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English publishing in India is finally discovering the world of Hindi literature

English-language publishers have been engaging with Hindi literature at an unprecedented pace and translations between the languages is only poised to grow

In India, the question of Hindi vs English or even Hindi vs Urdu, for that matter, has been politically fraught for writers and non-writers alike.
In India, the question of Hindi vs English or even Hindi vs Urdu, for that matter, has been politically fraught for writers and non-writers alike. (iStockphoto)

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When Vineet Gill was in his mid-20s and just starting out as a writer a decade ago, he decided to speak in English, one hundred per cent of the time. Friends and family members would speak to him in Hindi and he would reply in English as he tried to immerse himself in the language, understand its forms and cadences, and write in it.

Today, says Gill, whose critical English language biography of Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, Here And Hereafter, was published in 2022, he would do things differently. And the reason is simple: The young writer of today is much more incentivised to pursue and nurture their bilingualism or multilingualism.

“By following the ‘one mind, one language’ approach (in my 20s), I was denying myself a wholly different mode of thinking and writing,” Gill, 37, tells Lounge in an interview. “Today, there’s an increased emphasis on translations but also on a kind of multilingual—or at least bilingual—mode even in English texts. Given that reality, I think young writers starting their careers today would do the opposite of what I did.”

Over the last few years, English-language publishers have been engaging with Hindi literature at a hitherto unseen pace. More English-language books in India are beginning to engage with Hindi—and Hindi literature—in a serious, unironic, contemplated way, and not out of some faddish, ill-informed mandate to “Indianise” the page. Publishers have been releasing a higher-than-usual volume of Hindi novels-in-translation, as well as Hindi translations of best-selling English titles. Key “bridge” figures have emerged in this process, too—bilingual or multilingual writers who are as comfortable in English as they are in Indian languages and whose writing in both languages reflects this.

The multilingual approach that Gill speaks of can be observed in the work of writers like Tanuj Solanki. In several stories from Solanki’s 2018 collection, Diwali In Muzaffarnagar, it’s clear (though seldom explicit) that the characters are conversing in Hindi, that Solanki is engaging in what he calls “implicit translation”.

“I am very careful whenever I am doing implicit translation,” Solanki says, “because I don’t want the English to draw attention to itself. We usually judge English prose on qualities like beauty or complexity or elegance but when I know it’s implicit translation, I tone it down.”

Solanki’s latest work is a “hard-boiled” crime novel called Manjhi’s Mayhem, where the protagonist, Sewaram Manjhi, a security guard at a Mumbai café, is introduced on the very first page as a man who cannot read or write in English; his (first-person) story is being ghost-written by his English-speaking journalist friend Ali. Manjhi’s proud insistence on his freedom from English (“None of this happened in English. It couldn’t have” are the first words of the novel) is matched only by his bemusement at his friend Ali’s performative Hindi.

“(…) Credit for this—and a tiny bit of discredit too, for occasionally letting a Hindi word remain, I’m told, or for adding a fancy English word where a simpler one might have done the job—must go to my journalist friend Ali, who does his reporting in English but likes to call himself a patrakaar over beers. He has written this.”

Clearly, the “implicit translation” technique would not work for Manjhi’s Mayhem because the novel’s stylistic tics are informed by the hard-boiled genre’s great American exponents, like Chester Himes and James Sallis (both of whom are name-checked in the novel’s Acknowledgements note). “When I decided to write the novel in Manjhi’s voice, I had two choices—making the ‘translation’ implicit or explicit. Choosing the former meant that my training as a writer would’ve kicked in and I would have toned the English down — and that would have been incompatible with the demands of the genre. Therefore, I chose to make the translation explicit, to make Ali the writer of the story.”

According to Solanki, linguistic profusion means that there will always be certain realms of the human experience that will be the right fit for certain languages. In his childhood, he read a lot of Hindi-language comics but his first exposure to literary fiction was through Albert Camus and Cormac McCarthy. In his stories, there’s a kind of dialectic tension between the Hindi and English “modes”—it enhances the realism of his plots and presents an intriguing case study for multilingual Indian readers.

“There are some milieus in India that the English novel can actually capture really well, possibly better than Hindi or Marathi or so on,” Solanki says. “In a country with as many languages as India, things like this will happen. Certain languages will have access to certain modes of existence— just to give you an example, the Versova or Juhu Bollywood novel would definitely be an English novel because in that milieu, everybody speaks English.”

