2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges for most of us. So I hope this month-long series of books in translation, as presented by their translators, has provided some light and warmth. For me, it’s been a month of discovering many unimagined treasures translated from Nepali, Marathi, Urdu, Assamese, Bangla, Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Tamil, Hindi, and Rajasthani. I wish we could have had more South Asian languages like Sinhalese, Malayalam, Punjabi, Kashmiri, and others. This lack was due to various reasons: a translator not being able to commit to the timeline requested; the limits of my own literary networking across the South Asian translator community; only having a month’s time and space to fit everything in. Nevertheless, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that, taken together, this series of translator interviews is almost like a masterclass in the art and craft of literary translation. Certainly, it has felt that way to me because of the wisdom and creativity shared by each translator here.
Before we go further, I want to thank Karen Van Drie and the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative for this unique opportunity. It’s been a fair amount of work but I’ve so enjoyed being a part of this. I’m deeply obliged to all 27 translators (and the respective authors) who’ve invested so much of their personal selves into their literary translations and then generously contributed to this initiative as well. And, finally, I’m grateful for all the readers and librarians around the world who’ve read, appreciated, and supported not just this particular project but the entire much-needed Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.
At the end, you will find a list of all the books featured along with the translator Q&A. And just before that, there’s one final Q&A: my own, which is about my debut translation that came out this year.
I’ll close with two easy calls-to-action for readers who would like to support South Asian literary translation and one invitation for those who’d like to take their reading beyond this month.
1. Name the Translator
In recent years, in the English publishing world, we’ve seen more POC* writers’ works being published and even being given critical media attention. As a POC writer in English myself, I’ve often publicly discussed the many visibility and recognition challenges that are still ongoing. Take all that’s still problematic and multiply by several factors to get a sense of what it’s like for literary translations from non-white communities and for the translators themselves. As I wrote in my introduction: “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.” This month’s project has been not only about introducing readers to South Asian literary works but also about shining a spotlight on literary translators who deserve it but rarely get it. One simple and practical thing we all can do more of is to always name the translator when we discuss or mention works in English translation. Translators are, undoubtedly, co-creators of these works and deserve credit for their labors.
*POC = term used for a non-white person; “person of color”.
2. Read Globally with Intention and Purpose
We now live in a more globalized world than ever before. Yet, the editors and gatekeepers in the western world continue to be predominantly white. So, although many are making the right kinds of efforts to be more inclusive and diverse with the books they choose to publish, the ways they often market POC writers, translators, and their works tend to reinforce cultural stereotypes and tropes. We must also remember that the deeply-cultivated and longstanding power structures in our societies allow literary texts and languages to be vested with only those meanings that are beneficial to hegemonic sections and thus, in turn, reinforce those power structures. This endless cycle means that, if we readers want to enrich our worldviews and our literary lives, we need to be more intentional in seeking out and demanding the lesser-known, lesser-marketed works, especially those in translation.
Translators come to the discipline because of our love for language, culture, a particular writer’s work; our need to inhabit a literary work in ways that only the act of translation will allow; or simply because we only find ourselves and our kind in books written in our mother tongues. Whatever the reasons drawing us to translation, what keeps us there are the myriad pleasures and challenges of weighing and playing with words to carefully transplant a story and its world from one language into another. Every translator I know has expressed how seriously they take this responsibility and how hard they work at it. Yet, despite the global attention received by a handful of literary translations from South Asia in the last few years, most translators from the region are not recognized or compensated adequately for their painstaking work. This will only change if more readers embrace works in translation.
3. An Invitation to the Desi Books in Translation (DBiT) Club
Ever since I started the Desi Books podcast in April 2020, I’ve been asked about a monthly virtual book club by various listeners from around the world. Given the year that 2020 has been, it wasn’t possible to get this going. However, now, we have 25 amazing South Asian books in translation featured in this series. So, in 2021, we will start the Desi Books in Translation (DBiT) club, virtually and online. And, where possible, we will ask the translator to join us for a Q&A at the end of the month. Our only requirement is that the book is available, at least electronically, for readers everywhere. There’s no reason why a publisher cannot make this feasible, given the technological options available today.
