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Literary Review

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Translation as reclamation


It is boom time for translation in India. Two women in the publishing field give their views on the current scenario.

THE translation scenario has never looked better in India. Most publishing houses, OUP, Katha, Kali, Stree, IndiaInk, Indialog, Penguin, the list is rather long, have a dynamic translation list. Making sense of our diverse identities, the process of translating ourselves is also a process of discovery, of previously marginalised narratives and selves. Which explains the direction in which most of the translations are taking place and who is doing the translations: Almost all of the translations are into English. Publishers would like to claim that we just don't have the infrastructure and skills needed to translate from one national/ basha language to another. It is more reasonable to assume that the infrastructure is not there because the need is not there. Translation, then, in the Indian context, is an essentially post-colonial activity involving explorations of identity and modernity.

It is a little ironic then, that one of the publishers at the forefront of the current translation boom is a British-owned publishing house, OUP, along with Katha and others. Today, OUP has an impressive list of authors under translation: Ambai, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Durga Khote, Ashapurna Debi, Rahi Masoom Raza, Bama, Mahaswetha Debi and many others. It also has in its list the first Konkani novel to be translated into English: The Upheaval by Pundalik N. Naik (translated by Vidya Pai). Among the other interesting titles it plans to bring out is an anthology of 50 Dalit writers from all over India, which will have a dalit scholar as the General Editor.

But, it has not always been this way, says Mini Krishnan, Editor in charge of translations at OUP. Though it had published some eminent translators like A.K. Ramanujan and Girish Karnad, its translation initiatives had been sporadic, publishing translations as and when suitable texts came in. It is only in the last few years that there has been a consistent programme of translations with the appointment of an exclusive editor for translation.

A revelation

Her own appetite for translation, she says, was aroused when she used to read translated stories, sometimes badly done, in journals like the Illustrated Weekly of India and Heritage when she was growing up. Later, when she joined Macmillan, one of the first projects she worked on was K.M. George's Comparative Indian Literature, a survey of the prominent literary works of the then officially recognised 16 Indian languages. Working on the project, she says she realised that here was something that was much closer to our lived experience than the literature that was still being taught in universities. She thinks of herself as a gatekeeper and a literary merchant whose aim is to see that as many of these works are available in translation as possible.

The translation programme she undertook at Macmillan was done with the financial support of the MRAR Educational Society and when that publisher turned hostile to the venture, she was looking for a publisher who would allow her to carry on with the project with the continued help of the MRAR Educational Scoiety. Manzar Khan of OUP has been an invaluable help, she says. But for his support and encouragement, the translation programme at OUP would not be what it is today, she says. Manzar Khan, for his part, says that in recent years OUP India has "accelerated the development of translation of post-independence regional writing, including those from the South Indian languages" so that they can be "made available to a very wide audience in India and throughout the world".

If the OUP story is one of an established house putting its resources to good use, the Katha story is one of building an institution devoted to story telling in all its diversity block by little block. When she wanted to publish short story translations in 1988, in Delhi, there was hardly any worthwhile effort being put in in the area says Geeta Dharmarajan, founding editor of Katha. A few journals were publishing quality translations but she wanted these journal-quality translations in a reader-friendly format. A more pressing problem was to get the resources and translators, which wasn't easy given the diversity of India. She was given a helping hand by Meenakshi Mukherjee, who gave her a list of people who might want to help her with the project. The Friends of Katha Network, which is 6000-strong today, started with this small list, she says.

She wanted to concentrate only on the short story because "the genius of India lies in the short stories we write" and because through it we get an immediate sense of the literary and cultural pulse of India. When the stories started coming in, she was elated with a sense of discovery. "Here was a wealth of stories in a multiplicity of languages. I'd never seen anything like it before. We need to celebrate this linguistic diversity", she says. The first book took three years to complete but when it was published, 3,000 copies were sold out in 45 days and Katha has not looked back since then.

Literary activism

Katha today uses its publishing base for what Geeta Dharmarajan calls a kind of literary activism. It runs its own schools in Delhi (11 of them) and interacts with more than 8,000 children and uses many of Katha's own stories as text books in these schools. "The NCERT text books are appalling," she says. "We have reduced language teaching to something like business English, there is hardly any literature there. For us to evolve as persons we need to know about the human predicament which only stories can tell effectively. While we leave it to the media, we'll not let a wordsmith or creative writer tell us the stories of our lives."

She is not very sympathetic towards the trend of English becoming the teaching language right from the pre-school stage. It indicates that "somewhere we've given up on ourselves, lost confidence in ourselves and our identity as a people," she says. We can't be global citizens unless we are rooted somewhere, else globalisation will remain a cultural one-way street, she feels.

She does like Indian literature in English and feels that we have matured as writers in English and created our own idiom. But English, she also feels, is just one of the languages of India. Translation, then, becomes an activity of reclaiming and preserving our identity and a multiplicity of language-based cultures. Because, the strength of India, she feels, lies in this diversity.

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