26 July 2008

Recognising Indian authors

“The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world’s most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and even publishers.”

Authors of Indian origin who have won the Man Booker Prize are Salman Rushdie (1981 – Midnight’s Children), Arundhati Roy (1997 – The God of Small Thins), and Kiran Desai (2006 – The Inheritance of Loss). There is also V S Naipaul (1971 – In A Free State) – for those of you who consider V S Naipaul to be an author of Indian origin. Salman Rushdie, of course, won the 'Best of the Booker' this year.

Would any of these authors have won the Man Booker Prize if they had written their books in an Indian vernacular language? I think not.

What encouragement can we provide Indian writers to write in their own vernacular languages? How can we transform their fortunes (as The Man Booker Prize promises) by recognising and rewarding their talent?

[Citation: Quote from The Man Booker Prize website.]

24 July 2008

A nation and its literature are closely tied

A new book award has been announced in India. It’s the Golden Quill Book Award from www.indiaplaza.in. I learnt about it a couple of days ago when a blogger, named Stephen, wrote a comment on my blog and provided some relevant information about the award. On inquiring about the Golden Quill Book Award, I found that this year’s shortlist contains five books, all written in English, by writers who are domiciled in India.

This made me wonder about another recently-held award ceremony… about Salman Rushdie winning the ‘Best of the Booker’ prize. I wondered what this may mean to us in India. Would we feel elated because Rushdie and his ‘Midnight’s Children’ have championed the Indian nation? Would we feel it’s a great achievement for the Indian people and Indian literature? After all, though born in India, Rushdie is a British author, writing in English.

To quote from a quote in my previous post (with a little modification), does “It thus ably represent the excellence and diversity of narrative traditions and literary approaches in a multilingual, multiconfessional country” that India truly is? Or, does Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ reflect a globalised India where everyone speaks English?

I raise this point for two reasons: One, people across the world have begun to view Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ as the quintessential Indian novel, ignoring many more-suitable examples from Indian literature (such as the earlier Bengali novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay or the more-recent novels of R K Narayan). And two, Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ seems to have drowned out the rich, as well as complex, heritage and repertoire of Indian literature in her 20-odd regional languages.

Don’t you think, to appreciate Indian literature, one has to understand her people – a great many of whom aren’t Midnight’s children – and her culture – which is steeped in thousands of years of traditions, superstitions, myths, philosophy, logic and social structures? Perhaps, as a nation, we need to impress upon the world what Indian literature truly is. After all, a nation and its literature are closely tied.

The shortlist of books and authors in the Golden Quill Book Awards 2008 can be found here.

22 July 2008

English language, Indian literature

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, was published in 1997, (possibly) to celebrate Indian literature produced during the first 50 years of India’s Independence. This seemed to be true as the collection featured ‘contemporary’ Indian writers – the oldest, I think, was Jawaharlal Nehru – most of whom you would have heard of and, perhaps, read in the last 20 years.

The collection was edited by Salman Rushdie and Elisabeth West, and contained both fiction and non-fiction from 32 Indian authors, some of whom are no longer alive, but all, except one, writing in English. The exception was Saadat Hasan Manto, whose narrative was the only inclusion of a translated work of an Indian vernacular language (in this case, Urdu).

Rushdie, in his enthusiasm no doubt, or perhaps to justify his own inclusion in the collection, had stated that the reason for focusing on Indian writing in English and not including translations of Indian vernacular writing was because (a) Indian writing in English had proven itself to be a force to reckon with globally, and (b) no great work of Indian vernacular writing had appeared during this period.

Like many readers and writers of Indian literature, author Amit Chaudhuri, though included in the Vintage 1947-1997 collection, may have felt that Indian vernacular writing needed greater appreciation and recognition. He, therefore, ended up editing The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature in 2004, putting together a collection of Indian writing which included a fairly even representation of Indian vernacular writing.

Much to the delight of many readers, and going back 150 years into Indian literature, this ‘modern’ collection included 20 (out of 38) writers who wrote in Indian vernacular languages, including Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay. Alas, Amit Chaudhuri, being Bengali, may have favoured Bengali literature a little more than other Indian vernacular literatures.

Whatever be the editor’s bias, a review of this collection in Amazon.com states, “It thus ably represents the excellence and diversity of narrative traditions and literary approaches in a multilingual, multiconfessional country.” [Ali Houissa, Library Journal, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY – reproduced from Amazon.com.]

From this perspective, The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri, seems to be a perfect marriage of English language and Indian literature. Its success made possible by the use of one language, English. And so, I’m reminded of Pascale Casanova’s words again: some languages carry more weight than others.

