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Northern stamp

This is why reading translations of works written in languages other than those one is conversant in is important: it exposes you to ideas you might not have encountered otherwise

Rishi Majumder Published 02.05.24, 06:49 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

Zamaana bade shauk se sun rahaa thaa/ Hum hi so gayen daastaan kehte kehte.”

Few things sum up the attitudes of developing nations towards what constitutes literary merit better than this couplet by Saqib Lakhnavi. “Can the subaltern speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had asked in 1988, sparking a postcolonial storm among the world’s intellectuals. The question remains, with more to follow: can the subaltern be heard? Can the subaltern even hear itself?


The Sheikh Zayed Book Award recently announced its winners, including, to name a few, Reem Bassiouney’s ambitious historical fiction, Al Halwani: The Fatimid Trilogy, encompassing the tales of three titanic nation builders from Egyptian history who weren’t from Egypt; The Formation of Post-Classical Philosophy in Islam by Frank Griffel, which explores the contribution of Islamic philosophy to theology, society and science; and Ahmed Somai’s stunning Arabic translation of Giambattista Vico’s The New Science. Yet the excitement with which this Middle-Eastern award — it received 4,240 submissions from 74 countries — is received can hardly match the fervour with which a Booker or a Pulitzer announcement is greeted.

This isn’t unexpected. It is the norm. Take the Sahitya Akademi Award, conferred on writers in multiple Indian languages (including English), won this year by Sanjeev for his socio-political Hindi novel, Mujhe Pahachaano, Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki, based on the real-life Hindustani classical singer, Janki Bai Ilahabadi, and Sadiqua Nawab Saher’s Rajdev Ki Amrai in Urdu. Even in India, where these honours are bestowed, the media as well as the average book buyer is more likely to remember and purchase books by Booker winners than those lauded by the Akademi. It’s not as if books awarded by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award or the Akademi have to be accepted for their excellence; but even a debate or a discussion on their scholarly or literary merit is notable by its sheer absence.

This is odd especially when you consider that authors from India, or those from the Global South, who get shortlisted or awarded the Pulitzer or the Booker, shoot to prominence instantaneously. Cases in point include Shehan Karunatilaka (The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida) and NoViolet Bulawayo (Glory). These are undoubtedly fine works. But would they occupy as much of the popular and global literary discourse as they do without the stamp of the Booker? Do awardees of prizes from the Global South itself, such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa won by Sifiso Mzobe (Young Blood) and Harriet Anena (A Nation in Labour), have even a shot at occupying a comparable space in the discourse? Just as so much postcolonial theory is taught in institutes which were once the very proponents of colonialism, the Global South seems to never tire of the Global North instructing it on what constitutes good literature and writing.

Beyond geographies, one must also wonder if the yoke of history is so unshakeable, can the tyranny of language be far behind? Language is the mathematics of thought and, as such, each language facilitates an original articulation of ideas — which may be conveyed in translation but can best be born in one or the other vernacular. This is why reading translations of works written in languages other than those one is conversant in is important: it exposes you to ideas you might not have encountered otherwise. Yet, before translation, identification is necessary and for this we have to overcome the hegemony of literary awards for English fiction and non-fiction and look beyond, as well as within, for writing in countless other languages, from Arabic to Tamil.

The onus of this falls not just on India or any one nation but on the readers of the Global South and, indeed, readers of the world as a whole.

Rishi Majumder is a writer, co-founder of Indian History Collective and Director of Oijo. Oijo is a consultant with the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

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