“No U.S. publishing house has brought out a single living Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation.” Hindi translator Jason Grunebaum discusses the state of Hindi writing, language, and publishing—and what American readers are missing out on. To read a chapter from his translation of Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, click here.
Annie Janusch: AJ: How did you come to translate Uday Prakash’s The Girl With the Golden Parasol? What drew you to Prakash’s writing and to this book in particular?
Jason Grunebaum: In 2003 I began looking for a contemporary Hindi writer to translate. I’d been working abroad with the International Red Cross for the better part of six years, and had been out of the Hindi literature loop. I’d certainly heard of Uday Prakash, and had one of his early poetry collections which I liked very much, but hadn’t read his fiction. So one day I was in the stacks at the library pulling books off the shelves by authors that friends had recommended. I took down and began reading the title story of Uday’s 1997 story collection, “Paul Gomra’s Motor Scooter,” and had fallen in love by the time I finished the first paragraph. His voice, tone, and sense of humor were what grabbed me first, but I soon discovered that Uday is one of the most naturally gifted storytellers I’ve ever read. He’s also quite decisively living in the changing India of today, and is a distinctive chronicler of these changes from points of view not found elsewhere. I was further seduced by the many gorgeous detours that he takes in the telling of his tales.
What I didn’t know when I began translating “Paul Gomra’s Motor Scooter” was that Uday was at that moment under attack for the just published Hindi version of The Girl with the Golden Parasol, and was going through a terrible time. Being a Hindi writer, even as popular a Hindi writer as Uday is, doesn’t pay the bills, so over the years he’s made ends meet by working on endless film, TV, and screenwriting projects—plus plenty of journalism. After The Girl with the Golden Parasol came out, Uday was targeted by those who felt the book too anti-Brahmin. The worst came when nearly all his freelance assignments were cancelled overnight.
I emailed him a sample of my translation of “Paul Gomra’s Motor Scooter,” only to find out one was forthcoming in Short Shorts Long Shots. It’s a terrific collection of Uday’s short shorts and longer shorts published by Katha and translated by the wonderful Bob Hueckstedt, an enduring advocate of Hindi literature in translation, and the first to bring Uday into English. Uday read my sample, was very excited about the work I’d done, and suggested I read The Girl with the Golden Parasol.
It’s a campus story where the students are cosmopolitan city kids stuck at a corrupt university in the deep sticks. Town thugs grow up to be politicians, and all the local unsavories are in cahoots with the school’s top brass. Rahul, a non-Brahmin, falls in love with Anjali, a twice-wrong girl: she’s both a Brahmin and daughter of a big state pol. Rahul drops Anthro and follows Anjali to the Hindi department—the major she was forced to choose by default and dumb luck—and that’s when The System comes down hard to pry the lovers apart. The novel is very angry and very funny, and chronicles exactly how the powers-that-still-be in India have harnessed the forces of globalization to further consolidate power over language and culture at the most local of levels. It’s a voice and story from India I think US readers would find very compelling. It’s an Indian story, but also a universal tale of the underdog in love.
I told Uday I was eager to translate the book, and about a year-and-a-half later the translation was awarded a PEN Translation Fund grant. The award had two major effects. The most immediate one was that it allowed me to travel to India and spend a month with Uday to discuss the project. We spent about two weeks at his home in Delhi (highlights included half-a-day spent with his longtime Hindi publisher drinking some twenty cups of tea while in tense negotiations over a decade’s worth of unpaid book royalties) then took a road trip to Sitapur, the village in the state of Madhya Pradesh where Uday grew up. We had to pull over a lot since Uday’s cell phone was constantly buzzing with calls and SMSs from fans all over India excited about his latest, a short story called “Mohan Das” that had just come out to wide acclaim. (Mobile numbers of Hindi authors are not hard to find.) Along the way, we became great friends, and I feel very lucky to work with an author who I count as one of the dearest people in my life.
