A Good Time for Translations

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In Livemint, Sana Goyal explores whether the UK market has ‘space for Asian fiction in translation’.

Over the past couple of months, literary critics in the UK and the US have been unstinting in their praise for Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella, translated into English by Srinath Perur. “A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores” is how The New York Times publicized its review. In the UK, translator and publisher Deborah Smith, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote that “reading beyond our tiny borders shows us what we’ve been missing”. The question is, will Ghachar Ghochar’s international success pave the way for more literature translated from Indian languages—indeed Asian languages—to gain a sizeable readership outside the country?

The interest certainly exists. In the UK at least, the year 2016 was pertinent in terms of translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize joined forces with the Man Booker International (MBI) Prize, which changed in character and criteria into a prize exclusively for fiction in English translation—awarding £50,000 (around Rs40 lakh) for the winning title, to be shared equally between the author and the translator. South Korean writer Han Kang and her translator, Smith, bagged the inaugural MBI Prize for The Vegetarian(Portobello Books), a disturbing three-part novella delving into the subjects of madness, desire and the rejection of social conventions.

A year earlier, Smith had set up Tilted Axis Press (TAP), a not-for-profit focused on publishing Asian language literature, which started functioning in full swing in 2016. Research—commissioned by the MBI Prize, and conducted by Nielsen Book—revealed a near doubling in translated fiction sales figures in the UK between 2001 and 2016, from 1.3 million to 2.5 million copies.

One may credit this overall curiosity for, and consumption of, translated tales to the success of Scandinavian noir, or even the Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante, but there’s something to be said for the UK pointing its compass towards languages and literature from the Asian continent—from Korean, Thai and Japanese to Bengali and Kannada.

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