We're pleased to welcome Varun Nayar as a WWB editorial fellow. Varun is a writer, editor, and researcher from Delhi, India. He was most recently the nonfiction editor of Asymptote, and has written for publications including Pacific Standard, Himal Southasian, and National Geographic Traveller India. He currently works at the Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru, as well as at WWB. Varun spoke with us about his relationship to translation, his interest in photography, and the books that have influenced him.
WWB: What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
Varun Nayar (VN): I first came across WWB in a translation seminar in college. I was a senior at the time and working on a project on Hindi literature after the Indian Partition. My grandparents were refugees from Pakistan, and although I had known this fact my entire life, I only began exploring it in a more focused way as an undergraduate. I’d also been living in the US for a few years by that point and felt acutely aware of my distance from Delhi and the language I spoke regularly there. Studying and translating Hindi literature felt like a way into a historical experience that––though not unique to my family––was nonetheless deeply personal. Of course, I soon learned that my familiarity with the language wasn’t enough to grant me the kind of access I had hoped. Language has been crucial in articulating the Partition, yet it can only explore one dimension of its trauma. I, two generations removed, had to accommodate that partiality into my work.
It was then that I began to think more critically about fluency, an idea that didn’t feel politically charged to me until I left India but has since become significant to how I see language and translation. Depending on where you’re coming from (geographically, culturally, socioeconomically), broken language barriers can create valuable opportunities for cross-cultural exchange but also risk rehearsing familiar inequalities. There’s a tendency in mainstream (often Western) publishing to present translated literature as an uncomplicated point of access to other places––“out there”––and to value a translation primarily for its “smoothness.” Moving against this inclination, I think there’s great power in work that can embrace friction, opacity, and incompatibility, that sees in difference not a problem to be solved but an opportunity for looking more closely. Over the years, I’ve continued to admire WWB for walking the walk in this regard and often featuring writing outside and across strict geographical and cultural categories.
WWB: Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
VN: I’m drawn to work with a strong spirit of experimentation—probing and roomy books that don’t stress insight but can convince me of a new approach in the way that they’re built. The ongoing lockdown has meant revisiting old favorites and (belatedly) opening recent recommendations from friends. I’m a serial rereader, and one book I return to frequently is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (Coming Through Slaughter is a close second). Though not strictly a translation, it deals with themes of cultural alienation and the failure of language with great sensitivity. I’ve also been revisiting work by Bohumil Hrabal, who I discovered as an undergraduate, and the inimitable Ivan Vladislavić, who formed a sizable portion of my graduate research.
What else? I think Véronique Tadjo’s The Shadow of Imana (tr. Véronique Wakerley) and, more recently, Susana Moreira Marques’s Now and at the Hour of Our Death (tr. Julia Sanches) are both exceptional literary nonfiction books. So is The Book of Embraces (tr. Cedric Belfrage) by Eduardo Galeano, who I’m criminally late to. Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock is nothing short of a magic trick, and I also admire Dom Moraes’s travel writing and Sara Suleri Goodyear’s linked essays in Meatless Days. Most recently, I read and loved Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line and found the way it contorts English bilingually to be really original and effective.
WWB: Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
VN: Translations from the Global South are often lauded for their “sweeping” national scope. While I can appreciate books that take on this ambitious (though somewhat misleading) project, I’m more interested in specificity, especially in fiction. In India, I’ve found the work of publishers like Seagull Books and, more recently, Eka in supporting translated literature from regional languages to be an antidote to the prevalence of a certain type of national novel/narrative. For instance, earlier this year, I read Vimala Devi’s 1963 short story collection Monsoon (tr. Paul Melo e Castro), which takes a number of differing approaches to the deeply classed and caste-based character of colonial Goa in the waning years of Portuguese rule. The book––which I incidentally found on Seagull’s online catalog––opened me up to the history of Lusophone literature from the state, which provides a contrast to mainstream British colonialism in the subcontinent but is never completely delinked from its influence.
WWB: You’ve traveled quite a bit. What are some of the places you’ve visited that have inspired you?
VN: I’ve been fortunate to live in a number of places in my life so far. Until late last year, I was in Scotland, a place so disarmingly beautiful it makes even the constant rain worth it. I’ve since moved to Delhi––where I grew up but haven’t lived in over a decade––which has involved its own kind of unlearning and relearning, especially at a time of such political ferment for the city. Before India’s lockdown in March, I also made two trips to Myanmar and Nepal, respectively. I hadn’t traveled through South and Southeast Asia much, so both visits definitely gave me a more nuanced sense of India’s place in the region.
WWB: Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
VN: Photography is a big interest of mine––both its technical and historical aspects. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the links between photography and colonialism. In addition to WWB, I’m also involved with the Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru, where I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about studio photography as a social practice, and the role of the photographer as a community member (as opposed to a passing photojournalist). Photo studios are steeped in a particular kind of elite, colonial legacy, but as photography became more accessible over the twentieth century, they also became spaces for great experimentation and artistry.
I’ve recently been looking at work from people like Seydou Keïta and Adama Kouyaté in Bamako and Hashem El Madani in Sidon. All three opened their own studios around the 1950s and chronicled a time of marked social change in their cities through portraiture over the next few decades. Currently, I’m working with a similar studio photographer from central India for an exhibition here, and it’s been fascinating to go over his contact sheets from the 1970s and ’80s with him.