Going Local: Indian Lit Focuses on Native Languages Over English

In English Language by Tolu Ogunlesi

While many of India’s internationally known authors write in English, national initiatives are focused on promoting India’s native language over English

By Tolu Ogunlesi

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India has four Hindi speakers for every one English speaker. Yet “it is English language publishing in India that gets international — and Indian — attention,” lamented publisher Urvashi Butalia, on Thursday at a Frankfurt Book Fair panel discussion titled “Romancing the Languages: Indian Literature’s Many Journeys.”

The country’s most influential literary products are decided upon by literary agents in London and New York, and its best-known authors (from “Rushdie [to] Roy”, as one panelist described it) are Diaspora writers who write in English and often have to face criticisms that they exoticize India for a foreign audience.

Things are however changing. India’s many languages (its 1.2 billion people share 22 official languages, each spoken by at least a million people; and more than a hundred regional languages) are starting to challenge the dominance of English, a legacy of colonialism.

India, said panelist Namita Gokhale, Co-founder and Director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, is striving to shed its “colonial mindset” and instead “[look] at itself in its own mirror.” As a result the local publishing industry (publishing in local languages) is booming, and more Indian-language books are being directly translated into foreign languages, without having to go through the traditional English route.
The large number of existing Indian languages also means that there is immense potential for translations from one local language to another. “The richness of India is becoming [better] known,” said Butalia.

The Indian government is throwing its weight behind this push to promote Indian languages. This year the Ministry of Culture launched an initiative known as Indian Literature Abroad (ILA), “to support and facilitate translation and promotion of literary heritage and contemporary literature from the Indian languages into major foreign languages.”

The ILA has just published a catalog featuring 32 Indian writers writing in 11 different languages, to, in the words of Gokhale (who serves as its secretary), “give people an idea of the bewildering diversity of writing available.”

One challenge that must be surmounted is the scarcity of qualified translators in a country that, according to a Ministry of Culture document, “exists in a constant state of translation.” Literacy is another problem, in some parts of the country literacy levels are as low as fifteen percent.

But there is much reason for optimism. According to Butalia, Indians are starting to see their language diversity “not as a barrier but as wealth.”

With the emergence of literary prizes recognizing translations from Indian languages, and with a literary festival like Jaipur, which highlight local language authors, India’s languages are getting strong support as they seek to upstage the disproportionate influence of a colonizer’s language.

About the Author

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.