Literary translators empowering regional stories to find mainstream publishers, but not enough to revive this neglected segment

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February 25, 2018 2:47 AM

Interestingly, the trend is being spotted not just in India, but the world over, with translators being recognised and fêted. At the 69th National Book Awards to be held in November this year, for instance, translators will be rewarded alongside authors.

regional stories, literary translators, translation, translated regional stories, mainstream publishers, indian translatorsWhen Rita Kothari won the 2018 Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award last month at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), it was two decades of hard work that had finally paid off. (IE)

When Rita Kothari won the 2018 Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award last month at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), it was two decades of hard work that had finally paid off. Expressing her gratitude, Kothari said, “In my days, doing a PhD in translation was a big thing. I was the only student who was pursuing translation from Hindi to English. Now that I have got an award, it explains that we are finally getting some recognition.” Kothari, who pursued her doctorate from Gujarat University, is a renowned translator of Sindhi and Gujarati books into English. “But certainly more could be done,” she added. Kothari might have said what’s on the mind of many literary translators in India, for it’s an industry that has long struggled not just for recognition, but also for compensation. But things, as Kothari says, “have improved significantly”, with publishing houses now paying more attention to the segment. “Compared to five years back, we now have more visibility and recognition,” Kothari said.
Along with translators, regional authors, too, gain a lot. Take, for instance, award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. The writer would have remained unknown to the larger Indian audience had Penguin Random House India in 2016 not published Murugan’s Pyre, translated from the original Pookuzhi by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. Later, Juggernaut Books translated a few of his short stories. Today, Murugan is as widely read an author in English as he is in his native state.

Then who can forget Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who profusely translated his own works from Bengali and even wrote directly in English. Works of prolific writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Munshi Premchand, Subramanian Bharati and Saadat Hasan Manto reached a wider audience only due to translations. There are other works of translation as well that have been very successful—Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, translated from Kannada to English in 2016 by Srinath Perur, has been hailed by literary critics in the UK and US as the “great Indian novel”. While translations may still comprise only 3-4% of literary titles in the English publishing industry in India, they are slowly charting their own course. Earlier, while the translator’s name was not even mentioned on a book, today, it’s prominently displayed alongside the author’s name on the cover. Even independent publishers such as Niyogi Books are now looking at translations. Last month, on the occasion of its 13th anniversary, Niyogi Books launched its Thornbird imprint, which will look into translations specifically, offering writings ranging from Rabindranath Tagore to contemporary authors like A Sethu Madhavan. The growth has been slow, but definitely steady.

Language matters

Kiran Nagarkar, often described as one of the most powerful post-colonial writers, is the author of acclaimed novels like Cuckold and Ravan and Eddie. He wrote his first book Saat Sakkam Trechalis in Marathi in 1974. It was later translated into English as Seven Sixes Are Forty Three and published by Katha in 2003. An experimental stream-of-consciousness novel that jumps through time, it received much critical acclaim and, last year, a new edition of the book was released. But apart from that book, a play and a short story, Nagarkar hasn’t written much in Marathi, drawing the ire of Marathi critics. “Maharashtrians tend to look for a label and if the mould is something that they are not familiar with, the author is trashed. Marathi critics were convinced that I was someone trying to show off my language,” says Nagarkar, citing one of the reasons why he never chose to write in Marathi again. “When you switch over to another language, there are certain adjustments you have to make and I think it didn’t work for me,” he adds.

If Nagarkar stopped writing in Marathi troubled by criticism, 47-year-old New Delhi-based Bharat Tiwari started translating from English to Hindi because he was critical of the content on offer in terms of translations of contemporary writing. A photojournalist by profession, Tiwari translates literary pieces from English to Hindi for Shabdankan, an online Hindi journal started by him. He even won the Delhi government’s Bhasha Doot award for his work in 2017. Literary translations, however, were never on his mind till about four years back. “There was a lacuna in contemporary Hindi writing in the digital medium. So I started my website (Shabdankan) with a focus on contemporary Hindi writing,” he says. Last year, he translated Devdutt Pattanaik’s My Hanuman Chalisa for Rupa Publications. “Two years back, I was reading a book of Pattanaik’s in Hindi. I found the writing abysmal and that made me pick up the original work in English. I realised it was a beautiful book, but the translation was a watershed. Since I know Pattanaik, I took the liberty of calling him up and voicing my opinion. And next I know, I was offered to translate his book,” Tiwari says. The books, in both languages, are bestsellers. “Translation doesn’t mean that you do a Google translation. Rather, one has to understand the creative language and its nuances, which is a skill that is in short supply,” says Tiwari.

That there aren’t enough good translators in India is a matter of woe for both publishers and authors. When Rita Chowdhury, director of National Book Trust and a Sahitya Akademi award-winning Assamese writer, wanted to get her popular novel Makam (2010) translated, she faced a tough time. “I gave it for translation to two translators and both of them failed to retain the essence of the story. As a result, I translated it myself,” says Chowdhury. The English version, Chinatown Days, a fictionalised historical account of the Chinese people in north-east India, was released at the JLF this year. It has been published by Pan Macmillan India.

Road to translation

Literary translations in India first started getting noticed in the 1980s when the Sahitya Akademi started organising translation workshops across the country. Katha, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1989, provided further impetus to translations, and is considered one of the pioneers in translations in India. Oxford University Press (OUP), too, has been translating regional works since the mid-1990s. “We recently announced the much-awaited Indian Languages Publishing (ILP) programme, which presents original works, as well as translations of some of the finest academic and non-fiction titles published by us,” says Sugata Ghosh, director, Global Academic Publishing, OUP. On an average, OUP publishes eight-10 translations every year. Some of its bestselling works are Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and Yayati, Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara and Bharathipura. Under the new initiative, books will be published in some of the major Indian languages beginning with Hindi and Bengali, to be followed by works in other languages. “Till now, we have been publishing or translating the original works of famous writers/scholars from their languages into English, but again, a large part of our population can’t access these works due to the language problem. With this initiative, we will be able to cater to the larger audience. We are also putting a lot of emphasis on the quality of translations under this new programme, taking some established, as well as young authors, to a larger audience,” Ghosh says. OUP has started translating classic English titles from their back list, including those by Romila Thapar, Sabysachi Bhattacharya, Amartya Sen and Mushirul Hasan, to name a few.

