Translations Are Transforming India’s Reading Landscape

Translations Are Transforming India’s Reading Landscape

Translations from Indian regional languages into English and vice versa are changing the reading landscape in the country

Sapna SarfareUpdated: Saturday, June 29, 2024, 09:28 PM IST
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In India, literature is as old as its history and culture. Some of the best works of literature have come out of our country. Regional languages have churned out masterpieces and much-loved authors. Thanks to the British Raj, reading English books is considered normal.

And translation works have a huge market. We are talking about books translated into regional languages from English. Many English classics and bestsellers translated into Indian languages have found success. These days, regional language books are now finding readers in English and thus have begun the translation work.

The book translation business is huge in India and is ensuring literature reaches readers. It is not just regional books to English but also English to other regional languages.

Translation era 

Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare, an award-winning bilingual translator of books, has been translating books since 2008 and has seen a rising demand for books in regional languages. “Readers have especially been making a concerted effort to seek out classics or highly popular books translated in the language of their choice.”

Dr Usha Bande, a Former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, is a writer, translator and motivational speaker. She feels the translation field has grown in respectability in the last decade. "Earlier, translation was almost looked down upon as an inferior activity, a kind of imitation devoid of originality. Up to the 1980s the translator's name was not even printed on the translated book. But the scenario has changed considerably. In India, regional authors are keen to get their works translated into Hindi and English because of the vast readership available in these languages.”

Minakshi Thakur, Publisher, Eka, Westland Books’ imprint for translations and language publishing, has a slightly different take and mentions many multi-national and independent publishers publishing translations for over three decades. “Oxford University Press had a strong list. Katha was started up just to publish translations from the Indian languages to English. Women’s Unlimited and Zubaan have published translations from books written by women in the languages. Niyogi Books also publishes a few titles every year. Penguin Random House has a great list of modern classics and contemporary works in translation. So, this isn’t a recent enterprise. But more and more publishers are now beginning to publish translations.”

She points out that many award-winning literary fictions have come from the Indian languages. “If you notice the award longlists and shortlists for literature awards in the past five to seven years, you will find translations dominating them. This wasn't the case until a decade ago. Translations didn’t qualify for most English-language literary awards in the country. Or translations were a separate category; this ‘othering’ of translations hugely impacted their estimation by readers and booksellers, for they seemed to be ‘less’ than books written originally in English somehow. So, did they stand a chance?”

Reasons behind the rise

Dr. Bande starts by mentioning the national and international recognition that translated works have received in recent times. "Besides, the Govt of India’s Ministry of Languages has established several departments to boost translation activities. Availability of awards, financial aid for publishing translated works and willingness of renowned publishing houses to undertake publishing. Booker’s award to Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Hindi: Ret Samadhi) boosted the interest. Authors and translators have realised that it means wide readership and circulation and also monetary gains.”

Minakshi focuses on awards institutions that put the spotlight on translation. “Similarly, the mushrooming of literature festivals has made it possible for translators and authors to come together and speak about their collaborative process, its bright spots and challenges. This has helped readers engage directly with authors and translators from the Indian languages. There was a clear segregation between Indian language writers and English-language writers.”

She talks about translators constantly backing translations that have fostered talks on it for the last decade. "With translation studies now being taught in universities, institutions have produced young translators. Now there are a few international grants, which are a sign that the literary community (publishers, booksellers, book fairs authorities, cultural organisations, universities, journals) in India and outside are trying to come together as a cohort to support translations. The fact that translators are as important as the authors, and are being paid more fairly than earlier has incentivised their efforts. We keep wanting to pay significantly more than we do, but sales are still a stumbling block. Though we are selling more than we did five years ago. Even today in publishing houses outside of India, the translator’s byline still doesn’t appear on the covers of many translations.”

Reshma does think social media has made things easier to create interest through 'organic discussions and posts about translations’. “Online reader communities helped build a good readership base by talking about translations, helping with resources about where to buy these books, and even encouraging the exchange of pre-loved books. Ease of downloading and reading books due to technological advancements like Kindle also has been an important reason, because it made sourcing of otherwise elusive translated books quite easy.”

Some growth

Translation of English books into Indian regional languages is making a difference. Minakshi says, “Jaico Books has a very successful multi-lingual programme. Westland Books has translated its English bestsellers into more than nine languages in the past 12 years. For instance, Amish’s books swiftly moved into six to seven languages after the publication of the English originals. So, many publishers are invested in the idea of doing pan-Indian publishing. Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Gujarati publishers actively buy rights from English language publishers based on the current trends in their respective markets.”

She adds, “Our parent company Pratilipi runs hugely successful apps for user-generated stories in 12 Indian languages. Over 9.5 lac writers are writing on it. More than four crore readers are reading on it for 60-90 minutes daily on an average. Pratilipi has other apps like Pratilipi Comics and Pratilipi FM (for audio series). Pratilipi translates select stories into other languages, localising their context depending on the performance of the stories in the target language. Which only means that people want to read or write or watch or listen to stories in their native languages.”

Reshma has an interesting point in this regard. “In today’s times when the choice of imparting education to children is shifting rapidly towards English as a medium, translated books help the regional languages thrive in households. With families becoming nuclear, gone are the days when grandparents would pass on wisdom via stories in regional languages. On such a backdrop, having translated books help parents and children both to stay connected with regional words, phrases, and dialects, thus enhancing the linguistic fabric of the family as a whole.”

Market talks

Reshma reveals, “The market is growing with every passing year. Prestigious book conventions like the ones in Frankfurt and Delhi are actively seeing an exchange of rights for translations. There are more than 12-13 awards for translations in India now. Self-publishing platforms have given rise to a new breed of authors who want to see their work published in regional languages, thus requiring the services of translators. Conventional publishers are being increasingly asked for reprints of old translations. They’re also having readers suggest new books that they’d like to read in regional languages.”

She sees E-reading platforms and facilities like home delivery from e-commerce platforms and shops, easing things for readers in accessing translation that helps them increase their interest. She feels all these factors will aid in improving the publishers' and authors' interest in getting their books translated. It also means speeding up the demand.

Dr. Bande, too, agrees that there is a sizable market for these books and awareness among publishers regarding the same. "All India circulation, international interest, availability of funds from the Government agencies or universities and the introduction of Translation Studies as a subject at the University level have served as a great booster to publishing translated works. Institutions like Sahitya Akademi, and National Language Translation Mission are doing considerable work in promoting the publication of the translation.”

All in all, readers will be treated more in times to come.  

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