In India, the question of Hindi vs English or even Hindi vs Urdu, for that matter, has been politically fraught for writers and non-writers alike. In Daisy Rockwell’s Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography (2004), she presents a mini-history of how M. K. Gandhi and others exhorted Indian writers (including and especially those writing in Urdu, Punjabi and so on—languages perceived as not that distant from Hindi) to write in Hindi in order to boost the nationalist movement and present a united cultural front. As Rockwell pointed out, a lot of Urdu writers went along with this proposition because they were lured by the prospect of reaching the massive Hindi-reading readership across north India and beyond.

“The combination of the linguistic flag with so many millions of fellow Indians, and the solid economic possibilities of writing for such a huge audience was enough to turn the heads of many writers. What could be better than patriotism combined with practicality?”

In Here And Hereafter, Gill writes, “(Hindi) is an essentially modern literature, not least because the language itself, in its written form, is not more than 200 years old. And multiculturalism has been inherent to this tradition ever since its beginning. Bharatendu Harishchandra, one of the pioneers of Hindi writing, translated, among other texts, Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice into Hindi. Premchand brought all sorts of influences—from (Rabindranath) Tagore to (John) Ruskin—into his writing. The Chhayavad poets were indebted, in both direct and subliminal ways, to the British Romantics. This is to say that the ethos of give-and-take—crucial to all paradigms of modern thought—is the sine qua non of the Hindi tradition.”

Amitabha Bagchi’s Half The Night Is Gone (2019) is one of the most original and impressive English-language novels to come out of India these last few years. The novel’s central character, Vishwanath, is a grieving Hindi novelist and his letters provide an intriguing echo to Rockwell’s Urdu-to-Hindi thesis. In her review, critic Supriya Nair observed that the novel sounded like a Hindi novel-in-translation—the same trait Rockwell praised in 2010 while writing about Amitava Kumar’s Home Products. “Even Bagchi’s slowly unfurling sentences are fashioned to sound like they were translated from modern Hindi, which is both lavishly, almost acquisitively metaphorical, and direct.”

The alchemy of translation

Writers such as Gill and Bagchi are clearly prolific readers in both Hindi and English. But for the English-only reader, the role of translators like Rockwell becomes paramount. As the translator of classic Hindi works by Bhisham Sahni, Upendranath Ashk, Krishna Sobti and others, she is a pivotal figure in this context (Rockwell also translates Urdu works, like the novel Aangan by the Pakistani writer Khadija Mastoor). Tomb Of Sand, her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s novel Ret Samadhi, won the International Booker Prize last year, becoming the first winner from a South Asian language.

At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Rockwell was part of a whopping six sessions, not to mention a few literary events in Delhi before the festival began. At several points during this tour, Rockwell spoke about the technical finesse required to negotiate the profusion of dialects and regional variations found in Hindi novels. She also spoke about the practical difficulties and roadblocks involved in getting a translation commissioned and published.

During an interview to Lounge, she elaborates upon this aspect. “Whenever I have had copyright issues with respect to Hindi and English publishers, I have never got the sense that these two sets of people ever talk to each other about anything,” Rockwell says. “It’s usually just their legal teams that are in conversation to resolve the dispute. But there are no conversations about cooperation, about bringing books to the people together. It seems like this (cooperation) would be something that benefits everybody, so you wonder why.”

Things are improving, broadly speaking, but the rate of growth is still relatively small. Penguin acquired the legacy Hindi publisher Hind Pocket Books in 2018. Other publishers are also amping up their Hindi output, slowly but steadily. Is it too much to hope for, the notion that Hindi and English publishers would work in tandem in the near future, releasing bilingual editions, perhaps embarking on joint editorial sessions?

“You are talking about a big dream; I have a smaller dream,” Rockwell says. “I wish that in every English-language publisher there’s a staff member whose job it is to keep an eye on trends in other languages. Somebody who knows what’s going on and what has gone on in the past, somebody who is purposeful and takes the initiative to select the most interesting recent (non-English) titles (as well as past titles that have never been translated) and commission translations.

“What bothers me is that in India, most of the translation takes place at the eccentric whims of us translators. We are not paid a lot, so we pick the titles that we really like, the titles that we would most like to engage with.”

