English in India is a delicate topic, and it’s many things to many people. English is a toxic hangover from the British colonial past. It’s a lingua franca that makes the country possible. It’s a class marker. It’s a vehicle for upward mobility. It’s a badge of inauthenticity. It’s a mother tongue. It’s a foreign tongue. It’s a way to fight back. It’s a stick used to oppress. It’s a vehicle for liberation. It’s a false god. It’s a political force used to unite. It’s a political weapon used to divide.
The title of Taseer’s piece is provocative, as good headlines are, though it did create the unfulfilled expectation of a broader discussion of the Indian literature that’s being ruined. In any case, I agree with the gist of it: bright, educated Indians who have little background in English shouldn’t be made to feel like lesser human beings and shut out of jobs. And those with both privilege and English shouldn’t turn their backs on, or noses up at, other Indian languages. Recognising the practical importance of English and honouring other Indian languages needn’t be a zero-sum game.
An invasive species
In To Be Translated Or Not To Be, the seminal 2007 PEN/IRL report on the international situation of literature in translation, there’s a memorable formulation of English as “an invasive species.” Invasive species – like the notorious kudzu that has taken over large parts of the American south – can ruin things, particularly other, more vulnerable elements in an ecosystem. But among the PEN/IRL report’s other conclusions is the obvious point that English isn’t going anywhere. The question then becomes how this invasive species can be used constructively to help writers in less well-connected languages gain readers, and possibly complicate the hegemony of English along the way.
It’s a perverse phenomenon, but it happens all the time: a writer writing in a language other than English may struggle for years, writing and publishing in her mother tongue. She may have a strong and loyal readership, good reviews, meaningful awards. Yet it’s often not until the book is translated into English – often then enabling translations into other languages – that the author feels she has really “arrived,” and receives the attention that she deserves in her own country. It’s not just with Indian, or South Asian, writers. This happens everywhere, among writers the world over whose writing language is other than English.
It’s not that these literatures have been ruined. They’re there, and often thriving. But since they don’t exist in English, they’re often not visible.
And this is the point that Taseer misses. I doubt he would have written this piece in the same way if he could walk down to his local bookstore and find a wide selection of good English translations of writers from Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Assamese, Oriya, Panjabi, Kannada, Gujarati, and other Indian languages. These writers do exist in English translation: not in as great numbers as they ought to be, not always translated as well as they could be, not on the main display tables because publishers don’t push them as much as they should – and not necessarily being read by foreign tourists sitting on the ghats in Banaras. But the books are there, if you care enough to look: English translations that perform the magic of transforming the assumed ruined into the visible and worth reading.
Back to my original question: so what’s a good Indo-Anglian writer to do? Various writers provide different answers. Many were delighted when Jhumpa Lahiri suddenly became a champion for literature in translation, though her comments were more a criticism of the language provincialism of the Anglophone literary world than a considered boost to Indian writers. Amit Chaudhuri, himself an occasional Bangla translator, has consistently advocated for and supported Indian literature in translation, particularly with the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature that he edited. Salman Rushdie infamously dismissed Indian writing in “vernacular” languages as inferior to post-Independence writing in English.
Finally, though, my answer would be that Indians writing in English don’t have a special responsibility: being a writer is hard enough for anyone, and there’s no reason that someone with a South Asian name who writes in English ought to be saddled with the additional burden of advocating for literature written in the Other Languages of the subcontinent. It’s simply an unfair demand.
But though the answer may be no, there’s a big caveat, and that’s why I’m writing this piece. When a writer like Taseer does decide to wade into the tricky waters of English and Literature and Power and Privilege in India, correctly identifying English as an outsized, problematic force that can cause all manner of distortions, it’s more than just a small blind spot and a huge missed opportunity to overlook the possibilities of translation as a vehicle for change. If you want to write about English as a destructive force in Indian literature, then you had better think deeply about the role of translation to create.
At the end of his piece, Taseer notes that nothing less than “…a remaking of the relationship between language and power” will be required as a remedy to the problem of English in India. In its small way, this is what the activism of translation does every day: instead of trying to slash the kudzu away, it makes the weed work for the less-possessed, who are otherwise choked and disappeared behind the canopy of creeping green.
Jason Grunebaum's books include The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Yale University Press) and The Walls of Delhi (Seven Stories Press), both translated from the Hindi of Uday Prakash. His work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature, and has received an NEA Literature Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. He is senior lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago.
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