As we arrive at our last issue of adda’s special collection, Translations: South and Southeast Asia, I feel as if we are returning home after several months of travelling. Our journey has taken us across seven lands into the textual worlds of storytellers and poets from 15 linguistic communities. In this age of pandemic, where international travel seems like a distant memory and an impossible desire, it has been a true privilege and pleasure to voyage with you through these imaginative realms.
One aspect of this project that reverberates powerfully with me is that it offers a gathering place for literature that is simultaneously a zone of convergence and divergence. Some works connect through a natural affinity of theme and context while others speak to each other through points of contrast. It strikes me that such gathering places are rare. Is it not true that writers and translators from the non-Western world often first meet each other in the literary centres of the West? Our work is profoundly shaped by the politics of translation—imbalances of power that determine who gets translated, who gets published and from which languages. In major publishing houses in the anglophone sphere, the term ‘world literature’ has come to be synonymous with literature from the non-Western world as if the West lay somewhere else, outside this world. Or it divides the vast and various literatures of our world into ‘major’ and ‘minor’ while imposing anachronistic hierarchies of importance and worth.
Publishing spaces that disrupt these embedded structures of power are vital channels for the lifeblood of literature. While the Commonwealth bears a colonial legacy that is necessarily bound up with violence and resistance, it is premised on a shared historical experience among diverse communities and countries. This project testifies to the possibility of forging new lines of confluence among writers, translators and readers of South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond. Notably, this project digs deep into the earth of each land, featuring many translations from minority languages and, consequently, the voices of those who may be marginalised from the establishments of ‘national literature.’ In this issue, for instance, Shash Trevett reflects on ‘translating the trauma’ in two poems by Alari, translated from Tamil, which speak from the wounds of the civil war in Sri Lanka.
The translations featured here also validate multiplicities of English, incorporating local terms and sensibilities that add layers to the living palimpsest of language. In her translator’s note, Adriana Nordin Manan shares the challenges she faced translating ‘the quirkiness in the Malay cultural context’ and the need to leave certain terms untranslated from the Malay. Here and elsewhere, we see work that resists the ‘invisibility of the translator,’ unafraid of leaving traces of their own interpretation upon the work they transform. After all, translators are not disembodied spirits but beings of flesh and blood, participating in a creative act. As Roberto Calasso, the great polymath writer and translator who left this world a few days ago, once said: ‘The mark of a good translation is not its fluency but rather all those unusual and original formulations that the translator has been bold enough to preserve and defend.’
What a privilege indeed it has been to edit these issues together, and what fine luck to read the work of writers and translators from across South and Southeast Asia. So many confluences of imaginations, so many shared concerns and so much exploration of shared histories. It’s ironic that writers and thinkers in our geographically concatenated region don’t get much opportunity to speak and learn from each other. Our ears are so completely trained toward the anglophone metropolitan centres that for our voices to reach the East, they need to ricochet off a big publisher in London or New York. The pre-modern and early modern networks of exchange that were the lifeblood of the region have disappeared, and one of the challenges before us is to forge and revive these solidarities again, to read and listen to each other, to imagine together. For all that to happen, translation is vital.
What has made our present venture even more special and rewarding is the complete editorial freedom we have enjoyed. We haven’t had to worry about pressures of the market or marketability. The stories and pieces we have featured in Translations: South and Southeast Asia push against what writer Amit Chaudhuri describes as ‘market activism,’ a phenomenon since the late nineties where ‘agents and publishers abandoned the traditional forms of valuation by which novelists [and, I would also add, writing at large] were estimated, published and feted, and embraced a dramatic, frontiersman style of functioning that involved the expectation of a reward more literal than any form of cultural capital.’ Chaudhuri’s concerns resonate for me strongly in this moment where the literary world is dominated by larger-than-life international global literary figures who represent literature—quite often, for extra-literary reasons. The forms of writing that receive global readership and big publishing contracts are ones that are attending to ‘global histories’ which leaves little to no room for the small, the local, the vernacular writings and histories.
In that respect, I see our work together in these issues as a celebration of literature in its humblest, most honest form. We sought our materials through an open call without a thematic prefilter, offered translators a free reign over the selection of materials and read the submissions as rank beginners. So many of the writers we discovered for the first time, so many writers translated for the first time—what a rare and marvellous space we were able to create in these few issues. As you said, spaces like these are vital channels for the lifeblood of literature.
I wish to express my deep gratitude to you, the adda team, especially Gitanjali Pyndiah and James Tennant, for making this collaboration possible and utterly pleasurable.
May these conversations, celebrations, wonders continue in other rooms, other spaces.
Illustration by Madhri Samaranayake
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