Some new translations of Indian literature

Recently, English translations of three Bengali novels have been published in the West – My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Maye ) by Buddhadeva Bose; The Tale of Hansuli Turn by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay; and the classic novel Kapalkundala (translated as The Forest Woman) by the 19th century author Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. I must confess to having read none of these, either in Bengali or in English: it is not easy to immerse oneself in the culture of a country one had left behind at the age of five, and while I have tried, I won’t pretend that I have always tried my best. But I draw attention to these publications because I cannot help wondering whether this may, in its own modest way, represent the first stage of the turning of a peculiar cultural tide: for some decades now, Indian literature has come to mean in the West works written in English, in imitation of Western writers, and aimed primarily at a Western readership: writing in Indian languages* is barely so much as acknowledged.

I’m a bit wary of broaching this topic on my blog: I’m afraid I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about modern Indian writing in English, and all too easily lapse into mere intemperate ranting. But imagine a publisher commissioning an anthology of Japanese literature, say, and commissioning as editors two people neither of whom knows Japanese. Absurd, isn’t it? And yet, the Vintage Book of Indian Writing is edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, neither of whom knows any Indian language. (Yet this lack of expertise didn’t prevent Rushdie claiming in the introduction that writing in Indian languages wasn’t very good: certainly, the editors didn’t bother picking any for their anthology.) Or imagine it being widely accepted that French literature, say, began with Michel Houellebecq. Absurd? Yes, certainly, but, to this day, editions of Midnight’s Children carries a quote from the New York Times reviewer to the effect that, at long last, Indian literature has found a voice. Or imagine a literary prize set up for, say, Spanish literature, that does not even consider books written in Spanish. What is absurd in the context of Spanish literature seems perfectly OK for Indian literature, it seems. It isn’t that writing in Indian languages has been examined, and found wanting: it hasn’t been examined at all. I have seen entire features in respectable papers and journals about the so-called “renaissance” in Indian literature that don’t even acknowledge the existence of writing in Indian languages. One can go into a reasonable sized bookshop, and find translations from Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, Yiddish, Serbo-Croat, etc. etc. But translations from Indian languages are invisible. The message given out seems to me perfectly clear: “You can’t expect us to take you seriously if you insist on writing in those funny little languages of yours.”

The long-term effect of this can only be that aspiring writers in India will tend to write in the only language that offers an opportunity to access an international market: if this is indeed, the case, then the future of literatures in Indian languages seems very bleak indeed. And to what extent the considerable literatures that have already been produced in Indian languages will be read and remembered – who knows!

In this context, the translation of some highly regarded writings from Bengali – and, more importantly, their publication in the West – is to be welcome, even though Hesperus spoil the effect somewhat by the cover design of The Forest Woman: putting on the cover of a Bengali novel a picture of a Rajasthani woman is about as daft as putting a picture of a Viking warrior on the cover of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. But let us not carp too much. That translations from Bengali are now being made available in the West is something to cheer, and one can only hope that further translations from Bengali literature (and, also, from the literature in Indian languages other than Bengali) will now follow.

I’ll certainly be buying all three of these novels. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (no relation to me, as far as I’m aware!), influenced by Walter Scott (as, indeed, much of Europe was at the time) wrote mainly historical romances, and I suspect that they have dated at least as badly as Scott’s historical romances have: I’ll give this one a try, though, as the satirical writings of his that I have read (e.g. Kamalakatar Daptar) are excellent. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (whose novel Jalsaghar The Music Room – formed the basis of Satyajit Ray’s film of the same title) and Buddhadeva Bose were both twentieth century writers, and both are very highly regarded in the context of Bengali literature. Buddhadev Bose, especially, was a major figure in modern Bengali literature: as well as being a distinguished novelist and short story writer, he was a noted academic, an accomplished poet (among the finest of the post-Tagore generations), essayist and translator – translating into Bengali the poetry of, amongst others, Baudelaire, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and Hölderlin. His most famous novel, Tithidore (1949), is available in translation (the translated title is When the Time is Right) through Penguin India, but, such is the current state of affairs, this has never been published in the West. (Books written in Indian languages often do get translated into English, but these are for domestic consumption only: it is obviously more cost-effective to commission a single translation into English and distribute across India rather than to produce different translations into different Indian languages. But sadly, these translations, though available, do not surface in the West.)

Let us hope that this current state of affairs can now begin to change, and that, in time, Indian literature will mean something more than merely the writings of Rushdie & co.

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* Nowadays, Bengali is thought of exclusively as the language of Bangladesh, so, at the risk of stating the obvious, it it perhaps worth pointing out that Bengal comprises not merely of Bangladesh, but also of West Bengal, which has been part of India since the inception of the country; and, as such, Bengali is also an Indian language. Of course, the distinction between Bangladeshi and Indian is irrelevant if we are speaking of times preceding partition in 1947.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. such a fascinating post! Like most, I’ve only read Indian literature written in English and have wondered if that was affecting the experience in some manner. Thank you for sharing this info. – I’ll be reading these new books – of course, as I have to read them in translation that now presents the question of how we interpret the text through a translation but that’s not necessarily a bad situation, just a situation :)

    Reply

    • Hello Letitzia,and welcome to this site.

