The Politics of Literary Translation


Chandan Gowda, Deborah Smith, Eluned Gramich, Javier Montes, Mrinal Pande, Rumena Buzarovska, Shailesh Bharatwasi, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Urvashi Butalia and Vivek Shanbhag, moderated by Nataša Ďurovičová


Apekshita Varshney, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


It is undeniable that English has become the linguistic currency of the world. The hegemony of English continues whilst other languages jostle for attention. In India, voices in local languages, that most need to be heard, have long been suppressed. In such a scenario, translations play a key role in drawing attention but should they be the sole identity of works in regional languages? The session at explored if authors still dream of being translated into English or whether books written in local languages could trace a serpentine path to our bookshelves.

Urvashi Butalia, one of the premier feminist authors in India, spoke of a book rejected by British publishers because ‘it wasn’t miserable enough and didn’t fit in their misery memoir.’ Though developing countries are battling to move away from the prison of bestsellers that supposedly lack literary merit, it isn’t as if their literature can’t be celebratory. As Deborah Smith, British publisher, translator and winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016 said, ‘It’s important to translate those books that don’t duplicate the canons of books that are already published.’ As a rule of thumb, she observed that ‘Men are more likely to promote books by men.’ Smith also offered an interesting perspective around the importance of English: it is not just restricted to the language of the book, it also affects whether an author travels and speaks at promotional events.

The cause of translation cannot gain momentum unless it finds the support of publishers, who are often conservative in selecting the artistic talent they wish to nurture and invest in. While there is a recent trend of translating local Indian languages into English, popular Kannada author and translator Vivek Shanbhag observed that translations from Indian languages to English don’t go beyond India. Shailesh Bharatwasi, a publisher of Hindi books, quipped that translations from Indian languages to English don’t fare well in India either.

The supremacy of English transcends India, noted German translator Eluned Gramich. ‘English books are immediately translated into German but it is not so the other way around. It’s as if German authors are locked up somewhere.’ What’s worrying is that translations still induce twitching noses, as if it’s not a good thing. Sukrita Paul Kumar agreed, ‘There is a hierarchy between the original and the translation.’

The politicisation of translation is not just determined by what is and isn’t translated but also by active state interference. Rumena Buzarovska mentioned the Macedonian government’s megalomaniac project to vehemently translate English texts into Macedonian by compelling a small number of translators to produce substandard work, and often without payment. The quality of translations touched a raw nerve as Bharatwasi spoke of the lack of ‘trans-creators who can treat both texts independently.’ It was also felt that inter-Indian language translations must be encouraged to avoid the structural murder of an Indian language translation into English. However, it was noted that the political is also the personal, as Smith concluded that author considerations must not be forgotten in these discussions, and ‘their views can’t be defaced.’


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill



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