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Is this the big moment for Indian writing in translation?

A Hindi novel may win the International Booker this year. But an ecosystem that encourages translations is yet to emerge. Will this finally change?

Corporate publishing houses have started looking more closely at translating books by various Indian language writers into English, and Indian language publishers are just about beginning to get acquainted with rights. A look at how the ecosystem is evolving
Corporate publishing houses have started looking more closely at translating books by various Indian language writers into English, and Indian language publishers are just about beginning to get acquainted with rights. A look at how the ecosystem is evolving (Illustration by Jayachandran)

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On 26 May, the International Booker Prize will be announced—and it could well go to Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret-Samadhi, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as Tomb of Sand. If this happens, it will be the first time in the 17-year history of the International Booker Prize (a sister prize of the Booker Prize) that a Hindi book in translation, even a book from South Asia for that matter, will have this honour.

Translations of Indian books into English have made waves from time to time, winning awards or becoming best-sellers. This has become important for a swathe of the English-reading population in the country, especially over the last 20 years or so, given the rise of “language orphans”. The term, which veteran publisher and editor Mini Krishnan has used in interviews over the years, refers to the inability of many people to read (either fluently or at all) in their ancestral languages.

“There are those amongst us who do all their reading in English and were never encouraged to take their mother tongues seriously,” says Krishnan, one of the early editors to make a case for translations from Indian languages into English. “For this section of the reading population in some sense maimed by fate, education, call it what you will, it might take a decade or two before they realise they could relearn, and rediscover what they had missed. This can happen through the only language they have: English. Even though English sets literary limits, even though it is taught imperfectly, it is still the fastest way to drill through language barriers because the sad truth is that we are becoming increasingly monolingual.”

Front cover of the book
Front cover of the book

Over the past six-seven years, corporate publishing houses have started looking more closely at translating books by various Indian language writers into English. Among the more prominent efforts are Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag’s 2013 novella, Ghachar Ghochar, translated into English by Srinath Perur in 2015, and One Part Woman, the 2010 Tamil novel by Perumal Murugan, translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan in 2013; as well as consistent efforts by the independent publishing house Aleph Book Company to bring short stories from various Indian languages into English, starting with their Greatest Stories Ever Told series in 2016.

While the space has gathered momentum, translators, authors and industry observers say translation, especially translation into English, continues to remain an overlooked area in publishing. The ecosystem is yet to fully develop into one that supports authors and translators, or even educates various Indian language publishers about the demands as well as rewards of being able to reach a wider readership. “It is really only the effort of the writers or their translators that pushes books to be translated into other languages,” says Delhi-based academic Manisha Taneja. The 51-year-old translates between Hindi, Spanish and English, bringing the likes of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Indian English writer Amitav Ghosh into Hindi.

In the case of Tomb of Sand, translator Arunava Sinha, 59, had introduced Shree and Rockwell to their UK publisher, Tilted Axis Press, says Kanishka Gupta, the Delhi-based literary agent who represents Rockwell globally. “Rockwell then had to win the English Pen Award for the publisher to be able to support the translation of Ret-Samadhi (published by Rajkamal Prakashan). Without this, the book wouldn’t have seen the light of day, nor would it even be eligible for the International Booker.”

A need to share literary resources

Shree is not a debutant, breakout author catapulted suddenly on to the global stage. Nor is this the first time she has been translated into other languages. The 64-year-old has been writing for close to three decades now, winning awards like the Indu Sharma Katha Sammaan, Hindi Akademi Sahityakar Sammaan and Dwijdev Sammaan. She has also been translated into various foreign languages—her books have appeared in German, Japanese, Korean, Serbian and French. In India, she has been translated into Gujarati, and in 2000 her book Mai, translated into English by Nita Kumar, was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword Translation Award. But it was only in March that she popped up on the radars of many Indian readers—thanks to the International Booker longlist announcement.

