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Why a 19th Century American Slave Memoir is Becoming a Bestseller in Japan’s Bookstores

No one imagined that the Japanese translation of the book, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861), would become a long-selling hit in Japan when it was first published in 2013. It is the life story of a slave girl in the United States in the 1800s, and not something one would expect to strike interest in Japan, which while struggling with its own issues of race, has a 98% ethnically Japanese population.

And the woman who would push for the book to be translated and published in Japanese, Yuki Horikoshi, had no background in literature or translation, and at first found it difficult to find a willing publisher. “I didn’t meet the profile for what an author should be and it was hard to explain why this book was so compelling.”

The book is now on its eighth edition in hardback and was published in paperback this summer. In its first month in paperback, it sold 25,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of its genre. It’s what in Japan is called “a quiet bestseller.”

The book that fascinated Horikoshi has been compared to The Diary Of Anne Frank. It is considered a remarkable work in how it sheds light on the female experience of slavery, including the never-ending threat of sexual exploitation. It was thought to be a work of fiction but many believe the authenticity was definitively established in 1981.

Horikoshi remembers when she first read the book. It was the summer of 2011, the same year that Japan experienced the Great Eastern earthquake which resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths and a nuclear meltdown. Horikoshi, who works for a large consulting firm, was riding the bullet train on a business trip, looking for something inspirational to read. On her iPhone she downloaded a copy of the book, began reading, and was enthralled.

“I had gone to school in the United States and yet I had never heard of this book, nor really understood slavery. It was an eye-opening experience.”

In the protagonist’s resolution to fight against inequality and make herself a place in the world, Horikoshi saw inspiration for young Japanese people, especially women.

Japan is currently ranked 114 out of 144 countries in gender equality; women here face an uphill battle establishing themselves in the business world or in politics. The Japan Timesin a 2016 editorial, lamented how that even 30 years after laws mandating equal employment opportunities for men and women were introduced, women still struggle to get a fair shake in corporate Japan.

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First translation of the Gita

On wages of a rupee a day, the pundits’ job was to check Wilkins’ translation

For a very long time, Sanskrit was a fiercely guarded turf. Even the recital (let alone study) of sacred Sanskrit compositions was considered a privilege so mighty that ‘unfit’ persons — such as women and those belonging to low castes — who even accidentally overheard any of it would be in danger of painful punishment. All in god’s name.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals who patronised Sanskrit scholars were met more than halfway by Hindus who not only learnt Persian but composed poetry in it. Two generations later, even after Aurangzeb had stopped funding Sanskrit scholars, the multilinguality of the court continued. But without patronage, Sanskrit suffered long years of decline. It made a brilliant comeback when the British ‘discovered’ the language in which the antiquities of their newly acquired lands lay locked.

Imperial entry

With the English came their language, trailing bits of Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic and Anglo Saxon, besides echoes from all those smaller countries the British had visited to plunder (Latin) and conquerre (Old French). They were just beginning to extend their loot (Hindi).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, English became the donor language for translations into Indian languages in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Philosophy, Religion and Literature moved in the opposite direction, with Sanskrit playing the donor-language role for translations into European languages. A detail which is usually forgotten is that before the English learnt Sanskrit, it was scholars of Arabic and Persian who mediated between Europe and India. In such a context, can any language in our midst be labelled alien or seen as a threat to another language community? We should hope not.

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Louis Cha’s acclaimed trilogy to be translated into English

Despite their popularity, only three of Jin Yong’s martial arts novels have been translated into English. But fans will soon get more from the writer as his most popular trilogy, named after the first of the three books, Legends of the Condor Heroes, is scheduled to hit bookstores in February.

Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha. And the author, who lives in Hong Kong, is one of the best-selling Chinese authors alive with over 300 million copies of his works sold in the Chinese-speaking world.

This latest translation project is the most ambitious with regard to Jin Yong’s works.

The trilogy, written by Jin Yong in the 1950s and ’60s, covers the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and features hundreds of characters.

The plot includes betrayal and allegiance among different martial arts schools, and the rise and fall of dynasties.

According to the publishing house, Maclehose Press, the translated work will come in 12 volumes, including Legends of the Condor Heroes; Divine Condor, Errant Knight; and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre.

Anna Holmwood is the translator of volume one, A Hero Born.

Speaking of the project which she took up in 2012, Holmwood, a self-employed translator focusing on Chinese-English literary translations, says in an email interview: “It had to be Jin Yong then. It was the obvious place to start, not only because of the quality of his writing, but also because of his standing and reputation in Asia.”

