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.


Saibal Barman said...

Very thoughtful article....apart from savouring flavour of literary excellence in regional languages, wider transliterated versions would also contribute to cultural synchronization of Indian self more cohesively than through some restricted fields of sports, media and politico-economic presentations.
Thanks for sharing it with us.

runawaysun said...

You're absolutely right, Saibal. I may have presented a simplistic view here. Perhaps, the business of translating Indian-language literary works into English and publishing them for a profit is a more complex task. But the cultural, identity/self and literary benefits are worth considering (as you've suggested).

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