After years of uninterest, a new flurry of finely wrought English translations from India's vernacular languages promises to bring the country's literary map fully into focus, Chandrahas Choudhury writes. For a network whose English strain is diverse, highly developed, and globally circulated, Indian literature is surprisingly short on high-quality translations of works from its other languages into English. The number of memorable translations of fiction from the basket of Indian languages - Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya, Gujarati, Kannada, to name only a few - into English could be counted on one's fingers.
This is unfortunate, for no single branch of India's literature can possibly encompass the representation of diverse social realities that a flourishing national literature requires. As the poet and critic Vinay Dharwadker wrote recently in Indian Literature (the little-read and poorly distributed - though increasingly well-designed and well-produced - bimonthly journal of literature published by the Indian government's academy of letters, the Sahitya Akademi): "Indian-English literature by itself is inadequate to represent who we are to the rest of the world. Only a broad representation of the full range of Indian literatures, translated into a world language such as English, can do what is needed." Dharwadker's essay frames such translations as a way of understanding India - its plural cultures, the variety of self-representations and existential dilemmas - not only for international audiences, but also, crucially, for Indian readers. Currently, the north of India is often unaware of what is going on in the literature of the south, the east of the west - and few seem to ever know what is happening in the remote but sizeable north-east. No literary scholar, let alone the general reader, possesses a map of the entire country.
Translation is the force that makes it possible to imagine such a map - a map that, when fully sketched in, would represent a wonderland of literary riches from diverse languages, all made intelligible to one another for the first time. In addition, only translation can finally allow readers and scholars to weigh and judge properly the merit of Indian writing in English, which presently has something of a free ride on the world stage.
When these tantalising benefits are in everyone's sights, why hasn't translation from India's many vernacular languages into English flourished? Several reasons might be advanced. First, although most Indians are bilingual or trilingual, they are usually so in an instrumental and not a literary way, and lack the acute cross-linguistic sensitivity to registers and cadences on which translation depends. Distressingly, even Indian writers who read literature in two languages typically work only in one. Second, until very recently, publishers generally reasoned that since the market for literary fiction written in English was not particularly large, the audience for translations into English would be even smaller and less profitable. Finally, the heterogeneity of India's linguistic landscape is itself inimical to the development of a nationwide culture of translation: it is difficult for a translator from language X, however talented, to say anything meaningful about a peer's translation from language Y. Only in the last few years have there been concerted efforts to bring translators from different languages together to exchange ideas about their craft. (Perhaps most notable was a translators' conference held last year by the literary consultancy Siyahi a few days before the high-profile Jaipur literary festival.) All this had led to the flawed understanding (perpetrated most prominently by Salman Rushdie in his influential 1997 anthology of Indian literature, Mirrorwork) that Indian writing in English is the richest and most vigorous of Indian literatures, and that works in translation are to be read only out of duty, as a democratic concession to less competent spirits.
Happily, though, over the course of the past decade, Indian translation work has been building up to a state of critical mass. Recent notable English translations of fiction by Indian writers include the fizzing rendition, by four hands, of the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati's 1902 novel Six Acres and a Third (2005); the translations by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Baran Pal of the stories of the Bengali writer Parashuram (2006); and Sudarshan Purohit's translation of the Hindi pulp-fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak's novel The 65 Lakh Heist (2008). To this list one might add two translations from 2009, both the work of experienced translators approaching the high point of their craft: Sankar's The Middleman, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, and Salma's The Hour Past Midnight, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom.
First published in 1973, The Middleman is a short, tightly plotted work about middle-class anomie and moral corruption in the Calcutta of its day. The acknowledged master of the Bengali popular novel, Sankar writes in a highly accessible, syntactically uncomplicated style; neither highly worked language nor narratorial grandstanding feature in his work. This should make it easy for a translator, but Sankar's style presents its own set of problems. For instance, conversation is the narrative motor of his storytelling. Much of the novel proceeds through dialogue, rendered in colloquial Bengali.
