How Indian authors writing in their own languages found new readers

The boom in translation has helped writers in so-called vernacular languages come away from obscurity

Shehan Karunatilaka with his book 'The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida' after being announced the winner of last year's Booker Prize, in London. EPA
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India was the theme of the London Book Fair in April 2009. I was among a contingent of Indian writers who attended the fair as representatives of our country and its literature. There were those, such as myself, who write in English. Also present were those who write in the so-called vernacular, Indian languages.

Among writers who produced literature in Bengali was one whose arguably most famous novel had recently been translated into English. He was the one who drew the most attention among the Bengali writers and whose novel was the most discussed. His other, more celebrated – celebrated among readers who read Bengali, that is – fellow writers, who had not been translated, looked on with a mixture of bafflement and a twinge of envy. In those days, it was not particularly common for books written in India’s regional languages to be translated into English.

How far we have come in fourteen years.

In 2022, Geetanjali Shree’s novel, Tomb of Sand, won the International Booker Prize. It was the first novel written in Hindi to win the prize. It was also the first translation from a South Asian language to win. The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. The prize money of £50,000 ($63,000) is shared equally between the author and the translator.

By the standards of a novel in translation from a South Asian language, Tomb of Sand – an experimental, unconventional novel about an 80-year-old woman who lives in north India and travels to Pakistan to rediscover her roots and herself – was a big success in the UK. Now it has been published in the US. Rights for publication in other languages have also been sold.

Last week, the longlist for the 2023 International Booker Prize was announced. This time around, the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan has made the longlist with his novel, Pyre, a searing account of caste conflict and violence. The novel was originally published in 2017.

A boom in translation in India is shining a light on literature written in regional Indian languages. India has 22 official languages. Nearly all of them have a wealth of literature, and rich literary traditions. For decades, Indian writing was synonymous with Indian writing in English to the Anglophone world. And, indeed, to the majority of readers in India. Without a translation, non-Hindi readers would never have discovered Tomb of Sand. Unless it had been translated into English, non-Tamil readers would not have been able to enjoy Pyre.

Every major Indian publisher now has a translations list in their annual catalogues. No wonder. The New York Times reported last month that the English translation of Tomb of Sand sold 50,000 copies in India; the original Hindi version sold 30,000. At one level, this is not all that surprising. A vast number of India’s literary fiction reading public do not read in Hindi. But it is more proof, if any were needed, of the reach an English translation offers a writer working in a regional language.

In 1998, Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West edited and published The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1947-1997). In the Introduction, Rushdie wrote: “…The prose – both fiction and non-fiction created in this period by Indian writers working in English – is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the … 'official' languages of India, the so-called vernacular languages, during the same time. And, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books … The task we set ourselves was to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text – SH Manto’s masterpiece, the short story Toba Tek Singh – made the final cut.”

Rushdie’s assertion – daring, perhaps deliberately provocative – was hotly contested at the time by many readers and writers. Were it to be made today, it would simply be blown out of the water.

That is as it should be. The JCB Prize is India’s most generous book award worth 2.5 million rupees ($302,666). It is open to books written in English as well as translated from regional languages. In 2022, each and every novel that made the shortlist were translations of novels written in vernacular languages. These novels made it out of a longlist that also had novels that were originally written in English.

For years, writers in so-called vernacular languages toiled away in relative obscurity, and had a restricted audience, comprising only readers of the regional language in which the book had been written. Now, translation into English – a language with a global hegemony and cultural and political currency – has given them wings. The booming translation industry is offering them their moment in the sun and wider reach and readership in India and the rest of the Anglophone world.

This shift in the literary landscape in India is a benediction for readers to whom the riches of literature in regional Indian languages was a closed universe. Now, with the benefit of English translations, readers of English – in India and the rest of the world – can discover and delight in diverse, new worlds.

Published: March 28, 2023, 7:00 AM