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A good time for translations

Vivek Shanbhag's Kannada novel has received unprecedented critical acclaim outside India. Is there increasing space in the UK for Asian fiction in translation?

Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag. Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times
Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag. Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times

Over the past couple of months, literary critics in the UK and the US have been unstinting in their praise for Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella, translated into English by Srinath Perur. “A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores" is how The New York Times publicized its review. In the UK, translator and publisher Deborah Smith, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote that “reading beyond our tiny borders shows us what we’ve been missing". The question is, will Ghachar Ghochar’s international success pave the way for more literature translated from Indian languages—indeed Asian languages—to gain a sizeable readership outside the country?

The interest certainly exists. In the UK at least, the year 2016 was pertinent in terms of translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize joined forces with the Man Booker International (MBI) Prize, which changed in character and criteria into a prize exclusively for fiction in English translation—awarding £50,000 (around Rs40 lakh) for the winning title, to be shared equally between the author and the translator. South Korean writer Han Kang and her translator, Smith, bagged the inaugural MBI Prize for The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), a disturbing three-part novella delving into the subjects of madness, desire and the rejection of social conventions.

A year earlier, Smith had set up Tilted Axis Press (TAP), a not-for-profit focused on publishing Asian language literature, which started functioning in full swing in 2016. Research—commissioned by the MBI Prize, and conducted by Nielsen Book—revealed a near doubling in translated fiction sales figures in the UK between 2001 and 2016, from 1.3 million to 2.5 million copies.

One may credit this overall curiosity for, and consumption of, translated tales to the success of Scandinavian noir, or even the Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante, but there’s something to be said for the UK pointing its compass towards languages and literature from the Asian continent—from Korean, Thai and Japanese to Bengali and Kannada.

Translator Deborah Smith at JLF 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Asian exports

To say that The Vegetarian was seminal in carving a space for contemporary Korean literature would be an understatement. Smith has since translated Han Kang’s Human Acts (2016), and the forthcoming The White Book—both published by Portobello Books, an imprint of Granta Books. TAP has supported other Seoul-born writers such as Han Yujoo, whose genre-and mind-bending The Impossible Fairytale (2017) was translated by Janet Hong, and is considered a literary force.

TAP has also travelled to Thai terrain, publishing the first-ever modern Thai fiction in English in the UK; author-translator-publisher-graphic designer Prabda Yoon’s collection of Bangkok-based playful and postmodern short stories, The Sad Part Was (2017), won an English PEN Translates grant, and was translated by Mui Poopoksakul. Yoon’s readers can expect plenty of pop-culture references and unexpected punctuation styles. Another English PEN Translates Award winner is The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea (2017, Serpent’s Tail), written by a pseudonymous dissident writer, and also translated by Smith. Written in secret between 1989 and 1995, and smuggled out of the country in 2013, this collection of short works is a brave critique of the state.

Earlier this year, Strangers Press at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Writers’ Centre Norwich, and Norwich University of Art and Design collaborated on a collection of Japanese chapbooks, Keshiki: New Voices From Japan. The series was edited by Elmer Luke (New York) and David Karashima (Tokyo), and “we wanted the whole publication process to be a kind of ‘cultural exchange’," says Nathan Hamilton, publisher at Strangers Press. Indeed, the cover illustrations were designed with the same impulse—“drawing on a number of influences from both sides of the world, a ‘fusion-design’ if you will," he adds.

The Keshiki bundle was initially printed in a limited run of 500 per chapbook, says Hamilton, but may be reprinted “given the wonderful response". Smith is currently editing a Korean follow-up series to this successful project.

From the subcontinent, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s Panty (2016) was showered with praise. Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, this is an erotic and enigmatic tale of a woman who arrives in Kolkata, finds a pair of leopard-print panties, and fantasizes about their former owner.

TAP will also publish Bandyopadhyay’s next novel, Abandon, this autumn; Smith says “TAP will be publishing Sangeeta (and Arunava) continuously", and they’re currently considering other translations from Hindi, Urdu and Tamil.

And, of course, there’s Shanbhag’s Bengaluru-based domestic drama, Ghachar Ghochar. When translating the Indian edition, Perur was mindful of “how we use English as an Indian language"; this, he thought, “would give the translation some sort of warmth and immediacy". He then made minor edits for the international editions to spell things out further for a wider audience.

Korean writer Han Kang with her book. Photo: Reuters

Fluorescent dreams

Although the remarkable recent Asian arrivals on the literary landscape in the UK are cause for celebration, publishers and translators continue to caution against the pitfalls of the publishing industry and overemphasis on literary prizes, and champion the need for better representation. Only one Asian language book, Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles, featured on this year’s MBI longlist.

Smith was disappointed that Ghachar Ghochar, as well as Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, missed out on the MBI, adding that “this year, less than 15% of the books submitted for the MBI were from Asia"—the only two from the subcontinent being Ghachar Ghochar and Panty. Perur, however, cautions that “not all good literature exports well", and that “it would be folly for us to begin valuing our writing in terms of its receptions in the US or Europe, or in terms of international prizes".

Both agree, however, that it finally comes down to funding. Perur points out the asymmetry and selectivity. “What literature gets read in translation is also determined by resources—for example, state-funded organizations from Europe routinely subsidize translators and publishers so that their literature is more visible globally," he says.

Smith also points out that the majority of UK presses that focus (exclusively) on translation are not-for-profit, and while there are strong programmes in place for a handful of Asian countries (South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, non-mainland China), there are none for the rest, “meaning we have to rely on English PEN—but the maximum you can get from them is two books per year. So for the long term, there will only ever be a tiny number of Asian translations published in this country."

Perur is hesitant to consider “Asian literature" or “Asian languages" as a coherent category, and rightly so. But maybe the construct is less an effort to homogenize—obviously, Kannada and Korean are linguistic and cultural worlds apart—and more to collectively highlight these fresh and not-so familiar voices in global contexts.

Faber senior designer Luke Bird’s explanation for his cover design for Ghachar Ghochar best describes this: “The pink/purple tone is printed in a screamingly bright fluorescent Pantone ink," he says. These books are bold, beautiful, and border-expanding—from cover to content—and they are screaming out loud for a space in worlds beyond their own.

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