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English kills the creativity of a bhasha-writer, says Sahitya Akademi president

Sahitya Akademi president Chandrashekhara Kambara

Sahitya Akademi president Chandrashekhara Kambara   | Photo Credit: K. Bhagya Prakash


Sahitya Akademi’s new chief, Chandrashekhara Kambara, hopes for a multilingual and oral revolution

Kannada writer Chandrashekhara Kambara dons many hats. He is a poet, playwright, novelist and critic who has been honoured with the Padmashree, Sahitya Akademi Award, Kabir Samman and the Jnanpith Award. Kambara has been passionate in his advocacy of the regional traditions of art and literature, and of plurality in social structure. Recently elected the president of Sahitya Akademi, when I met him at its regional office in Bengaluru, he firmly defended the Akademi’s autonomy and underlined the necessity of writing in one’s mother tongue.

You are heading this institution at a time when there is a strong feeling among writers and thinkers that freedom of expression is under threat and that the Sahitya Akademi has remained a “passive, powerless body.” How do you view this?

There are many issues involved here, and I shall try to be brief in explaining them. First, the Sahitya Akademi is a non-partisan and non-political institution, and its sole function is to “develop literature and literary culture in all Indian languages and to promote through them plurality and cultural unity of the country.” You cannot expect one institution to do the job of another. Secondly, it is an autonomous and independent body...

Are you sure the Akademi will continue to enjoy autonomy and freedom in future?

I am positive, because the Akademi has inbuilt structural devices for any course-correction needed from time to time.

Can you please explain what those ‘devices’ are?

The Sahitya Akademi came into being through an act of Parliament in 1954, and any major structural changes in it have to be made by Parliament. The Akademi’s office-bearers, including the president and the vice-president, are elected by the members of the Akademi. Also, all the members are chosen by the Akademi on the basis of recommendations from different literary and cultural associations. There is no place for any kind of governmental or external influence.

You have said in an earlier interview, “Revitalising State languages is my top priority.” Can you elaborate?

You see, we have become too dependent on English to the detriment of regional languages. Hence, the priority of the Akademi is to reduce this dependence.

The Akademi organises continuous workshops for people to learn neighbouring languages; it encourages translations directly from one regional language to another rather than through English; in collaboration with universities in different regions, it will get authoritative textbooks, including science texts, in State languages; it is planning to bring out bilingual and multilingual dictionaries; as a representative body, it constantly brings pressure on State governments to make the State language the medium of instruction at the primary level... I can go on and on.

However, the Akademi alone cannot do much in this direction; we expect educationists, writers, and parents to join hands with the Akademi.

Have you ever felt that had you written in English you would have had a larger readership and greater international recognition?

Never, not even for a moment. Had I written in any language other than Kannada, I wouldn’t have been a poet or a playwright. It is as simple as that. You see, English kills the creativity of a bhasha-writer.

Can you explain please?

Think of a child. If she hears a story from her grandmother, she won’t tell the same story to others; she will create newer versions of it each time she tells the story to a brother or friend. But if the child hears the story in English in school, she will tell the same story in the same words over and over again.

In all this, where do tribal languages and oral traditions figure?

They figure prominently. The Akademi has already established the North East Centre for Oral Literature in Agartala, and a Centre for Oral and Tribal Literature in New Delhi. They are designated to preserve our heritage in a systematic way. The Centre in New Delhi launched a major series on ‘unwritten languages’ last year; it has already brought out four works on oral traditions. In addition, the Akademi proposes to archive original oral texts in audio and video formats.

However, we have to understand that orality is not a concrete object; it is a view of life and a way of living. Consequently, the concept of orality also changes with changing times. Similarly, it is impossible to save all spoken and written languages in any country. As long as there are speakers and the language fulfils their needs, it lives; once there are no speakers left, it goes into oblivion.

Who are the ‘implied readers’ of the translations published by the Akademi? How do translations fare compared to works from commercial houses?

First, the ‘implied readers’. Please remember that the Akademi publishes works in 24 languages — that is, an award-winning text in each language is translated into 23 listed Indian languages, including English. This means the translations published by the Akademi are primarily for Indians. If a Kannadiga is knowledgeable today about Mahashweta Devi or M.T. Nair, it is mostly through the Akademi’s Kannada translations. Till date, the Akademi has published over 6,000 books in regional languages.

I don’t have with me the exact sales figures, but since the Akademi’s five zonal centres have sales sections, and since many works get reprinted every year, I presume the books are reaching readers. In fact, I have recently had discussions with the UGC and the Ministry of Human Resource Development regarding Akademi publications; I have suggested that they should persuade State governments to buy them in bulk every year, and distribute them in public libraries. There are also plans to sell our books online.

Often people complain about the quality of translation (especially of English works) in the Akademi publications. True, there is a review system in place, but a reviewer cannot or does not go through every line of the script. Why doesn’t the Akademi appoint competent copy editors as private publishers do?

I haven’t thought about it, but I shall certainly discuss it with my colleagues. Let me add that the Akademi welcomes any feedback, whether suggestions or criticism.

The interviewer is a critic, translator, and former professor of English.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 11:43:26 PM |

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