      Inevitably, something is lost in translation, but nonetheless, there are so many works that I have read only in translation that I can only describe as life-enhancing. It does, as I say, seem to me extremely odd (to say the least) that the books recognised internationally as Indian literature are books that were written with a Western readership in mind,. It is not, I think, that Wetsern readers are uninterested in literatures in Indian languages it is more that Western readers are unaware of these literatures. but hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn in this respect. I, too, will be reading these books: although I can read Bengali, having grown up in Britain, my grasp of English is superior, and i do find it easier to read books in English.

      If you are interested in Bengali literature, may i recommend the novel that is often considered to be teh finest in the language? Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Banerji. there is an excellent translation available by T. W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji – if you can find it!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Thank you so much for the recommendation, Himadri! If I can find it, I will start with that one first and then move on to the others. I agree with you, I have read so many novels in translations that have moved me profoundly. It makes for a different kind of experience – I think the important thing is to be aware that it is a translation and, often times, readers put that too much to the side.

        On a side note, thank you so much for taking my reading questionnaire – I appreciate you taking the time to do it!

        best,
        Letizia

  2. Posted by Erika W. on June 16, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    You make such a good point here. I remember what a shock it was to discover that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was not of Indian parentage . I think I took her as a touchstone fro India.

    Then I think that the Finn Family Moomintroll books might never have emerged from Finland–what a lost to children’s literature this would have been.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika,

      Perhaps i went too far in denigrating Indian literature written in English: while i am pesonally no great fan of Rushdie (as a writer, that is), there is clearly much written by Indian writers in English that is very fine indeed. R. K. Narayan, especially, is among my favourite writers. And it shouldn’t be surprising for writers of the Indian diaspora who live in the West to write in English: were I talented enough to be a novelist, I too would write in English, as that is the language I know best. It does concern me very deeply, though, that the literatures in Indian languages have been so completely sidelined.

      And I agree: Finn Family Moomintroll would have been an inestimable loss to children’s literature!

      All the best as ever,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. The parallels you draw with European languages make the current state of affairs even more astounding than it already is! As someone who has an interest in translated fiction (funnily enough, my latest post is on the subject…), the more we hear from hitherto ignored languages, the better :)

    Reply

    • Hello Tony,

      I read through your post this morning, and will be revisiting your site for a longer look around a bit ater when I have a bit more time.I find it difficult to understand the reluctance so many appear to have to engage with translated literature. Without translated literature, I would never have encountered Tolstoy, Chekhov, Flaubert, Ibsen, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Mann, Kafka, Pasternak … etc etc: the loss would be inestimable. We are very fortunate in having the works of so many giften translators, making available to us sme of the finest that has been thought and written, and not to take advantage of these riches seems lunatic to me! I do hope, though, that in time, Indian literature (by which I do not mean books written by Indian writers for a Western readership) will take its rightful place amongst the other literatures of the world.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on June 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    I suspect that it isn’t just a simple case of books being written by Indian writers for a western audience. Speaking to some my many Indian colleagues I get the impression that there has been a major renaissance (or recrudescence depending on your point of view – perhaps resurgence would be more neutral) of English teaching in Indian schools. This is clearly borne out by the quality of their written English, even to the correct use of the semi-colon in some cases, which I never really mastered.
    Their spoken language is no where near as good and it makes me wonder if there more of a shared culture of literature in English within India, rather than a shared spoken culture of English. It is, from my admittedly limited experience, much easier for a person literate in one language to become literate in another rather than to become verbally skilled.
    This doesn’t necessarily mean that indigenous languages will suffer under this circumstance. Increased wealth within a growing middle class can provide the leisure for intellectual pursuits like celebrating a mother tongue. Sometimes it is the case that a new nationalism lacking confidence in a poor country is the bane of more minor tongues, rather than the ever present English.

    Reply

    • Trust you to take a socio-economic view of this! :)

      I suspect many of your indian colleagues will have had at least part of their education in English. I agree with you that the indigeous languages themselves will not suffer; but of the state of affairs I describe in my post continues, then the literatures of those languages inevitably will. It cannot be otherwise when any writer, whatever the level of tehir talents, realises that the only way to access an international market is to write in English.

      Interestingly, though, when I was in India recently and visited bookshops in Hyderabad and in Mumbai, the kind of book that is regarded in the West as “indian literature” were not very conspicuous on the shelves: i did, however, find a number of translations into English of books written in Indian languages. (I picked up a few for myself.) So maybe you are right: maybe Indian literatures will continue to thrive – at least in India. I don’t know: we’re both guessing at this point.

