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Lost in Translation

Sonia PhalnikarOctober 6, 2006

India wants to use the Frankfurt Book Fair to promote its massive and varied body of literature produced in its 23 official languages, not counting English. But that's easier said than done.

A woman listens to explanations on headphones about the Indian languages Hindi, left, and Marathi at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt
23 official Indian languages compete for attention at the Book FairImage: AP

A huge poster of an old woman with sparkling eyes and snowy white hair adorns the entrance to the hall featuring India, the guest of honor, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The 80-year-old grand dame of Indian literature, Mahasweta Devi, is a prolific author and champion of the marginalized.

Mahasweta writes not in English, but in Bengali -- and as such is the perfect embodiment of India's attempts to promote the massive body of literature produced in the country's 23 official languages (not including English) at the book fair.

Shashi Tharoor rather than Shafi who?

Press photo of Amit Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri, who writes in English, draws large crowdsImage: Today's India

That's no easy task as was apparent this week at the fair when there was standing room only as Amit Chaudhuri and Shashi Tharoor, both internationally acclaimed Indian authors who write in English, took to the stage. In contrast, only a handful turned up a few halls away to listen to Shafi Shauq, one of the most important contemporary poets and critics from northern Indian Kashmir, who writes in his native Kashmiri.

Many people trickled away as Shauq, whose book of poetry "Remembering the Skies" was translated into German this year, began to read a searing poem in his mother tongue about a victim of a gang rape in conflict-riddled Kashmir.

"Indian literature is still largely seen as the literature of authors who write in English. Regional literature hardly makes a dent in the West's consciousness even though it's such a diverse scene," said Peter Ripkin, head of the Frankfurt-based Society for the Promotion of Asian, African and Latin American literature.

Lost in translation

The problem isn't exactly new. Two decades ago when India was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book fair, organizers paid much lip service to promoting regional literature. But since then just about 40 titles have been translated from Indian languages into German.

Press photo of Shafi Shauq from Frankfurt Book Fair
Shafi Shauq is not well known outside Indian KashmirImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Things have improved this time around. Among the 55 Indian works of fiction translated into German for the 2006 book fair, 14 were from regional languages. In addition, the nearly 40-strong official delegation of Indian authors in Frankfurt includes more than 25 from languages such as Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese, Urdu and others.

To a large extent, a lack of good translators is to blame for the fact that Indian regional literature remains virtually unknown in the West, say experts.

Very often works in languages such as Tamil or Oriya are first translated into English and then into German, thus losing much of the original feel and sense of the writing.

"We do have a strong tradition of Indology at German universities, but they all focus on producing scholars not translators," said Ripkin.

"You have to have a writer's feeling for the language to be able to translate literature and that’s something that needs to be consciously taught and promoted," he added.

Playing it safe

Increasing awareness of regional Indian authors is also made difficult by the fact that most major German publishing houses are reluctant to sign on writers in non-English languages.

"Most big publishers prefer to take safe bets on Indian writers in English," said Ripkin.

The only exception this autumn is the prestigious Suhrkamp publishing company which bought the German rights to Calcutta-based Alka Saraogi’s Hindi novel "Kali Katha: Waya Baipas," a story of an old man who wanders the streets of Calcutta after a bypass surgery and conveys the sense of India caught between colonial and postcolonial history.

A one-sided view of India?

Christian Weiss, who heads the tiny Heidelberg-based Draupadi publishing company – one of the few in Germany which consistently publishes Indian writers in regional languages since its inception three years ago – also blames what he calls "plain levels of ignorance" in Germany.

Indische Frauen posieren am Dienstag, 3. Oktober 2006 in Frankfurt am Main auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse mit einem Buch ueber Indien vor Schriftzeichen aus verschiedenen indischen Regionen
Large regions of India are still inaccessable to a majority of the WestImage: AP

Sitting at his stand at the crowded book fair this week, Weiss said the German media had hardly reviewed works in Indian regional languages in the build up to the fair.

"For instance the highly-respected German newspaper Die Zeit produced a 100-page thick Frankfurt Book Fair supplement, but they exclusively featured Indian writers in English," he said. "That’s a completely one-sided face of Indian literature today."

Tied up in tongues

But it's not just the Western reception of Indian literature that remains problematic. Much of the blame can be pinned on India too.

As the popularity of Indian authors writing in English soars on the sub-continent, regional literature has a tough time making itself heard and read. Though only a relatively small percentage of India's 1.1 billion people can read and speak English, that number is spread across the country as opposed to regional languages that are geographically limited.

Kiran Nagarkar
Kiran Nagarkar writes in both English and MarathiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Bombay-based author Kiran Nagarkar, who has received strong praise in Germany for his new novel in English "God’s Little Soldier" about religious extremism, invited the wrath of critics in India when he wrote the book "Ravan & Eddie" in English after previously producing a literary masterpiece in his native Marathi.

However, "Ravan & Eddie" became a huge success and helped to popularize Nagarkar in other parts of the country too.

Giving a voice to the oppressed

Experts agree that the importance of Indian regional literature can hardly be overstated given its emphasis on rural life and social structures far removed from the growing urban centers. It gives a voice to the marginalized and oppressed in a country focused on globalization.

"Dalit (the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchical social structure) literature and women's writing are two of the most important literary movements emerging from Indian regional writing," said Weiss.

At the same time, the question remains whether such writing can be accessed by Western readers.

"Of course Indo-English writing that often deals with characters who move between the West and India will probably be something Germans readers can identify with as opposed to stories of village life and of exploitation and feudal structures," said Weiss.

"But the image of India has changed so dramatically over the years that I think people are beginning to take it very seriously and that applies to its literature too -- both English and regional."