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Are translated books the new ‘face’ of Indian literature in English?

N Kalyan Raman

Right from its inception in 2018, the JCB Prize for Literature has presented a level playing field for Indian Writing in English (Indian Writing in English) and translations from Indian languages. Two of the five shortlisted works in its inaugural edition of 2018 were translations, and Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, a Malayalam novel translated by Shahnaz Habib, was the winner that year. Since then, translations have featured in the JCB Prize shortlist every year, with a winner each in 2020 and 2021.

Now, all five books that make up the shortlist for the 2022 edition of the Prize are translations: Tomb of Sand (Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell), Imaan (Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Arunava Sinha), Rohzin (Rahman Abbas, translated by Sabika Abbas), Song of the Soil (Chuden Kabimo Lepcha, translated by Ajit Baral), The Paradise of Food (Khalid Jawed, translated by Baran Farooqi) and Valli: A Novel (Sheela Tomy, translated by Jayasree Kalathil). It is certain, therefore, that for the third successive year, and for the fourth time in five years, a translation rather than an original work in English will be the winner of one of the most prestigious literary prizes in India. It can also be said that translations have finally attained credibility as a genre of literary excellence in India on a par with Indian Writing in English.

Is this occasion as momentous as it seems? What can it potentially mean for the practitioners, publishers, critics, and readers of both genres? What should we learn from it? This is perhaps a good moment to explore these questions in a critical and constructive way.

How Indian Writing in English became the ‘face’ of Indian literature

Indian Writing in English in its current avatar as a mass market phenomenon took off in the early 1980s after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981. Others – notably Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterji and Amit Chaudhuri – followed, and the genre had a robust initial phase. During the 1990s, a new generation of young Indians, mainly from India’s metros and the diaspora, entered the domain and gave Indian Writing in English a firm footing, both in India and the West.

English language publishing houses, old and new, started publishing Indian Writing in English fiction regularly, creating new readers as well as opportunities for those who aspired to write literary fiction in English. Given the dominant status of English in Indian life, this genre quickly became the ‘face’ of Indian literature and attracted funding from cultural bodies and sponsors from the corporate world, spawning a culture of litfests and annual literary prizes. A powerful, widely read cosmopolitan elite, many of them aspiring writers themselves, began to rally around the new genre, helping it secure a pre-eminent place in our literary milieu and public discourse. Its international prestige received significant boost when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things.

Twenty-five years and one more Booker Prize later (awarded in 2008 to Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger), the genre is still flourishing, with professionals from all walks of life, including academics, journalists and diplomats, along with formally trained MFA graduates, adding to its lustre.

The (tumultuous) rise of translation

The sudden flowering of Indian Writing in English in the 1980 gave rise, somewhat paradoxically, to a strong revival of Indian Literatures in English Translation, which had been in a dormant state for a long time. Building on the public-funded publications programme of the Sahitya Akademi and niche initiatives like The Writers’ Workshop in Kolkata and KATHA in Delhi, the trade publishers in Delhi and elsewhere started publishing translations of literary works in Indian languages alongside a steady stream of Indian Writing in English titles.

Progress on this front was slow but steady. Initially, there was a dearth of individuals with bilingual ability who could produce quality translations. Since the rewards were very few, people came into translation with very little training but a lot of passion, which is true even today. As a new entrant in the market, translation as a genre had to develop its own audience. Over time, however, the genre managed to gather strength and establish itself, based for the most part on its unique ability to bring stories and milieus from all corners of the country into English for the first time.

During the initial two decades, both genres seemed to hold a negative view of each other, with the occasional throwing of shade for good measure. In 1997, Salman Rushdie chose to assert in an essay that “this new – and still burgeoning – ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.’ In the same essay, he remarks that “parochialism is perhaps the main vice of vernacular literatures.” The latter, for their part, tended to dismiss Indian Writing in English snidely as inauthentic, which sparked a celebrated essay by Vikram Chandra, “The Cult of Authenticity.” Even so, the reality faced by translators was truly humbling. They were often derided as amateurs with a less than adequate grasp of a foreign language who produced translations that often failed to come alive as literary texts.

Monolingual Anglophones, unschooled in any of the “vernacular” literary traditions, were suspicious and dismissive of translations. “No translator after AK Ramanujan has been readable.” “Eminent Indian writers cannot hope to win the Nobel Prize because they are poorly served by English translations.” “The quality of existing translations is appalling.” Such comments were aired in the Indian media by intellectuals, editors, and even newly minted literary critics. In 2000, academic M Prabha’s book-length ‘socio-cultural critique’ of Indian Writing in English, titled The Waffle of the Toffs, was published. It was indeed a time of confusion on both sides of the divide.