21 July 2008

Disappearance of languages and literature

With more and more globalisation and with English language’s dominance the world over, specifically in terms of markets for published literature, would Indian regional-language writers be tempted to adopt English as their language to achieve prominence? I mean, what really is the future of, say, Bengali (my mother tongue) writers and literature twenty years from now?

After all, if you look around you, you’ll see more and more publishing companies are becoming globalised, and a few large global publishing houses are beginning to dominate the industry. In fact, some publishers are being bought over by entertainment companies and a phenomenal media consolidation is taking place globally.

What does this mean to language, to literature and to writers? As larger publishers – or media houses – start dominating the publishing industry, would some regional and smaller languages and literatures disappear? Would conforming to globalisation through writing, or translations, in one or a few dominating languages be their only hope of survival?

If writers are forced to write, or translate their writing, in another language because (a) they are dominated by another language, and/or (b) another language offers a much wider readership for their writing (than their own), what would it mean to a specific country’s or region’s language and literature? What would it mean to that country’s or that region’s or that people’s culture?

19 July 2008


It is reported that Irish author James Joyce had taken exile in France because he didn’t want to fight between choosing English or Gaelic as his language of expression in his motherland. Czech writer Milan Kundera, on the other hand, moved to France for political reasons – when Czechoslovakia came under Russian communist rule – and, later, chose to write in French rather than in his mother tongue Czech.

I find Kundera’s case interesting. Perhaps Kundera wrote in French to save himself the trouble of translating his Czech into French before publishing in France for a ready French audience. Or, perhaps, he wrote in French because the French literary ethos, and the French audience, did not welcome literature in a language other than French.

French literary scholar Pascale Casanova, citing the Man Booker Prize and its many non-British recipients, had stated in an interview with Charles Ruas in 2005 that, unlike the English who welcome writers from their ‘colonies’, the French are rather arrogant and practically despise writers from their ‘colonies’ (typically countries in West and North Africa, Algeria being an ideal example – besides Canada).

This makes me wonder how closely literature is connected to politics. If we look at history, we find that many writers were forced to write in, as well as translate their works into, another language simply because they were dominated by another culture and its language at that time. To some writers, this can mean another form of exile – an exile in one’s own land.

16 July 2008

Paris’ literary superiority

French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova believes there’s no such thing as ‘global literature’. However, in her groundbreaking book The World Republic of Letters, published originally in French in 1999 but which became famous in 2005 when it was published in English by Harvard University Press, Casanova puts forth a model for a literary world system which is indeed intriguing – and rather flattering of Casanova’s own country.

In an interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, going back to 2005, Casanova states that, just like the political and economic world before us, there is a parallel literary world. This literary world is dominated by two literary languages: French and English. In fact, this has been so thanks to the history of European language and literature, and specifically since the 19th century when Paris and London were fighting for dominance as the world’s capital.

Paris, naturally, won; with the greatest writers from across the world – Edgar Allen Poe, Mark twain, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and many more – flocking to Paris to establish themselves. There was a belief that Paris recognised genius. To be a writer and to be published in Paris was to be canonised.

Paris was the literary capital of the world. It was the place that all great writers visited. It was the place where writers were declared ‘real’ writers. Interestingly, more than the French, Paris was made into this legend by foreign writers like Poe and Faulkner and Joyce. Many writers – such as Edward Gibbons (memoirs), Oscar Wilde (Salomé) and August Strindberg (plays) – even wrote in French just for this recognition.

The ‘Paris’ myth grew and offered prestige to many writers. More and more writers congregated in Paris, further reinforcing Paris’ dominance in world literature. Apart from English which became its greatest rival from across the shores, other languages like Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian… all bowed down to Paris’ literary superiority.

[Citation: Pascale Casanova interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, 28 February 2005.]

14 July 2008

The literary world system

In my previous post, I had suggested that, perhaps, there is a large international market for translations of Indian regional-language writing. If such a market really exists, it opens up opportunities not only for Indian-language writers, but also for Indian-language translators. This proposal, of course, makes sense if there really is an international literary space where Indian-language writing translated into English (or other languages) can snugly fit in.

While dwelling on this possibility of an international literary space for Indian-language writing, I came upon William Deresiewicz’ 2005 review of French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova’s book La République mondiale des lettres (The World Republic of Letters). Here’s an excerpt from that review which appeared in The Nation:

…it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about – or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions – English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers ‘come from’? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren’t.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don’t. (But ‘better’ according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we’ve bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova’s words, “the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality...the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal.”

[Citation: The literary world system, by William Deresiewicz, The Nation, 3 January 2005.]

10 July 2008

Indian writing for the global market

[No, I’m not talking about the Kama Sutra]

If Indian translators aren’t recognised and rewarded for their contribution by the industry (readers and publishers included), perhaps, relying on India as their only literary marketplace is a dead end. In that case, could Indian translators not look upon the world as a larger market for their services?