Holmwood, who was born to a British father and a Swedish mother, grew up in the United Kingdom and studied history at the University of Oxford.

Her love affair with China began in 2005, when she spent two months traveling around the country on a scholarship.

The trip aroused her curiosity about China, and she was determined to learn Chinese. “That was the only way to satisfy my curiosity about the country,” she says.

Holmwood then chose modern Chinese studies as her MPhil major at Oxford, and went to Taiwan Normal University for a year of language training in 2009.

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Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition – A 21st Century Rendition

By Sonali Raj

Sur's Ocean cover

 

Title: Sur’s Ocean – Poems From the Early Tradition
Author: Surdas; Trans. John Stratton Hawley; Ed., Kenneth E. Bryant
Publisher: Harvard University Press
To Buy

 

It is surprising that the books published by the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) haven’t been widely reviewed despite the international attention the project received. Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, a translation of the early poems of Sur Sagar, is a contentious volume with right wing propagandists saying it is sacrilege that a quintessential Bhakti poet should be translated by Americans. These purists, however, do not sit down to do the work themselves.

Translated by John Stratton Hawley, a professor at Columbia University, and edited by Kenneth E. Bryant, an Indologist from the University of British Columbia, the book is divided into eight sections, beginning on a dark rainy night in the month of Bhadon, when Krishna was born.

With 757 pages of poetry, Sur’s Ocean is perhaps the most forbidding-looking volume published by the MCLI but it is actually very easy to read. However, the volume doesn’t have 757 different poems; each poem translated in English is printed alongside its Devanagari counterpart.

Surdas wrote in Braj even though the court language was Persian. His poems were performed outside of the court in fairs and temples; the language frequently reads like everyday speech, and this quality is well-reflected in the English translations: “Mother Yashoda, rest assured— / we’ll both be home in five or seven days, / brother Haladhar and I. / Meantime, now and then, check on my flute, / check on my staff and the horn I blow. / Don’t let Radhika pilfer away / any of my favorite playthings.”

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The Representation of the Syrian Revolution in Literature

“These literary works depict the political, social and religious realities of Syria before and after March 2011 in order to draw a more comprehensive picture of Syria’s culture. These cultural details lay the foundation and act as necessary components for the development of the narratives and their relation to the current situation in Syria.”

…..

The need for writing

It would be inaccurate to assume that the literature centering on Assad’s family regime only started with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution. Some Syrian authors and dramatists have always addressed Assad’s politics in their works despite the fact that their criticism was indirect. They employed historical figures and events, constructing allegorical works so that they met the expectations of the censor. For example, some works were crafted to revolve around an event in pre-Islamic, Islamic or medieval Arab history and they exposed the ways the Arab kings ruled the masses. Through the interactions between the masses and the king, the monopoly of power alluded to the current politics of Syria and its corruption. Authors such as Mohammad al-Maghot, Mamduh Udwan, Sadallah Wanus and Zakaryya Tamer did not miss a chance to criticize the Syrian regime. however, there were not any explicit attempts to condemn that regime or its head.

With the outbreak of the revolution, the allegorical style would be abandoned because of the flooding of news of demonstrations, attacks, shelling and most importantly, the daily killing of innocent Syrians. Such incidents brought a radical change to literature. Due to the pace of news coming out of Syria, the media had to handle it in a way that served the needs of its audience, delivering the most up-to-date news without necessarily pinpointing the background of the revolution or taking into consideration the different constituencies that supported the revolution.

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The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim by Bhaswati Ghosh

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

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A.K. Ramanujan: A Lonely Hero

The narrative around the pioneering Indian English poet and translator must rescue him from his image of a remote icon into a living inspiration.

Translation, by definition, always entails some loss of the original substance. All translations are sooner or later revealed as imperfect and eventually, even in the case of the most exemplary performances, come to be regarded as provisional.

—Susan Sontag, The World As India

AK. Ramanujan (or AKR), who taught at the University of Chicago for 30 years, has remained an iconic figure for the Indian literary community for a long time. After making his mark first as an Indian English poet in the mid 1960s, he won enduring fame in India and abroad for his pioneering translations of classical Tamil poetry, and later, of Bhakti poetry in Tamil and Kannada. During the latter half of his career, AKR worked on compiling and translating folk tales from across India in as many as 20 languages. As a scholar and intellectual, he also contributed essays throwing light on several important aspects of Indian culture related to our language systems and oral/written literary traditions. Though he did not spend much time on translating contemporary works, his translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada novel Samskara, first published in 1976, was a landmark achievement, catapulting the novel and its author to national and international fame. Along with a prodigious output in several genres, AKR also wrote poetry and fiction in Kannada throughout his life. After his untimely demise in 1993, AKR’s papers (poems, folk tales, essays) were collected and edited for publication in several volumes.

