Lost in translation

I am currently in Mumbai and struggling to learn Hindi. For a break, I visited the 10th annual Jaipur Literature Festival (21st–25th January) in Rajasthan, to link with writers and publishers in India. The majority of the events were conducted in English, reflecting the dominance of the language on Indian and international publishing. Two panel discussions investigated why English is such a powerful force in south Asian publishing.

One of the main issues agreed upon was the lack of translation between regional languages in India, e.g. Bengali and Marathi. Often a language is translated to English first, then in to another language, using English as a "linking language". Poet Sukrita Paul Kumar told festival-goers: "The English language comes like a bulldozer to destroy all others." 

But Indian writers are keen to be translated into English because they know further regional translations will follow. Prawin Adhikari, a Nepali writer and publisher, said: "In Nepal, because we haven’t been translated enough in English, we aren’t approached as much by Indian-language publishers."

Much of the Indian literature we read in the UK is originally written in English. While this is absolutely valid, language dictates how we think or compose thoughts. When we read a good translation of an Indian language we discover new ways of thinking, create new routes within our linguistic circuits. Kumar asked translators to "learn to abuse English when translating", meaning to play with it, to reconstruct and bring it closer to the feel of the original language. 

For a long time UK publishers have stressed the need for books that they take on to have a universality of experience; asking, for instance, "How will a UK reader relate to a Marathi fisherman?" This has been insulting to readers and authors. And many book lovers are better informed and travelled than ever, so there is no excuse for not publishing culturally specific writing in translation.

Deborah Smith, translator of South Korean writer Han Kang, commented: "One of the big problems with translation to English is a book is more likely to make it to an English-reading market if the author can speak English (at events, in the media, etc) and if they know a few other writers who are prominent in the industry." For many Indian authors writing in their own language, this is a serious barrier. Chandan Gowda, a Kannada writer and translator, agreed: "The PR industry for books is a barrier even after translation."

Although the big international publishers have Indian arms, speakers at the Jaipur festival implied that they don’t utilise these connections. Independent publishers in the UK don’t have this ready-made access, but Smith, whose indie imprint Tilted Axis recently published a new translation of Panty by Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, said UK publishers should "source [titles] from translators themselves", who often have read widely in their language of expertise, including books that publishers may be unaware of.

Urvashi Butalia, publisher at New Delhi indie Zubaan Books, considers translation "a political act". She said that women writers are translated less and, given that translation is a small field in the first place, "it is very difficult to get women’s voices published". Zubaan produces a 'woman’s list' for any publishers looking to source new and original Indian writing in translation to publish in the UK.

Arunava Sinha, a prolific translator who worked on Panty for Tilted Axis, told me there is "a lack of effort by India’s English-language publishers, who often hold world rights, to sell [translation] rights in the UK". He added: "There is no strategy, no effort to place a writer or a group of writers in a literary context so that UK publishers might be interested. I would encourage smaller publishers from the UK, who are interested in translations, to visit India and meet authors and translators here. This will open up a lot of possibilities." 

Sinha also suggested that "UK publishers could possibly consider graphic novels from Indian languages as a more accessible entry point for readers into the literatures of India."

As a publisher and writer (but one only vaguely proficient in another European language), I found the enthusiasm and advocacy for translating from regional Indian languages inspiring. There is so much we are missing out on and I hope to bring some new Indian literature to the UK in the future. 

A number of the books that were mentioned in the events are either untranslated or without publication outside of India. Any publisher interested in finding original Indian writing could do worse than start with Samskara by U R Ananthamurthy (Kannada), Chowringhee by Sankar (Bengali), Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar (Marathi), One Part Woman/Madhorubagan by Perumal Murugan (Tamil), The Moth-Eaten Howdra of the Tuska by Indira Goswami (Kurumpi), The House of Kanooru by Kuvempu (Kannada), My Gran'dad 'ad an Elephant by Vikom Basheer (Malayalam), Praise the Lord by Paul Zacharia (Malayalam), any work by B V Koirala or Ramesh Bikal (Nepali), graphic novel Taranath Tantrik by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay and Taradas Bandyopadhyay (Bengali), or any Tamil pulp fiction.
Kit Caless is co-director of Influx Press and the author of Spoon’s Carpets (Square Peg).