This is where Sinha's contribution is critical. The conversion of dialogue, which is usually more idiomatic and more varied in pitch than narratorial description, can often cripple a translation. But in Sinha's translation it is precisely when the characters are talking that they come across most strongly. "These Haryanvi, Punjabi, Rajasthani and Sindhi looters are plundering our Bengal under the garb of business, and we Bengalis are just twiddling our thumbs, doing nothing," declares one of the many attractive philosophisers in Sankar's work, the garrulous petty trader Natabar Mitra. The precise ethnic darts of Mitra's allegations, and the profusion of alleged plunderers of Bengali riches, are what make for the delicious comedy of his remark. This highly particularised sense of the local - of small-scale allegiances and oppositions - is often missing in Indian novels in English, which is why their characters can often seem wispy and inadequate: fictions in the negative rather than the positive sense. Sankar's works, steeped in Calcutta's geography and culture, are in effect a criticism of a kind of ubiquitous Indian novel that, in describing place or identity as if through the eyes of a tourist, or even a journalist, drains away the lifeblood of fictional narration.
If The Middleman is remarkable for the swiftness and weightlessness of its storytelling, then Salma's massive The Hour Past Midnight comports itself, by contrast, with an almost Tolstoyan calm and gravitas. Set in the world of a group of Muslim trading families in a village in Tamil Nadu, Salma's story, first published in Tamil in 2004, fashions an intricate web of observations and criscrossing perceptions from the lives of a group of women who serve, in their patriarchal society, as wives, daughters, mothers, mistresses, paramours, and widows before anything else. This makes the novel a paradigmatic example of Dharwadker's point that works written in translation radically expand the India made available to readers in English by novelists in English, who are mostly urban and, almost inevitably, urbane. It is hard to recall an Indian novel in English that explores the hierarchical social order and worldview of a village culture as densely and unselfconsciously as Salma's does.
One sees the difference between urban and rural not just at the level of theme or worldview, but in minute particulars, down to the writer's choice of metaphors. To read, in The Hour Past Midnight, a sentence like "Kani Rowther's smartness in making such a grand alliance was the envy of all; he had grabbed hold of a fine tamarind branch, laden with fruit, they said" is to be jolted into the realisation that the only metaphorical branch found in Indian fiction in English is probably the olive branch, and that there is a gap between the botanical imagination of Indians and Indian literature in English. Every such instance serves as a salutary reminder - to Indian writers in English no less than writers and readers in all languages - that we blind ourselves to our own world whenever we borrow metaphors or linguistic structures without reanimating then with our own particulars.
Holmstrom's translation, although very different in sound and spirit from Sinha's, is astutely calibrated for the demands of Salma's novel - and might even be read as a making a theoretical argument about translation along the way. While Sinha Englishes everything about Sankar's story except some terms for family relationships, Holmstrom leaves a significant number of significant words and terms untranslated. A thinnai, we release from the context, is something like a front porch, but it is better to think of it as a thinnai, much as a puri loses all its puri-ness by being described as "fried bread", and evokes its visual, tactile and gustatory properties only as a puri.
Similarly, a simple bit of speech like "Watch out, di, you'll get a crick around your neck" manages, entirely through that di, to make the sound of English in Salma's novel at once familiar and foreign. By not translating completely out of the Tamil, Holmstrom demonstrates the strange truth of the Indian scholar and translator AK Ramanujan's observation that "A translator hopes not only to translate a text, but ... to translate a non-native reader into a native one." Holmstrom's is not a translation that truckles to the linguistic and economic power of the English-speaking reader. It insists, rather, that the reader meet it halfway.
It is worth considering that the contemporary Indian writers whose names are known around the world - Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra, Aravind Adiga - are all writers of English. This surely has as much to do with the politics of literary transmission and reception as it does with the intrinsic quality of their work. This imbalance in Indian literature can only be changed from within, by Indian (or in some instances foreign) translators who can find an English that matches, step for step, the linguistic charge and syntactical challenges of the great works of other Indian languages. Translations like Sinha's and Holmstrom's allow us to imagine a day, perhaps a decade or two from now, when the names of outstanding practitioners from several languages can be reeled off shoulder to shoulder in the same sentence, by readers both at home and away, whenever the subject of Indian literature arises.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf ( published by HarperCollins), the weekly book critic of the Indian newspaper Mint Lounge, and the author of the literary blog The Middle Stage.