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Translations: From Kannada to Marathi via English

In the latest edition of our salon Lounge Loungewhere we bring together thought leaders for a deep divewe turn to the Indian translation story, and discuss whether there is a market for books translated from one Indian language to another

(From left) Ananth Padmanabhan, R. Sivapriya, Karthika V.K., Urvashi Butalia, Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Neeta Gupta. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(From left) Ananth Padmanabhan, R. Sivapriya, Karthika V.K., Urvashi Butalia, Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Neeta Gupta. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint


Ananth Padmanabhan is CEO of HarperCollins India.

R. Sivapriya is executive editor of the digital publisher Juggernaut Books.

Karthika V.K. is publisher of the Amazon-owned publishing house, Westland.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher and writer, and director of Zubaan Books.

Aditi Maheshwari Goyal is director of the translation and copyrights departments at the Hindi language publishing firm Vani Prakashan.

Neeta Gupta is publisher at Yatra Books, which specializes in translations, and co-director of Jaipur Bookmark, a publishers’ meet that takes place alongside the Jaipur Literature Festival.

There’s a noticeable turn in English language publishing. More and more translations of fiction from Indian languages are being published in English, and unlike earlier, when the classics got all the attention, contemporary fiction is being sought out actively.

If Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur, is making waves in the UK and US currently, Malayalam writer K.R. Meera finds herself, for the second time, nominated for the coveted DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Yet, is this interest in what’s happening in other Indian languages limited to English readers? What is the status of translation between regional languages?

Over lunch at an Asian gastrobar, The Fatty Bao, in Delhi, publishers had an animated, freewheeling conversation on the subject. Edited excerpts:

Translations between Indian languages were not uncommon once. What happened?

Neeta Gupta: Not enough translators exist between Indian languages. For instance, for Kannada and Bengali, there is not even one. Similarly, for Malayalam and Bengali, there may be at most a couple. Until the 1950s, there was a vibrant culture of people translating literature from other Indian languages.

Urvashi Butalia: Then there were books getting translated into Indian languages separately—for example, Soviet books, because there were Soviet subsidies. Then, some of the big languages, like Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Bengali, you’d get some translations of other works into those. So Mahasweta Devi’s works got translated into Hindi long before they came into English or any other language. Now, you’re seeing a fair amount getting translated into English, but it’s still not a lot. We’re getting the beginnings of some translations between Indian languages, but often they have to go via Hindi or English because you may not have a direct connect between languages.

Karthika V.K.: You know, when my mother was starting to read fiction, I remember her telling me that she didn’t know that for a long time Sarat Chandra (Chattopadhyay) was not a Malayalee. She had no concept that it was a translation from Bengali. Bengali and Malayalam, there was a lot of interaction and migration that happened for work. So I think a lot of translations emerged from that exchange of culture beyond just writing.

R. Sivapriya: It’s a largely tragic scene, translations between Indian languages. Last week we heard about how the last translator from Bengali to Tamil died. I think English has become the bridge language between Indian languages. Which I don’t think is such a bad thing. Sanskrit was once a bridge language between texts.

Ananth Padmanabhan: When we have English in between, there is a convenience—so Bengali may come to English and then go to Tamil. Does it have to go directly between languages?

Aditi Maheshwari Goyal: Personally, I feel a language publisher doesn’t know what’s happening in other languages. Our national bodies should have taken charge of connecting Indian languages and the stakeholders involved. We are all working on our close friendships; and that is not a professional way to go about it. If we have to buy, for example, an international author’s translation rights, we get charged a bomb, which never gets justified with the sales figures. For Indian languages, we do understand each others’ problems and pockets.

We thought maybe this is the right time to form an Indian copyright cooperative. We can get language publishers together, pool in our resources, get a good advance and issue an entry into these languages together. For example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books are not available in Hindi; his wife doesn’t think 5,000-8,000 copies per title is (worth it). But for Indian languages, this is a big print run.

