July brought the announcement of a groundbreaking literary award: the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation. Sponsored by Armory Square Ventures and with a jury of award-winning specialists in South Asian and non-South Asian literary translation from across the world, the prize will recognize an outstanding translator of South Asian literature into English. The winning manuscript will be published by Open Letter Books; excerpts from the finalists will appear in Words Without Borders. We spoke with Jason Grunebaum, translator from Hindi and jury chair, and Pia Sawhney, partner and co-founder of Armory Square Ventures, about the establishment of and goals for the prize.
WWB: What prompted you to establish this award?
Jason Grunebaum (JG): It’s something that a group of us translators from South Indian languages—Daisy Rockwell, Shabnam Nadiya, Arunava Sinha, Johnny Vater, and me—have been dreaming about for years. We worked on a wish list of initiatives that would establish a viable and healthy ecosystem to help South Asian works in translation find good homes around the English-speaking world and bring greater visibility to literatures that are all but invisible outside South Asia. We included material assistance for translators and authors to go on book tours and attend literary festivals, payment for translators to complete sample translations, training for the next generation of translators, and the establishment of a library of modern South Asian classics along the lines of the Murty Library for Classical Indian Literature. But an award like this was at the top of our list because the results are tangible and immediate: a new book every year, visibility for the translator and the author, plus a shortlist that will hopefully entice lucky publishers to pick them up. Aside from this immediate impact, the hope is that other folks will look at the award, see the same needs we do, and ask: what else can we do to help?
WWB: Can you talk about the landscape for translation from these languages in general?
JG: The landscape in South Asia is becoming more lush, with more publishers publishing a greater number of translations, and from more languages. Plus, Rita Kothari and Arunava Sinha are doing amazing work with their students at the Ashoka Center for Translation in New Delhi. There’s also more and more attention being paid to literary translators, who are enjoying greater visibility, thanks in no small part to Daisy Rockwell and Geetanjali Shree’s historic International Booker win this year: not only the first for Hindi, but the first for any South Asian language. Suddenly, everyone’s talking about the need for more good translations of South Asian literature. This longtime dream of ours is finally happening.
At the same time, despite some notable breakthroughs in the US, like Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, and Tejaswini Niranjana’s translation of Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents, Please, only 64 of the 7,600 books published in translation in the United States over the past decade—less than 1%—originated from a South Asian language. And this for a part of the world that accounts for about 20% of the languages spoken by humanity. So while the landscape is growing greener elsewhere, over here it’s still sparse and in need of tending.
WWB: What problems do authors and translators from these countries/languages face in seeking English-language publication?
JG: Since the ecosystem is still quite fragile, the robust channels that help make good matches between author and translator for other languages are less common in South Asia. So we have to rely a lot more on coincidence and happenstance and personal networks in order for the right author and book to find the right translator and publisher. Rights issues can be complicated in every country, but when they’re tricky in South Asia, they’re extremely tricky. Things like disputed copyright and unpredictable executors of literary estates seem more the norm. And even though the status of the literary translator is ever so slowly improving, the same struggles for pay and recognition that translators everywhere fight for must be fought again and again and again. There’s also a not uncommon sense among English-language publishers in South Asia that books in translation are for domestic consumption only. Which, in a way, you can’t blame them for, since the largest market for most works of South Asian literature in English translation will be in South Asia. And yet, as the default position, this does a great disservice to authors and translators, not to mention readers. There’s no small number of excellent English translations available in South Asia that would carry quite well beyond the Subcontinent, but their publishers don’t seek distribution or rights sales in the rest of the world.
WWB: What changes have you noticed in the field over the years, whether in terms of audience development or training and opportunities for translators?
JG: Social media is a terrible evil that is ruining society—except when it comes to connecting people who love books that originate in languages that are less well connected than, say, English or European languages. The internet’s been a great place for readers to find other readers and for translators to find other translators of South Asian literature. The Ashoka Center for Translation is providing opportunities for training literary translators that never existed before. The British Centre for Literary Translation, both in its summer school in Norwich and other workshops organized in India, has created new and exciting opportunities. The road-show iterations of the Jaipur Literary Festival outside of India have also helped raise translators’ profiles by showcasing writer and translator duos. English PEN’s support this year for twelve sample translations from seven different Indian languages is a very welcome development. And the first Hindi-language mentorship—the Saroj Lal Mentorship—offered through the UK’s National Center for Writing was swamped with applicants this year. All of these are incredibly encouraging developments. As a recent piece in the Deccan Herald explored, there is increased demand but still not enough translators.
WWB: Returning to the award, how did you assemble your jury?
JG: We wanted people who understand the importance and significance of the prize, and even more so since it’s the inaugural year. We wanted a mix of South Asia specialists and non-specialists. Among our South Asianists, we wanted to cover a variety of languages and regions. In addition to Pia and me, the jury members include Shahnaz Habib, Anton Hur, Daisy Rockwell, Arunava Sinha, and Jeffrey Zuckerman.
