South Asian Literature in Translation: An Introduction

December 2020 at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is ‘South Asian Literature in Translation’ month. As the host of the Desi Books podcast, I was thrilled to be asked to share South Asian books in English translation for the entire month. What a feast to assemble and present to readers around the world. And what a joy to share these personal, enriching pleasures with all of you. I’m thankful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity and trust. And I’m grateful to all the South Asian translators who have contributed their works and thoughts that will be shared throughout the month here.

First, here’s a bit of introduction to the what, why, and wherefore of South Asian literature in translation and the Desi Books podcast.

Although lingua francas have developed around the world throughout human history for commercial reasons and for cultural, religious, diplomatic, and administrative convenience, there are some 7100 living languages across the world. South Asia—which, per the SAARC definition, includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and The Maldives—is the most linguistically diverse region with more than 650 individual languages across six major language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, and Great Andamanese. That figure does not include the many language isolates or dialects that are impossible to fully account for even today.

As I wrote recently in an online essay at Poets & Writers, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being too. When a language falls into disuse or becomes extinct, we lose a lot more than a means of communication. We also lose the diverse histories, cultures, and literary traditions that are part of its linguistic ecology. And, though languages have always become extinct throughout human history, they are currently dying at an accelerated rate, especially in South Asia, because of globalization, imperialism, and neocolonialism.

Literary translation of works from lesser-known and lesser-used languages is one way to carry these histories, cultures, and traditions into dominant languages, thus enriching both source and target languages. As Edith Grossman has written, “Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions, and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.” Reading and appreciating these translated works is one way for us, as English speakers and readers, to continue a vibrant and rich exchange of ideas and stories from other cultures such that we can learn more about our own culture and ourselves.

In his book, The Three Percent Problem, Chad W Post writes, “It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English.” This is certainly true for South Asia, where some of the best literature has been and continues to be written in non-English languages. And there are hardworking translators doing the painstaking work of bringing these brilliant works to new readers through the bridge language of English. So this month, the spotlight will shine brightly on these unsung heroes of the literary world: translators. A host of them will be sharing details about a book they’ve translated. They work in many languages: Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Assamese, Nepali, Bhojpuri, Marwari, Sanskrit, and more. At the time of writing this post, I am still actively reaching out to a few more translators in other languages.

A quick introduction to the Desi Books podcast. The word “desi” applies to a person of South Asian (see the list of officially included countries above) descent who lives anywhere in the world. The word is also often used as a qualifying adjective or adverb: “desi writer” or “desi cooking”. In episode 1, I talked a bit about why I began this podcast at the start of the 2020 pandemic-driven lockdown. In episode 2, I spoke a bit more about the etymology of the word “desi.” With almost 20 episodes featuring at least 100 books published this year alone, there’s something for every kind of reader to enjoy: writers sharing their favorite books or reading from their own; writers talking about the publishing ecosystem or their craft; and, of course, book giveaways.

It is my firm and ever-enduring belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. This hope drives both my podcast and the focus of this series. It is also my small way of countering the uneven or negligent media and awards coverage that writers and translators from this part of the world generally receive.

Throughout December, I welcome readers, writers, and translators to share their favorite South Asian books in English translation via the comments section below. In my final post of the series, I will collect all of these additional recommendations into a single list.

Stay tuned and follow GLLI and Desi Books across social media to read and share. Thank you.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

16 thoughts on “South Asian Literature in Translation: An Introduction

    1. Oh, that’s terrific. I didn’t even know the DSC prize had a shadow jury. Glad you’re joining us through December, Lisa. Please do share your own favorite South Asian works in translation as we continue. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks so much, Joseph. Glad you’re joining us. Please share your own favorite South Asian works in translation as well. There are many I wasn’t able to reach out to but will include in a big list at the end.

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  1. Really enjoyed this series, Jenny. You’ve given me and my daughter some wonderful books to read, and for that – thank you. I hope you will include the translation of Poorba Paschim in your final list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful list, Jenny. Thank yo u for doing this and for giving me and my daughter some exciting book ideas. I hope you will add the Enakshi Chatterjee translation of Sunil Gangopadhay’s Poorba Paschim in your closing list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful list, Jenny. Thank you for doing this and for giving me and my daughter some exciting book ideas. I hope you will add the Enakshi Chatterjee translation of Sunil Gangopadhay’s Poorba Paschim in your closing list.

    Liked by 1 person

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