28 June 2008

The art of the translator

“As a translator I know that there is a fascination in living at such close quarters with a writer, engaging with every word they wrote, trying to make another text which is worthy of the original. But there is also a melancholy of translation. Compared with other writers, translators feel undervalued. It is not so much that they are badly paid (this is a problem they often share with those they translate) as that they are downgraded, damned with faint praise, criticized in passing and, unkindest of all, ignored. All are aware, and if they weren’t critics would remind them, of the inadequacy of their efforts – ‘the translator is a betrayer’ goes the old refrain, unthinkingly.”

– Peter France, The Art of the Translator

[Citation: Peter France on the Art of the Translator, Oxford University Press website, about Peter France’s The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation.]

25 June 2008


“Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For a boy growing up in a Bengali family (from West Bengal, India), the literary works of Rabindrath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and other eminent Bengali writers were prescribed reading. Furthermore, on my parent’s insistence, I was introduced to Bengali translations of English, French and Russian fiction – both novels and short stories – as well as universally-known works such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

As a teenager, ready to make my own choices in literature, writers like Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, O Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky became obvious names on my reading list. Added to that list were hundreds of others; far too many to name here. But, there was one common fact about my reading habit: I had switched entirely to English. I no longer read Bengali translations of any foreign literary work.

This made me wonder: who were those translators from my childhood who had so painstakingly and faithfully translated Homer and Hugo, Dickens and Dostoyevsky for Bengali readers like me? Why did I not remember them? And, even now, why do I not remember who translated into English Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels from Spanish or Milan Kundera’s novels from Czech, and later from French … all of which I read so avidly?

It was with much humiliation that I realised a brutal fact: that, although translators play a critical role in bringing authors and poets and playwrights to prominence in various languages, and in the minds of millions of readers across the world, their talent and enterprise are ignored by the best of us in the most supreme of moments when literature gives us pleasure.

18 June 2008

Some latest info from NBTI

Obtaining data on the Indian book publishing industry is not only difficult, it can also be misleading… with various publishers quoting various figures. However, I’m guessing, data published by the National Book Trust, India can be trusted. So, I’m sharing something I found on their website, released in February this year during the 18th New Delhi World Book Fair 2008.

Here’s a quote from National Book Trust, India’s website:

“Publishing scenario in contemporary India is a conceptually exciting, linguistically rich and quantitatively diverse phenomenon. India is perhaps the only country in the world, which publishes books in more than 24 languages. There are nearly 16,000 publishers producing not less than 80,000 titles in all major Indian languages including English with an annual turnover of Rs.100,000 million. Of these, almost forty per cent titles are published in English language alone. As a result, India ranks third in the publication of English books immediately after the USA and the UK.”

This should put a lot of questions to rest.

Please note that the NBTI figure of Rs.100,000 million (i.e. Rs.10,000 crores) as annual turnover of the book publishing industry is far higher – and more promising – than the ‘Rs.3,500 crores to Rs.7,000 crores’ figure I had presented in my previous post. I stand corrected. However, I wonder if more titles are published in English than in Hindi, as NBTI claims.

[Citation: National Book Trust, India website.]

14 June 2008

Bound and gagged

Searching for information on the book publishing industry in India is a frustrating experience. Internet searches generate miscellaneous and dated information. Publishing industry people never volunteer anything; nor do they come forth with anything specific upon probing. It seems, not only are books bound in India, when it comes to sharing information, their publishers – and their staff – are proverbially gagged.

No one seems to know what the size of the book publishing industry in India really is. Figures vary between Rs.3,500 crores to Rs.7,000 crores – a pretty wide margin. Of this, Hindi books seem to have the biggest share in the number of titles published (followed by English, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi). But, English books seem to have the biggest share of sales in value – i.e. in rupee terms. That’s because English books are more expensive than regional-language books in India.