WWB: The majority of translations from this region come from a handful of languages. Was addressing this problem part of your motivation in founding the prize? Are there particular languages you’re hoping to receive submissions from?
JG: Yes, exactly. Bangla, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Kannada, and Malayalam are the “usual suspects,” but there are so many more South Asian languages out there that are even more underrepresented. The relative degree of underrepresentation is one of our judging criteria. We’d love to receive submissions from as many South Asian languages as possible, and, indeed, part of our motivation has been to draw more attention to translated literature from languages that have yet to see the light of day outside South Asia.
WWB: What are the challenges of managing a prize involving multiple languages?
JG: While we have many South Asian languages covered among our jury members, we do need to reach out beyond our jury for languages that we don’t have. Other than this logistical aspect, it’s less of a challenge and more of a joy.
WWB: Pia, can you tell us a bit about Armory Square?
PS: Armory Square Ventures (ASV) is a returns-oriented, mission-focused technology venture capital firm based primarily in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. We created the firm in 2014 out of one community’s desire to seed greater opportunities and jobs for those living in Upstate New York. As such, we invest in startup markets where we believe there may be untapped pockets of opportunity. It is an approach that has served our region. Over the past decade, our firm has catalyzed the creation of over 2,500 jobs here.
Our aim is to identify and support exceptional entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and encourage teams who may lack traditional access to capital and networks. Both Somak and I, as co-founders of the firm, are artists ourselves. We believe creativity can come from anywhere, and that thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems can be created in underestimated regions. Somak and I are Indian American, and, on our team, we value diverse views. Armory Square is enriched and nourished by individuals from a range of backgrounds, all of whom are passionate about uplifting and inspiring growth across America’s smaller cities. We like to say we are an optimism engine for secondary cities and a community catalyst for regions outside Silicon Valley.
WWB: How did you find each other?
JG: We found Armory Square through a great stroke of luck and coincidence. I happened to meet Pia at the (sadly, now defunct) Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA program, directed by Xu Xi and Evan Fallenberg, and once we began talking about the need for more South Asian literature in translation, it was clear she and her husband, Somak Chattopadhyay, at Armory Square shared the same excitement and vision.
PS: At Armory Square, our mission is to foster novel creative opportunity: the kind that can start a new business; the kind that helps realize a lifelong dream; and those that nurture new entrepreneurial ecosystems. Over the past few years, we have realized that cultivating vibrant ecosystems is as vital to the world of literary translation as it is to the world of business.
When we met, I learned Jason had translated a book from Hindi titled The Walls of Delhi, by Uday Prakash. Although I was relatively familiar with Indian writers, I had not yet heard of Prakash or his work. The book is a raw, refreshing, unvarnished look at Delhi’s residents—its hustlers and perpetual strivers. I found its language and storytelling captivating. Many of my relatives still reside in New Delhi, India. My grandfather once ran the Archna movie theater in Greater Kailash I. As such, I am familiar with the seedy underworld Prakash writes about.
By way of background, my maternal grandmother did not speak any English. She grew up in a Punjabi village called Panja Sahib. The place is a Sikh shrine, and my grandmother was educated entirely in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi dialect. She was eleven when she left school and married. She helped raise me but spoke only in that language, framing all her aspirations—social, political, and religious—within it. I gained a perspective on Indian life I may not have gleaned had I only been educated in English.
WWB: What are your goals for the prize?
JG: In the short term, we want to showcase the best translations from South Asia, and help make visible authors, translators, and literature that are still largely invisible outside of South Asia, or even particular regions of South Asia. There is more and more literary commerce happening among South Asian languages, too, but sometimes—sad, but true—it takes an English translation as a bridge and impetus. In the long run, our goal is to see a hundred or more titles per year routinely published in the US and UK and elsewhere beyond South Asia, and for names like Perumal Murugan, Benyamin, Geetanjali Shree, Shaheen Akhtar, Manoranjan Byapari, and Vivek Shanbhag to be as much household names as Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, and Amitav Ghosh.
PS: Our hope is this prize will awaken a new space for literary creativity and industry.
There is certainly a lot of literature written in English by South Asian writers, and there is a rich, healthy, and vibrant literary community around that work. We are interested in bringing to the fore literature by writers who have a desire to express themselves in ways that English may not allow. Excellent translation unleashes fertile ground from which to imagine South Asian life, culture, politics, and history—elevating a realm of ideas that may have been left out of the mainstream.
Our hope is that this award paves the way for a literary future that erases artificial national and linguistic boundaries, while enlarging the worldwide conversation of literature—a conversation that fully includes the writers of this region, which makes up one-fifth of humanity—with many, many stories to share.
JG: We’re hoping that in the years to come, people will look back at the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation and say that this is where it all began: a movement to transform the place of South Asian literature in the west.
© 2022. All rights reserved.