When the Indian author Geethanjali Shree sand tomb won the 2022 International Booker Prize, it not only became the first book written in an Indian language to win the coveted honor, but also the first novel translated from Hindi, in particular, to be recognized for the award.
A commendable achievement indeed that deserves applause from all.
The prize has not come a day too soon and will hopefully shine the spotlight on Indian literature and literary translations, allowing more books written in Indian languages to be translated into English and other international languages.
As the president of the jury said, the recognition of sand tomb was important given its language, as tens of thousands of books are published in Indian languages each year, but few are translated into English. Publishers at home believe this will only energize an ecosystem that is already on its way to revolutionizing Indian publishing.
The multiplicity of languages of India is well known. There are dozens of authors who write in the many Indian languages, but very few of their works are translated into English, let alone other languages.
Literature in Indian languages is rich and vibrant, with several books published each year, but their readership is mostly limited to readers of that particular language. For example, Hindi books are read largely by Hindi literate readers; the same goes for Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and other books. A handful of these books are translated into English and other languages, gaining a wider readership. But given the large number of works published in Indian languages, this leaves much to be desired.
The major problem with translations in India is funding. Indian-language authors and publishers have repeatedly spoken at literary festivals and other forums about the economic infeasibility of translations. “Publishing is a business, they look at the return on investment and how to make it viable,” says Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag, whose first translated book, Ghachar Ghocharwas a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award.
Shanbhag counts himself among the “lucky” authors to have found in Srinath Perur a good translator who also translated Girish Karnad’s autobiography.
With little money in translations and where quality is absolutely important, interest and initiative must come from the translator. Unfortunately, there are very few good translators in India, and even sadder is the lack of monetary incentives for translators to take up what is considered time-consuming and labor-intensive work.
Even the Sahitya Akademi, created to promote literature in Indian languages, may find it unsustainable to undertake translations. She started a project in 2010 called ‘Indian Literature Abroad’ (ILA) with the aim of translating Indian books but that no longer seems to be the case. The Akademi has done its part in promoting Indian literature, but it could do much more by having Indian books translated and offering greater incentives to translators as well as promoting writers and translators.
Also, reader literacy is not evenly distributed across India. Some states such as Kerala are highly literate and Malayalam books have a large readership, while in some states such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar literacy rates may be lower and therefore readership is also low. As Malayalam author Benyamin candidly asks, “If my books are selling in the thousands, why should I think of translating them and getting them published in English.”
But all is not so bad. Over the past few years, the translation scene has improved and publishers have realized that some of the best writing in India occurs in regional languages and therefore it is important to translate these works into English.
Moreover, and what is interesting, the translated books have won awards. In recent years, the winners of the JCB Prize for Literature have been books translated from regional Indian languages. Similarly, translated works by Indian writers have won the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
The great Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature over a hundred years ago in 1913 for his book of poems Gitanjali, originally written in Bengali, a testament to India’s literary prowess. It is a sad irony that today there is a fondness for English in India and elsewhere, but let us not forget, at the same time, that English remains the most accessible language in the world. Therefore, it is imperative that Indian language books are first translated into English to gain readership and recognition.
Hopefully, the Geethanjali Shree International Grand Prize will result in publishers and the government stepping up their efforts to encourage Indian-language writers and translate their works so that the outstanding storytelling of Indian writers and India’s rich literary heritage reach the readers around the world.