Under my byline

Lots in translation

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 4 February 2009


Cornelia Funke's Inkworld trilogy is a huge success, translated from the GermanIf the development of Indian soft power remains in the hands of government agencies like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the National Book Trust, it’s not going to get very far in the next half-century of our independence either. (To know why, just visit those institutions’ websites.) Private enterprise is much better at this sort of thing: there’s the obvious example of Bollywood — and then there’s the books business.

“India is perhaps the only country in the world, which publishes books in more than 24 languages,” says the NBT’s website. “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 40 per cent titles are published in the English language alone. As a result, India ranks third in the publication of English books immediately after the US and UK.”

Virtually no numbers are reliable as far as the Indian books industry is concerned — there’s no way to be sure, since scarcely anybody in the business shares what little data they have. But they do give a sense of the scale and diversity of Indian publishing.

A few Western publishers like Penguin and OUP have been around here for many years. Within the last decade, most of the other big, multinational, English-language publishers have come to India, and a number of local “independents” have started up as well. Outsourcing has taken off, since India is a cheap place to get labour-intensive production work done.

Despite the flurry, the Indian books industry is still rather inward-looking. Not as much content travels out of India as comes in, and what exchange there is is largely with the English-speaking UK and US. In other words, we see a lot of Western authors on our bookshop shelves, but people in the West see few Indian names on theirs. Partly it’s their fault, that their publishers haven’t been curious enough about our books, but it’s more our fault, for not being pushy enough in showing them what we have to offer.

There’s a chance that will change over the next few years — and it looks like the prime agent of change will be neither government nor publishers but book fairs. Not the Indian book fairs, like Kolkata (going on right now) and Delhi, but international book fairs.

Take the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s biggest, which takes place in October every year. Although supported by the German government, it’s supposed to be a commercial enterprise. Therefore, the organisers can’t sit back and wait for business to come to them — they have to go where the business is. So they followed in the footsteps of the multinational publishers, first to post-Communist Eastern Europe, then China (a decade ago) and West Asia (they run the Abu Dhabi Book Fair), and now to India, where early last year they established the German Book Office in Delhi.

Clearly, the chief purpose is to enable German and Indian publishers to “find” each other to do business, which is the traditional role of a trade fair. But more than that, GBO director Akshay Pathak has the difficult task of helping to create a market for German books in India, and a wider market for Indian books in Germany and elsewhere. What the GBO does to boost this exchange may offer certain benefits to the Indian publishing industry as a whole. The following two aspects of the GBO’s plans strike me as the most promising.

First, playing to a strength of German book publishing: children’s books. The GBO plans to help train children’s writers and illustrators in India. That may help raise Indian standards of production, illustration, storytelling to levels at which German children’s publishers would be willing to sell rights to local publishers, so that more affordable editions travel to our shelves.

Then: translation. It’s not an overnight task to build up a pool of good translators, but it’s going to be a critical one. The result, a few years down the line, could be more European books on Indian shelves and vice versa. This should help us break out of the straitjacket of English letters and imagination. Perhaps the European interest in books in Indian languages, not just English, will trickle back to Indian English readers — so that those of us limited by our language might be inspired to discover Indian literature.

And who knows where that might lead?

(Visit the websites of the ICCR, NBT and Delhi GBO.)


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