The US-based Kalpana Raina, a committed patron of translation, is on the boards of several commercial and not-for-profit media organisations, including Words Without Borders (WWB), the widely read online magazine for international literature. She is a senior executive with extensive financial experience in the US and internationally. Raina helps finance Yali, a multi-year literary translation project with Sangam House in Bengaluru, which supports fellowships and mentorship programmes for emerging translators today. She spoke to Scroll.in about the diverse literary initiatives she is involved in, the books that inspire her, and her favourite translation story. Excerpts from the interview:
What draws you to promoting literature and translation?
I have been a reader all my life. I credit literature with opening up new and different modes of being, seeing and experiencing life. Growing up in what was then a small town in India, reading was my escape into a bigger, more vibrant world. My love for international literature is probably derived from the simple fact that I have always been a minority (by virtue of language, religion or ethnicity) in every community I have lived in.
This realisation led me to appreciate the necessity and beauty of diversity and multiple perspectives in the way we engage with and understand the world around us. Ishiguro said it best in his Nobel acceptance speech: “It’s hard to put the whole world to rights, but let us at least think about how we can prepare our own small corner of it, this corner of literature, where we read, write, publish, recommend, denounce and give awards to books. If we are to play an important role in this uncertain future…I believe we must become more diverse.”
Congratulations on being appointed to the board of WWB. What is your vision for an international literary platform like WWB – what should its focus be on today?
From its very inception, WWB has championed the cause of world literature in translation. It recognises the need to give voice to those other languages and cultures that define our global citizenship. In 2018 alone, WWB published new writings by 145 authors from 46 countries and translated from 29 languages. It is often the first exposure for a young international writer to the English-speaking world. In addition, the education programme WWB Campus has introduced students across the US to the rich multifaceted world of global cultures and writings. Its vision simply is to make more international writing more accessible to more people.
How do you think the Yali project is impacting translation today?
Yali, which is run by Sangam House, is one of the new initiatives I am involved with. Yali seeks to support younger translators, small publishers and to foster translations in and out of Indian languages. By creating a unique mentorship programme with seasoned translators we hope to nurture a new generation of translators. Yali also searches for works from non-mainstream languages and communities and is interested in supporting oral and folk narratives as well.
In the two years since its inception, the Yali project has produced translations in and out of Hindi, English, Tamil and Malayalam as well as translations out of Kannada and Kashmiri. Works have been placed with Archipelago Books (USA), Juggernaut, Zubaan Books and Kalachuvadu (all in India) and on websites such as Words Without Borders.
You have helped many budding writers/translators and helped advance many fellowships and funds related to translation. What has been your favourite translation story?
My involvement with WWB and Yali has underscored how translations help to preserve linguistic identity and, therefore, cultural identity. We have just embarked on translating HK Kaul’s collection of short stories from the original Kashmiri. Kaul was a Sahitya Academy award winner whose writings are no longer in print. We have located the collections in a library, are looking at preserving them electronically, commissioning translations and creating audio recordings of a selection of the stories. We have just started this work and I think this will be my most interesting adventure in the world of translations.
Do you find that translators are receiving more recognition of their now? Or do we still have a long way to go? What is your advice to young, budding writers and translators?
I do worry about growing the readership for fiction generally and translations in particular. Despite the growing number of awards and better recognition for translation enterprises, I feel that younger people, while still reading, are more interested in other genres. I think we may see more non-fiction translation experiments as well as hybrid forms marrying fiction with opinion pieces. This will be an interesting space to watch.
What are your learnings from your corporate experience that you would like to bring to the literary world?
I am not particularly interested in extrapolating from my corporate experiences but these last few days in Jaipur have underscored the need for better collaborations and partnerships in the translation space in India. There is a lot of work to be done and no one entity can do it alone. In the US too we do not have much government funding for the arts generally. But the arts are better supported through corporate and philanthropic endowments and foundations. There are also professional associations that represent and provide a forum for practitioners. I wish we could all adopt the Norwegian model.
Which books have moved you the most in the recent past and why? Will you be writing a book on your experiences some day?
Three novels stand out amongst the ones I have read lately. Love by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Martin Aitken; Submission by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Lorin Stein; and Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur. I am looking forward to reading more translations of Shanbag’s novels. I think I have only been reading translated works in the recent past. And no, I have no desire to write a book on my experiences.