To focus more on translations, HarperCollins India launched a dedicated imprint, Harper Perennial, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. “Translations do form an integral part of several leading publishers’ lists… the visibility for translations has increased among readers, as well as in the book trade and media, which is wonderful,” says Udayan Mitra, publisher-literary, Harper Collins India, which publishes around 10 translations every year. “What is encouraging to see is that translations and their authors now have a similar currency and visibility as the original literary works written in English,” he adds. There are other publishing houses, too, that are renewing their focus on translations. Penguin Random House India’s Penguin Classics is bringing Munshi Premchand to the English audience with a four-volume anthology comprising his short stories in a box set. Westland Books, too, has a strategic partnership with multilingual publishing company Yatra Books, which translates Westland’s English books into regional languages. In 2016, Yatra translated around 60 Westland titles into seven Indian languages. Retail giant Amazon also pumped in $10 million in translations in 2015 when it launched its literary translation imprint AmazonCrossing that translates works of foreign languages into English. Last year, it increased its submission repertoire to cater to 13 new languages, including Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi (the Indian languages on the list).

At Rajkamal Prakashan, emphasis is laid on getting literature in Marathi, Urdu, Kannada, Oriya, etc, translated into Hindi. “A translator’s job isn’t easy. They have to visualise and should also have an emotional connect with both the languages,” says Satyanand Nirupam, editor, Rajkamal Prakashan. So what is driving publishers to pick up vernacular tales? As per Prasun Chatterjee, editorial director of Pan Macmillan India, a “connected world” ensures that publishers pay attention to translations. “One of the most important factors that we look into before commissioning a work for translation is the originality of the content and expression of the author. The second factor is to consider how the book will do with larger audiences beyond the immediate literary sphere in which the author originally wrote that book,” says Chatterjee. Mitra of HarperCollins India elaborates: “I have found that writing in local languages is often able to capture ground realities and the nuances of culture and context more accurately and interestingly than many books written on India in English. This makes reading and publishing translations an exciting and rewarding endeavour.” A point reiterated by most publishers. “As a university press, we consider publishing content that’s important to society and relevant to the market,” says Ghosh of OUP.

The right prize

An award for a translated book has a simultaneous impact on two languages. Keeping this in mind, Muse India, a Hyderabad-based literary e-journal run by a group of writers, hands out an annual prize of `30,000 for translations. When author Benyamin’s (who uses one name only) award-winnning Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham (2008) was translated into English as Goat Days (2013), it was shortlisted for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The Sahitya Akademi has also instituted an annual prize for translations since 1989, to be given to outstanding translations in the 24 languages recognised by it. The award, which carried `10,000 as prize money in 1989, today gives out `50,000. Last year, Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s One Part Woman, a translation of Murugan’s controversial Tamil novel Maadhorubaagan (2015),won the translation prize in English.
Translations are also the focus of many literary festivals in India. At last year’s Jaipur Book Mark, a trade event that runs parallel to the JLF, the Global Translation Rights—a catalogue of eight titles from various Indian languages—was presented for publishers interested in selling the titles in the international market. “For the past two years, some amount of recognition has come to translators. Now, Neilsen BookScan (a data provider for the book publishing industry) brings out a separate list of top 10 translated books, both in fiction and non-fiction. It shows that sales figures of translated books are on the rise,” says Urmila Gupta, who has translated Amish’s Ram Chandra series, Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora (titled Jinni in Hindi), etc.

Interestingly, the trend is being spotted not just in India, but the world over, with translators being recognised and fêted. At the 69th National Book Awards to be held in November this year, for instance, translators will be rewarded alongside authors. The prestigious American literary prize will honour both author and translator in a new award category for translated literature that was announced this February, with the idea to “broaden readership for global voices and spark dialogue around international stories”. That’s not all. In the UK, 2016 was a significant year in terms of translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize teamed up with the Man Booker International Prize to deliver a prize exclusively for fiction in English translation. The award of £50,000 was shared by South Korean writer Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a three-part novella, delving into the subjects of madness, desire and the rejection of social conventions.

Tackling challenges

But despite the awards and interest from publishers, translators continue to seek better representation. “There seems to be a tendency to treat translations differently from original works. Both should be treated as original novels… It should be, in fact, easier to sell translations, given that the novel is already known,” says Pune-based 51-year-old Vikrant Pande, an IIM-Bengaluru graduate who worked in the corporate sector for over two decades before beginning to translate Marathi books into English for his children in 2013. Pande has also translated the widely-acclaimed Rau (published by Pan Macmillan) from Marathi to English, on which the film Bajirao Mastani was based. Another sore point is the pay given to translators. A payment of `100-`150 per page is considered “good pay” for translators. “I consider it quite less. Translators suffer from writer’s block too. It’s not a technical skill that can be applied mindlessly. Some translators have now started getting royalty… I think it should become the norm,” says translator Gupta.Some publishers say it’s a vicious cycle where poor pay leads to poor quality. “Translations need to have greater financial outlays, but the risk factor of it not working in the market is greater. In that sense, translations have to be carefully thought out in terms of time of release, marketing strategy, etc,” says Chatterjee of Pan Macmillan India. Perhaps, it’s time to say that not all is lost in translation.

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