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Sahitya is now seductive


Translating is half poem and half crossword and no doddle. Loads of words aren't actual words you can look up but screws of grammar that hold the sentence together. It takes yonks to find out what they mean, though once you know them you know them.

- Black Swan Green: A Novel, David Mitchell.

Going by this, translating could well be a nightmare in a country with 22 regional languages and a treasure trove of literature in most of them. But for mainstream publishing houses, it's now a happening activity.

Driven by such factors as recognition in literary award shortlists, more publishing houses in regional languages, a dip in the bilingual ability of a population that primarily reads and functions in English and the new discerningly curious reader, the translated book is figuring more prominently in bookstore displays where once it used to be dusted for the occasional customer. An increasing number of books, both classic and contemporary, are being translated from Bengali, Malayalam, Assamese, Hindi, Urdu and other languages into English.

For a country that's fast gaining significance in and presence on a global stage, the narrow spectrum of Indian writing in English is far from adequate in representing the context of India, its history and diversity in literature. As the Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin, bemoaning the limited access to non-English masterworks from India so far, put it, "The vast bulk of Indian culture and Indian life never happens in English. "

Translations are also finally getting their due as an art form instead of being treated as just a process. This year's Hindu literary prize shortlist includes three translated books (Litanies of Dutch Battery, The Fakir and Bharathipura) as does the DSC prize for South Asian literature long list (The Patience Stone, A Street in Srinagar and Bharathipura).

"There should be a level playing field between translated literature and original English writing in terms of awards, though there is now a recognition of the quality of regional literature. The moment has arrived for Indian languages, and this is just the first rustle of that spring breeze, " says Namita Gokhale, writer, publisher and one of the founders and co-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Books that are being translated now are also not the usual staple of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay or Munshi Premchand stories. From Sajjad Zaheer's A Night in London (translated from Urdu), Krupakar and Senani's account of their time in captivity with Veerappan in Birds, Beasts and Bandits: 14 days with Veerappan (from Kannada) to Samaresh Basu's B T Road and The Hollow (from Bengali), today's translations sweep across a wide range of genres and languages.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, chief copy editor, Harper Collins India, says that the Jaipur Literature Festival has played a role in igniting a strong interest in regional writing to a largely English-speaking audience as has the increasing number of players in the publishing field. "About three to four years ago, Sankar's Chowringhee came out and was a blockbuster. It had never been translated before and about 15, 000 to 20, 000 copies sold, which sort of was a game-changer. It drove home the point that there are authors apart from Sarat Chandra, Tagore and Bankim, " says Chaudhuri. Harper Collins has a separate imprint for translated books known as Perennial. Chaudhuri adds that Harper Collins wants to make Perennial a strong imprint and is looking for translations not only of classics but also of little known books and contemporary writing. Other publishers agree that finding cutting-edge contemporary writing and non-fiction is challenging while classics are easier.

Similarly, Penguin Books India also has future plans for Indian language translations. "We plan to publish one superb translation every year in our most prestigious literary imprint, Hamish Hamilton. The first title to be published, in 2013, will be Shamsur Rahman Faruqi's brilliant Kai Chand the Sar-e-Aasman translated from the Urdu by the author himself. As of now, we have five contemporary texts in translation on the 2012 schedule and 10 modern and ancient classics. We'll always have at least 15 translations being published every year for the next couple of years, " says R Sivapriya, managing editor, Penguin Books India.

The interest in translated books is not limited to adults. Hachette India is focusing on translating literature for children and young adults. "Because of more emphasis on English and inter-community marriages, we are losing regional languages. Parents do want their children to be exposed to the languages the kids can speak but can't read or write, " says Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, publishing director, children's and reference books, Hachette India. Hachette's book Koni: The Story of a Champion by Moti Nandy (translated by Sumana Mukherjee from Bengali) was shortlisted in the children's category in 2010 for the Vodafone-Crossword award.

Hachette also plans to translate more such books, including even oral ballads from Kumaoni, detective stories for young adults and more of Nandy's books. Banerjee believes there is an archival value in translating such vast wealth, as languages are fading away.

However, it is not just about the bulk of translations being done but also the change in tone and quality. Diya Kar Hazra, head of literature programmes in British Council, who was earlier with Penguin, says, "Exceptional translators are finally being given their due. The quality of a translation makes or destroys a book. Translators and publishers are spending more time on getting it right and they are more nuanced. "

Arunava Sinha, who has translated 12 books from Bengali to English, says, "Earlier translations were treated more as academic output for peers and with a critical aspect, often imposing their world view on the text. Now they are smoother, translated with the reader in mind by translators who treat English as their first language. Commercial interests have also driven a different sort of line but for the better. "

While the first unfolding chapter seems to be the translation of Indian languages to English, translating them into foreign languages can't be far. Gokhale, with the ministry of culture, is on a hunt for books which will translate well into Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and French. "We are searching for source language translations (direct translation without using an English translation in between) but it's a slow process, " she says. "We are seeking help from international publishers to find a market. It's very difficult to judge which book will translate well into which language. While the UK-US market prefers Indian English writing, Europeans prefer more rooted languages. "

The success of foreign language translations is apparent in the success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which many wouldn't even realise is translated. Sinha says that it is probably better if it isn't pointed out, as it may put off a reader. Translators, in the mind of readers, are not placed on the same pedestal as writers and are often asked when they are writing their own book. Usha Rajagopalan, who is translating Subramanya Bharathi's poems for Hachette, poignantly says, "A translator has to take as much time and care in polishing each word as the original writer did. Nothing less. "

Reader's opinion (1)

Kumar SamyOct 11th, 2011 at 11:49 AM

It is a good trend. As a translator who has translated Paulo Coelho's The Zahir and Rhone Byrne's The Secret from English to Tamil, i always wonder why it is not happening the other way round. There is a vast hidden treasure lying in our rich Indian languages waiting to reveal to the world.

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