Indians haven’t always been shut off in such linguistic and literary silos, though. There was a time when readers would not wait for international recognition to sit up and take notice of great Indian writers. There would be at least a sense of familiarity with the names of popular and contemporary authors from other states and language traditions, if not a command over oeuvres.

“There has long been a tradition of translations among the bhashas,” says critic, curator and translator Ranjit Hoskote, using the term he prefers for Indian languages. “In the Tagorean age, for instance, so much Bangla literature was translated into Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, and so on…and the other way around too. It made for a kind of a larger sharing of literary resources.”

Ret-Samadhi published by Rajkamal Prakashan and Tomb of Sand's Indian edition published by Penguin Random House India
Ret-Samadhi published by Rajkamal Prakashan and Tomb of Sand's Indian edition published by Penguin Random House India

To encourage the re-emergence of such a culture, Krishnan spearheaded the Modern Indian Novels in Translation project through Macmillan India, with a sponsorship from the Chennai-based MR AR Educational Trust, in 1992. It had five novels each from 11 languages—Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Oriya and Marathi—translated into English.

A few years earlier, Katha, a Delhi-based NGO and publishing house set up in 1989 by Geeta Dharmarajan, had started bringing various Indian language works into English. That same year, the Sahitya Akademi, set up a Translation Prize, which, according to Hoskote “continues to do stellar work, quietly”.

“There is a huge change since the Macmillan list 1996-2000,” says Krishnan, recalling that back then “nobody even wanted to review or discuss translations”. Efforts from Katha and Macmillan “raised the profile of translators”. The sense now, from translators especially, is that there’s a need for concerted backing by the Big Five publishing houses—Penguin Random House India (PRHI), HarperCollins India, Simon and Schuster, Pan Macmillan and Hachette—as well as bodies like the Sahitya Akademi, to sustain and build on the early efforts.

The infection point

“In India, there was a big wave of publishing translations (into English) around the mid-2000s, till a little after the end of that decade,” says Sinha, who works between English and Bengali. Translations were published “in fairly large numbers”, he says, in addition to “a burst of new supply” of Indian writing in English (IWE). “There was a sense that the market was becoming vibrant with new writing,” he says.

This gained greater prominence in 2015 with the breakout star Ghachar Ghochar. HarperPerennial, an imprint of HarperCollins, published Srinath Perur’s translation of the eponymous Kannada novel. This became a crucial moment, especially in terms international media attention.

“It changed things,” says editor Minakshi Thakur, who was then at HarperPerennial; she will soon join Pratilipi as publisher-Indian literature. “It got picked up by reviewers, got published in the US and the UK…suddenly it was everywhere, and translated into several other languages, outside and within India,” she recalls.

Before moving on from the company, Thakur had also commissioned a translation of Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s short stories. Titled No Presents Please, the translation by Tejaswini Niranjana was published in 2017. In 2018, it became the first translated book to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and in 2021, it won the American Literary Translators Association’s (Alta’s) National Translation Award.

In 2018, a major literary prize in India, the JCB Prize’s inaugural edition, also went to a translation—Jasmine Days, a Malayalam novel by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib.

It was a big leap for translated works to be considered alongside mainstream IWE books. When it was first instituted in 2011, the DSC Prize (last held in 2019) was meant to “be awarded for the best work of fiction pertaining to the South Asian region, published in English, including translations into English”.

This influenced publishers to look more closely at mining the trove of narratives in contemporary Indian language writing, to bring them into English. Manasi Subramaniam, associate publisher and head of rights at PRHI, believes this helped expand the definition and scope of literary fiction in English too.

“This had given editors in publishing the liberty of thinking of translations as fiction first and as a translation second,” she says. “One then had a freedom to publish great books because they were great books, not simply because they were prescribed on a syllabus or were considered great classics. This also became a freedom to be experimental with contemporary titles in other languages,” Subramaniam explains.

