South Asian literary translation lags in international marketsGlobal Voices


Covers for books Jenny Bhatt has written and translated. Used with permission.

Based on the Native American writer, literary translator and book reviewer Jenny bhatt, only a small percentage of books in different South Asian languages find their way to international readers, especially in the United States market.

Bhatt teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas, directs Desibooks, a global multimedia forum that showcases South Asian literature and connects readers and writers through conversation and community. His first collection of stories, “Each of us killers”, published by 7.13 Books, won a INDIES Prize 2020 Foreword in the Short Stories category and was also a finalist in the Multicultural Fiction for Adults category.

His recent literary translation, “Ratno Dholi: the best news from Dhumketu”, published by HarperCollins India, has been shortlisted for the PFC-VoW Book Award 2021 for English translation from regional languages.

Global Voices interviewed Bhatt about his most recent literary translation via email and discussed the prospects for South Asian literature in the international market.

Jenny Bhatt.  Image via the <a class=author. Used with permission.” width=”400″ height=”307″ srcset=”×307.jpg 400w,×600.jpg 782w,×589.jpg 768w, 1280w” sizes=”(width: 400px) 100vw, 400px”/>

Jenny Bhatt. Image via the author. Used with permission.

Global Voices (GV): Tell us about the experience of translating Dhumketu stories.

Jenny Bhatt (JB): This was my first translation of a book of a writer’s work. Before that, I had translated the strange short story for family members, but nothing more. For this project, I read about 600 news from Dhumketu [the pen name of Gujarati writer Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892-1965)] to select 26 or more for the collection. It was a long process.

I also learned a lot along the way about the literary translation profession. I’m still learning, I think. The business side of things was also a steep learning curve, in terms of getting copyright clearances etc. I started the book project in 2017 and the book was finally launched in 2020. So beyond the craft and business aspects, I learned the art. patience and self-discipline to stay the course despite setbacks.

GV: How did your editorial career go?

JB: The editorial journey of the translation has been educational, that’s for sure. I didn’t start with the idea of ​​translating a book. I was actually interviewing an agent in India for my own news collection [‘Each of Us Killers’ came out in the United States in 2020]. In my email, I mentioned that I was also doing some translation work. The agent called me within the hour, passionate about translation.

Then began the long process of getting copyright clearance, getting a publisher, finalizing the translation, editing, etc. The thing no one predicted or anticipated was, of course, that the book would launch during a global pandemic. So that added more challenges, as I was in the US during the book’s India release – and the world was starting to get used to getting all virtual with the events of the book. So anyway, as I tell people, all of us who got our start during the global pandemic are now pretty much ready for anything when it comes to book launches.

GV: Tell us about the podcast you broadcast.

JB: Desi Books focuses on books from or about South Asia. I find that, especially in the [West], our books don’t get the attention they deserve. The desi [a word used to describe the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora] books that make it big are often the ones that tick certain boxes for western gatekeepers and critics, which confirm certain stereotypes and prejudices people have about Southeast Asia. My goal is therefore to highlight the astonishing diversity of our literary traditions. And, as I always say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Ultimately, our literary culture is all the richer and stronger if we all support and uplift each other.

Finally, I want to do and be more of what I would like to see in the world. So if I want more diverse South Asian books to be accepted and read, I have to do my share of literary citizenship in that regard. I find it more productive to release positive energy through this kind of work than just complaining about the issues I see in the literary landscape. Right now it’s a solo business because I can’t afford to pay anyone, but I’m hoping to find funding options so that I can pay a few people to do interviews and reviews. Let’s see.

GV: Are any of your new posts coming out soon? What are you currently working on?

JB: These days I’m working on a novel as a longer term project. But I have ongoing book reviews and translations of short stories that come out regularly. [My creative writing class] occupies a good part of my working day. And, of course, there is the Podcast, which takes some time on a weekly basis. But all of this, for me, is part of my writing discipline. I see them all as different and necessary parts of my writing life. And I’m so grateful that I can do all of these things.

GV: As an activist of South Asian literature, how do you see its presence in the world market?

JB: It gets better over time. But, in general, there is this tokenism that often takes place. Some new writers are crowned “the South Asian writer of our time.” Besides, all the gatekeepers of western literature want more of the same. For a very long time it was Jhumpa Lahiri. She is a great writer, but she is not and should not be seen as representative of ALL South Asian literature. Or, the books that receive rave reviews are those that exoticize or erase aspects of our cultures that, in one way or another, do not correspond to generally accepted prejudices. Again, I believe things are improving, but there is definitely more to do.

GV: What suggestions do you have for translators and writers who want international editors?

JB: I’ll be honest, literary translations in general, and South Asian translations in particular, are not popular enough in international markets. I think it’s best to start with a publisher in South Asia, and once the book has had a bit of success there, then try international publishers. Most of the time, you will need to research and interview publishers who specifically want to support translations and who have already published South Asian translations.

In my case, my Indian publisher, HarperCollins India, had the worldwide rights for my translation. So they presented my book, along with a few other titles, to an American publisher. I didn’t have to get involved in negotiations and the like — and, to be honest, I’m fine. It takes a lot of time and effort to do it all on your own. Another option is to translate shorter works and submit them to literary magazines. This can help build a publication history which, especially in the international market, carries some weight.

Bhatt’s writings have appeared in various international journals and publications. After living and working in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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