It’s a rainy Monday afternoon in the capital. Puddles reflect green. Ritu Menon, feminist, writer, editor and publisher, stands in her house filled with books and two cats that stay outside. It was a dizzying week for publishing in India with Geetanjali Shree winning the International Booker for his book, Tomb of Sand. One half of Kali for Women, a publishing house that dabbled in translation before becoming a buzzword, Menon is truly a pioneer in the industry. Across the road, in a small office lined with red books in Shahpur Jat, sits the other half of the original team: Urvashi Butalia.
Their connection to the International Booker is tenuous. It’s at best a story that risks getting lost in the six degrees of separation. In the Indian edition, however, it is often closer to three. But after the win, maybe that bond should be in the spotlight. Mai, the first Shree book to be translated into English, was published by Kali. (It was this translation that prompted Deborah Smith, Shree’s UK editor, to publish it.)
Smith is not alone. Long before the major publishers hired authors who had become indispensable in the English landscape, it was the independent publishers who were the first to take the risk. They introduced into English names that had become common, such as Ismat Chughtai, Salma, Bama and Qurratulain Hyder.
While Shree’s big win changed the landscape of Indian translations – and certainly shed light on the richness of writing beyond English – it’s also a moment to realize and cherish the independent publisher. In Hindi, it was Raj Kamal Prakashan, independent as language editors tend to be. In the UK, Tomb of Sand was published by Tilted Axis, with the name itself revealing the purpose of the press. Created with money Smith earned for his translation of The Vegetarian, the publishing house aims to make translation more inclusive. Smith’s mission is a perfect example of what has fueled and sustained translation for years: the small independent publisher.
It’s a league of extraordinary editors, survivors, and passionate readers. There is Naveen Kishore from Seagull Books in Kolkata. Sweet, enthusiastic and courteous, Kishore is always optimistic. “He hopes people will read,” says Seagull’s Bishan Samaddar. Courtesy Seagull, Mahasweta Devi’s work is now available in Chinese. Then there is Mandira Sen of Stree, also in Kolkata, the first editor of Manoranjan Byapari, who is now a recognized author. Rakesh Khanna and his wife, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, of Blaft in Chennai have gone beyond the classics to find mass sellers for English readers. “It’s a different journey,” says Khanna. “English translations only tend to be classics. The general public book finds no mention of it. There must be something in it if everyone is reading it. There are others like Navayana which focuses on caste, Yoda Press, Speaking Tiger and Niyogi Books. “Daisy Rockwell (who translated Tomb of Sand) got a translation grant from Pen England,” says Menon. “Otherwise this translation would not have been possible. Otherwise Tilted Axis could not afford to pay it. It is important that we recognize the economics of this, which is essential. »
The economy is generally against the independent publisher. But their role, especially at the international level, cannot be ignored. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Little Things was also Booker-eligible by an independent publisher. Five of the six books nominated for the International Booker were printed by independent publishers. Their role in shaping the literary landscape is often overlooked. In India, they were the first to translate a diversity of Indian languages into English. In the difficult terrain of publishing, they fill in the gaps left by international publishers, often finding a gem, holding it and bringing it to the world.
“We started by engaging in translation,” explains Butalia. “We felt that if we were going to publish female voices, we couldn’t limit ourselves to women like us. As a publisher, we have a responsibility not to just do the same. It’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. To do the kind of stuff that readers will take. In some ways, your responsibility is to broaden horizons not for readers, but for writers.
Translations in India, even with major publishing houses jumping into the fray, are truly a labor of love. (For years the translators were ignored.) The road has been paved by many pioneers. Jawarharlal Nehru realized their importance, and as a result, the translation programs of the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust quietly and steadily ensured that writers of all languages read each other. There was Macmillan, the most profit-oriented company that had a huge grant-supported translation program run by Mini Krishnan, which played a big part in the story.
“It cannot be done with a ‘profit’ motive,” says Arunava Sinha, who has translated more than 71 books, including the only English-translated bestseller – Sankar’s Chowringhee in 2000. It sold 25 000 copies. Translations are never a question of money, reminds Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee of Niyogi Books. “If we sell 1,000 copies of a book, we’re thrilled,” he says.
The translation project – long before it became a moment – was what reading is: finding other worlds. “It’s largely a coincidence,” says Krishnan, who has served as head of research and publication of Dalit writers. “You post one and then people recommend others.” And often those that go beyond mere fiction. Arpita Das of Yoda Press is one of the most spirited and adventurous publishers pushing boundaries and genres with every book. Its aim is to fill the gaps left by mainstream publishing, particularly in non-fiction. “I hope non-fiction and poetry translations will also get support and attention now,” she says.
But more than anything else, it’s about faith, blind flight, and sheer luck. “It’s a drug,” says Sinha, who is now part of the Ashoka Translation Center to encourage translations into all languages and make them durable. “Once you’re addicted, you can’t stop.” If Salman Rushdie’s win heralded India’s English arrival on the world stage – and Roy later cemented it with her never-before-written feat – Shree’s victory is truly a time for Indian languages in English. It’s a moment, but there are still years to go before it becomes a movement.