How the pandemic has widened the opportunity to take translated literature to readers

October 27th, 2020 by The fear and uncertainty created by the deadly invisible pathogen permeated at first our public spaces and our physical boundaries and then, slowly but perceptibly, our homes, our conversations, our skins, our souls, and our hopes. For a while, it seemed as if survival was the only mother tongue in a country of more than a thousand languages. At Indian Novels Collective, a literary translation group, our story-telling and translation projects were disrupted. Our literary and publishing ambitions sank low. Our partnership conversations were uncertain and tentative. But slowly, human tenacity and will kicked in and we began to deal with the reality of delays and challenges, staunchly refusing to surrender to the victorious virus. In fact, we are now optimistic that translation – a perennially under-recognised genre – can use this moment as one of renewal, where possibilities of collective resilience are reaffirmed in the most unexpected ways. Drawing attention to translated literature Indian Novels Collective is a non-profit organisation set up in 2018 in order to spur greater investment and interest in literature across India’s many languages. The Collective has tried not just to provide resources but also to build a community around significant works of Indian literature. Our goal is to create a change in how Indian literature is perceived altogetherby making available information and resources to ensure that the literature of major Indian languages can be appreciated across the country, and indeed, the world, through high quality translations, conversations, dialogues and performances. Just as European literature easily accommodates French, German Russian, Czech or British authors, among others, in its corpus, we would like readers of present and future generations to be able to appreciate and engage with, for instance, Tamil, Gujarati and Assamese authors with equal ease. Read more:

A tiny Indian publisher is translating hidden gems of world literature for global readers

July 7th, 2017 by “It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read.” The mission statement of Seagull Books says it all: This is not your usual Indian publisher. Founded in 1982, the Kolkata-based company publishes everything from literary fiction and poetry to philosophy and even cultural anthropology. But these books aren’t what you’d find on the catalogues of publishing giants such as HarperCollins or Penguin Random House. At Seagull Books, the focus is on translated writing from around the world, much of which has never before appeared in English, in India or anywhere else. “We publish anything and everything to do with what I like to call ‘the human condition,'” founder Naveen Kishore told Quartz. “It is in many ways a wish-list of books we want to publish. Not dictated by trends or the marketplace or target readers.” And that’s a far cry from the norms in India’s publishing business, which is estimated to be worth $6.76 billion, according to Nielsen. Though the sector is poised to grow at a compounded annual rate of over 19% until 2020, far above the global rate, it is overwhelmingly dominated by educational books. As a result, the massive success of commercial fiction writers, such as Chetan Bhagat, has prompted most publishers to focus more on cookie-cutter stories that sell well. And in this quest for bestsellers, original and unconventional writing has been pushed to the sidelines. But Seagull Books also stands out from the crowd for another reason. Western publishing giants usually control the global rights for books, leaving Indian firms to handle the subcontinent only. Despite this equation, Kishore’s tiny, homegrown company has made a name for itself as the third-largest publisher of translated fiction in the US, according to 2016 data from Three Percent, a resource of the University of Rochester that tracks literary translations. That’s the result of a decision made in 2005, when big US- and UK-based publishing houses were setting up shop in New Delhi. To reverse the trend, Seagull Books decided to establish its own independent publishing house in London, where it would go on to buy the global rights for books, printing one universal edition, in either Kolkata or the US, that would be sold around the world. Read more: Quartz

How do you translate classic literature for contemporary readers?

June 26th, 2017 by “The idea of the classic is invested in a particular model of history, one that allows for a perpetual tension between the enduring and the transient, and for the survival of the past in ways that are comprehensible even to a radically different present. This comprehensibility is not immediate or unmediated, but involves acts of translation by successive generations of readers. Classics in translation thus epitomise a peculiar mode of historicity which consists of the co-articulation of the timeless and the historical: each one of these categories both sustains and endangers the other.” — "Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture", Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko By its very definition, a classic is a work-in-translation-in-eternal-progress, its “pastness” examined and renewed by readers in each generation that it survives, making it comprehensible and relevant to a succession of “present”s. Arguably then, what forges a “tradition” is not that which is purportedly timeless, but these temporal interventions, these timely acts of interpretation. When textual traditions close ranks and form “classical” canons, they withhold their contents from this organic process of translation over time, holding them in an ahistorical warp. This is often a prelude to the death of the classic, not a sign of its continuing life. For canonical texts can fall out of circulation in any real sense even while the halo of their timelessness persists, forfeiting renewal by changing contexts of readership and by juxtaposition with newer works that become their vital links to living, evolving traditions. What, then, is the task that confronts the contemporary translator of the “classic”? Certainly not to transport through time – in an enchanted vial, as it were – the uncorrupted essence of a literary work. It is, rather, the careful recuperation of a fragile, porous text through the complex, layered history of its origins and interpretations, reframing it as a resonant cultural and political artefact for our times – no longer whole or unmediated, but capable of meaningful conversation with the currents, conflicts and concerns of the present. Read more:

