Literary Translation The literary dilemma in India

Indian authors translated
Indian authors translated | © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

The authors on the Subcontinent are looking for readers within their own country, but it’s also become harder for them here as well.

“India is probably the only economically strong nation in the world that doesn’t have a government office dedicated to a translation program.” That’s what was said recently in India’s highly-respected daily newspaper, The Hundu. They were talking about Indian literature, which is split up into 24 officially-recognized literary languages. These pieces of literature have to get to know each other in order to be collectively recognized as Indian literature. This would only work with a widespread and passionate translation program with generous financial support.

The Hindu continues: “Translating literature that explores the human condition can be an antidote to the speech in power politics about the hated ‘other.’ While billions of rupees are invested in strengthening our military, very little is done to promote literature in Indian languages. Classical music and the arts receive much more official support, much more than literature does.”

Literature as a means of integration, as that horizon before which the entirety of history and experience becomes palpable – in India, literature can and must fulfill this social function. Too many subversive forces are at work here. Additionally, stories, both oral and written, have a much higher significance than they do in a digitally-jaded Europe. Nevertheless, the difficulties seem daunting. They begin at a mental barrier: The large linguistic groups, such as  Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam, could each initiate their own translation programs of national importance, which would give the respective literature in that language group worldwide recognition. However, considering India as a whole, each group only represents regional language, so they even have to struggle for recognition within the country.

As important as literature is to the Indian people, they don’t even have a book culture within the big linguistic regions. A complete catalogue of published titles, or at least books in print, doesn’t exist. There also isn’t an organized, universal distribution network. It’s more like a large number of smaller networks competing with each other. Book stores that stock these names only exist in big cities; Amazon and other book suppliers are only beginning to build up their delivery systems.

It would be difficult to create a national translation program on top of this weak structure. First of all, there’s a lack of competent translators, even though countless Indians grow up bilingual. Translating literature, however, demands greater effort than translating something like a business document does. From the government’s side, the Sahitya Akademi (the Indian literature academy) has taken on the task of translating between Indian languages. And they’re bona fide in doing this, yet only to moderate success with the public. You rarely find their editions in book shops.

By now it’s considered a common courtesy in big publishing houses to publish translated literature. Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Penguin Books, Orient Blackswan have been pioneers in doing this. Publishers are gradually realizing that good translators have to be well compensated, that they need to support the art of translation and some elite universities have even started offering courses in translating. This development is thanks to the passionate commitment of individuals, such as Mini Krishnan in Chennai, who translates from Indian languages into English for Oxford University Press, promotes various bodies for translation as a national endeavor and even writes a column on the translation situation for Hindu.

Albeit, the rivalry between authors who write in Indian languages and those who write in English is also quite passionate. The former feel disadvantaged because their markets are limited and their successes beyond their regions are dependent on good translators. On the other hand, the authors, who write in English, are considered less authentic, and less connected to the people. But they’re the ones who have a large audience throughout India and can also publish in the United States and the United Kingdom. Additionally, writers, like Amitav Ghosh, emphasize that English has been one of India’s native languages for a long time, since many idioms and phrases from Indian languages have been integrated.

Ten years ago, in 2006, India was the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Public institutions, primarily the National Book Trust, as well as many Indian publishers participated back then. The fervor German publishers had to publish Indian literature was commendable. Around sixty works, including anthologies and nonfiction were published, many supported by Indian resources.

What remains today of his astounding dynamic? Even modern classics, like O.V. Vijayan’s Legends of Khasak, sold fewer than one thousand copies in Germany. Spokespeople from publishing houses state that India “just doesn’t work.” Is the country too complex, to far away from European thought and lifestyle? But doesn’t literature from China or Japan get published with vigor – and with success? Are these countries less far away? Certainly not, but the diversity of language in India is daunting. Here we must consider the country’s post-colonial sensitivities and the need to recognize Dalit literature, meaning the voices of the poor and people in lower castes.

What’s fact is that, after 2006, none of the big, literature publishers in Germany have continued to put out Indian literature. Couldn’t interest be garnished though diverse marketing materials, inviting authors who are making use of new media, to literature houses and big book store chains? Some Indian authors have caught on with the German public, such as Shashi Tharoor, Amit Chaudhuri, Kiran Nagarkar and especially the most widely read, Amitav Ghosh. They all write in English but live in India. But even the most recent books by Kiran Nagarkar and Amit Chaudhuri weren’t translated. Their former publishers, A1 and Blessing, don’t have any Indian authors in their catalogues this year.

And how are things in Germany for authors who write in Indian languages? We have the same difficulty here as they do in India: A lack of competent translators. A generation of translators for important Indian languages is slowly beginning to grow, supported by institutes for indology. Ullstein Verlag proved that so-called “regional writers” can be successful when they published Buddhadeb Bose’s novel, The Girl of My Heart, which had been translated from Bengali, and landed on the bestseller list.

A comprehensive translation program for fiction in all the important languages was developed by Indian cultural institutions. Experts were hired, foreign publishers were solicited and translators were contacted. The ambitious “Indian Literature Abroad” project (ILA) had been in the planning stages for years. Then fights broke about about competency and the whole thing fizzled out.

The small publisher, Draupadi Verlag, in Heidelberg, which has existed for almost thirteen years, would have been one of the beneficiaries of the ILA.  It can’t print books without grants; its publisher, Christian Weiß, considers sales of 600 to 700 copies a success. A busy bee idealist, he has published 110 Indian literary works in German, eighteen of them from Hindi, seven from Bengali and fifteen from English. Uday Prakash, a leading Hindi writer, has already published five titles with Draupadi Verlag.

From the German side, the “Society to Support Literature from Africa, Asia and Latin America (Litprom) has been the most active financier for years. Although big German companies, many of which have offices and factories in India, have been sponsoring culture to cultivate a good image, none of them, besides the company Merck in Darmstast, has discovered the field worthy of sponsorship that is Indian literature.

In contrast to the United Kingdom and the United States, the Indian diaspora in Germany is made up of fewer people who are culturally engaged. A significant exception is the journalist, Jose Punnamparambil, originally from Karela, who has been publishing the magazine, “Meine Welt,” for 33 years, which is dedicated to German-Indian dialogue. Three issues come out each year; Punnamparambil prints stories, poems, essays and important Indian authors in each issue. He and his staff collect, translate, edit and ask for contributions – and they contribute themselves. They all work for free. Jose Punnamparambil has published many anthologies on literature and life in India and on Indians’ experiences in Germany; he’s supported people a given them tribute. He’s knocked on the bosses’ doors at some companies to see if he could free up some money for literature and has participated in seminars and podium discussions for decades.

So there is some hope out there. Last year, the University of Tirur in Karela established a chair for the Malayalam language at the University of Tübingen. The tranquil director, K. Jayakumar, aims to have literature published in Germany. Matthias Beer also founded the Lotus Werkstatt in Berlin last year. His father, Roland Beer, was already publishing Indian literature in East Germany. Their first planed releases are a collection of stories by the Hindi poet, Bhisham Sahni (“The Price of a Chicken”), and a translation of the famous book, The Other Side of Silence, by the activist and publisher, Urvashi Butalia, which recounts the fate of people in India and Pakistan with a divided homeland – a topic that hopes to garner interest, especially in Germany. Matthias Beer is planning further works, like publishing the India letters by East German theater director, Fritz Bennewitz and the translation of theater plats by the national poet, Tagore. India’s literature is bubbling with activity. At least some of it should make it here.