The Translation of Diasporic African Indian Autobiographical Voices into the Languages of Spain

Achmat Dangor (1948-2020) and Moyez G. Vassanji (1950-)

Juan Miguel Zarandona

Universidad de Valladolid, Soria


This chapter draws its concepts, empirical data and dialogic inspirations from two main sources: the notion of a ‘world literature’ and Spanish reception of postcolonial literary works. First, according to David Damrosch (2003), the concept of ‘world literature’ in combination with ‘translation’ has sparked new interest, especially in the context of postcolonial literature. Damrosch rejects the use of the term ‘world literature’ to describe what is mainly the Western European literary canon, and proposes instead that it describes literature circulating beyond its country of origin. This means that ‘world literature’ relies on a fruitful collaboration between the fields of literary theory and translation studies.

In the postcolonial context, translations are being done increasingly from and among an unprecedented range of literary worlds, both recognised and marginal (Tymoczko 1999). A good example of this trend, and my second source of inspiration, is the reception of postcolonial literature in the Spanish literary polysystem. Books (including translations) published in Spain circulate easily in Latin America, parts of the USA, and other areas of the world.

This chapter considers two Spanish polysystems, the majority one written in Castilian-Spanish (the national official language), and a minority one, in Catalan (a regional official language). The reception of African Indian writing is generally marginal (Lal 2006) and therefore deserves further attention. While some scholars, like Karpinski (2012), acknowledge the contributions of African Indian writers, this group is generally overlooked. For example, in their volume on autobiographical South African writing, Cornwell et al. (2010) ignore works from the diasporic South African Indian community, even neglecting such giants as Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Ronnie Govender (b. 1934) and Imraan Coovadia

The Translation of Diasporic African Indian Autobiographical 95 (b. 1974) (see also Daymond 2018; Roy 2018). A similar neglect is noted in Arkin et al. (1989:201), who comments that “[I]n the field of creative literature, however, Indians have not distinguished themselves as other South Africans have. Only a handful of writers have had their work published and no major writer has emerged so far”. Govinden (2008:19) notes that this ignorance of African Indian writing has negative international consequences in terms of reception. It is evident that this literature still has to conquer its own readership, both at home and abroad (Rastogi 2008).

Efforts to address this neglect led to the foundation of the Ratnakara Research Group, Indian Ocean Literatures and Cultures, based at the Department of English at the Autonomous University of Barcelona under Felicity Hand:

Ratnakara, a Sanskrit term for ‘ocean’ and ‘repository of jewels’, encapsulates the rationale behind our research group.We envisage the Indian Ocean as a mine of cultural experience with multiple connections that link the countries of its western shores with the Indian subcontinent, a relationship that was thriving centuries before the Europeans set foot in the area thanks to the Monsoon winds. Our group seeks to uncover the richness of the cultures and literatures of the region, ranging from Kenya to South Africa and not forgetting Mauritius, the star and key to the Indian Ocean.

(Ratnakara 2016)

Ratnakara has contributed, for example, to the discovery of South African Indian writer Ahmed Essop (see Zarandona 2015,2016, 2018b), and the translation of Essop’s short story “Two sisters” (1978), into Spanish as “Dos hermanas” (Essop 2010). Zarandona (2018a) addresses how race plays an influential role in the reception of South African literature in Spain. While white writers such as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee are well received, and black writers such as Zakes Mda have a moderate following, translations of South African Indian literature are rare.

In this chapter, I explore the writings and translations of two contemporary African Indian writers, the South African Achmat Dangor (1948-2020) and the Kenyan-Canadian Moyez Vassanji (b. 1950). Both authors have been translated into Spanish, and Vassanji also into Catalan. Of Dangor’s ten works spanning from 1981 (Waiting for Leila) to 2017 (Dikeledi), three have been translated into Spanish. These are: The Z town trilogy (1990) translated as Trilogía de Z town (2009) by Juan Estrella; Kafka’s curse (1997) translated as La maldición de Kafka (1999) by Encarna Quijada Vargas; and Bitter fruit (2001) translated as Fruta amarga (2004) by María Montserrat Via. Of Vassanji’s fourteen works spanning from 1989 (The gunny sack) to 2019 (A Delhi obsession), only one, The in-between world of Vikram Lail (2004) has been translated into Spanish as El mundo incierto de Vikram Lail (2006a) by Gemma Rovira Ortega. It has also been translated into Catalan as La patria aliena de Vikram Lail (2006b) by Xavier Pàmies Jiménez.

Both writers are African, Indian, minority, postcolonial, diasporic, hybrid and contemporary. Not only do their works enlarge the English literary canon, making it more inclusive, but they also promote the richness and complexity of ‘world literature’, specifically in the Spanish literary polysystem.

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