Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi Novel.

Alexandra Alter writes for the NY Times (archived) about an unexpected literary success:

When Geetanjali Shree’s novel “Tomb of Sand” was released in India five years ago, many didn’t know what to make of it. The story — about an 80-year-old woman who refuses to get out of bed — shifts perspective without warning, gives voice to birds and inanimate objects and includes invented words and gibberish.

Some declared it an experimental masterpiece. Others found it impenetrable. Sales in India were modest. So Shree was stunned when the book, in an English translation, captivated readers, critics and literary prize committees in the West — a rare, and perhaps unparalleled, feat for a book written in Hindi.

For Shree, who is 65 and lives in Delhi, writing in Hindi isn’t a political or literary statement, but an organic creative choice. “Hindi chose me,” she said. “That’s my mother tongue.” Her decision, however, and her novel’s success, are having an impact in India and beyond, bringing attention to the wealth and diversity of the Indian literary landscape, often overlooked by the West, with its focus on English-language writing.

“Her insistence on holding on to her Hindi and taking it to the next level, it shows a path to other Indian writers who feel like they have to write in English because of the hegemony of English,” Jenny Bhatt, a writer and translator of Gujarati literature, said of Shree.

For decades, contemporary Indian literature has been largely defined in the West by English-language fiction writers of such renown they are practically household names, even in countries far from their own: novelists like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai.

Producing work in English has traditionally been seen as more prestigious and lucrative; English-language books are also more easily available to readers, both internationally and in India, a country with 22 official languages and more than 120 spoken languages, plus countless dialects, where English remains a lingua franca.

All this made Shree’s commitment to writing in Hindi particularly striking. […] “She is of the class and the educational background where she could have been another Indian English-language writer,” said [translator Daisy] Rockwell. Instead, Shree has pushed the boundaries of experimentation within Hindi literature. “She’s breaking narrative conventions and testing the limits of her form,” Rockwell said, and “reinjecting it into the Hindi bloodstream.” […]

It’s not that the translation of Indian literature into English isn’t happening. It’s just largely happening within India. Rockwell has been translating from Hindi and Urdu for 30 years, and has published 10 translations, including works by acclaimed writers like Krishna Sobti and Upendranath Ashk, but she never had a translation released outside of India before “Tomb of Sand.” “There’s a massive world of literature that’s not being seen at all outside the subcontinent,” she said.

Several major Indian publishing houses have expanded their efforts to translate works written in regional languages into English. HarperCollins India’s Perennial imprint publishes around a dozen English language translations a year — roughly half its list. Last year, Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House India, released 21 English translations. It currently has translations from 16 of the 22 major Indian languages on its list, including Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada, as well as from historically underrepresented languages like Odia, Manipuri, Bhojpuri and Assamese.

“If we want to be truly representative of the country, we have to do translations,” said Manasi Subramaniam, editor in chief of Penguin Random House India. “Even in India, people could be looking at translations in a whole new way due to the success of ‘Tomb of Sand’.” […]

“Tomb of Sand” was a daunting text to translate, Rockwell said. The narrative is experimental, fragmented and dreamlike, full of language tricks and invented words. It’s laced with references to Sanskrit classics, Bollywood movies, song lyrics, prayers and chants, and contemporary Hindi and Urdu novelists. To capture the polyphonic flavor of the prose and Shree’s freewheeling sense of wordplay, Rockwell preserved fragments of the text from Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sanskrit, leaving them untranslated.

In a way, it’s fitting that “Tomb of Sand,” a novel about the permeability of borders — between countries, religions, genders, languages, ages, life and death — is transcending linguistic barriers, despite the obstacles.

“Language is not just a vehicle to convey a message, it’s a complete entity in its own right,” Shree said. “It has a personality, it has a cadence, and sometimes it has no message.”

There’s more about her life and how the translation came about at the link. It’s a heartening story, and I hope it does inspire an upsurge in translations.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I’d be curious to know if there are any translations being made between local language A and local language B or if the subset of speakers of both of those languages who are likely readers of such works are all happy enough with English translation for anything not in their own L1.

  2. Based on some very quick searches, there are Hindi translations of literary works in a number of major languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, and Malayalam, and some the other way around. Bengali works can also be found translated into other languages. But more minor languages such as Assamese seem to be harder to find in translation.

    I’m not sure how frequently translations happen between Indian languages as compared to between an Indian language and English.

  3. writing in Hindi isn’t a political or literary statement, but an organic creative choice

    Does this mean that Hindi writers (or publications) are minority among Hindi-speaking authors? Or a minority in this – “She is of the class and the educational background where she could have been another Indian English-language writer,” – social class? I understand that if your L2 is just as good or better than your L1 you may think “I wrote a novel in my L1. Now I need someone to translate it in English… Wait, why “someone”, I can do it on my own and my translation is going to be more authentic by definition! Wait, I can just write novels in English!”.
    But I thought Hindi book market is in a much, much better overall shape than various African markets…

    “It’s not that the translation of Indian literature into English isn’t happening. It’s just largely happening within India.” – Again, does this mean that “Indian translations into English” are somehow disadvantaged globally compared to (a) works written in English (b) foreign translations of the same Hindi works?

  4. “the West, with its focus on English-language writing.”

    It means (if true) that most novels translated to Russian are English (sounds plausible) while among Arabic novels translated to Russian many were only published because there is a successful English translation (plausible too). Which in turn means that English is also a world literary language, not in the sense that Russian or French readers read in it, but in the sense that Russian or French market of translations is mediated by the English market of translations.

  5. FWIW, Daisy Rockwell is the granddaughter of Norman Rockwell.

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