In fact, in 2014 —a few years before Benyamin went on to win the JCB Prize — another of his books, Goat Days, translated by Joseph Koyippally, had made it to the DSC Prize shortlist. When that happened, “it started being talked about, because back then people didn’t write in English that way, about such subjects,” says Thakur. “The themes (in IWE) were still very (much centred in) Delhi or upmarket Bombay, and they were very predictable.”

There is agreement on this. “It’s nobody’s fault, but Anglophone fiction comes out of a particular milieu largely, and it will therefore bear witness largely to that milieu,” says Hoskote. “Obviously, in a country like India, where knowledge of the English language is a marker of privilege, the only way for us to be truly diverse in what we publish, is by publishing translation,” says Subramaniam. In fact, Gupta notes that lately he has tended to “struggle to pitch fiction written in English—but not so much if it’s a translation”.

“One thing that has certainly helped create this international space for translations from India is the existence of independent presses like Tilted Axis Press that are wont to publish these books,” acknowledges Subramaniam of PRHI, which has now published Tomb of Sand in India. Tilted Axis Press was set up in 2015 by Deborah Smith, the first translator to win the Man Booker International Prize, along with Korean author Han Kang, for The Vegetarian, in 2017.

The current challenges

There is no one easy way for publishers to find and translate works for a wider domestic and international readership.

Aienla Ozukum, publishing director, Aleph Book Company, acknowledges that while the Greatest Stories Ever Told series “has been a huge success” for them, “by and large...we have a long way to go before we can say confidently that translations have achieved their fullest potential”. Commercially speaking, “some books might work but the average sale of translated books in general is still rather poor.... Publishers do not have the resources to market and push these books to the widest possible audience, so I think they should partner with governments and non-profits to try and disseminate these books to libraries, colleges, institutions,” adds Ozukum.

One of the nine books, so far, of the Greatest Stories Ever Told Series. The series also includes Telugu, Tamil, Assamese, Odia, Kashmiri, Gujarati, and Urdu and Bengal stories. 
One of the nine books, so far, of the Greatest Stories Ever Told Series. The series also includes Telugu, Tamil, Assamese, Odia, Kashmiri, Gujarati, and Urdu and Bengal stories. 

Most commercial Indian language publishers— barring a handful like Ravi DeeCee of DC Books for Malayalam, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publications for Tamil, or Aditi Maheshwari at Vani Prakashan for Hindi and Urdu literature—don’t even get to this stage because they are either unable to, or do not, approach editors in other languages, especially English. “There is no attempt of find out, initiate conversations, make sure authors meet editors and publishers,” says Sinha, adding that this is especially true of the international markets. “…and if they are waking up to it now, it’s because they realise there’s money to be made from it, not because of some literary ambition or mission,” he adds.

For Sundaram, it is passion that drives his effort to have Tamil literature reach wider audiences, both domestic and global. A regular at the Frankfurt Book Fair as well as the Delhi Book Fair, he says “Indian languages need to work through two stages to reach out to the world”. This means that even if there are publishers in certain countries open to translations from the source language, Sundaram has to first prepare a readable text for an acquisition editor, and acquaint them with the book. The best way to do this, he says, is to have an English translation already published in India, and use that as a starting point.

English, therefore, tends to work as a bridge language. It is also accepted practice to have a translator work on a text that’s brought into English first, so that they can then take it to the languages they work in. While some authors may feel this dilutes the quality of their original work, there seems to be a general consensus that this is certainly better than doing nothing.

As Sundaram explains, it doesn’t always make commercial sense, at least initially, for Indian language publishers to keep doing this. “Out of 50 meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair for selling rights, maybe five work out, and there’s a breakthrough only after four-five years (of first getting an English translation done and then working towards selling global rights for a book),” he says. “But it has (over time) become a big part of my company’s image and standing, and also revenue,” he adds. Especially during the pandemic, the contacts he had made by selling the rights for his catalogue enabled him to study possibilities in “e-books, selling audio rights, and a few international sales, which helped in bringing in some money to at least pay salaries”.