For his achievements, AKR was held in high esteem by his peers and contemporaries. To Indians, he had that extra sheen of a non-resident genius, working in fields not easily accessible to Indians of that period. He continues to be venerated here as a translator, scholar and thinker by succeeding generations of Anglophone Indians. It would seem, however, that in the current discourse on Ramanujan and his writings, he is always looked at in isolation, a venerable figure not related to his contemporaries or his successors in a substantive way.

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How the bestseller ‘The Vegetarian,’ translated from Han Kang’s original, caused an uproar in South Korea

Before publishing his famous Chinese poetry translation “Cathay” in 1915, Ezra Pound apparently had no knowledge of Chinese at all. Instead, he worked from second-hand notes by another translator, boldly imposing his Imagist vision on classical Chinese poetry. Not surprisingly, he made quite a few errors in the process. And yet today, “Cathay” has become a deeply admired modernist classic; “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” appears in many poetry anthologies. The work is hardly considered a translation at all. A classics professor recently told me that he feels the same way about Pound’s “re-creations” of the elegies by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius: “I don’t even the think of the changes as errors,” he said. The translator’s version has become canonized.

Would Pound’s free interpretations have been just as praised had he translated novels? Or if he published his works a century later?

The question came to mind as I pondered the recent controversy in South Korea over Deborah Smith’s brilliant but flawed translation of Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian.” Originally published in 2007, Han’s work received critical acclaim but didn’t enjoy a particularly wide readership. Many South Korean readers initially found the novel to be bizarre: a dark, surreal tale of a woman who refuses to eat meat and descends into madness.

All that changed when “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The award landed the book on American and British bestseller lists as media attention focused on Smith, a then-28-year-old British graduate student, making much of the fact that the translator had started to learn Korean only six years earlier.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Keki N Daruwala

 

keki

By Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write to express myself, and there is a hell of a lot in me to express.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Am trying to say many things in my book. Firstly what a short story can do and achieve. The title story “Daniell comes to Judgement” is about how fate conspires to deal with a corporate honcho who is trying to exploit a brave girl. The second story about Garima is about a divorce, the wife returning to her mother’s house and after all the dejection, the garden getting watered and suddenly the fragrance from the buried bulbs revives her. And the passages at the end of the story simply have to turn lyrical — language always has to keep pace with the twists and turns of a story. And don’t forget the story “Bars”, based on my experience in the National Commission for Minorities – pastors being arrested for converting a corpse! Hey Prabhu, the Hindutva police under a Hindutva regime in MP can do anything.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Writing aesthetic. Koi aesthetic vesthetic nahin Madam. Jo dil mein aya likh diya.

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‘There is no language in the world which is pristine and pure.’

Interview with Professor David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “Tamil: A Biography”. By A.S. PANNEERSELVAN

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His Tamil: A Biography (published by Harvard University Press) has an important but rare trait, rare in the documentation of Indian languages: retaining a critical distance despite the writer’s love for the language. The threat of linguistic hegemony posed by the pan-Indian nature of Sanskrit and the role of Tamil in wresting a space for heterogeneity are political realities. The perch from which Shulman looks at Tamil gives him the space to negotiate this minefield with erudition. Probably, at a deeper level, his peace work in Israel, which exposed the injustices perpetrated by Israel by showing the human dimension of the occupation, helps him look at linguistic traditions in an organic manner rather than in political silos generated by colonial and the postcolonial politics.

The Tablet magazine captured well the nature of Shulman’s journey when it wrote: “Scholar David Shulman has made an improbable journey, geographically and academically: from small-town Iowa to Jerusalem, where the Hebrew University professor received the Israel Prize in 2016 for his research on southern India. The rigour in Shulman’s erudition is tempered by a deep pathos and love for his subject.” Shulman is an expert in Hebrew, English, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and reads Greek, Russian, French, German, Persian, Arabic and Malayalam, and has an abiding interest in Carnatic music and in the Kutiyattam dance form.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.

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