By Christopher Kenneally
Translation, as Salman Rushdie has noted, has its roots in the Latin for “bearing across.” Rushdie — born in Mumbai, or Bombay as it was known then — acknowledges the common fear that something always gets lost in translation, yet he hopes, too, that something can be gained.
In Rushdie’s native India, where there are 22 official languages and easily 100 more spoken in dozens of communities from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, publishers have a bounty of languages to get lost in and to gain from. The emergence of smartphones and tablets — enabling so-called “mobile reading” — promises to make India a nation of translations.
“Lately in India, there’s a huge concentration in publishing on Indian languages. Technology is deep-seated in the market, and we’ve seen the rise of reading apps which cater to Indian languages,” noted Prashasti Rastogi, director, German Book Office in New Delhi.
“Books and news both are disseminated to readers in their (native) languages,” she told me for a recent interview in Copyright Clearance Center’s Beyond the Book podcast series. “The challenges of Indic fonts are being discussed, and publishers are committed to publishing translations.”
Advances in technology, especially mobile communication, make it possible for publishers to reach consumers all the way to “the last mile” — conquering, at last, a distribution problem that has long plagued Indian publishers. Print remains a strong component of the market, nevertheless, as is clear when “hordes of people flock to book fairs in Patna or Kolkata to look for books in Hindi or Bengali. There’s constant excitement there,” Rastogi said.
The rise of mobile communications is bringing with it a flood of media previously accessible only to relatively affluent, mostly urban Indians. According to Minakshi Thakur, Publisher – Hindi and Senior Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, the best hope of seeing a flourishing intra-national translation market is to nurture this audience of so-called digital natives.
“I think that is the gap we need to fill, and that is where the future readership is going to come from. That gives me a lot of hope for translations,” Thakur told me. “Even though we are working a lot in many different ways to make our literature travel within India from one language to another, and from Indian languages to English, we’re not able yet to sell as much as we would like.”
Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, but this nation of 1.23 billion has 122 major languages and 1,599 additional languages, according to the 2001 Census of India. The 2001 Census also recorded 30 languages spoken by more than a million native speakers and 122 by more than 10,000 people.
“Languages (other than English) are really thriving, and in fact, there is an increased readership that we see in a lot of local languages,” said Meera Johri, who heads the prestigious Rajpal & Sons, publishers of Hindi classics, dictionaries and textbooks as well as contemporary works including books by Prof. Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics.
At Rajpal & Sons, publishing works in translations goes back more than a half century, though largely for English-language novels including Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn and Portrait of a Lady. In 2016, local authors increasingly dominate the list.
“There is a renewed interest in buying Hindi books and reading Hindi books. Marathi has always been very vibrant. Malayalam and Bangla, too,” Johri notes. “One reason is that these languages have a very strong culture of reading.”
Languages, of course, like book marketplaces, hardly stand still. In today’s global village, words are exchanged as easily as currency and emails. English has long drawn on various languages of the Indian subcontinent to enrich its vocabulary, while the verbal trade within Indian thrives, too.
“Every two or three years, we try and incorporate new words which have crept into the language,” said Johri. “However, it always seems that we are chasing behind the growth, because new words are being added faster than we can keep pace with.”
In such a dynamic literary environment, an editor must develop a reliable network of sources for dozens more if she is to remain current.
“Every person in India would tell you that he or she speaks or knows at least three languages, including English,” said Thakur, who counts among her responsibilities the translations imprint Harper Perennial, covering the best regional Indian writers, and the imprint for quality Hindi books, Harper Hindi.
“By sources, I mean writers in those languages, regional publishers, journalists writing in those languages, and various people — readers, passionate readers. We’re constantly going back to them to check who is doing well, whose book is a huge hit, which senior writer we should publish, which are the classics in those languages. So we really depend on these sources in the languages apart from the ones that we speak.”
“At HarperCollins, our focus has shifted to nurturing younger writers — and not only younger writers, but also people who have been writing in the last two decades and we know for sure that they will continue to write for some time,” Thakur said.
Among those emerging authors is Menakshi Thakur herself. Her first book, An Indian Evening, a collection of poems in English, was published in 2002. She has since published two collections of Hindi poems: Jab Utthi Yavanika (2003); and Neend Ka Akhiri Pul (2010), which was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2012. Her first novel, Lovers Like You and I, was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013 and was published by HarperCollins India.
“Because of [a growing] focus [by publishers] on contemporary writing about today’s issues and speaking the language which the young people speak, a lot of youngsters are finding resonance of their own voice in these books,” Meera Johri asserted. “That is very important — that today the young population, which forms a very significant part of Indian population, are able to relate to these themes, and they like to read books. And of course, the fact that the books are available across devices makes it that much easier.”
Christopher Kenneally is host and producer of the weekly podcast series, Beyond the Book, from Copyright Clearance Center, where he is Director, Business Development. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter and Facebook.