Fortunately, outstanding translations from the “vernacular” languages continued to be published and eventually the genre won acceptance from readers and in the literary milieu, where Indian Writing in English is accorded prime importance even today. Over the years, the genre has also attracted highly skilled and enthusiastic literary translators from diverse professions based in India and abroad. (Some Indian Writing in English practitioners have also made sterling contributions to this genre.) A steady output of well curated translations over three decades has succeeded in spreading awareness about the range and wealth of literatures in Indian languages among those who read only in English.

Is Indian Writing in English in decline?

Several literary translations from India were published in the west during the last decade, ending Indian Writing in English’s monopoly over being the ‘face’ of Indian literature in the world. Of late, despite its considerable advantages – social position, resources, institutional support – Indian Writing in English seems to have lost some ground. Only a critical study can throw light on the reasons behind this setback, but some impressionistic observations can be useful at this point.

Unlike its vernacular counterparts, Indian Writing in English still draws the bulk of its practitioners from the metropolitan elite class – academics, journalists, those with foreign degrees, and others similarly well placed in the social hierarchy. This leads to a restricted range of milieus and concerns, repetition of themes, and, on those rare occasions when they venture out of the bubble, an inexorable remoteness from the very lives they are dealing with.

Exceptions are rare. Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone and Neelam Saran Gour’s Requiem for Raga Janki, which have engaged deeply with the literary and artistic traditions in the hinterland, are recent examples of such exceptions. It should be no surprise that both novels have won prestigious literary prizes against stiff competition.

The storytelling frameworks in Indian Writing in English are often inspired by and derived from ‘world literature’. It is understandable, perhaps, but this tendency also results in the aforesaid insularity of vision, and narratives that fail to connect with a wider spectrum of readers. Let’s remember that the early pioneers of Indian Writing in English, such as RK Narayan, GV Desani, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Anita Desai, invented their own frameworks to tell Indian stories. The string of high achievers who followed in their wake – Rushdie, Seth, Ghosh, Chatterjee, Chaudhuri – have been inventive as well. However, the same cannot be said of most Indian Writing in English works being published these days.

Dominance of the elites in the Indian Writing in English ecosystem has resulted in exclusion by default of others and their stories, especially those from the marginalized sections of society. Ajay Navaria and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar have been among the rare exceptions. This failure on the diversity and inclusion front has had an impact on the quality of what gets written and published.

Another major feature of the Indian Writing in English milieu is the virtual absence of critical discourse. There is no sustained attempt to shape, through critical responses, the sensibility of the readers and thereby of writers and their publishers. This is in sharp contrast to vernacular language milieus where standards are established often through contentious debates and trenchant criticism. Lack of critical discourse also militates against the spirit of inclusion, preventing the writers from cohering into a community and a living tradition with standards that are honest and transparent. It inhibits experimentation and the breaking of new ground. Works that do try to explore new areas are often ignored, and gatekeepers come to exert undue influence.

Indian Writing in English also lacks a sustaining infrastructure of magazines and journals published by literary communities across the country, in print and online formats. Showcasing of talent through such outlets frees writers to pursue their art at various levels and in a sustained manner, unhampered by anxiety about the do-or-die binary of publishing book-length works. It may also promote a culture of criticism that is free from the social inhibition and politesse that are characteristic of the Indian Writing in English ecosystem.

Finally, the Indian Writing in English community has always shown a deep reluctance to co-exist with translations on equal terms. Their interest in and engagement with the corpus of translations has been slight (except when they sit in judgement over translations as prize jury), and even when they do engage with it, it is from across a divide, as if the corpus has originated in a different country. More’s the pity, because it’s only through such engagement that they can leap across the divide and access people, histories, milieus and storytelling modes that they would not encounter otherwise. This self-imposed distance may only serve to exacerbate their limitations.

Walter Benjamin has said that the translator not only reproduces the source text in the target language, but in doing so, he also modifies and enhances the structure and ethos of the target language (my paraphrase). One hopes that with the enterprise of translations from Indian languages set firmly on a growth trajectory, the Indian Writing in English community can discover new possibilities for their literary practice, and regain their rightful role as our once-and-future ambassadors to the rest of the world.

This article was published in on October 22, 2022.


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