Women writers’ work is getting lost in translation

June 22nd, 2017 by Britain now has a record number of female MPs, more women are on company boards, and work is being done to encourage more women to take up science. Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking. Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide. Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”. Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges. Read more: The Conversation

Baloch literature is the repository of love and romanticism

May 28th, 2017 by Sometimes it is argued that the only poetry written in Balochistan is about resistance. The term poetry of resistance is often associated with the poetry penned by Baloch writers. While the Baloch intellectual class oppose this hype, they recount how love and war have always gone side by side in Baloch history. It is not just about resistance, but most of the poetry is linked with love, human entanglement and nature. It has related to nature, drought, tribal conflicts, nightmares, or watching a spiritual being, and of course love. Baloch writers grew emotional feelings and had deep insights into the natural backdrops. In the days of yore, they were the ones who fought with their swords and pens. They didn't leave the people alone at time of sorrow and pain, instead they appeared as source of vigour to guide them not to escape but to face the difficulties and discern a ray of hope out of them. Most of the poetry was about love resulting in war or war resulting in love. Writing about love and romanticism is a recognized and highly developed genre of the Baloch literature. The graceful genres provided wonderful taste to the readers and lost them in excessive fondness with the literature and poetry. It sets many precedents of unimaginable and deep love like Mastwakali fell in love with a married woman named Sammo. This love tale was to be remembered for the days to come. It has grabbed interests of many Baloch writers to have their say in prose and poetry about Mastwakali and Sammo. Read more: The Nation

The Rise of the Global Novelist

April 27th, 2017 by When Cities of Salt, an Arabic novel by Abdelrahman Munif, was published in translation in 1988, John Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike remarked, “given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade—insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer.” Updike was writing near the end of the Cold War, confident in his pronouncements about the novel, the West, and about border-challenging writers like Munif, whose father was Saudi, mother Iraqi, and who at different points of his life held Algerian, Yemeni, and Iraqi passports. Stripped of his Saudi nationality and having fallen afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Munif wrote Cities of Salt in France. Of the fact that the novel, with its critique of American oil corporations and Arab oligarchies, was banned in Saudi Arabia, Updike had only this to say: “The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.” It is hard to recall a foreign novel being greeted with such hostility in an American mainstream publication in the decades that followed the end of the Cold War. Foreign writers might still be considered strange or different, and they might not be covered at all. But even the notoriously elitist, insular establishment of book reviewers in New York did not see their novels as completely out of place in a world rapidly being shaped by globalization. In an era of cheap air travel, digital communications, consumerism, worldwide urbanization, and the dominance of English—all overseen by the United States as the world’s single remaining imperial power—readers, editors, and critics found it easy to welcome works by Haruki Murakami or Orhan Pamuk and the snapshots of foreign life they reveal. Read more: New Republic

Amazon expands its literary horizons, making big imprint in translation niche

April 17th, 2017 by The literary translation community in the U.S. has a tradition of being highbrow, a carefully tended yet narrow reflection of the stirrings of global culture beyond the Anglosphere. Then jumped in, like a whale into a koi pond. Armed with financial might and an intimate, machine-learned knowledge of reader behavior, the e-commerce giant made a big splash. That annoyed some literary types, wary of the leviathan that has shaken up almost every aspect of the media world. But AmazonCrossing, the publishing unit devoted to scouring the world for good tales, has in a short time become the most prominent interpreter of foreign fiction into English, accounting for 10 percent of all translations in 2016, more than any other publishing house in a field populated by small imprints. It helps that Amazon is rather numbers-driven about its tastes, which tend toward blockbuster genre fiction — crime thrillers and romance novels — although it also picks well-regarded literary jewels its editors feel would do well with an English-speaking audience. Read more: Seattle Times

The subtle art of translating foreign fiction

December 22nd, 2016 by Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd. Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls. Read more: The Guardian