I invite all of you to join us in this no-obligation book club to read along and discuss some beautiful and under-appreciated literary gems from South Asia. You don’t have to join in every month but I promise you this will open up worlds of possibilities beyond your imagination. Translation allows us one way to travel the world and connect with other cultures and societies. So come join the ride. More details on this book club will be announced in January 2021. You can follow on social media (Twitter and Instagram) or follow the Desi Books website to get updates.
South Asian Literature in Translation: Ratno Dholi
1) Tell us about this book and its original author.
JB: Dhumketu was the pen name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, the pioneer of the modern Gujarati short story. Throughout his literary career, he wrote ~600 short stories published in 24 volumes. He also wrote 32 novels, several travelogues and memoirs, and many literary essays in journals and newspapers. While much of his fiction was social realism and dealt with social inequalities of the time, he also wrote a lot of well-researched historical fiction. That said, his storytelling was well ahead of its time because he portrayed emotionally sensitive men and strong, individualistic women.
Ratno Dholi is a collection of 26 stories selected from each of Dhumketu’s short story volumes. There are people from all walks of life here: rural to royal, young to old. Most of his characters are from the lower classes and castes–a section that had been largely neglected or caricatured in Gujarati literature until his time. A majority of the stories are set in rural Gujarat, which Dhumketu felt was underrepresented in Gujarati literature of the time. A number of them are set in India’s northeast, showcasing how Dhumketu’s wanderlust and creativity fed off each other and his close observation of the cultures of other regions.
2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?
JB: I have both personal and professional reasons for why I chose this collection for my debut translation. First, Dhumketu was one of my mother’s favorite Gujarati writers. In her small personal library, he was the one author who dominated and she had almost all his fiction. When she passed away, I inherited her book collection and began looking through Dhumketu’s works because it had been one of her unfulfilled wishes that we translate some of his work together. As a short story writer myself, I was drawn first to the story collections and thrilled to find that his writerly preoccupations and themes were similar to mine.
3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?
JB: The biggest challenge was making sure I translated the colloquialisms and rural dialects appropriately for today’s English reader while carrying over some of the rhythms and cadences of the Gujarati language. This is a common enough problem for translators everywhere, of course, but I found it particularly so because this was my first book-length translation.
The biggest surprise was what I mentioned earlier: how Dhumketu’s writerly preoccupations and themes from almost a century ago resonated with my own for my debut story collection: Each of Us Killers. While our approaches to storytelling, our narrative styles, and our literary sensibilities are very different, I found the process of inhabiting Dhumketu’s language, culture, and world very satisfying—even when I didn’t always agree with his characterizations (he was a man of his time, with the inherent privileges, biases, and blind spots of his gender, class, and caste.)
4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?
JB: This book came out in October 2020. So it’s a bit early to know what readers don’t yet know or understand or appreciate about the book. Thankfully, the reception in India has been wonderful. In general, I wish readers would demand more Gujarati literature in translation because there are many rich gems that remain untranslated and unappreciated.
5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?
JB: I have tentatively started a new translation work but cannot say too much about it until there’s some progress. What I would love to do, though, is translate a historical Gujarati novel because I want to immerse myself in the rich, diverse history of Gujarat.
Author Bio: Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892–1965), better known by his pen name Dhumketu, was an Indian Gujarati-language writer considered one of the pioneers of the Gujarati short story. He published twenty-four collections of short stories, thirty-two novels on social and historical subjects, several plays, travelogues, and memoirs. His writing is characterized by a dramatic style, romanticism, and powerful depictions of human emotions. He was also a literary translator and translated works by, among others, Rabindranath Tagore and Kahlil Gibran. [Image Source: Wikipedia]
Translator Bio: 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.
South Asian Literature in Translation: December 2020
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.