Literary Review

The travel of Indian writing

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, over 40 agencies promoting the writings of their languages and cultures were present.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, over 40 agencies promoting the writings of their languages and cultures were present.

Indian publishers promoting translations into other languages, Indian and foreign, have always felt the need for an independent agency to promote their literature and ideas; an agency that is not swayed by the political ideology of the day, one that efficiently processes relevant proposals, and builds credibility for India in the intellectual world at large.

A translation programme is particularly important because diverse cultures within India and outside must mutually understand and accept each other as equals. Paradoxically, however, the revolution in communication technology has strengthened the fear of the ‘other’. Evidently, we need more than just information to foster understanding. And fiction and ideas could do a great deal in this area. The translation of literature exploring the human condition can be an antidote to what power politics often whips up as the hateful ‘other’. While billions of rupees are spent on building the military muscle of our nation, very little is done to promote the literature of Indian languages. When it comes to promoting Indian culture, literature ranks way below classical music and fine arts.

The publishing industry today is undergoing the most far-reaching changes since the Gutenbergian revolution. Technology is changing every aspect of publishing, with newer inventions making publishing accessible to more people and, thus, competition becoming more intense. N.S. Krishnan, an iconic figure in 20th century Tamil culture, was a humorist, theatre artiste, folk performer, singer, political activist and cultural commentator. Speaking of the Tamil film industry, he once commented: ‘In the movie industry, you must keep shaking your legs even when you are asleep. Otherwise you will be taken for dead!’ Publishers, too, today need to keep shaking their legs to survive. If their books travel across languages, it is a legitimate way of gaining an edge. If there is anything that pleases an author more than the NEFT transfer of royalties, it is seeing her book published in other languages.

While translation between Indian languages is promoted by National Book Trust and Sahitya Akademi, and undoubtedly they have made a remarkable contribution in the field, publishers need to be encouraged to publish translations. Translations must be as broad-based as possible, tuned to pollinating as many languages as possible, so that we have a better and richer understanding of our composite culture. For this, we need to involve the government, the public, and the private spheres.

Barring a few star-authored books like Irawati Karve’s Yuganta and Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay’s Arokya Niketan , translated writings do not sell in big numbers in most Indian languages. Many Indian languages do not have a full-fledged book culture where translations can be fully supported by book sales alone. Even in the more vibrant languages, publishers are understandably hesitant to risk translations of contemporary authors. There is, thus, the need for an overarching organisation that publishers can consult, one that facilitates a synergy between publishers and offers some material support to publishers. This will go a long way in encouraging them to take risks and publish more translations. Such an organisation must be independent, efficient and sensitive, and driven by people with passion and commitment. Let us call it I.Lit: Indian Literatures in Translation.

I.Lit can introduce interested publishers to the literature of other languages, suggest titles that may work in translation, make available reading copies, connect them to each other, provide advice on terms of contracts, and so on. It can buy translation rights for a limited print order and gift it to the translating publisher. It can subsidise the translation cost of the publisher. On a modest annual budget, it would be possible to effect a great many translations among the many Indian languages.

To encourage the travel of Indian fiction to world languages, a first important step is to translate them into English. Acquisition editors in most international publishing houses are comfortable in English. An Indian language book, after it is selected for publication by an international publisher, may then be directly translated from the source language. But for the process of selection, a high quality, well-edited, English translation is an important first step. This could also be achieved through I.Lit.

In my explorations at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I counted over 40 such national agencies promoting the writings of their languages and cultures. Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, Canada, Wales and Scotland, they all have agencies to promote their literature. India is probably the only economically powerful nation of the world not to have a dedicated agency or an aggressive translation programme. So much for India being a soft power!

The Turkish subvention programme, TEDA, was launched in 2005. In one decade, it has promoted the translation of nearly 1,200 works in 60 different languages. And this is from just one language, Turkish. Imagine our possibilities! What we can offer is not just modern literature but many classical epics yet un-translated into many global languages.

I have been visiting a literature promoting agency in Frankfurt for many years. Last year, I scheduled a meeting with one of the agency’s representatives in Frankfurt, an energetic and helpful young lady, ready to go beyond her brief when you ask for information and suggestions. At our meeting, at about five in the evening, I found her distracted. I asked what was wrong. She stared blankly for a few moments and said, ‘I came early to the fair. I didn’t have lunch, and I am surviving on coffee since morning’. She had had back-to-back meetings. Would a 15-minute lunch break hurt? She replied, ‘I am here on public money, I have to give my best’. I was moved by her commitment and passion. We cannot promote Indian literature without passion. But that passion needs to be backed by funds.

An agency such as I.Lit would participate in leading book fairs of the world to spread the word. A generous translation grant for international publishers can do wonders for Indian writing to travel far. I.Lit can also make available English translations of important Indian writings to the acquisition editors of international publishers. Translators of Indian writings can be offered residency programmes in India. When translated works of Indian authors are published in other languages and countries, I.Lit can support the travel of the author to participate in book launches and readings. Workshops can be organised for translators. An ongoing training programme for Indian publishers on rights trade and contracts is essential. International publishers can be invited on fellowship programmes to familiarise them with the publishing industry here. An online database of recommended books for translation is a must. This has to be an independently curated list, offering the best selections of literature from all Indian languages.

The key to such a body is independence. And such a programme will have to remain agnostic without any linguistic, religious, political, literary or ideological stands. It has to promote any book that might interest a publisher. While maintaining its independence, it is only appropriate that the body approach central and state governments for funding. Many big corporate bodies are already committing funds for cultural activities and I.Lit, too, would be a valid activity to fund.

Besides this, independent institutions could support the translations of Gandhi or Ambedkar, Tagore or Bharati, regional academic works or Sanskrit and Telugu classics. Educational institutions and universities established to promote languages are also possible sponsors. Fund-raising drives could be organised around anniversaries and centenaries of writers or historical events.

If publishers, cultural activists, literary fans, writers, educationists and companies can pool ideas and resources, I.Lit can easily become a reality. It is an urgent need that will enthuse Indian writing and publishing. And add colour to the idea of India.

The writer ( is publisher of Kalachuvadu Publications. He would like to thank Leo Fernandes, Vinutha Mallya and A.R. Venkatachalapathy for their comments and suggestions.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 8:22:16 am |