Rahul Soni, who has translated Shrikant Verma and Geetanjali Shree in the past, is in a unique position. In addition to his translation career, he also works as a commissioning editor at HarperCollins, acquiring new books (translations and otherwise). “There’s a phrase I like to use about translations, that A.K. Ramanujan once used in the Introduction to one of his works: ‘literal force’,” Soni says. “That’s what I want to introduce through the translation, the literal force of the text. I don’t want the translation to be saying or doing anything the original isn’t. And if the Hindi text is leaving room for ambiguity, I want to retain that in the English version as well.”

HarperCollins releases translations in India under the “Harper Perennial” imprint. One of the great things about these editions is the “P.S.” feature at the end of the book. These “extras” may include contextual essays, reviews published in the original language of the text—or the author and the translator engaged in a conversation about the book and the translation process. “I like the interview format in these P.S. features because it involves the two people that are closest to the text: the writer and the translator,” says Soni.

Despite there being a clear-cut market, Hindi-English bilingual editions are relatively rare. Some recent examples include Maaz Bin Bilal’s translation of Ghalib’s Chiragh-e-Dair and Mani Rao’s Saundarya Lahari, both of which used the Roman script for Urdu and Sanskrit, respectively. “There are a number of practical issues with bilingual editions,” Soni says. “The first is that your page count immediately doubles, so your book costs twice as much to produce. Then there’s the question of rights. The publishers of the original Hindi text may not always be amenable to a bilingual edition—they may feel that such an edition would cut into the sales of the original.”

Expanding the market

With Penguin Random House’s acquisition of Hind Pocket Books, they now have an enviable backlist in Hindi, with writers like Amrita Pritam, Mannu Bhandari, Krishan Chander and, of course, Premchand on the roster.

In 2018, Vaishali Mathur, a senior publishing professional at Penguin, was appointed editor-in-chief of Hind Pocket Books. With the job came the opportunity, and the novelty for an English-language publishing professional, of working with titans like Narendra Kohli. “I had the honour of working with Narendra Kohli sir for close to four years,” Mathur says. “We often had lengthy discussions about life and his writing and the people’s response to him.”

The success or failure of translated books cannot be measured in the same way English-language novels are assessed, says Mathur. The reason being that students and professors are among the major consumers of classics-in-translation. These sales, on academic campuses and institutional libraries, tend to be slow. As a publisher, you have to play the long game.

Mathur points out that with translations, one has to consider a different data point: rate of sale. A novel in translation, for example, may not rack up huge numbers immediately after release. But with time and favourable word-of-mouth publicity, sales add up slowly. Mathur reckons the pandemic has only enhanced this trend.

I don’t want the translation to be saying or doing anything the original isn’t. And if the Hindi text is leaving room for ambiguity, I want to retain that in the English version as well. -- Rahul Soni

Urmila Gupta, Hindi editor at HarperCollins India, expresses similar sentiments about the commercial performance of translated titles. She also speaks about the process through which select English titles are earmarked for quick translations—sometimes, even parallel releases if the author is big enough (Amish’s last book was available in Hindi almost simultaneously as the English original).

“It’s a team process,” Gupta says. “I look at our publishing list in English and assess which of the titles have the best chance of succeeding in the Hindi market. The marketing team also weighs in, evaluating which authors have an existing fan following in Hindi-speaking regions. As of now, the Hindi list is small and we are only picking titles with high sales in English.”

Historically, the Hindi publishing world has lacked sufficient volume in certain areas and genres. “There are some areas where the Hindi publishing world doesn’t have a high volume of good-quality content yet. Like the romcom, for example. There are good romance books in Hindi and there are solid, humorous books. But somehow, the two haven’t quite combined yet in Hindi,” Gupta says, before adding, “Pyaar hamaare liye abhi bhi ek gambheer baat hai (Love is still a serious matter for Indians)! In English, we have someone like Anuja Chauhan for romcom fans.” Indeed, Chauhan’s books often have bits of untranslated Hindi dialogue, as Gupta knows quite well. In 2016, she translated Chauhan’s Battle For Bittora into Hindi, as Jinni.

However, it’s not all smooth sailing yet for translations. Literary agent Kanishka Gupta, who counts Rockwell among his clients, strikes a note of caution when it comes to commissioning translations. “Older titles in translation will typically not have a print run of more than 1,000-2,000 copies, sometimes even less than that.” The publisher’s logic is that these books take time to pick up and they sell a significant number of copies across many years. “Take Tomb Of Sand, for example. There were only about 1,500-2,000 copies initially, of which maybe 800 or so sold. The bulk of the sales happened after the novel made it to the Booker shortlist—and after it won, of course,” says Kanishka.