Butalia: All of us as publishers would love to do more translations, and do good translations. That means a kind of familiarity with the literatures that we live with. A lot of the time, we’re working blind, or on people’s recommendations, and they tend to be the big names or the names that have done well in the original languages, and not necessarily the ones that lie beneath those. And, then, translation itself is not a valued activity for which there is any training in this country. So most of the translators are not great, and then they don’t earn very much. There’s no state funding or private funding to help in translations, which there should be.

Padmanabhan: I think, sometimes, highlighting the fact that it’s a translation is a handicap as well. If it’s a good story, the story is the strength. Take Ghachar Ghochar, the fact that it is so successful—it could be placed in any language anywhere. It’s not so cultural that you will lose it in translation. But Perumal Murugan can only be Tamil—in what people say and how they behave with each other. I think you are losing something when you make a big fuss about it being a great Tamil novel. People are like, it’s not my language, will I get it?

Karthika: And also maybe because that land is not an aspirational land. When we know that it is America, we want to read it.

Padmanabhan: Outside of the big names we don’t have access to (information about books in languages). The occasional one pops up to the surface and people start making phone calls. Book buying and selling is obsessed with the English novel.

Karthika: The more literary fiction that you get in English, the more you actually want to turn to the languages, because there’s so much more interesting writing in the languages. There’s great non-fiction writing now, but in fiction and the literary fiction space, we find few books we all love and want to publish. It’s so much easier to find the great book in contemporary Indian languages.

Char Siu Bao, at the sushi, bao and dimsum lunch at The Fatty Bao.

After a work is translated into Hindi, is there a proliferation of translations into other tongues?

Goyal: Yes. For example, we did Herta Müller’s books. And after reading the Hindi text, the other language publishers approached the Goethe-Institut. A connect language like English or Hindi, it helps.

Karthika: I don’t think we even look at each other’s languages. I don’t think Malayalam is influenced by how something sells in Tamil or Kannada.

Butalia: So Ghachar Ghochar is a good example of that, no? Because it moved from Kannada to English, and now back to Marathi and Tamil and Hindi. Once it is in one, people are more interested in taking it up.

Sivapriya: But there’s a whole industry of translations of commercial non-fiction—biographies, lifestyle. That’s where the money really is.

Padmanabhan: Faith, for example. Ravi Shankar, Osho, U.G. Krishnamurthy, they are available across languages. Self-help is available across languages. These are ideas where the language does not matter. It’s not about turn of phrase, which is what is lost in translation.

The Sahitya Akademi, too, publishes translations, isn’t it?

Gupta: When they award the book, the Sahitya Akademi acquires the 24 Indian language rights for that particular book. Then it is up to them when, or if, they publish. A lot of times, they don’t even end up translating them. As a result, rights actually lapse.

Goyal: See, the Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust (NBT) present a model for Indian language publishers: the price band, and print quality. But everything is subsidized: paper, printing, logistics, warehousing. They’ve got their own bookshops in all states. It was the socialist mandate in the Nehruvian era to have these organizations subsidize books. But suddenly they are competitors to publishers. The prices at which they are selling are not feasible for any of us.

Karthika: I think what’s worked for translations is that, once, we only looked at classics. We waited for it to become great, and then the English publishers would pick it up for translation. But now we’re all interested in seeing what’s new. We’re publishing this new Perumal Murugan novel, it’s just come out in Tamil. When Ghachar Ghochar came out, it was recent. That’s the shift. We want what’s happening now, which makes it easier to interest the reader, saying it’s for now, it’s not (something) ancient which has earned the right to be in translations. So hopefully we’re building energy behind the existence of translation, as contemporary, more relevant.

Padmanabhan: For the first time in our sales conference, there were seven language publishers. It doesn’t make sense that one or two people run around trying to sell rights. Why not make rights part of what we do? So we had them pick what they like.

Gupta: We worked with Westland with six Indian languages: Hindi, Marathi, Odia, Bengali, Telugu, Gujarati. What we found is that Hindi and Marathi readers are open to translations. Telugu, amazing sales. There are writers whose books have gone into 7,000-10,000 copies in the first print run. But Odia may not have such a big market. It’s a very literary culture, but they may not be interested in translations. The one who opened up the (nationwide) channels was Amish Tripathi: We sold over 500,000 copies in translation.

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