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A Good Book is a Good Book, Translated Work or Original, Top Publishers Agree

Continuing with her series on Literary writings, Chitra Ahanthem follows up her series on language, literary writing with this interview of Rahul Soni, Executive Editor (Literary) of HarperCollins India and Minakshi Thakur, Publisher and Editor with Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications focussing on the focus on translated Indian literature.

 

Chitra: How do you see the translated Indian literature scene today in comparison to say, about a decade ago? Is it in response to a demand with the interest and reading taste of readers changing or has it been a conscious attempt as publishers to focus on translated works?

Rahul Soni: There’s a lot more awareness and conversation around translation now, I think. It’s been a conscious attempt from translators over the years, to bring more focus to the art of translation, and publishers too are starting to be receptive and more understanding of the work and craft that goes into it. As for readers – I don’t really think that by and large they’re too bothered about this – a good book is a good book, whatever language it was originally written in.

Minakshi Thakur: Many pieces have come together as far as the translation scene in India is concerned. The quality of translations has improved vastly over the years, with more people taking it up. Publishers are working more closely with translators, translators are working closely with authors in turn, which wasn’t really the case before. A lot of times, translators would work by themselves without consulting the author much. Also, at the academic level, discourse analysis in translation studies has helped change our approach to translation: the many ways in which the original text can be read and the balancing of accessibility with faithfulness of a translation.

The Indian reader has evolved over time and woken up to the fact that there is brilliant writing happening in India in its many languages. The success of books by writers like Vivek Shanbhag, Perumal Murugan, K R Meera, Jayant Kaikini amongst others in English has sparked further translations into other Indian languages. One small example is Westland’s translation of Murugan’s Poonachi into six other Indian languages. Also, with the major awards like the DSC Prize, JCB Prize, Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award now going to translations, the way language writing is being perceived has changed. This wasn’t the case five years ago. Rarely a translation made it to shortlists. In a few cases, it would be put in another category altogether.

Publishers are actively commissioning translations now. Also, with the recent boom in the visual broadcast medium, rights to books are being bought regularly, which will, in turn, fuel interest in translations.

Chitra: What is the process and criteria to pick up a work from Indian literature from its original language for translation to English? How does it work out?

 

Rahul Soni: Given that there are so many languages and literary writing in the country, this is necessarily always going to be a process reliant on others – no single editor (or even editorial team) can cover so much ground. What we rely on is translators, and a network of readers and authors across the country who tell us what is possibly worth considering. Picking a work from that then depends on the literary qualities of the original and on how good the translation is.

Minakshi Thakur: There are several reasons to publish a book: the profile of a writer, their stature in their respective languages, the awards they might have received. But most importantly, the uniqueness of a story. The wonderful thing about translation is that it picks a local story and turns it into something global. The uniqueness of the plot and its rootedness in its original context, its locales, is most important to me. I pick stories I have never heard before, and prose style or poetry that strikes me as unusual.

Chitra: Please elaborate a bit on how your publishing house has been focusing on translated Indian writing over the years: what are the challenges and stand out achievements?

Rahul Soni: HarperCollins India as you know has a dedicated translations imprint, called Perennial. It’s been around for more than ten years now, but over the past couple of years or so, we have really started focusing on the quality of translation and also have sharpened our list by deciding to publish more cutting-edge contemporary work from Indian languages. And we’ve also, through our “Perennial 10” initiative (where we republished the best of our back catalogue in a stunning new series look) been able to bring new attention to the work we’ve been doing. I think the amount of attention this has been getting from readers and the awards a number of our translations have got over the past couple of years speaks for itself.

Minakshi Thakur: EKA is the language imprint of Westland. It publishes original writing and translations in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, Odia and Urdu, apart from English. We also cross-translate between these languages and into English and vice versa.

As for challenges, there is no dearth of them! Finding translators in some language pairs is a task, but an interesting one! For instance, we had to translate Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari’s books from Bengali to Malayalam. For one novel, we decided to use the English translation as a bridge, and for another, we found a translator who works directly from Bengali. So this quest has its beautiful surprises!

Chitra: Over the years, a few languages have got their due attention when it comes to being translated: Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and to a certain extent, Assamese and Oriya. What about the other languages given the rich diversity of languages in the country and the stories they have to tell? What are the factors that comes in the way of adding more languages for translation?

Rahul Soni: The single biggest factor coming in the way of this is the lack of good translators. This is starting to change, slowly, as people are beginning to take the craft seriously, but there is a long way to go.

Minakshi Thakur: Languages like Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Punjabi, Sindhi, Manipuri, Mizo etc continue to remain under-represented for various reasons. Translators who work directly between these languages and English are few and far between. And secondly, novels as a form are hardly being written in most of these languages; a large chunk of writing happening in these languages is poetry, and in some cases short-stories, which are being published not by local publishers in book form but in journals, which are not well distributed.

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