Literature in translation corners a tiny percentage of the international literary market in English, an official national language in 45 Commonwealth countries. However, languages and cultures in all these places are many and varied. Translation can build bridges between languages and enable literary heritages to be shared. We work with translators to provide opportunities for writers using languages other than English. The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is open to entries translated into English and both the original writer and the translator are rewarded.
Bangla-English literary translation project
One of our first translation initiatives was a Bangla-English literary translation programme in Bangladesh. Commonwealth Writers, English PEN, the British Centre for Literary Translation and the Dhaka Translation Centre developed a programme to support literary translation skills development and promote contemporary writing from Bangladesh. Bangla is one of the world’s most spoken languages and has a very active literary community. Yet there is little Bangla literature translated into English.
The first step in the project was a workshop organised by the Dhaka Translation Centre (DTC), of the University of the Liberal Arts Bangladesh, from 15-19 November 2014. Led by the award-winning literary translator Arunava Sinha, ten participants worked on a consensus translation of the short story ‘Limits of Love’ by the Bangla author Shaheen Akhtar, with the author present. An extended piece on the workshop and the issues that were discussed is available here.
After the workshop all the participants were committed to continuing to translate fiction from Bangla into English and formed their own Facebook group to translate a novella of their choice, under Arunava’s guidance before going on to translate stories for an anthology as part of the Bangla-English Literary Translation project.
The participants met for a further workshop, again organised by the DTC, from 15-19 May 2015, critiquing and editing the first draft of Bangla stories translated into English. The workshop was facilitated by Arunava Sinha together with Ra Page, Founder and Editorial Manager of UK-based Comma Press.
The project culminated in the anthology The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction, co-published by Comma Press and Dhaka-based Bengal Lights Books, and edited by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha. The book comprises ten stories, never previously published in English, by leading Bangla writers. Together the stories showcase the city of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the world’s tenth largest city with a population of over 18 million people, a city where people once laid down their lives for the right to speak their own language. The stories, spanning the period from 1971 to today, explore Dhaka’s complex political and social history and rich and varied cultural inheritance.
Commonwealth Writers is now supporting a similar translation initiative in East Africa, the Kiswahili-English Literary Translation Project, in partnership with Soma Book Cafe in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.