Book Awards: Found in Translation

Are all translators now assured that their moment has come? Will hours of poorly-paid labour finally be worthwhile? Will luck, by chance, be theirs?

Book Awards: Found in Translation

Sampurna Chattarji

If you type ‘limelight’ and ask Googleji to translate it into Urdu—you hear a woman’s voice enunciate ‘laimlait, laimlait’ so mellifluously, you simply have to hear it again. I tried it in Bangla, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, and each time a woman—except in Bangla where I was startled by a peremptory male voice—reassured me that it is, it can only be ‘laimlait’.

Was there no other word? Below, I found synonyms ( ) and marvellously scientific dictionary definitions, but above, it was clear—limelight was limelight in any language!

Caught up in this game, I tried Manipuri. On screen there was neither sound nor script—simply  □□□□□□□□□  Aha! Was this then that fabled ‘loss’ that translation theorists keep harping about? Would that not be a perfect starting point for this piece—the metaphor of empty boxes, waiting to be filled? I copied them into Word and voila—Limelight appeared, readily, readable. In transition from screen to page, Unicode had fixed some hidden glitch.

As, it would appear, had book awards. Even the most casual reader could not have failed to notice the headlines celebrating Geetanjali Shree’s 2022 International Booker Prize win—the first for an Indian writer. We all rejoiced. It felt like true validation.

The fact that Geetanjali had already been translated into Serbian, Korean, German and French did not make the headlines—simply sat quietly in the fine print of her bio. It was this mega-win—for a translation into English—that catapulted book, author and translator (yes, you saw it coming) into the limelight on the world’s stage.

That was in May. In November, another novel in translation hit the high note— Khalid Jawed’s The Paradise of Food won the fifth JCB Prize for Literature. The huzzahs this time might have been from a relatively smaller audience but the message was equally loud and clear—translation was finally getting the recognition it deserved.

“And so?”

A small voice in my head, tiny as the gnat that appears near Alice’s ear in Through the Looking Glass, piped up and asked me as I considered this year’s bounty. It didn’t stop there, it went on: Could it be that what really sparked the public imagination was not so much the literature itself, as the amazing fact that it could be worth so much money? Was that a bad thing?

If the stamp of an award could help sell more books and in so doing convince more publishers that translation was indeed a winning proposition, wasn’t that all for the better?

“Yes. And no.”

When a Scottish engineer named Drummond invented the light that would be adopted for use in lighthouses, and subsequently in Victorian theatres, could he have guessed what a handy metaphor it would glow into, long after the thing itself became obsolete?

The Drummond light (better known as ‘limelight’) used jets of oxygen and hydrogen to burn calcium oxide (a.k.a. lime) into the incandescence that would illuminate the principal actors, making the front and centre the most desirable spot to be in.

That was stagecraft, essential for drama. When did it become essential for the production and consumption of literature? With awards and events directing our gaze, might we forget how to look, indeed where to look, once the spotlights are turned off, and the curtains have fallen?

And so, when all the world turns its face to front and centre, I am tempted to wonder what is happening elsewhere—in the wings, backstage, greenrooms?

Are all translators now assured that their moment has come? Will hours of poorly-paid labour finally be worthwhile? Will luck, by chance, be theirs? What of those who translate poetry? Already on the outer-outer margins—in most Indian languages except for some rock-star poets in Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali, for example—how stupid is it to ask: where are the big awards for poetry in translation?

Poetry doesn’t sell. Might not some serious money change that, once and for all? If the commercial proposition were attractive enough, surely that too might come to pass. Right now, what strikes me as skewed is this: when people say ‘literature’, they really only mean fiction. How odd is that for what purports to be kaleidoscopic, global affirmation?

The recognition for poets, such as it is, occurs at a much more localised level. The Tata Literature Live! Poet Laureate Award for instance. In most countries, Poet Laureates are selected by national commissions. What inspired a Festival to do this? TLL founder-director Anil Dharker (1947- 2021) told me in an interview in 2014, the year the award was instituted, that “the idea was to get poetry centre stage”.

Poets only truly stopped being peripheral when they migrated to writing songs for Bollywood. And while that too was fine (Gulzar won the award in 2016 and Javed Akhtar in 2020) the goal was “not just to confer a title but to start a movement”.

Four of the nine awardees thus far are found in translation. So, while a movement may be pitching it too high, there is certainly a quiet continuity. At this year’s awards ceremony (also in November), I had the honour of presenting Gieve Patel the citation I had written, followed by a conversation in which I attempted to touch upon 30 years of writing in as many minutes on stage.

It didn’t feel like it was too little, too late, because I knew his book of Collected Poems existed—right there at the festival bookstall—the true encapsulation of a lifetime in poetry for anyone who cared to find it.

Books remain, trends pass. It needn’t be a binary, an either/or, neither/nor seesawing between doubt and certainty about what the buzz implies for those who labour away at poetry (in or out of) translation, irrespective.

Could the attention being directed at novels in translation be broadened to include poetry in translation? Could we, as receivers and producers of literature in its truly capacious sense, reduce our dependence on the fixed beam?

Traditional limelight was replaced by electric arcs not only because of rapid technological advance but because constant human attention was required to keep the light burning. Could we bring some of that constant human attention back? Follow-spots need human operators, and as they pick out those who might otherwise be left in the dark, might we not find new ways of adding depth and dimension to the scene?

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