Invisible classics

So farewell to the Baltics, and welcome Indonesia. The world’s fourth most populous country, with its 266 million people and 17,000 islands, will be the Market Focus at next year’s London Book Fair. Curious readers might think: how do I start to explore the creative landscape of an archipelago that usually surfaces in the Western media only as the venue for natural disaster or sectarian violence? They might begin with Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006), long recognised as independent Indonesia’s greatest novelist, and a fearless champion of free expression who served jail terms under both colonial and post-colonial regimes. At the heart of Pramoedya’s work stands the Buru Quartet, conceived in prison and first told as stories to fellow-inmates. This immersive tetralogy of historical novels traces its young Javanese hero’s progress as, a century ago, Indonesians recover self-belief and challenge their Dutch overlords.

Australian diplomat and scholar Max Lane produced his superbly readable translations of the Buru books in the 1980s. You can find the 1990s reprints, published by Penguin Australia, on Amazon. The Waterstones website, however, displays three titles by Pramoedya. All are unavailable, with the Quartet not even listed. Of course, the Market Focus programme exists precisely to encourage publishers and other stakeholders to widen horizons
and change minds. But the near-complete invisibility of Pramoedya tells its own story about the hurdles British readers face if they want to discover the greatest storytellers from the world beyond our small corner of Europe.

When, between 2001 and 2015, I judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, well-intentioned folk would sometimes congratulate us on an award for “European literature”. Much as I revere the literary glories of our continent, that was never the point. Like the Man Booker International Prize, with which the award merged in 2015, the IFFP aimed to scan the finest translated fiction from the planet as a whole. That proved a tough call even with contemporary writing. Vast swathes of the globe, especially the Indian subcontinent, would year after year pass virtually unrepresented among the submissions.

I was delighted when, in 2010, we were able to shortlist Chowringhee by the Bengali-language writer Sankar, in Arunava Sinha’s translation. Chowringhee, though, first appeared in Bengali in 1962. For English-language readers, light from the distant stars of Asian and other non-European literatures arrives fitfully, belatedly—or not at all.

Past masters

If that goes for living authors, how much more so for the illustrious dead. Despite imprints such as the peerless Penguin Classics, the map of the literary past unrolled for UK readers still has its uncharted territories. When I began researching The 100 Best Novels in Translation, I was keen to incorporate those fictional classics from beyond the shores of Europe that I already admired—and to discover more. Easier said than done. True, some non-Western cultures have fared better than others on the Anglophone translation scene. Penguin’s new Book of Japanese Stories bears witness to a long, productive dialogue between British and American translators and Japanese authors. Inevitably, fiction from today’s China now acts as magnet for international publishers. This boom, however, followed ages of neglect. No account of modern China can overlook the huge influence of the writer-activist Lu Xun, yet it took until 2009 for a definitive English edition of his fiction—The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales—to appear.

Move to the Indian subcontinent and the blind spots expand. The sheer richness of English-language writing from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka means that publishers tend to assume that they have the region covered. Not at all. Frustratingly, translations of the (non-English) modern classics of subcontinental fiction do exist, but they seldom have any distribution here. Years ago, at the legendary Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata, I came across Penguin India’s translations of the terrific historical fiction of another Bengali author, Sunil Gangopadhyay. Again, you can (just about) locate his landmark novels First Light and Those Days on Amazon, but not via Waterstones.

In 2016, the Man Booker International Prize, in its reconfigured form, went to Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. Here was a first English outing, courtesy of a début translator, for a cutting-edge South Korean author with no previous presence in the West. The spectacular success of The Vegetarian has begun to trample some barriers. Fraction by fraction, new doors have opened for translated work from beyond Europe. That welcome should surely apply equally to the great books of the past. The publishing industry seeks to reflect the whole tapestry of legacies and memories that enriches British life today. The “classics” shelves, as well, would benefit from a bracing shot of global diversity.

Boyd Tonkin's The 100 Best Novels in Translation is published by Galileo. Tonkin will be discussing "Translating Asia" with Aamer Hussein and Deborah Smith at the Bradford Literature Festival on 1st July.