Tamil Women Poets Speak Out

Over the past few months, I've had the incredible privilege of judging the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, alongside Tess Lewis, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Becka McKay, and Jarrod Annis. We're incredibly proud of our longlist; the quality is top class, but the breadth of languages (Tamil! Zapotec! Dari!) and the fact that 7/10 of the books are by women are also exciting and important. 
Wild Words was actually one I called in myself, as I'd been introduced to it by Manasi Subramaniam of HarperCollins India. She's a passionate advocate for translating India's regional literatures, and we're thrilled to be working with her to strengthen Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay's international profile (HC India first published Arunava Sinha's translation of Abandon, which we're doing as a follow-up to Panty). Here's an interview I did with her, which will also be up on the Three Percent website, along with pieces on all the longlisted titles. 

How do you feel about the longlisting? 

Hearing about the longlisting of Wild Words for such a prestigious award gives us immense joy. I’m so glad and grateful that awards like this one even exist.

How did you come to publish the book? What made it stand out for you, and what has the reception been like? 

The reception has been absolutely fantastic. The reviews have been unanimously positive and admiring. I just wish poetry would sell more!

This is an unusual book for many reasons: it’s poetry, it’s translation, it’s an anthology, and it’s all women. All four of these things excite me for very different reasons, and I love that there exists a collection such as Wild Words that manages to bring them together. I actually chanced upon this book in its earlier edition, which was published as a bilingual Tamil-English book by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House. I’m a Tamilian myself, so I was very taken with the book, as well as with the reasons for putting together these 4 poets in particular.

In 2003, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets – particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma (an activist and political who is also the subject of a brilliant documentary - Ed), Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani – charging the women with obscenity and immodesty. The response of the Tamil literary world was markedly violent. A lot has changed since then – but a lot remains unchanged still.

What's the status of India's regional literatures, as opposed to work written originally in English? 

Indian fiction in languages other than English represents the richness and diversity of our tongues in ways that only multiplicity can. There's so much wonderful work happening in the Indian languages (English is an Indian language too!) and it seems only fair that the languages all translate into and out of each other. If we don't keep doing that, these voices will never be heard outside of their languages. Intercultural understanding seems increasingly important in a country like India that's both global and multilingual. While critics and reviewers are incredibly receptive to translated literature, it does seem harder and harder to get the reading public as excited about translation as we ourselves are. So - while we are able to do high-quality translations and work with other publishers and translators - it remains a problem of numbers. We also have to depend on scouts when it comes to languages we are not familiar with. 

What's it like trying to get publishers outside the subcontinent interested in these translations? 

I haven't had a great deal of luck getting publishers internationally to pay attention to our translations. I do want them to have a wider market and be published in the US and the UK, but I think perhaps that the English-speaking world's interest in translations is still restricted mostly to the European languages. There's the odd success story here and there, but it isn't as yet easy for me to pitch translations to the US and UK publishers that we work with.