High demand, but not enough literary translators

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Bookstore owners in Bengaluru have seen a steady rise in the appetite for translated literature but the titles are few and far between, they rue.

“Five to six well-known books are getting translated from Kannada to English and vice-versa every year, unlike one or two books before 2018,” says Mayi Gowda, owner of Blossom Book House, Church Street. These account for about 5% to 10% of his monthly sales, bought mostly by the migrant population looking to connect with Kannada culture.

On the same street, people often walk to The Bookworm in search of “good translations” but owner Krishna Gowda says, “We don’t have more than 60 books.” Among Kannada books translated into English, S L Bhyrappa’s ‘Parva’, Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar’,
U R Ananthamurthy’s ‘Samskara’ and the works of Kuvempu and Jayanth Kaikini remain the top sellers at these stores.

Change is here

Literary translation in India is at the cusp of change, translators and publishers Metrolife spoke to said. The International Booker Prize win by Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel ‘Tomb of Sand’, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell, has been a shot in the arm. So has the 2022 longlist of JCB Prize for Literature, where six of the 10 novels are translations.

New India Foundation (NIF) from Bengaluru has introduced a fellowship of Rs 6 lakh each for translating non-fiction from Indian languages, including Kannada, to English.

Maithreyi Karnoor, a poet, writer and translator based in Bengaluru, lauds another initiative: “Pitching samples to publishers is unpaid work. English PEN is trying to change that through its PEN Presents grant that pays creation of sample translations. It has announced its first shortlist and I’m honoured to be on it.” She has translated Kannada works like Shrinivas Vaidya’s ‘Halla Bantu Halla’ and Vasudhendra’s ‘Tejo Tungabhadra’.

Mumbai-based Indian Novels Collective has pledged to translate 100 Indian classic novels into English, and Prabha Khaitan Foundation has partnered with Zubaan to bring feminist content written in English to new audiences in various Indian languages, NIF trustee Niraja Gopal Jayal points out. She feels Indians are returning to multilingualism, referring to the shift towards non-Hindi and non-English films, perhaps driven by OTT platforms.

Ajjakala Girisha Bhat, chairman of the state government-backed Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati Praadhikara, credits this also to the Internet, which is bridging the gap between Indian language readers and literature published in English. “Not just in cities but people in smaller towns also want to read Kannada translations of English books,” he observes.

The centre, with its headquarters in Mallathahalli, has published 60 translations this year and is now translating the English and Hindi works of Dharampal into Kannada. Plans are on to translate works from regional languages of Karnataka, such as Kodava, Beary, Konkani, Sankethi, into Kannada and vice-versa. Fiction remains a big draw but at the same time, the uptake of non-fiction books on the history of India, its leaders and freedom fighters has gone up, he informs.

Global publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins are mining regional stories and local players are not far behind. Last year, a group of scholars, journalists and writers started Bahuvachana, a publication house in Bengaluru to translate non-Kannada literature into Kannada.

Most recently, Karnataka’s foremost writer Devanur Mahadeva published ‘RSS: Aala Mattu Agala’ through a decentralised model. “It was a runaway hit in Kannada and already has translations in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English,” points out Niraja.

Intensive work

There is a demand for translation but not enough translators. Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati Praadhikara has a database of about 500 freelancers from across the country, but still struggles to find translators for some projects. “Many find the work challenging and don’t take up assignments,” says Bhat.

Translator K Nallathambi can explain: “Get one word wrong and the meaning changes. You are not just translating words but also emotions and perspectives and the original author’s vision.”

And if the pay is poor after putting three to four months of intense work in translating a 200-pager, that is demoralising, he says.

“In some instances, translators weren’t paid even after the book got published because publishers said ‘the book was not selling’,” he says.

“Unlike in Europe, where it is a paying occupation, literary translation in India is a pursuit of passion. One is lucky to be paid an honorarium here which can deter newcomers. I do it for the love of translation,” says Maithreyi.

Speaking anonymously, a translator from Bengaluru said they aren’t paid even half as much as a writer in India.

The success of ‘Tomb of Sand’, Maithreyi thought, would open doors for Indian literature in translation but it looks like there is a long way to go. “UK-based publishers have strict monetary rules to adhere to when publishing translations. They are required to pay substantial fees to the translator, which they think is an investment risk as they are unsure of how marketable Indian literature is,” says Maithreyi. Deepa Ganesh of Bahuvachana says they pay translators rates fixed by Sahitya Akademi. “I started translating 20 years ago but it was only in 2005 when I got paid, a sum of Rs 10,000, for translating Ananthamurthy’s essay ‘I, A Brahmin’,” Deepa says.

But the scene is maturing. Niraja notes, “Until quite recently, it was seen as normal to not even have the translator’s name on the book cover.”

Now author Vasudhendra, who runs Chanda Pustaka, a publication house in Bengaluru, and Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati Praadhikara, are mentoring youngsters from Karnataka to become translators. “I will be travelling to France and Germany to identify Kannada-speaking NRIs who can help us translate the literature of these countries,” says Vasudhendra.

Diversity dilemma

Kannada literature is rich and pluralistic but Krishna feels the market has only scratched the surface, translating the works of a few, famous writers.

That’s why Bahuvachana wants to highlight unsung writers, such as Ma Su Krishnamurthy. They published his translation of Hindi scholar Hazariprasad Dwivedi’s work ‘Anamadas Ka Potha’. “Publishing houses should have literary informers, that is, people who can help discover good work in regional languages,” Deepa says.

Author Vinaya Chaitanya would agree. He talks about ‘A Cry in the Wilderness’, his translation of the works of philosopher-poet Narayana Guru. “Big publishing houses said they don’t publish religious books without once enquiring about Narayana Guru’s work.” Regional literature can integrate people of a country as diverse as ours, he feels.

Maithreyi points to another lacuna: “Literary prizes recognise the translated books where the original writer is alive, so publishing houses commission translations of works by contemporary writers, which is great. But that leaves out a huge volume of Indian writing that can be regarded as classics.”

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