When I think of some of my favourites, such as Michael Hoffman (famous for translations of Joseph Roth, Patrick Suskind, Wolfgang Koeppen) or Gregory Rabassa (famous for translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar), and the recognition and awards they have received, I’m inclined to think that the global market may provide a much-needed break for Indian translators.

Of course, Indian authors and their publishers – both Indian and international – have to accept the idea and make headway. I understand that Penguin, Picador and Harper Collins have already initiated programmes to put Indian authors (i.e. those who reside and write in India) on the global literary map, but their efforts have largely focused on Indian authors writing in English.

When it comes to translations, my kudos goes to a little-known publisher from Kolkata called Seagull Books – started in the early 1980s by Naveen Kishore – which has taken the initiative to publish English translations of Indian regional language books (mainly Bengali, but there’s more) and market them internationally. My collection of Mahasweta Devi’s writing couldn’t have been possible without Seagull Books.

08 July 2008

The translator’s dilemma

Translators aren’t rewarded as well as they ought to be. Apparently, the economics of translated titles is not promising. The logic is something like this:

A higher fee for translation increases the cost of production and, in turn, the price at which the title is sold at the bookstore. A high price deters readers from buying the title and reduces its demand, adversely affecting its sale. With low sales, publishers can’t recover their investment and lose interest in publishing translated titles.

Moreover, in India, with her 20-odd regional languages, the universe of readers for translated titles is fragmented. Publishers can’t take the risk of printing a large number of copies for a single title. A small print run, once again, increases the unit cost of the title and its price, deterring readers from buying the book.

With fewer readers buying translated titles, fewer translated titles are published… further reducing the translator’s opportunities.

05 July 2008

Book translations are disappearing on the open market

“The success of a few internationally acclaimed titles, however, masks the wider paradox of how free interchange between markets, cultures and languages is drying up. With the decline of translations of books, a centrepiece of book culture, namely their universality and diversity, is at risk. A turf war between publishers and translators can’t resolve the fundamental riddle of the current implosion of the translation market. We probably need to acknowledge that for a growing number of books, we may have a potentially interested reading audience, but no viable business model in a purely market-driven book economy. Thus, the traditional rights markets alone are not enough to organize a universal network of books and ideas through translation. And the public funding offered by many countries for translations is not enough either to bridge the widening gap between cultural expectations and the economic obstacles.”

[Quoted from an article, titled Cultural diversity? A pipe dream, by Rüdiger Wischenbart, in www.sightandsound.com, 22 March 2007.]

02 July 2008

Indian writing in English translation

There is a market within India for Indian regional language books translated into English. That’s because there is a rich treasury of literature in every Indian regional language. Yet, a person of, say, Bengali origin is unable to read and appreciate Hindi or Tamil or Marathi literature since he or she is unlikely to be proficient in other Indian regional languages.

Given the fact that only a small portion of Indians are proficient in more than one Indian language, proficiency in English, apart from Hindi, is a resource we can rely on. Moreover, as the market for books in English language is growing rapidly (see my previous blogs on the Indian publishing industry), translating regional language works into English is an option we can consider.

Of course, it’s easily said than done. Several issues need to be resolved. The first of which is arranging quality translation services through qualified translators. Some of this is available already, usually centred at universities as literary translation is considered an academic endeavour. Publishers need to find ways to engage the academia in this enterprise and make translation into English worthy and remunerative.

Second, universities, councils and boards of education need to prescribe such translated texts in their syllabus/curriculum, as well as reading material for research projects. This will increase readership and ensure these books are available in their libraries.

Third, publishers and distributors need to make certain that such books are available in bookshops across the country, in towns big and small. Furthermore, the books must be available at affordable prices to attract a larger audience. These issues together are a big challenge as English literacy levels are very low across India. Publishers and distributors are unlikely to find this a profitable marketplace for their books.

Fourth, although prices of books need to be affordable, publishers need to find economies of scale in order to publish books in good print quality. Normally, it is expected that cheaper books mean poor presentation in terms of paper, printing, binding, etc. Publishers need to explore paper quality, and printing and binding technologies that allow production and distribution of a ‘value for money’ product to the consumer.

Fifth, copyrights and deterring piracy.

However, there is an upside. Since the Western world has an interest in getting to know India, specifically in/with Indian points of view, there is a chance that several Western markets will open up for Indian writing in English translation. Since, thanks to award-winning authors of Indian origin like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian writing in English has captured a high-ground in the international literary market as well as in India, English translations of writing in Indian regional languages can now make a break-through internationally and in India.