Success stories of Hindi writers like Geetanjali Shree and Vinod Kumar Shukla show how translation of Hindi literature has enriched the global literary landscape

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It was just in March 2022 that the news of Vinod Kumar Shukla fighting for rightful royalty came out. The prominent 86-year-old Hindi writer had accused two of the biggest Hindi publishers, Rajkamal Prakashan and Vani Prakashan, of not paying him his rightful share of royalty, creating a scandal in a rather close-knit world of Hindi literature.

The issue was resolved after the publishers and the author reached a mutual settlement. Earlier this year, however, Vinod Kumar Shukla was awarded one of the most coveted prizes in international literature: the $50000 PEN Nabokov award for lifetime achievement. The award came close on the heels of Geetanjali Shree’s novel The Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) winning the International Booker Prize, the first-ever for a Hindi book.

Growing interest of the West

Though unlikely, the events weren’t particularly surprising considering a growing interest of the West in translated literature. Despite digitisation and overwhelming access to internet content, studies suggest that sales are picking up in the West for books in translation. As the world becomes more interconnected, the significance of literary translation also takes on newer manifestations. One of the most interesting trends in this domain is the translation of literary works from Hindi to English. This not just bridges the linguistic gap, but also enriches the global literary landscape by introducing diverse narratives, voices, and perspectives.

Hindi, one of the most widely spoken languages in India, boasts a rich literary heritage that dates back centuries. Its literature has evolved over time and has been shaped by various historical, cultural, and social influences. Despite the profound impact Hindi literature has had on the Indian subcontinent, it has often been confined to its linguistic boundaries limited to mostly northern part of India. This began to change in recent years as globalization drew interest of western economic forces to the expanding Indian market as well as due to the Indian government’s policy push on promoting Hindi as the “national language” of India.

Translation: A bridge between cultures

While there may be many factors at play behind the growing list of books translated from Hindi into English, there is no doubt that translation serves as a bridge between cultures and languages, enabling the exchange of ideas and stories that might otherwise remain unseen. And one must also note that the translation process itself is an intricate art, involving not only conveying the correct meaning of words but the preservation of the original work’s nuances, cultural references, and experimentations.

The developing interest in translating Hindi literature into English also enriches the Hindi literary landscape and as works gain recognition and popularity in English-speaking markets, there is often an increased interest in the original Hindi works. This not only amplifies the reach of Hindi authors but also encourages a renewed appreciation for their works within their own linguistic communities.

Though the growing trend of translating Hindi literature into English holds great promise, it is not without its own unique problems. The intricacies of translating cultural idioms, metaphors, and historical contexts can be daunting, sometimes downright impossible. Translators must possess a deep understanding of both languages and cultures to effectively convey the essence of the original work and a lively cultural environment has to be fostered for good translations to be published.

Power dynamics between languages

Furthermore, the power dynamics between languages can sometimes lead to unintended consequences. There is a risk that works translated into English might be given more prominence and recognition than their original counterparts. This could potentially overshadow the native literary scene and impact the livelihoods of writers, translators, and publishers working in languages other than English.

Additionally, literary works are not static entities; they are products of their time and culture. Thus, translating a work also involves conveying its historical and social context to readers who may not be familiar with the intricacies of the source culture. This demands not only linguistic proficiency but also a keen understanding of the cultural underpinnings that shape the narrative as well the use of language.

However, as translation becomes big business, translated literature also has to face the pitfalls of industry. Business considerations most often override literary considerations. Publishers, while choosing which translations to be published, often choose writers that are either overwhelmingly popular in the original language or writers that easily cater to the western literary palate.

Inclusivity vs exclusivity

Most important literary awards, including the Booker Prize, only allow entries from writers who are still living, effectively removing from consideration a plethora of writers who have had the misfortune of dying. Even among the living writers, there are other considerations, such as “literary networks” and connections with the Anglophone literary scene, that often mean that the most interesting contemporary writing remains the least translated.

This is not to say that the rising interest in translating Hindi literature into English carries no profound global relevance. In an era of increasing interconnectivity, where cultural exchange is facilitated by digital platforms and global publishing networks, translated works have the power to humanize distant societies and bring to light shared human experiences. The success of translated works like Geetanjali Shree and Vinod Kumar Shukla paves way for other voices to enter the sometimes insulated Anglophone literary scene.

The act of translating literature is an act of inclusivity of sorts, it allows marginalized voices, regional narratives, and lesser-known stories to be heard on a larger stage, fostering a deeper appreciation for the rich cultural mosaic that comprises our world. However, more often than not, inclusivity of something denotes exclusivity of something else. That something else demands attention.

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