Uday credits the PEN award with turning things around for him decisively at a point when things looked so bleak and he was so disillusioned that he was ready to quit writing; this was the more important consequence of the award. Penguin India was just starting their Hindi list, and Uday was one of the first authors they picked up, in addition to publishing the Indian edition of The Girl with the Golden Parasol in English. Two new German translations of Uday’s work have recently been published: a novella entitled And Finally . . . Prayer, and a German version of The Girl with the Golden Parasol. Uday has gone on extended book tours in Germany in 2006 and 2009, and visited the US twice since I first met him in India. Here at Chicago, he taught a master class to Hindi students and we gave a bilingual reading. Last year, Akashic Books published my translation of Uday’s “The Walls of Delhi” in the Delhi Noir anthology expertly edited by Hirsh Sawhney; it was the one story in the volume not originally written in English, and a favorite of many critics who reviewed the book. Uday is at work on a new novel I’m very excited about called Cheena Baba about a young Chinese army deserter who flees to India and climbs a tree. And after that twentieth cup of tea, Uday’s publisher agreed on a royalty figure three times what he’d proposed while pouring the first: not close to what Uday thinks he’s owed, but better than it could have been. Anyone who remains unconvinced of the potential of translation to have very real, positive consequences in the lives of writers should email Uday.
AJ: How available is contemporary Hindi literature to American readers? Alternatively, what obstacles have prevented Hindi titles from being translated and published in the U.S.?
JG: No U.S. publishing house has brought out a single living Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation. Insert the name of your favorite language in that sentence and see how it feels. There are many reasons for this unhappy situation. One is that the vast majority of English translations from Hindi have been created with a South Asian audience in mind: this makes sense, since the largest readership for Hindi literature in translation is, and will probably always be, a South Asian one. There are many good translations out there, but English translations done for a South Asian readership sometimes don’t sound fully translated to the North American ear. Conversely, a translation for a North American audience may seem too “pre-chewed” for some South Asian readers. Neither English is better or worse as long as it’s well written, but the point is that translators from Hindi (and other South Asian languages) have to think very deeply about which English-speaking audience they’re translating for. I don’t think there’s a “natural varietal” of English for translations of Hindi or other South Asian literature—the only question for me is audience. I also believe that South Asian ears are more open to different Englishes than North American ones, and a good translation for the U.S. market would also be well-received in South Asia. There are wonderful voices writing in Hindi that deserve an audience outside of India, but in order for them to be heard, we need better translations for the U.S. market. Publishers, too, need to be open to looking at English translations done for the Indian market that, with some retooling, might work in the U.S.
There’s another subtle obstacle erected by American publishers: in addition to their notorious allergy to publishing literature in translation, the South Asians writers who write in English give them an additional excuse not to take a risk on voices speaking in different tongues. Obviously the writers writing in English aren’t a problem; on the contrary, among them are some of the most gifted writers writing in English today. But there’s only so much shelf space at Barnes and Noble, and many publishers will think, Why take a risk on a translation when I’ve got an easy marketing bet? It’s a cowardly attitude that cuts off many important Subcontinental voices from the American market (and, by extension, the rest of world—unfortunate but true) who happen to create literary things in languages less well-connected than English.
AJ: As both the economy and literacy rates grow in India, I imagine the publishing industry is growing there, too. What’s book culture like in a city like Delhi? Are there presses that you’re excited about? Are there challenges even from within Indian publishing to backing titles by Hindi authors?
JG: The good news is that a few years ago Penguin India began a Hindi list, with HarperCollins India following suit last year. Uday Prakash was one of the first authors picked up by Penguin; last December, at the utterly twenty-first century departures lounge at the new Delhi domestic terminal, I was delighted to find their edition of his “Mangosil” story collection competing with the likes of Dick Francis and Shobhaa Dé. The bad news is that half of the titles on the HarperCollins list are translations of C.S. Lewis into Hindi. The center of the Hindi publishing universe continues to be an area in Old Delhi called Daryaganj, which is well worth a stop for any book-loving visitor to India’s capital city. One reason the multinational publishers haven’t found their footing yet with Hindi books, aside from trying to figure out how to price the things, is that the bulk of their titles are in English—and there’s still a huge gap between the English and Hindi literary worlds. There are some writers that bridge the divide, but for the most part the two literary communities, despite living in the same country, might as well be on different planets. That’s another reason why it’s so important to get Hindi authors published in North America. Sad to say, but that’s probably one of the only ways to get the respect they deserve with writers writing in English.
There are a couple of presses in India that stand out. One is Katha books in Delhi, run by the ever-enthusiastic Geeta Dharmarajan. They’ve done some of the most important work for Hindi (and other South Asian languages) in English translation, not to mention their literacy programs. Katha began running translation contests in India in the 1990s, which have yielded both new voices from many South Asian regional languages and talented translators. Unfortunately, their books are not distributed in the U.S.