Homer’s The Odyssey: challenges for the 21st century translator

November 2nd, 2016 by Homeric word-order is unusually accommodating towards its English equivalent. Verbs usually come where you expect them, adjectives sit near their nouns. Compared to, say, the complex structures of a Pindaric ode, or the elliptical one-line exchanges of dramatic dialogue, Homer’s largely paratactic progression of ‘…and…but…when…then…’ presents his translator with few immediate problems. I found this particularly helpful, as I had set myself a discipline of keeping as closely as possible to a version where the English line corresponded to the Greek. As well as offering easy reference to those studying the poem closely, I found it helped sustain the onward drive of the narrative. The toughest challenge for the 21st century translator is undoubtedly that of register. As we all know, no one ever spoke Homeric Greek. It is an amalgam of different dialects, predominantly Ionic, whose effect is to set the story apart from the everyday, and to lend it a dignity appropriate to a tale of long ago heroic deeds. That said, Homer does often go remarkably well into current English. ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was driven/far and wide after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy’ is a near-literal rendering of the Odyssey’s first two lines. Compare the task of producing an acceptable version of ‘His sweet spirit surpasses the perforated labour of bees’ (Pindar, Pythian 6.52-4). Still, there are times when one yearns for a modern epic poetic, to capture something of Homer’s heroic loftiness, at the same time as satisfying the two classes of notional classics readers: staying close to the Greek and offering a good read to the casual bookshop/internet buyer. It can’t be done consistently, of course. We can no longer draw on the poetic diction available to English writers in the 300-odd years from Shakespeare to the Georgians. T.S. Eliot saw to that, and in any case no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic. Read more: Oxford University Press blog

The 200 Happiest Words in Literature

July 15th, 2016 by There are six main types of stories in fiction. That’s what computer scientists found after teaching a machine to map the emotional arc of a huge corpus of literature. The overall research they did is fascinating (I wrote about it in greater detail here), but several smaller components of the work are compelling in their own right. To prepare a machine to carry out a sentiment analysis, for instance, computer scientists had to assign a happiness index to 10,222 individual words. That way, as the machine scanned passages from books, it could assess the emotional arc of the narrative. But how do you decide how happy a word is? In this case, researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide enlisted the help of the crowd. Using the website Mechanical Turk, where anyone can sign up for odd jobs—many of them related to academic research—researchers asked people to rate the happiness quotient of the words they encountered. In the end, they had a huge list of words as ranked by happiness. Read more: The Atlantic

Translation project expands reach of Taiwan literature

July 6th, 2016 by Sixteen books by Taiwan authors have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Korean and Swedish as part of efforts by National Museum of Taiwan Literature in southern Taiwan’s Tainan City to expand the international reach of local literature. “These translations enable Taiwan’s national treasures to be enjoyed by our foreign friends,” NMTL Director Chen Yi-yuan said earlier this month at a museum-staged event announcing publication of the newly translated books. Since 2011, the NMTL’s translation project has seen 101 volumes rendered into nine languages. One of the most impressive works was in Swedish by Göran Malmqvist, a Sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy that decides the annual Nobel Prize in literature. He translated an autobiographical novel set in Beijing by the late Lin Hai-yin before she moved to Taipei City in the late 1940s. Prominent novelist Li Ang thanked the NMTL for producing the English version of “The Lost Garden,” one of the feminist writer’s major works presenting a Taiwan family saga exploring local history and the heroine’s sexuality. Published by Columbia University Press in New York, the fictional piece was co-translated by Howard Goldblatt, an acclaimed translator of Mandarin-language works such as the novels of Mo Yan, a 2012 Nobel Prize in literature winner from mainland China. Read more: Taiwan Today

Gregory Rabassa, a Premier Translator of Spanish and Portuguese Fiction, Dies at 94

June 16th, 2016 by Gregory Rabassa, a distinguished translator from Spanish and Portuguese who brought the work of luminaries like Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa to a wide English-speaking public, died on Monday in Branford, Conn. He was 94. His family confirmed the death. A longtime faculty member of Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Professor Rabassa was widely considered one of the foremost translators of any kind in the world. He was known in particular for making the wave of dynamic and powerful fiction, much of it magic realist, that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and afterward — a literary phenomenon known there as “El Boom” — accessible in English. Foremost among those novels was “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Mr. García Márquez’s epochal multigenerational saga, first published in the author’s native Colombia in 1967. Professor Rabassa’s critically acclaimed translation, issued in the United States in 1970, marked the inaugural appearance in English of both the novel and its author. The novel, in Professor Rabassa’s rendering, became a best seller. Mr. García Márquez, who publicly described Professor Rabassa as “the best Latin American writer in the English language,” received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Writing in The New York Times, John Leonard reviewed “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — which centers on the fortunes of the mythical South American town of Macondo and includes such spectacularly routine phenomena as ghosts, mass insomnia and tumbling clouds of butterflies — calling it “superbly translated.” He further called the novel, in an encomium that speaks to the translator’s skill as well as the author’s, “a cathedral of words, perceptions and legends that amounts to the declaration of a state of mind.” Read more: NY Times