In my author bio it says that my work ‘has been translated into more than ten languages’. In this case ‘more than ten’ means, as it often does, eleven. What tipped me into those crucial double figures was a trip to India in 2013, one of a number of British Council junkets surrounding that year’s Best of Young British Novelists list. Evie Wyld and I had each brought along five of our short stories for a week-long literary translation workshop at the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi. These stories were to be translated into Punjabi and Assamese, and later published in those languages, boosting my translation stats 22 per cent in one fell swoop.
We don’t hear all that much about Assamese in the UK, but 15 million people speak it in the north-east of India, just over the border from Bhutan. Naturally a few cultural questions arose, which I helped with where possible – clarifying, for instance, that the expression ‘skunk dealer’ did not in fact refer to a dealer in live skunks. The whole thing was a lovely experience that only took a chilling turn at the very end, when one of the translators told me that – because almost no foreign fiction is ever translated into Assamese – these translations of my work would probably have a major impact on the future of Assamese literature.
Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Ned, you needn’t have worried. Your work is not memorable enough to have any kind of influence on anyone, and anyway, that translator was probably just being polite.’ You may be right, but at the time she did sound very much in earnest, and I was horrified. The thousand-year tradition of Assamese letters was going to be permanently warped by a 28-year-old’s faltering stabs at short fiction. The Bangladeshi critic Kabir Chowdhury once wrote that an undue attention to translated work may ‘clog the main channel of original creative writing in the field of national literature’. And here I was as a potential 100-ton fatberg.
I promise this isn’t false modesty. I actually think my stuff is pretty good. If someone came to me and said, ‘Your work will have a transformational impact on the future of English literature,’ I’d be like, ‘Great, I’m finally getting a modicum of the respect I deserve.’ But that’s very different to the Assamese seizing upon me only because they were bereft of better options and I happened to be available (the British Council’s junket assignments were, I think, semi-random, so like some livestock pest in a flight attendant’s hand luggage I could just as easily have been infecting some other country entirely). And that’s not even to mention the especially uncomfortable overtones as a white British guy in the former imperial capital of India.
In the decade since, I haven’t heard from anyone in Assam about whether the Beaumanesque era in Assamese literature actually came to pass. It’s possible that fate intervened. Maybe some other, much more notable translations came out that year, rendering my stuff irrelevant, or maybe every copy was lost in a warehouse fire – these are the sorts of hypotheticals that give me comfort. That British Council trip was the first time I had ever been to India and I will remember it for the rest of my life, but all I can hope for is that the writers of Assam forgot it the very second it was over.