38. Your favorite translated book that deserves more attention?

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SEPTEMBER 23, 2022: Please share your favorite translated work that isn’t as well-known as it should be and deserves more attention. And what small step could you perhaps take to bring more attention to it? Also, read recommendations from other readers, writers, and translators about their favorite translated works that are still relatively unknown.

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Dear Reader,

Earlier this week, I asked this question on Twitter. It generated a lot more responses than I expected. If you can make the time, I recommend going through the list to see if any strike your fancy or remind you of a translation that you think should be read more widely.

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I asked this question for two reasons. First, it’s National Translation Month. So we’re seeing the usual lists of translated books we all must read. Second, it’s also that time of year when various juries and committees are announcing their longlists, shortlists, and winners of literary grants, fellowships, or awards. And no matter how much all of these hardworking listmakers and judges aim to be fair, they will be swayed to some extent or other by their own unconscious biases and the prevailing industry trends. I’ve been on a couple of such committees myself this year. Both were organized and managed very well indeed. And, for me, both experiences were hugely enlightening as to the amount of work and thinking that goes into the entire process. We all worked diligently to avoid any conflicts of interest and minimize our biases. Still, both experiences made me think of how there are many wonderful books that, for whatever reason, never make it past an award’s eligibility criteria, never mind getting to the winner stage.

An award, fellowship, or grant can change a book’s destiny overnight. In a way, that’s what happened with this year’s Booker International winner, Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell. Yet, consider how this biggest literary award (and a few others like it) has rather strict eligibility criteria.

For literary translations from under-represented languages, when one of the basic rules is that the original author must be alive at the time of award submission or translation publication, this creates even more unevenness in the industry. It means that publishers, agents, and even some translators will disregard older or classic authors who, due to various sociopolitical reasons, have never been translated for a wider readership. And it means they will remain untranslated and even unread in the original (because, as we see repeatedly, a translation’s success with an Anglophone readership drives many readers to the original text.)

I often think of David Free’s idea of just having longlists and no shortlists or winners. Or, if we must have shortlists and winners, maybe there should be training for readers and judges on how our many unconscious biases work and how they can mitigate them. Juries and reading committees could be made truly diverse by selections being made from different walks of life instead of all from the same literary communities. And, finally, it would be a good idea to overhaul entry/eligibility criteria, especially when we see the same kinds of books or same kinds of authors or translators on multiple lists. Surely, that’s a red flag that choices are being made from a rather shallow pool.

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This past week, the Speaking Tongues Pod host Elle Charisse and I discussed the intricacies of the Gujarati language and literatures, literary translation, multilingualism, etc. I talked about growing up with many languages in suburban Bombay, “Bambaiyya Hindi”, the East African Gujarati dialect, and more. Listen here. Elle covers languages from around the world and takes great care with her reading, research, and preparation for each episode. I’ve shared her work before in this newsletter. You can read about how and why Elle started this podcast here. We so enjoyed recording that audio episode that we also did an Instagram Live to talk about The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. You can watch that video here. [Please send me a note if you enjoyed these conversations and would like to pitch something similar to a media venue.]

Alright, let’s get back to the topic of favorite translated books that deserve more attention. You’re probably wondering about mine. It has to be a Gujarati to English translation: Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi’s quartet, Sarasvatichandra, translated by Tridip Suhrud. I discussed it in an interview earlier this year at Five Books. As I mentioned there:

Tripathi wanted to give a complete sociopolitical survey of Gujarati society then. So the first part is set just after the 1857 mutiny when the British rise to absolute power and university education begins to change values and ideals at the individual level. The second volume focuses on the modern Gujarati family and how that was evolving. The third volume considers the welfare state, a utopian ideal that Tripathi himself harbored. The fourth volume explores whether religion can help regenerate society and whether a more emancipated kind with women present is feasible. The four volumes represent the four stages of life in Hindu texts: the student, the householder, the hermit/recluse, and the ascetic/sanyasi.

It’s a Victorian-style “loose, baggy monster” of a novel. Tripathi was extremely well-read in both Sanskrit and English. The book is filled with references to classics like Bhartrihari, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bhagavad Gita and passages from Wordsworth, Shelley, Goldsmith, Cowper, Keats, Shakespeare. But it is also a one-of-a-kind historic document of Gujarati culture and society during colonial times.

Bhatt, Jenny, and Cal Flynn. “The Best South Asian Novels in Translation – Five Books.” Five Books, August 9, 2022. https://fivebooks.com/best-books/the-best-south-asian-novels-in-translation-jenny-bhatt/.

It wasn’t translated into English for almost a hundred years because it’s a daunting project due to both the size and the complex Gujarati Tripathi employed. It’s still not read as much as it should be (in Gujarati or in English) for those reasons. But, if we can read and reread War and Peace, I think we can bring ourselves to read this book, which is similar in terms of scope, range, and literary merit. In last week’s newsletter, I had mentioned that I was going to start a close read of a translated Gujarati classic. I believe I’ll start with this classic for all that it represents within the Gujarati and the Indian literary canons. More soon as I intend to put up a weekly reading schedule for anyone who’d like to join me by reading along with the English translation. [Tangentially, last week’s newsletter got a lot of attention and was even featured in the Lit Hub Daily and Lit Hub Weekly roundups.]

Over to you. Please share your favorite translated work that isn’t as well-known as it should be and deserves more attention. And what small step could you perhaps take to bring more attention to it? It could be something as simple as sharing the book on social media. Or making sure your local library or bookstore stocks it. Or giving copies as gifts to friends and family members. Or writing an essay or review about it. You can respond below and I’ll reply, as always.

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Until the next newsletter.

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Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

Jenny Bhatt

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