FOUND IN TRANSLATION
Writer Namita Gokhale hates the term vernacular, a condescending relic of colonialism that doesn’t do justice to India’s rich literary heritage. Fortunately, “that prejudice towards Indian languages is now gone”, says the co-founder and director of next week’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
With publishers devoting bigger budgets and authors famous for their own works turning their hand to translation, works originally written in Indian languages are beginning to break the stranglehold of so-called ‘Indian writing in English’.
Last year, Srinath Perur’s English translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella Ghachar Ghochar (Penguin) made it to The Guardian’s list of Best Books of the Year and The New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2017. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile also won global accolades. “While the European market was always open to translations, with a frequent exchange between France, Germany and India, the English market was generally resistant,” says Gokhale. “Now that is also changing.”
It’s been a long time coming, and many people helped make it happen. Arshia Sattar set up the Sangam residency in 2007. Aditi Maheshwari of Vani Prakashan has worked doggedly to promote Hindi literature. Mini Krishnan, editor of Oxford University Press, has pushed Indian language fiction in translation. And Mita Kapur, founder and CEO of the literary agency Siyahi, organised a seminar, ‘Translating Bharat’, in January 2008 to bring together local and international translators and publishers. Translations were already billed as the industry’s “next big thing”. But it’s taken a decade for the results to begin to show. “The industry has notched up its act in this area, not only in the quality of translations but also numbers,” says Kapur. “You see many more authors being translated into various languages. Many more Indian language translations are being sold on book shelves. It’s a good time and we have to keep the pace going.”
Gokhale says JLF has also played a significant role. Though its big name international guests garner most of the attention, the 10-year-old festival has always focused on showcasing Indian writing, both in English as well as in Indian languages, she claims. Five years ago, for instance, the Jaipur BookMark was launched at JLF to facilitate the sale and exchange of rights, both between Indian languages and internationally. “I knew that a literary movement in India would happen only if the distances between the languages were breached,” says Gokhale.
HarperCollins India’s imprint Perennial, dedicated exclusively to translations, is celebrating its 10th anniversary too. With more than 100 titles under their belt, they’ve handpicked 10 of their favourite Perennial books to be published as keepsake editions this year. Amazon-owned Westland plans to go a step further. Each of its English books will be translated into eight or nine Indian languages this year, and the publisher has tied up with Hind Yugm for its first original Hindi title in 2018.
Such efforts have brought new and better translators into the fray, including successful writers like Jerry Pinto, who are well
ORIGINAL WORKS IN INDIAN LANGUAGES ARE BEGINNING TO BREAK THE STRANGLEHOLD OF SO-CALLED ‘INDIAN WRITING IN ENGLISH’
known for their own works. Pinto, who has translated three Marathi books since 2013, traces the new interest to the “newfound confidence in India as a potential world player”—which has made the country’s literary heritage a point of pride. But Rahul Soni, author, translator and editor at HarperCollins, isn’t sure readership has increased alongside the greater attention. “Translations have become, over the past few years, one of the things that people talk about and deem important,” he says. “Has the readership grown? Not too significantly, I would think, but slowly and steadily.”
One reason for that is publishers still don’t devote the same resources toward marketing translations that they do to works originally written in English, says Shanta Gokhale, known for her translations of Marathi plays. “Publishers only send review copies to newspapers and news websites. If any marketing is to be done, the writers/ translators do it, generally via social media, for which no monetary investment is required.”
The claims for JLF notwithstanding, the high-profile literature festivals cater primarily to authors who write in English, she says. “Not much discussion can happen about Indian language literature at these festivals because neither the organisers nor audiences would have read the literature in the original.” Even Mumbai’s Gateway Litfest, which is dedicated to literature in Indian languages, only invites writers who can speak in English, while the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival’s events for Marathi and Gujarati literature invariably attract an audience so small it is “very disheartening for participants”, she adds.
This year, the Rajasthan Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh will hold the Parallel Literature Festival across town from JLF, highlighting the literary works of writers in Hindi and other Indian languages over 24 sessions, from January 27 to 29. But it remains to be seen whether any of the JLF literati will deign to turn up, or when, if ever, an Indian translation commands the kind of readership drawn to Japan’s Haruki Murakami or South Korea’s Han Kang.
“One can hope,” says Soni. “And I think focusing on the quality of translation is the place to begin.”