Even here, the share of English books vary between 22% and 45% of the market – another wide margin – considering a great many English books are imported. However, there is a general belief that the book publishing market in India is growing – and growing fast, considering the improvements in literacy. Here again, the English-language book market is growing the fastest – thanks to India’s globalisation. If we were to consider 2% of India’s population as English-language book readers, that’s a huge potential of 24 million consumers for English books.

This fact has changed the dynamics of the Indian publishing industry. More and more retail brands like Crossword, Landmark and Oxford are opening up bookstores in major cities. More and more Indian publishers are realising the importance of reach and setting up their own distribution channels. More and more foreign English-language publishers are eyeing the Indian market for their books and publications. More and more Indian writers are beginning to write and publish their works in English.

Although these changes are bound to rub off on regional-language publishers sooner or later, at the moment, they’re feeling a little gagged.

[The figures quoted in this post are entirely my own speculation and should not be interpreted as industry figures. The Indian market for books includes school books, academic books, general interest books (fiction, non-fiction), and trade books.]

13 June 2008

In India, print still rules

Western media may be replacing the printed word with the digital, but, in India, print still rules. Contrary to Western media trends, the print media is growing phenomenally in India. In the last five years, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry in India has given approvals for publication of 284 new magazines.

Earlier this month, the Indian I&B Minister, Mr Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, addressed a meeting in New Delhi on the ‘Growth of Print Media in Liberalised Economy’. According to a Press Trust of India (PTI) report on that meeting, titled Print media records dynamic growth: I&B ministry, dated 2 June 2008, and reported in www.outlookindia.com, India’s “print media industry stood at Rs.149 billion in year 2007 and recorded a growth of 16 per cent over previous year.”

What’s more, Mr Dasmunsi had added, “in view of increasing literacy, there is a possibility of more growth and expansion of the print media in future.”

Mr Dasmunsi’s confidence is based on a survey of ‘India Media & Entertainment Scenario’ conducted jointly by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The survey had further pointed out that the “magazine industry size was estimated at Rs.19 billion and registered a growth of 15 per cent during the year 2007.”

“According to the same study,” reported PTI, “Indian Print Media is projected to grow by 14 per cent over the next five years and magazine publishing to grow at a higher rate of 15 per cent. During the same period, newspaper-publishing market would reach Rs.243 billion.”

[Citation: Print media records dynamic growth: I&B ministry, PTI report, 2 June 2008, New Delhi.]

09 June 2008


“Reading in America, as in many rich countries, is down. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, says leisure reading is declining, especially among the young. Since 1985, books’ share of entertainment spending has fallen by seven percentage points… Books have changed very little in half a millennium, but they may now be on the verge of going digital.”
[Quote from Unbound, the Economist, 5 June 2008.]

The latest issue of the Economist has a story on Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos shaking up the entire publishing industry with ‘Kindle’, his e-book reader, and his decision to insist that all POD (‘Publish On Demand’) books sold through Amazon.com be printed by the company at its warehouses.

The Economist story, which really highlights the advent of new technology in the publishing industry and, with it, changes in book buying and book reading, clearly vindicates the fact that less and less people are reading, and even less are going to be reading in the future, the printed word – not just newspapers (see my previous post), but also books.

There are good reasons for this change: “An economic slowdown may play to the new technologies’ strengths. The costs of printing and shipping paper and cardboard are rising… And if consumers become more price-sensitive, e-books may become more appealing.”

But, for the moment, there is some good news for the traditional book publisher. According to the Economist story, “Though they are an improvement on a computer screen, e-book readers remain crude simulacra of books. A poll released by John Zogby at BEA (i.e. Book Expo America) found that 82% of Americans strongly prefer paper to pixels.”

The end note? Says the Economist, “Publishing has only two indispensable participants: authors and readers. As with music (I had blogged about this too), any technology that brings these two groups closer makes the whole industry more efficient — but hurts those who benefit from the distance between them.”

[Citation: Unbound, the Economist, 5 June 2008.]