Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Five years ago, when The Independent re-founded its foreign fiction prize in partnership with Arts Council England, the enterprise felt eccentrically rash, like swimming against a transatlantic tide. You might even have called it "quixotic" - an epithet that entered English because Thomas Shelton in the 1600s hurried to translate Cervantes' tale of the bravely foolish knight. This week, as Per Petterson and Anne Born captured the award ahead of a high-powered shortlist (see page 22), the underlying conditions for literature in translation can still seem as tough as ever.

With English-language fiction now written not just about but on every inhabited continent (thanks to Guyana, that includes South America), even literary globe-trotters may assume that one tongue alone can supply all their imaginative needs. Old-style British insularity may be a thing of the past ("Fog in the Channel: Continent cut off"). In its place arrives the subtler temptations of a monoglot empire of the word. "The world in one city," ran the slogan for London's Olympic bid. "The world in one language," promises Anglophone corporate publishing - much of it, remember, owned by French and German groups.

All the same, the wider cultural climate for translated work often looks brighter these days. Not only did Man Booker fund a biennial global award for career achievement (and, belatedly, grasp that translators ought to receive a slice); the judges gave the inaugural cheque not to an American but an Albanian, Ismail Kadare. When a bank took over sponsorship of the Crime Writers' Association's package of prizes, the mooted exclusion of non-Anglophone contenders stirred such howls of dismay that the patrons soon installed a generous, separate competition.

Back on the high street, Richard and Judy's magic wand now means that a first novel by a middle-aged guy from Barcelona (Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind) can sell a million copies here within two years. A lost masterwork such as Némirovsky's Suite Française can take up long-term residence in British hearts and charts. And, much as I admire the genre, I'm starting to wish that the ever-growing legion of tormented Nordic sleuths would - just for a year or two - hang up their battered anoraks and guilty consciences.

So what's missing from this literary bazaar? After enjoying work brought from Japanese or Arabic, Hebrew or Slovenian, I still think that one mighty gap remains. There seems to be no will, or means, to publish in the UK work by Subcontinental authors in languages other than English. Go to India and you find translations into English of Hindi or Urdu, Tamil or Bengali, writing - often marketed by regional giants such as Penguin India. Yet no one appears to wonder if these versions might deserve a market overseas.

Just one example: last month, in Delhi, the Bengali veteran Sunil Gangopadhyay collected the prestigious Saraswati Samman award. Although a prolific poet and essayist, he won the prize for his colourful period sagas (First Light and Those Days), set in 19th-century Bengal as rebels and idealists squared up to British power.

Gangopadhyay's English translations seldom seem to leave India, although cinephiles will know Satyajit Ray's lovely film of his story Days and Nights in the Forest. But he inherits a great Bengali tradition of literary mischief and satire. A retired cop recently tried to prosecute the writer for insulting religion because his memoir revealed that, as a boy, a statue of the goddess of learning - Saraswati herself - had turned him on. "What can I do if someone does not have a sense of humour? It is our tradition to jest with our gods and goddesses," he rather splendidly said in his acceptance speech. Surely the impish iconoclast could find some kindred spirits here?