Monday, May 2, 2011

Literature in Translation

I've read a lot of modern Indian literature over the last few years. It's come in many genres, including magic realism, satire, realistic fiction, and every blend you can think of. Some was written by Indian writers abroad. Some was written by Indian writers in India.

Without exception, every South Asian novel I've ever read - not only Indian, but also Pakistani, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi - was originally published in English. I've never read any modern South Asian literature in translation.

That might not seem very significant. After all, South Asia got English bequeathed to it by colonialism. And India is a country where one recent prime minister gave Hindi-language speeches that were written out for him fo-neh-ti-ka-lee because he couldn't read or understand Hindi. More often than not, when Indians from different parts of the country meet, they speak English. Why shouldn't most Indian literature be written in English?

Because, in most areas of the country at least, English isn't the language of the masses. It's true that there are more Indians than Americans who can speak English well enough to have an intelligent conversation, but it's also true that if you subtract the population of the USA from the population of India, you get over seven hundred million.

And even Indians who can speak enough English to easily communicate with someone with no other language in common, may not have enough of a native speaker's sense of the language to write fluently in it.

In other words, every work of fiction I've ever read that originated in India came from the country's English-speaking elite, who have the linguistic talent to write beautifully in English. Of course, there is nothing unusual about a country's well-known authors being gleaned from the most well-educated strata of society.

But what are we English readers missing out on?

Books are everywhere in India. While traveling in Karnataka and Kerala (and Kerala, by the way, with a population more than half that of the UK, has a literacy rate of nearly 100% -- lots of readers there), I saw books all the time. I saw books being sold in roadside stalls. I saw bookshops in the cities. I can't make heads or tails of Kannada or Malayalam, the local languages. What were most of those books about? Fiction or nonfiction? I don't know.

Are books written in Indian languages translated into English? Are their authors known abroad? I don't know.

I can't help feeling that we foreigners are missing out on something.

1 comment:

Kinga Bee said...

You are SO right!

We need to look into this.

There must be something translated, no?

Let me know if you find anything!