When Kanishka was at the Frankfurt Book Fair recently, he saw several expressions of interest among UK- and Europe-based publishers—they wanted to read more novels-in-translation, including books translated from Hindi. And while this is progress, it hasn’t quite translated into commercial overhauling—not yet anyway.

“Everybody at Frankfurt knew that I represent a Booker winner, a Hindi novel-in-translation. Before this no book in a South Asian language had even made the longlist, so there’s definitely a surge of interest. But it hasn’t quite translated to a lot of increased business yet. European publishers want to read more books out of this region, though, which is a good start,” says Kanishka.

The “good start” is also helped along by the fact that the last few years in Indian English-language publishing have seen a distinct emphasis on works-in-translation. Malayalam authors S. Hareesh, K.R. Meera, Benyamin, Sarah Joseph and M. Mukundan have all been published in English. Valli, a debut Malayalam novel in translation by Sheela Tomy, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize in October last year, eventually losing to another translation, The Paradise Of Food by Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi. This was the fifth edition of the JCB Prize, and four winners over the years have been translations.

Kanishka reckons that literary prizes, grants, fellowships and residencies are an important factor in the future of translations, especially given the low advances translators get from Indian publishers. He points out that over the last 18 months or so, there have been multiple translations of Hindi books published by translators in their 20s. His client Himadri Agarwal is the 23-year-old translator of Satya Vyas’ superhit Hindi campus novel Banaras Talkies. Agarwal was mentored by translator Arunava Sinha at Ashoka University’s Ashoka Centre for Translation.

Similarly, 25-year-old Vaibhav Sharma won the UK-based National Centre for Writing’s Saroj Lal mentorship. He is being formally mentored by Rockwell and is currently translating Anil Yadav’s book of short stories, Nagarvadhuen Akhbaar Nahi Padhtin. The titular story follows the fortunes of a group of Banaras (Varanasi)-based sex workers. Another story in the same book, Dangaa Bhejiyo Maula!, is the darkly funny story of a Muslim community of weavers living on the outskirts of Banaras.

Polyphonic, multimodal books can do to the monolingual mind what spring does to the cherry trees.

Talking about the influence this book had on him, Sharma says: “The first thing that attracted me to this book was the word ‘nagarvadhuen’ in the title. It’s an old-fashioned word (used for ‘sex worker’ or ‘courtesan’) that you don’t see very often these days. When I started reading the stories, I realised that all of them were about various marginalised communities living in and around Banaras. I had lived and gone to college in Banaras for three years, when I was studying at BHU’s Arts Faculty. I found Anil Yadav’s depiction of the city to be quite interesting and very different from the stuff I had read (whether in Hindi or English).”

Sharma recently translated a Hindi story by Ravindra Kalia where he had to translate the line “kaise geedad ki tarah dekh rahe ho?”. It sounds like a question but is really rhetoric used in a deeply uncomfortable situation (one of the two main characters in the story wants to kill himself and the other person is trying to talk him out of it). Sharma translated it as the blunt “You’re staring at me like a jackal”.

“It’s not all about the translator’s preferences, it’s also about the writer’s intent and what the readers want,” Sharma says. “You have to figure out what kind of a readership you are looking for. Daisy Rockwell says that her audience is like a big tent, one that includes her mother-in-law as well as someone sitting in India, so I have started keeping that in mind.”

Talking to earnest young practitioners like Sharma, one can visualise a pluralistic literary culture where English-language publishers work in lockstep with their Indian-language counterparts, including Hindi. There is so much untapped potential in the world of Hindi literature, hoards of never-translated manuscripts, caches of priceless intellectual property just waiting to be unlocked (notwithstanding low advances).

Polyphonic, multimodal books can do to the monolingual mind what spring does to the cherry trees. And while the “open sesame” moment for Hindi-to-English translations (as well as English books informed by Hindi literature) hasn’t quite arrived yet, it isn’t all that far away either.

“There was a certain sameness of ideas and trends in Anglophone publishing circles, whether it was New Delhi or New York or London,” Gill says. “You were told that certain languages and certain forms were important—a kind of novelistic non-fiction was huge, just over a decade ago, for example. But I realised that in the Hindi books that I was reading, there was a distinct sense of cosmopolitanism, of communicating with other writers and traditions around the world.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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