From the Village into the World: Premchand (Studies) in World Literature and Translation Studies Contexts

Shobna Nijhawan

Nawab Rai, Munshi  Premchand or – simply – Premchand (1880-1936), the penname he chose after an early short story collection of his was proscribed by the colonial government, is considered to be one of the most prolific and canonic writers in modern Hindi and Urdu. Premchand was the son of a village postmaster. He lost his mother at the age of eight, was married at fifteen and lost his father soon after. He then carried the financial responsibility for the members of his family. Premchand was educated in Urdu and Persian and attended a Christian mission high school. He worked as a teacher, but quit his secure government job in 1921 in typical ‘Gandhian fashion’, as did many influential nationalists of that time who gave up lawyer’s practices, and masses of students who left government-run educational institutions in an act of civil disobedience against colonial rule.

There exist numerous monographs and scholarly essays on a diversity of themes covered in Premchand’s fiction as well as the impact he had on the development of Hindi and Urdu literature and the progressive writing literary movement (pragativad) in the early 20th century. Analyses of his depictions of peasants, Dalits, women (and their psychological states), and life in the village more broadly have occupied scholars in the disciplines of South Asian literature as well as (disputably) those of history, the social sciences, and postcolonial studies. There exist numerous translations of Premchand’s work in a diversity of languages and the reception and significance thereof forms the focus of the volume under review as it explores how Premchand’s fiction and essays – over the decades after his passing – paved their way into world languages. While Premchand’s role as a world literary figure is not necessarily the focus of the volume, the contributors nevertheless develop this claim. Premchand was himself a reader and translator of world literature and, after all, one of the many definitions of world literature is the circulation of literature in the world. This matter is complicated when dealing with the reception of a non-Western writer in the Western world (of academia). Even in Indian educational settings, however, the reception of Premchand is not as straightforward as one might expect.

First conceptualized as an international seminar at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2012, the papers are grouped into four parts:  seven essays surveying translation and reception of Premchand’s oeuvre in English, German, Russian, Spanish, and French; four essays on Premchand’s own translation practice including his self-translation projects; two essays on the rendering of Premchand’s works in Indian alternative cinema by the Bengali director Satyajit Ray; and two explorations of the urban and the rural in Premchand’s fiction, respectively. While situating Premchand as a vernacular and world writer, the contributions thankfully do not neglect his impact on (literary) nationalism and his specific brand of literary realism as it stretches from utopia to disillusionment. After all, his writing is taking place in a period of Indian history that marks heightened anti-colonial resistance and critical engagement with social flaws (such as the dowry system, caste discrimination, and property rights), especially in the village. The contributions go well beyond the discipline of literature even though the majority of contributors is housed in the departments of English and South Asian literary studies.

The contributors – many of them themselves translators of Premchand’s work and employed in Indian, European, and North American institutions – acknowledge the amount of translations that have led to the popularity and accessibility of Premchand’s oeuvre. They are, however, also critical about the methodologies and epistemologies that have led to these translations. As Harish Trivedi asks most poignantly, ‘What is one translating and just how much can one possibly translate?’ (p. 15). These are not new questions and challenges, but they encapsulate the beauties and frustrations translators and readers face when engaging with literature at the producing and receiving end. For Avadhesh Kumar Singh, ‘Un/translatability is a myth’ (p. 129) and this is of course not only the case for translations from non-Western languages into those that claim a global status.

Aside from theories of and several personal experience with translation shared by the contributors to the volume, contributions on Premchand’s politics of language, especially his switch from publishing in Urdu to Hindi and the resulting ‘revisions, transcreations, [and] reinterpretations’, as Snehal Shingavi writes (p. 147), provide nuanced explorations of Premchand’s own (linguistic and cultural) translation practice. Particularly relevant for the present day are the investigations of Premchand’s cultural nationalism and anti-communal sensitivity alongside his social critique of archaic village structures. His development of new aesthetics in Indian writing form the subject of the contributions in the different sections of the volume. Each essay is carefully argued, broad in scope and draws generously from primary source materials while also offering a bibliography of secondary sources.

Though the volume may not be useful for inclusion in the undergraduate classroom (for that purpose, readers can consult the Oxford India Premchand Omnibus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) that consists of a comprehensive introduction to the time and life of Premchand as well as English translations of his short stories, novels, and essays), its meticulously researched, carefully argued and dense contributions are indispensable for scholars of South Asian studies as much as – or even more – for those studying in translation studies and comparative literature departments. Overall, they make a convincing case for the installation of Premchand into world literature and languages. The relatively short section on cinematic representations of Premchand would have benefitted from a contribution discussing the songwriter Gulzar’s adaptation of Premchand’s short stories and novels, as screened in the highly ideological Doordarshan TV-series Tehreer (also available on YouTube). A contribution on Premchand’s role and reception in Pakistan, where he is also appropriated as national writer, would have broadened the South Asian scope. A compiled bibliography of primary and secondary sources at the end of the volume (and not following individual essays) would have also be welcomed. The reviewer understands that this may not have been the scope of the volume; for those interested in delving into text, context, and paratext, however, familiarizing oneself with Premchand’s own works (in translation) is indispensable and a much-recommended starting point. Needless to say, the volume is an invaluable contribution to Premchand studies and calls for more in the near future.