The success of the translations bridged the gap between writing in Indian regional languages ​​and writing Indian in English

Of all the literary events in India in 2022, the most noteworthy was clearly the awarding of the Sand Tomb International Booker Award, Daisy Rockwell’s English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi. Even now, a foreign award serves to give an Indian book the kind of validation no mere Indian honor can do, and the thrill was greater that not even all Hindi-speaking readers had heard of the author, though she had already published four novels, all translated into English. After the award, Ret Samadhi reportedly sold 35,000 copies in just one week.

Just as the award boosted the novel’s shares in Hindi, it also boosted the shares of Hindi not only internationally, but among other Indian languages ​​as well. All of them are substantially smaller than Hindi in terms of the number of people who speak them (52 ​​crore for Hindi and between 10 crore and eight crore each for the next larger languages ​​Bengali, Marathi and Telugu), but many have a large number of readers and a lively literary circle. For example, the JCB Award, given to the best Indian novel published in English or translated into English from any Indian language, has gone to novels originally written in Malayalam for the past three consecutive years. This year the sequence was broken by a novel also translated, but this time from Urdu, Ne’mat Khana by Khalid Jawed, translated into English by Baran Farooqi as The Paradise of Food.

The above books are far from single swallows. In the last decade or two, novels from Indic languages ​​translated into English have come to occupy a larger space in our literary polysystem than before. Indeed, there are lesser-known languages ​​that are now gaining acclaim for the very first novels ever translated from them, thus heralding their presence on the bustling pan-Indian literary stage. Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri Phoolsunghi’s novel translated by Gautam Choubey with the same title (2020) caused a sensation, and Harimohan Jha’s Maithili Kanyadaan’s novel translated by Lalit Kumar as The Bride (2022) was titled “A Boy suitable for Maithili” (Amitava Kumar), with the user-friendly advantage that it is much shorter.

By translating these ‘regional’ or ‘vernacular’ novels into English, we are not digging deep in our own backyard to concoct ancient or primitive objects to display before English-speaking readers in India or abroad as exotic arrests. All of these novels were written in the twentieth or twenty-first century in a recognizably Western realist mode, and all deal with modern socio-historical themes. Phoolsunghi depicts the cultivation of indigo and the arrival of railways in Bihar. The Bride is about incompatible marriages between a college-educated groom and an illiterate wife. And The Paradise of Food offers a haunting meditation on the food cooked and eaten for over half a century in one Muslim household. In this novel, the hero and his college friends discuss Hindu and Muslim notions of food and quote not only Marx but also Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, an irreverent account of these hallowed figures by Paul Johnson (2007 ).

The fact is that ever since Bankim (1834-94), the founder of the Indian novel, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), the founder of modern Indian poetry, the great majority of writers of all Indian languages ​​have read voraciously in English and through English, other European literatures, while preferring to write in their own language. They included Premchand, Buddhadev Bose, UR Ananthamurthy, Ayyappa Paniker and Arun Kolatkar, among many others.

The difference between the “vernacular” writers and the Indians who write in English, therefore, was not so much one of sensitivity or quality as of linguistic affiliation and often social class. But now literature in the “vernaculars” can no longer be looked down upon, for it has emerged as fully equal to Indian writing in English and, moreover, enjoys a substantial demographic dividend. Our most watched television channels and our most widely read newspapers have long been in languages ​​other than English. Now, even top-rated award-winning literature seems to have caught up.

To get back to Geetanjali Shree, she went to a convent school, wrote a PhD on Premchand in English and could have written her fiction in English as well. Indeed, Daisy Rockwell said in her “Translator’s Note” in Tomb of Sand that she preserved many Hindi words in her translation of her just as Geetanjali had preserved many English words in her original Hindi lei. Rockwell went further by stating that “the original novel is artificially Hindi-focused, just like the translation is artificially English-focused”! Nor is Geetanjali the first Hindi writer to incorporate, overtly or covertly, distinctly English collocations or even bits of English into her works, as many writers including Agyeya and Nirmal Verma, both Jnanpith laureates, had already been there and had done.

As it happens, both Agyeya and Verma have released major books about them in 2022 – and they were written in English by Akshaya Mukul and Vineet Gill respectively. The profound bilingualism that has always coexisted between English and Indian languages ​​on a literary level now seems to violate linguistic boundaries. But what does such a growing linguistic convergence promise?

While the “vernaculars” gain more exposure and status from such transactions, will they still prove to be the ultimate losers? Why would anyone write in a “vernacular” and then wait to be translated when they could be writing in English in the first place, if not in the playful and self-indulgent English of Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, then certainly in the tastier one of RK Narayan or Raja Rao ? What about locally “authentic” English? Will there be more and more translated Indian novels in the future?

Trivedi has taught English literature at the University of Delhi and Indian literature at the University of Chicago

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