India, Thailand, Turkey: Challenging Centers of Publishing in a Postcolonial World

In News by Olivia Snaije

‘When you are from semi-democracies you don’t have the luxury of being apolitical.’ A panel in London addresses publishing in a postcolonial era: London and New York are hardly the only hubs today.
From left, Elif Shafak, Prabda Yoon, Vinutha Mallaya, and Jonathan Morley speak on a panel at London Book Fair's Literary Translation Centre. Image: Olivia Snaije

From left, Elif Shafak, Prabda Yoon, Vinutha Mallaya, and Jonathan Morley speak on a panel at London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre. Image: Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘A Radical Remapping’
Jonathan Morley of the UK’s Writers’ Centre Norwich opened London Book Fair’s Insight Seminar panel, Going Global: How the Postcolonial World Is Challenging the Metropolitan Centers of Publishing, by evoking French academic Pascale Casanova’s premise that the centers of the book trade need to be diversified; that there should be “a radical remapping of global literary space.”

Each panelist gave an overview of his or her country’s literary landscape.

‘Literatures in Plural’

Following independence, “the Indian constitution allowed for literary diversity and the state funded translations,” said Vinutha Mallya, a consulting editor and founder of the Kaavi Literary Agency, which represents authors in Indian languages. India recognizes 22 official languages she said, but there are more than 600 spoken.

“It’s a collection of many different languages and cultures. These realities help us become naturally multilingual. On any given day we speak several languages and interpret and translate daily, which is very different from how Western cultures approach languages.”

But in India there are linguistic hierarchies, Mallya said. Most Indian writers known in the Western world are those who write in English. “So there’s lots to be done in translation and it’s imperative that India represents its literatures. We need to show the world what literatures in plural are like.”

‘Some Kind of Hope’

Prabda Yoon, an author, graphic designer and translator from Thailand said that the situation in his country was “almost the opposite of India’s.”

Although there are dialects in Thailand, the Thai language is the only one used, said Yoon.

“It’s not a language that is of interest to many other countries, which results in having a very closed literary circle. It’s quite difficult for Thai books to be translated into other languages but it is also very difficult to translate other languages into Thai. There is little interest in Thailand to read books from other cultures other than the big bestsellers from the UK, the US and possibly from Japan.”

Yoon, who translates authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and J.D. Salinger from English into Thai, said that the print runs for this kind of literature are relatively low, and that it’s mostly fantasy and romance or teen romance books that do well.

“There is some kind of hope,” he sad, “but at the moment it’s dim. In general there are no more than 10,000 readers out there waiting impatiently for some kind of literature to be translated.” (Thailand has a population of approximately 68 million).

‘Pay Attention to Silences’

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke about how polarized her country is: “So many subjects we talk about today are actually happening in Turkey; the clashes between East and West, modernity and religion…Literature and culture don’t get much attention from experts and this is a big mistake because to understand a society, you have to pay attention to stories.”

Turkish literature is amazingly intense and powerful, said Shafak, however the novel as a genre, is fairly new.  “It came to Turkey during the late 19th century from continental Europe, and 47 percent of what we read is European literature. We read this literature more closely than the other way around. We weren’t used to reading Arab or Persian literature. We thought we were European. Naguib Mahfouz was only translated just recently. In terms of linguistic diversity we have lost a lot because of the domination of the Turkish language. There are many Kurdish writers struggling to write in their mother tongues.

“The Ottoman Empire was multilingual and multiethnic. The journey of the language is very interesting. The syntax used to be Turkish with Arabic and Persian words. In the 1920s the language was Turkified. An Ottoman dictionary was twice the size of a Turkish dictionary. I can say yellow or red in Turkish, but all the colors in between come from Persian. Two-hundred years ago I would have had these words.

“We need both old and new words. Words survive longer than we do. In addition to paying attention to Turkey’s stories we have to pay attention to its silences, to its taboos. Writers have to point out these silences…we should emphasize more diversity; we live in a world where we are being reduced to identities. I am often introduced as a woman writer from the Muslim world but that’s only one thread of my writing,” said Shafak.

‘Winds of Nationalism’

The winds of nationalism are blowing in many different countries said Mallya. “I see it happening all over the world. It shows up in the cultural sphere first. It divides people.”

As an example, Mallya cited the revival of Sanskrit, which she said no one speaks anymore but in the interest of patriotism, people are being encouraged by the government to speak it.

“Arabic is alive in India but never acknowledged,” she said. “The government feels the need to assert identity through language.”

Then there is the question of what to translate for Western publishers, which can also be a political subject.

In the case of India, Mallya said she feels that “there is definitely still an imperialistic subject matter. And although we’ve moved away a bit from the snake charmers and elephants, publishers still look for work that contains elements that have already been pre-established.”

“It’s very difficult to understand what is what if you don’t know the context of the culture itself,” said Yoon. “If you are a creative writer pushing boundaries perhaps your writing is not reflective of your particular culture. There’s a dilemma in choosing what to translate. It might not reflect the current situation in Thailand, for example. But it might be refreshing and something new and that has political impact, even if the writer is not writing anything political. It might have some kind of drive that is meaningful to readers.”

Shafak, who writes both in Turkish and English, has been accused by some of abandoning the Turkish language.

She said: “When I write in English I’m closer to Turkey. When I write in English it makes me more courageous, in Turkish I’m too close to [the language] and it makes me more timid. When you are from semi-democracies you don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. Politics is also within our private space. But our guiding spirit is storytelling.”

300 Spring MagazineMuch more coverage of events related to last week’s London Book Fair and associated issues is in our Spring 2016 magazine.

If you weren’t with us at #LBF16 to pick it up, download it here free of charge as a PDF.

And be sure to see our coverage of the International Publishers Association’s 31st Congress in London and the IPA’s choice of Saudi Web publisher Raif Badawi as recipient of the Prix Voltaire, as well as a look at the seven vibrant publishing markets to be featured in October this year at Frankfurt Book Fair’s The Markets Conference. (Note that Early Bird rates end April 30.)

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.