Another excellent thing with this win is that the UK publisher, Tilted Axis Press, was founded by Deborah Smith with her prize money when she herself won the 2016 Man Booker International. So it's a terrific way for this to come full circle for Deborah, who is a role model in many ways.
All that said, I'm conflicted about literary awards in general. Of course, they do a world of good for the authors/translators who get longlisted, or shortlisted, or win. I'm all for that. They are, however, also subject to a whole lot of biases and privileges. For example, the Booker International has particular eligibility requirements for publication, distribution, and marketing, which are not feasible for many publishers. So it is never a level playing field. That said, sometimes, an award brings visibility to more than the winning author/translator. As in this case, where a South Asian language has been represented for the very first time. And we hope this means that it will bring more attention to South Asian literature overall.
Within India, there are other more complex cultural dynamics at play too. For example, we have what's called the translation pyramid, where literature from certain languages gets translated more (and hence is more accessible, visible, and dominant): Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, to name a few. Probe further and you'll find that's because there are more bilingual/multilingual translators and readers in those languages than others, which makes them more "marketable" to publishers. Dig even deeper for why those languages have more translators and readers and you'll unearth regional complexities related to the education, class, even caste systems, dating back to colonial times at least. There are underlying misconceptions as to which languages are considered "pure" versus "corrupt" or "derivative." There are opinions about which languages have rich written literary traditions (when so many South Asian languages still have oral traditions that need to be captured before they're lost forever.) Never mind translations into English, these cultural politics exist even for translations into designated filter languages.
I want to end on a positive note by sharing two things. First, in 2020, I was approached by the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative to be a guest editor for an entire month to spotlight South Asian literature in translation. You can read the entire series with some 25 South Asian translators here. Karen Van Drie, who runs GLLI, had seen me complain on Twitter often about listicles that often left out South Asian literature entirely. Another time, when I made a similar complaint, I was invited to publish my own list, which I did in 2021 at World Literature Today. Trust me, though, for every ten complaints I make, I get maybe one such invitation to help address the issue. :) And I'm always grateful when that happens.
Of course, these days, I'm taking a social media break. So no such complaints for a while. But, if you'd like to share any of this on social media, I will be most thankful.
Until next week.