“Indian language publishers don’t do all of this because it’s a very informal industry in most languages. Many publishers do not sign contracts, they don’t hold translation rights, and even major publishers don’t seem to have a person looking at rights,” Sundaram says, adding that it is also the responsibility of publishers’ associations, or parties like the Sahitya Akademi or National Book Trust, to facilitate training and build awareness. “Unfortunately, not much happens in that area,” he notes.

Some new and forthcoming translations from Indian languages into English
Some new and forthcoming translations from Indian languages into English

This means that authors assured of their merit look for translators, or support those who approach them. In turn, passionate translators end up doing the heavy lifting, hunting for agents and/or editors, and pitching to them. “While translation of Indian literature into English and between languages have long established transition in India, resources for translators are fairly scant,” notes the India Literature And Publishing Sector Study—December 2020-May 2021, conducted by Padmini Ray Murray, Rashmi Dhanwani and Kavya Iyer Ramalingam of Art X Company for the British Council. “Consequently, translation is considered less of a professional and more of an amateur undertaking or ‘something done out of passion’.”

Ministhy S., 49, an IAS officer and translator who works between Malayalam, English, Hindi and Awadhi, says it isn’t easy to get a foot in the door. She has translated the works of Malayalam authors, including K.R. Meera, and has most recently worked with V.J. James. Her translation of his book Anti-Clock was shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2021, while her translation of Meera’s Meera Sadhu as The Poison Of Love featured in the DSC longlist for 2017.

Things become easier only after one earns a certain degree of recognition and builds a rapport with commissioning editors, she says. In October, a month after the JCB longlist came out, PRHI announced a three-book deal with James, translated by Ministhy. The first of the three, Nireeswaran, came out late last month.

An eye on the future

Even considering all these challenges, the landscape of translation has seen improvements over the last few years, says Thakur, who used to head Eka, the now shuttered Westland’s imprint for Indian languages and translations. For starters, translators and authors have begun getting equal credit, “both in terms of royalty as well as a visible credit” on the book’s front cover. This wasn’t common earlier, Thakur says. Translators are now also seen on panels at literary festivals, though, as the India Literature And Publishing Sector Study notes, there is still an “under-representation of translators at these festivals. There are a few sessions on translation but the tendency is to invite translators on a single panel, instead of wider representation across sessions”.

All this points to a slow acknowledgement for the need to have the texts and contexts of Indian languages reach a national and global readership. “India is very much a country that lives in translations. We are doing it all the time,” says Sinha. “And it’s not just about literature; it is also speeches and talks, songs and recipes, essays and even subtitling…” he adds, noting that subtitling is fast becoming a bourgeoning space, though not yet well-paying, given the boom in regional content OTT.

To create a steady supply of those equipped to do quality work, Sinha, along with his colleague Rita Kothari at the Haryana-based Ashoka University, has started the Ashoka Centre for Translation, to “invite, mentor, and train aspiring translators, thereby expanding the community of translators”, as their website notes. The aim, as Sinha says, is to “also create a culture of translation”. There are other programmes that offer training in translation as a practical skill: CENTIL (the Centre for Translation of Indian Literatures) at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, has a certificate course in translation, while the Indira Gandhi National Open University offers a postgraduate diploma. The Sahitya Akademi holds annual workshops for translators.

Translators believe the marketing and sales divisions of the Big Five publishing houses ought to study regional markets. They need to understand the contemporary literary realities so that works can be given the national attention they deserve. “It shouldn’t just be a knee-jerk reaction,” says Ministhy, alluding to the fact that publishers have in the past turned their attention to regional writers largely after they stumbled into controversy.

There should be “an in-depth study to see who the best-sellers are, and whose books have already gone to multiple reprints and editions,” she says. “If someone could do this sort of an analysis and back it up with a concerted effort at translating them, then sky is the limit in India, because there are gems waiting to be discovered in every state.”

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