Another is Blaft Publications, a new independent press based in Chennai. I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover them: India needs about fifty more Blafts. Publishers Rakesh Khanna and Kaveri Lalchand have brought out a impressive anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction in translation, as well as Sudarshan Purohit’s excellent translations of two novels of Hindi pulp master and bestseller Surender Mohan Pathak. Blaft’s greatest literary accomplishment I’ve seen so far is the brilliant translation by Khanna, along with Pritham K. Chakravarthy, of the Tamil writer Charu Nivedita’s wildly exciting Zero Degree. Their rendering of his novel embodies a kind of ideal translation of South Asian literature in an English would have no trouble finding a home with either a U.S. or Indian English audience. My only complaint is that Charu Nivedita doesn’t write in Hindi! I would love to translate a writer like him. The other good thing about Blaft is that, like Oxford University Press India, they distribute in the U.S.. Why don’t Penguin India and HarperCollins India do the same? Maybe part of the reason is that there’s such a growing market in India for fiction in English, and it would be too much of a pain to market those books, and translations from South Asian languages, in the U.S.. It’s a huge disservice to the writers, though, particularly given the scarcity of available translations.
AJ: Hindi is the second most spoken language in the world. What issues has the language come up against in recent years? Do Hindi speakers grapple with any form of cultural politics?
JG: The scene of the so-called “Hindi establishment” is pretty grim. In 2008, the Eighth World Hindi Conference, funded largely by the Indian government, was held in New York at the UN and on the campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Perhaps I’m romanticizing other languages a bit, but somehow I imagine that if a conference with hundreds of, say, Japanese or French or Chinese writers gathered in the center of the U.S. publishing world, at least some effort might be made to contact the media, invite editors from publishing houses, and show off shiny literary wares. Not for Hindi. That July, you would have been hard pressed to find one publisher in the city who even knew the conference was taking place. In order to even get into the conference as a visitor—and I was the only one who even tried!—Uday Prakash had to smuggle me in through a back door at one of FIT’s auditoriums. As he pointed out, among the participants were a lot of retired cops and local politicians who do some part-time Hindi writing on the side, and through connections get invited to these sorts of international gatherings. The conference book with brief bios of all the participants was bizarrely divided into two sections: part one for male writers, part two for female writers. The big push in the conference, and real reason they had it in NYC, was the commendable goal of demanding that Hindi be one of the official UN languages. (It’s not yet, despite being the second-most spoken language in the world.) Perhaps this is predictable coming from a literary translator, but I couldn’t help but think that a robust presence of Hindi literature on the shelves of Barnes & Noble would probably be as effective a lobbying tool as any to help realize this goal.
AJ: What about Hindi writing? Are there implications to writing in Hindi today among the younger generation of writers (as opposed to writing in English)? Is there a burgeoning pop lit?
JG: It’s not hip, yet, to write in Hindi, but I have faith that one day it will be. And when it is, I’ll bet that one of the leading causes of its resurgence will be the availability and popularity of Hindi literature in English translation. It’s still far hipper (and more lucrative) to write in a very particular English that’s peppered with Hindi and other regional, local, and urban word stuff. And there’s some interesting and inventive stuff being published. The problem nowadays, however, is when neither-English-nor-Hindi is the only language that people feel comfortable talking (and writing) in. I bet that many middle-class youngsters in Delhi couldn’t go more than a sentence or two in Hindi without using an English word; in the other direction, maybe a few more sentences. No one’s worried about the health of English given its global dominance, but Hindi just isn’t as fun as Hindi can be when the only non-English words in a particular sentence are the Hindi verb “to do” and the conjunction that means “that”. Too much English diction suffocates the Hindi—not a healthy development at all for the language. It’s fascinating for people who study code-switching, but there’s a whole generation of people growing up with two half mother tongues that don’t quite equal one full one.
But until it’s hip to write in Hindi, there’s still plenty of wonderful writing being done—and more and more of it is online. Pratilipi.com is a good place to start, and Uday Prakash’s blog is another. Right now, my colleague Uli Stark and I are translating the Bhopali Hindi writer Manzoor Ahtesham’s novel The Tale of the Missing Man, and I’m confident that both this and Uday’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol will find a U.S. audience. Though they don’t write in English, both are urgent South Asian voices that need to be heard.
Jason Grunebaum is senior lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago. His translation of Uday Prakash’s novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol won a 2005 PEN Translation Fund award and was published by Penguin India in 2008. Annie Janusch is a a translator of German to English.
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