WAAT #32: Salman Rushdie on Literary Translation


Salman Rushdie believes we’re living in one of the great ages of literary translation, yet we will always need more world literature read in America, and why the Gujarati language and literature are under-represented and endangered.

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I had other plans for this week’s topic. But the news of this morning about the attack on the author, Salman Rushdie, has left me a bit shaken. No, I don’t know him and I’ve never met him. But I’ve probably read every book, every essay, and every interview of his. And all his tweets from 2017-onward when I started following him there. It’s curious how a writer can have so much impact on your reading and writing life. I wouldn’t even say he was among my top three favorite writers (although, among desi or South Asian writers, he’s definitely at the top.)

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Someday, I’ll unpack (at a different venue) what this writer and his work have meant to me. Today, I’d like to simply share some thoughts from one of his essays about literary translation. Most readers of Rushdie know that the book that turned his whole idea of storytelling upside down, and was a singular influence on his own much-lauded Midnight’s Children, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (tr. Gregory Rabassa.) Here’s what he wrote about reading GGM in translation. You can read the entire essay titled ‘Gabo and I’ in his collection, Languages of Truth.

At the time that long-ago first reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I responded to its story as pure story, to its characters simply as characters in a book. My interest in the world from which it sprang came later. We live in one of the great ages of literary translation, thanks to which the world’s literatures arrive in our backyard, speaking our languages, giving us the feeling that they belong to us too, and not only to the soil from which they grew. Any discussion of the global impact of the writing of Gabriel García Márquez must also include a salute to his translators.

I remember meeting, once, long ago, the translator Gregory Rabassa, who told me that García Márquez had once said, publicly, that he considered Rabassa’s English version to be superior to the Spanish original. This is probably not the case, but the generosity of the remark touched the great translator deeply and he told the story (probably not for the first or last time) with immense pride. It is a great translation, which gives the reader the impression of perfect transparency. It makes one feel one is experiencing the full beauty of the original. Rabassa’s version of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a work whose immensely complex and convoluted sentences make it an even greater challenge than the limpid clarity and straight-faced comedy of One Hundred Years, is perhaps an even greater achievement.

~Rushdie, Salman. Languages of Truth. Random House, 2021.

In 2005, Rushdie wrote about why, as the PEN America President at the time, he had worked to establish the PEN World Voices festival. You can read the entire essay, titled ‘The Pen and the Sword’, in his collection, Languages of Truth. Here’s some of what he wrote about world literature and translation.

In many parts of the world— in, for example, China, Iran, and much of Africa— the free imagination is still considered dangerous. At the heart of PEN’s work is our effort to defend writers under attack by powerful interests who fear and threaten them. Those voices, Arab or Afghan or Latin American or Russian, need to be magnified, so that they can be heard loud and clear, just as the Soviet dissidents once were. Yet, in America, unlike in Europe, a lamentably small percentage of all the fiction and poetry published each year is translated from other languages. It has perhaps never been more important for the world’s voices to be heard in America, never more important for the world’s ideas and dreams to be known and thought about and discussed, never more important for a global dialogue to be fostered. Yet one has the sense of things shutting down, of barriers being erected, of that dialogue being stifled precisely when we should be doing our best to amplify it. The Cold War is over, but a stranger war has begun. Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread; all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built.

~Rushdie, Salman. Languages of Truth. Random House, 2021.

For me, though, something he wrote in 1991 in an essay titled ‘Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist’ in the collection, Imaginary Homelands, still gives me pause for thought because he was discussing my mother tongue and the language that I translate from: Gujarati. This fact was true in 1991 and it is true even today. It’s why I translate. It’s why I say that my translation is a mode of recovery and reclamation. It’s why I ask, humbly, that you might consider supporting my new translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, which is not only the first-ever Gujarati-to-English translation of Dhumketu, the pioneer of the Gujarati modern short story, but also the first-ever Gujarati-to-English translation to be published in the US.

To go on in this vein: it strikes me that, at the moment, the greatest area of friction in Indian literature has nothing to do with English literature, but with the effects of the hegemony of Hindi on the literatures of other Indian languages, particularly other North Indian languages. I recently met the distinguished Gujarati novelist, Suresh Joshi. He told me that he could write in Hindi but felt obliged to write in Gujarati because it was a language under threat. Not from English, or the West: from Hindi. In two or three generations, he said, Gujarati could easily die. And he compared it, interestingly, to the state of the Czech language under the yoke of Russian, as described by Milan Kundera.

This is clearly a matter of central importance for Indian literature. ‘Commonwealth literature’ is not interested in such matters.

~Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. Penguin Books. 1992.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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