the essence of the work is filtered and diluted killing its very soul. This has harmed Indian English writing, especially fiction, as the IWE always had to avoid complex Indian realities. This is one of the main reasons why IWE finds little relevance in India. “As an Indian English writer, this is one of the key aspects I struggle with and I often find the parameters I want to step into, in Indian literature in the regional languages. This is one of the major reasons why I am such a supporter of Indian literature in translation,” he says.

Bengali writers have made a mark with writers like Tagore or Satyajit Ray, who are read globally. However, one cannot undermine the effect of other regional languages which are contributing to the bigger pie of translated books. Minakshi Thakur, Senior Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins says, “The market is definitely growing but at a very slow pace. Translations based on mythology sell better than the others. Bhima by M T Vasudevan Nair and The Vigil, Angada’s story by Sarah Joseph have done very well for us. A collection of Ray stories or stories that Satyajit Ray made into films will always do better than other books. You can’t go wrong with Tagore either. We have just brought out Gulzar’s translations of Tagore’s poetry. So half the list moves fast and half really slow even if the writers and their books are absolutely brilliant and getting rave reviews.”

Thakur mentioned that Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi are the most translated literatures, because there are more translators in those languages who can render text into English. Marathi is picking up fast too. Some languages, however, remain under translated. For instance Kashmiri, Gujarati, Konkani, Telugu etc – for the lack of good translators.

The good news from Thakur is that there is a constant rise in publishing translated texts and regional writers. Even R. Sivapriya, Executive Editor from Chiki Sarkar’s publishing house Juggernaut Books agreed that translations have always been around and have always been read. There definitely seem to be more (from other Indian languages to English) being published.

The process of publishing translated texts is however is not easy. According to Thakur, “Publishing translations entails identifying the best books in the languages that will also be intelligible to English readership. Finding the right translator, commissioning the translation, editing, proofing, cover design etc. is a long process. About three years from the initiation.”

Sivapriya tells us that all the editors at Juggernaut Books work on translated texts and it is an important focus for the publishing house. For instance, the firm’s nonfiction editor commissioned a journalist to write a short biography of Mamata Banerjee in Bengali and had it translated into English and published it. Juggernaut has a big list for translated texts to be published which includes Ali Akbar Natiq’s Shah Muhammad’s Tonga, Devi Prasad Mishra’s In an Infamous Street, Ambikasutan Mangad’s Swarga, three novels by Umera Ahmed, Bihar to Tihar by Kanhaiya Kumar, Didi by Jayanto Ghosal, Ambai’s three novellas, Zingagi Live by Priyadarshan,

How organized is the publishing of translated texts in India? One still has to wait before a formal organized sector can be recognized where translation is a natural progression. Thakur, who is not very optimistic with the present situation, gives valuable suggestions to fill the gap between writers and translators, “There should be a forum for writers and translators to meet, virtually or physically. A forum which will take care of copyright, credit related issues, foster discourse on translation, new methods and a system of feedback. It could also raise funds for translation in India and encourage students at universities to take up translation as a full-time job. A lot of European countries have cultural centres run by the government where they fund translations. We need new translators, a whole new generation, and I don’t see that happening.”

It is important that in an Indian Liberal Arts institution — and especially in one where the medium of instruction is English — that students be exposed thoroughly to numerous literary traditions from the subcontinent. “Liberal Arts celebrates plural perspectives, and these perspectives are not confined to those of academic disciplines. They are embedded too in the multiplicity of the subcontinent’s languages and histories of writing. World literature is also a part of Ashoka’s curriculum; indeed, the literature Foundation Course is Literature and the World,” concludes Gil Harris.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other Articles

Ashoka News

Why startups should apply for AIM Smart City Accelerator Program?

This time during last year, the team at AIM Smart City Accelerator was gearing up to announce its first call for applications from aspiring entrepreneurs. After an overwhelming response from participants across the country and a tough selection process, eight startups became a part of the program which began in March, 2016. [...]

Register for Subscription