Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree may be a big moment for Hindi literature, but not enough for Indian translations

Much of the euphoria over Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize win has to do with the fact that a translation work, particularly of a language like Hindi, received £50,000 in prize money, an astronomical sum . It’s a great time for Hindi literature, but it won’t do much for literary translations in India, which are struggling with a severe lack of funding, publishers and translators say.

The government established Sahitya Akademi in 1954 because it was difficult for independent, unfunded, and unfunded publishers to undertake translations in a multilingual country with 22 scheduled languages, 122 regional languages, and 1,726 native languages ​​(at last count). “It was understood that no private actor could sustain such a labor-intensive undertaking for long,” says Ritu Menon, author and editor/founder of Women Unlimited. For the majority of publishing houses, whether independent or large, translation work must be subsidized. “No one can support a translation program alone; it’s just not possible. With long gestations and slow comebacks, it can only be a labor of love,” says Menon.

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Literary translation is not economically feasible. If a misplaced translation wins an award, the editor may feel justified in supporting the effort. Otherwise, it makes no commercial sense, even for people like Menon, who has published translations of the works of Qurratulain Hyder and Ismat Chughtai for over 30 years. Women Unlimited is associated with Kali for Women, India’s first feminist press, which Menon founded in 1984 with Urvashi Butalia. She did not design it as a commercial enterprise, but as a non-profit organization.

Activist and author Gita Ramaswamy founded Hyderabad Book Trust (HBT) with a similar goal: HBT was to stand on its own without external funding. This meant tight budgets, low salaries and payments to translators and authors, and no-fee accounts. In this ecosystem, she sought out passionate translators. “We were lucky that in the 80s there were a few people who were dedicated to Telugu translation. We were also fortunate that bilingualism and trilingualism prevailed. But after the linguistic bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the need for multilingualism disappeared,” she says.

HBT managed to publish excellent translations at minimal cost because many authors allowed him to translate for free. Forty years later, the situation has radically changed. “While translations to and from Telugu have increased dramatically, as has the number of editors involved, the quality has taken a hit,” says Ramaswamy. Today, English-language authors and publishers rarely grant translation licenses. In Western countries, there are agencies like PEN, Arts Council, etc. who finance writing or translation, to give a boost to literature. “Writing in Indian languages ​​does not enjoy such support. Our corporations fund temples but not literature. A society that does not value its literature cannot live on religion alone – it can only crumble , as is the case in India,” says Ramaswamy.

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Today, translations occur in all directions – to and from Indian languages, as well as to and from English – but the people who have been associated with such endeavors are people committed to the idea of translation. Geeta Dharmarajan launched Katha in 1988 to introduce Indian readers to the richness of its languages ​​through the Katha Prize Story series: “I had the illusion that these translations would transform lives. I believed that we could help people rooted in poverty and grief to translate their own lives or better understand human predicament from literature. Today, she wishes there were ways to stand up against “the theft of the powerless, of the land and its myriad cultures”.

Awards can help put a translated work on the literary map. But they hardly make a difference in the world of translations.

In 2010, the Union Ministry of Culture founded the Indian Literature Abroad (ILA) platform to project the Indian literary canon on the world stage. It aimed to translate works written in 24 languages ​​in India into eight foreign languages. But when the ministry refused to release the promised funds, the ILA sank into insignificance. The project was later transferred to the Akademi, following a suggestion by Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) Founder-Director Namita Gokhale, who had once served as a member of the Center’s committee to anchor the programme. Along with Neeta Gupta and Shuchita Mital, Gokhale co-founded Yatra Books in 2005. His main activity was translation – he published 500 titles in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Bengali and Urdu before ending in 2021.

Literary awards for translations, such as the JCB Prize or the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, make no difference for 99% of published translations. For the majority of translators, there is no financial incentive. National Book Trust grants for translators are nominative. Mini Krishnan, who ran a successful translation program during her stints at Macmillan and OUP, has now teamed up with 14 private publishers, including HarperCollins India, Penguin Random House and Niyogi Books, to coordinate a Tamil-to-Translations project English. This is a buyback program: 500 copies of each published book are purchased by the government of Tamil Nadu.

Corporate support for translations is hard to come by. Shinjini Kumar, co-founder of Indian Novels Collective (INC), a nonprofit initiative to promote Indian storytelling in translation, partnered with Speaking Tiger and the JSW Foundation after launching the collective in 2017 Their first two books were translated by Daisy Rockwell and Jerry Pinto – Usha Priyamvada Fifty five pillars and red walls and Vishram Bedekar Battleship, respectively. The collective was born when she realized “the need to build a dialogue around Indian novels in translation”. She recalls: “Our concern came from the lack of visibility of regional literature, even though quality translations were beginning to appear. We thought this could be achieved by using digital media, partnering with litfests and working with publishers.

Independent publisher Seagull Books keeps afloat with funds from European agencies and embassies by translating works from their countries. “No book ever becomes a profit center. Some compensate for others,” says its editor-in-chief Bishan Samaddar.

In such a scenario, the burden of translating literature into Indian languages ​​rests on a grating Sahitya Akademi. “Our main activity is translation,” explains Sreenivasarao. The Akademi’s annual translation prize is awarded to books in 24 languages. But the amount, Rs 50,000 for each translation, is too little in return for the arduous task.

Awards can help put a translated work on the literary map. But they hardly make a difference in the world of translations.

(This appeared in the print edition as “No countries for translations”)