      However, I do find the suggestion insulting that Indian literature consists only of books written in English and aimed primarily for Western readers, and that those written in Indian languages may safely be ignored. There seems to me an extraordinary arrogance underpinning such an outlook.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Gowri on July 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    ‘Pather Panchali’ translated by Clark and Mukharji has been published as a paperback by HarperCollins U.K.. It’s readily available in India and should, I imagine, be available from the U.K. publisher.

    Reply

    • Hello Gowri, and thank you for that. I know this is easily available in India, but, like a great many translations of Indian literature that are easily available in India, it is not so easily available in the West. In the West, Indian literature refers virtually exclusively to books written in English for a Western market; and it is this refusal on the part of the West even to acknowledge Indian literatures in Indian languages that saddens me.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Samrat Chakrabarti on August 29, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Hi Himadri,

    I enjoyed your post. I thought you might find the following link on the ILA project interesting (assuming its new to you).

    http://indiaculture.nic.in/indiaculture/ila.html

    and

    this list – http://indiaculture.nic.in/indiaculture/pdf/catalog_content_october_3.pdf

    I am reading that list more as a statement of intent and more hopefully perhaps as books already being commissioned for translation.

    As with so many things in India, some very progressive and right-intentioned institutions have become through bureaucracy and mediocrity, irrelevant to their goals, times and the lives of Indians. The Sahitya Akademi in this case. An old mothballed relic that stands as a grotesque reminder of what was intentioned and what could have been, but hasn’t.

    But, maybe there is a new vitality about. Newer, younger storytellers in a new media and everywhere-connected landscape, trying to break the status quo in a time of immense change. Like maybe this guy (i haven’t read him) and the fact that he is being reported on in the way that he is being reported on and to what audience.

    http://www.scroll.in/article/674242/Why-a-slim,-searing-book-on-the-North-East-could-inject-new-life-into-Hindi-literature

    early days. but this is new. this kind of mainstream cultural reportage. And the audience is new. Its young. educated. ambitious. and has seen the world.

    There are many problems. Like the fact that there is no money in translation. And hence the lack of quality translations. But perhaps more ominous is the weakening link between indians and literature. Reading is seen as strictly utilitarian and so the publishing logic favours diet books and self-help/management trash. And this directly relates to the increasing marginalization of the humanities in education. Hugely ironic given that its India, that we as a society have stopped seeing the value of stories; have stopped taking pleasure in reading, consuming and telling each other stories. In urban India at least.

    Witness therefore the insidious hold that Bollywood (and big regional cinema) has on cultural production in India. We pay for this with a fall in our collective imagination that shows itself most readily in our public life. We don’t shock and provoke. We take offense easily. We are quick to revere ourselves. Seek validation elsewhere. And worst, our identity is an easy conceptual hostage to whoever is the loudest in the room – usually an increasingly brazen political right.

    but. the country is getting young. and restlessness is a good place to start when dealing with a status quo.

    best,

    Samrat

    Reply

    • Hello Samrat, and welcome. Thank you very much for your comments.

      I get the feeling that the problem lies not so much in the availability of translations, but in the lack of will in finding an international market for them. After all, there are many excellent translations from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, but they rarely, if ever, appear in even the bigger bookshops here in the UK. And I don’t know why this is. I have spent much time on books boards and blogs on the net, and there is a genuine interest in translated literature from around the world; and Western readers who have read translations from Bengali on my recommendation have been very impressed by them. And yet, Western literati continue to think of Indian literature purely in terms of books written in English.

      I am afraid that, having lived away from India from the age of 5, my contact with my mother tongue and culture is not as strong as I would like it to be (I have written something about that here). I do frankly find it distressing, however, when Indian culture is seen – as it often is – purely through the lens of Bollywood. I remember a number of years ago now, on a social occasion, I was asked by a lady – a Western lady, i.e. not of an Indian background – whether I had been to see some Bollywood-inspired musical that was then playing on the London stage. I replied politely that no, I hadn’t, and that Bollywood was not “my kind of thing”. Later that evening, she came back to me and asked why I had turned my back on my own culture. I think I was too amused to reply properly. I grew up in a household where Tagore was revered; where rabindrasangeet formed the soundtrack of my upbringing; and where Bollywood played absolutely no part at all. And yet, the very idea of an India culture that has nothing to do with Bollywood seems incomprehensible to, I guess, a majority of Westerners.

      Reading is seen as strictly utilitarian and so the publishing logic favours diet books and self-help/management trash. And this directly relates to the increasing marginalization of the humanities in education. Hugely ironic given that its India, that we as a society have stopped seeing the value of stories; have stopped taking pleasure in reading, consuming and telling each other stories. In urban India at least.

      This is indeed dispiriting, but India is not the only place where this is the case: replace India by Britian, or, I suspect, by just about any other country, and this holds true. I suppose the best we can do, those of us who value literary culture, is to continue to cultivate it ourselves, and to communicate its values to others as best we can.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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