The International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s “Tomb of Sand”, the first Hindi book to get the honour, was a moment of collective national pride and also gave a welcome fillip to translated works with both authors and readers joining in the celebration.
That the International Booker Prize for Shree in May this year was followed in quick succession by other wins gave more reason to hope for those looking to explore stories steeped in different traditions, cultures and unfamiliar socio-political contexts.
While Urdu writer Khalid Jawed’s “The Paradise of Food” received the JCB Prize, Bengali author Manoranjan Byapari’s “The Runaway Boy” bagged the Shakti Bhatt prize and “The Chipko Movement: A People’s History” by Hindi writer Shekhar Pathak was awarded the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2022.
“For many readers, I would say it’s fascinating to read a tale about a different culture, set in a different locale from the one they’re familiar with, arising out of a different context. For me, this is certainly one of the joys of reading a translation,” Udayan Mitra, executive publisher, Harper Collins India, told PTI.
A reader is generally drawn to a book, translation or otherwise, “due to the story, the characters, the world created by the writer and the storytelling”, he added.
Addressing readers’ need
What brought these regional writings from the deeper reaches of the country to a wider audience of Indians who have traditionally limited themselves to Indian writing in English, or simply English writing? It is the innate need of readers to want to access works of popular fiction and literature in different languages, according to the literary league of publishers and translators.
Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut, the publisher of “The Paradise of Food”, noted that writers of Indian languages approach their subject very differently from Indian writers in English. “Stories (by writers of Indian languages) often come from small town or rural milieus, often are more political, and more intellectually ambitious,” she told PTI.
Jawed’s “The Paradise of Food”, originally written as “Nemat Khana” in Urdu and translated by Baran Farooqi, is a deeply socio-political tale of an Indian Muslim family in which he has used the metaphors of kitchen and food to tell honest lived realities of a section of the society while making a larger comment at the times in which it exists.
First published in 2014, Jawed’s book remained largely unnoticed outside Urdu-reading circles. The translation has “definitely influenced the existence of my book”, he said.
“Before it was translated, I could see it under a smaller horizon, flying around but not to its fullest. The diverse readership that the translation has led to is important for the process of creation itself. The translation has taken the book out of its comfort zone,” Jawed told PTI.
He added that the quality of the translation and the availability of the text in a common language has added to the recent rise in recognition.
“I sense a change in the perception of language itself as I see year after year writers from different corners of the world appearing like ghosts beyond each cannon and creating their own idiom, which transcends the land of its birth and floats beyond reality-obsessed analysis, as a divine update to the human consciousness,” Jawed said.
The awards season
This year’s JCB Prize for Literature was ruled by other works of translations. “Song of Soil” by Nepali writer Chuden Kabimo, “Imaan” by Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari, “Tomb of Sand” by Hindi author Geetanjali Shree, and “Valli” by Malayalam writer Sheela Tomy made it to the shortlist.
It was the first time that only translated works made it to the shortlist of the prestigious prize. Jayashree Kalathil, translator of “Valli”, added that translations allow access to storytellers in other languages who would otherwise be inaccessible to a far wider readership.
“This human condition is the urge to tell and listen to stories despite barriers and borders across languages and cultures – translations make that happen,” said Kalathil, who also translated “Moustache” by Malayalam writer S Hareesh, the winner of the 2020 JCB Prize.
Over the years, book awards, including DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Crossword Book Award and The Hindu Literary Prize, have also recognised writings in Indian languages.
With more writers finding their place on the podium and reaching a wider readership, publishers too have taken an increased interest in adding such works to their frontlists — the new books released in a year.
Penguin Random House India, for instance, has added translated works to its frontlist, including Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s “One Part Woman”, originally written as “Madhorubhagan” in 2010.
The book was caught in the whirlwind of controversy in 2014, months after it was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. However, Murugan went on to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation in 2016.
“Global recognition resulting in press coverage and social media conversations have put translations on top of the minds of readers,” said Nandan Jha, executive vice president, Product, Sales and Business Development, Penguin Random House India.
“The growing attention and awareness of translations attract more readers to explore books originally written in languages other than English…We now have an expanded reading repertoire, which means there is more to choose from,” Jha said.
Any spike in sales?
With more translations getting published, more regional authors are now available to a wider readership, but is it translating into actual increase in sales? The increase is marginal, publishers say almost unanimously.
Apart from Tomy’s “Valli” and a select few, which have been doing “very well”, Mitra said, “The increase in sales is perhaps marginal if you look at the translations list overall”. Hachette India Managing Director Thomas Abraham painted a darker picture, saying abysmal sales are not limited to translated works.
“The past few years — and we’re talking pre-Covid years too — have seen a sharp decline in frontlists. Over 95 per cent of new books across all the industry released in a year for the past few years have sold less than 500 copies. And this is a worrying statistic across both translations and English originals. Equally yes, what breaks out, breaks out bigger than earlier, but the shelf life of new titles seem to be shortening,” Abraham said.
The recognition of “Tomb of Sand” at an international level did help sales of its original title “Ret Samadhi”, published by Rajkamal Prakashan. Ashok Maheshwari, MD Rajkamal Prakashan said the Hindi title sold a record 35,200 copies in five days - May 27 to June 2.
However, the publishers agreed that a detailed look “at data across the industry” was needed to calculate whether the average sales of translated titles have gone up or not. For now, writers of regional languages and those who translate them will have to make do with the sense of bringing their fruits of creative labour to a wider readership.