Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar in conversation with Fathima EV and Nandakumar K, translators of the winner of 2021 JCB Prize for Literature for the book Delhi: A Soliloquy, who speak on translations, getting an international audience and the challenges.
Indian Printer & Publisher (IPP) – How was the process of translating this Delhi: A Soliloquy?
Nandakumar K – It’s a very simple narrative that didn’t need much of a struggle, we should say. The author wanted a simple narrative and our responsibility was to maintain that simplicity and straightforwardness of the text.
Fathima EV – Yes, exactly. We had to ensure the tone was very simple. It had a sort of an elegant note running through it. We had to constantly remind ourselves that this is a narrative from the point of view of the invisible populace. It’s like history recounted from the ground rather than from the top.
IPP – This book won the JCB Prize for Literature for 2021. What are your feelings on that?
Fathima EV – Very excited. It gives us a lot of visibility and adds prestige to the process of the translation and the book.
Nandakumar K – Excited, grateful, happy — all the positive emotions. This is not the first time Malayalam translations are getting the JCB Prize. However, it increases the exposure and profile of the language among the readers. That way one’s own mother tongue is being propagated. It’s a good feeling.
IPP – Malayalam translations have been doing well in the past few years.
Fathima EV – We have always had a strong translation culture in Kerala but it accelerated in the past two or three decades, mainly because of the interest of the publishers, very discerning editors, the influence of social media, literary agents, literary festivals, prizes. Malayalam is in the forefront because we have a crop of committed and sensitive translators, who understand their responsibility. In that way, Malayalam must be undergoing a surge in terms of translations.
IPP – What challenges did you face while translating?
Nandakumar K – Practically nothing because as we said before, it was a very simple narrative. I had the advantage of living in Delhi for about 20 years. I knew the geography and the people. It was easy for me to relate to the book.
Fathima EV – The author and I speak the same dialect. There are local terms that we use. So when Mukundan mentions those, it is quite easy for me to relate. We worked as a team – we had a fantastic editorial intervention from Karthika (VK). We had a joyous interaction as an editorial WhatsApp group.
IPP – What barriers come in the way of the internationalization of vernacular Indian literature?
Nandakumar K – When translation work is taken up in India, they take the Indian subcontinent rights and not the world rights. The book doesn’t get published in the West unless you are an Arundhati Roy and have a literary agent in London or if the US takes it up. Then gets it published by a bigger publisher.
For Indian English publishing, the rights are only for the Indian subcontinent. If a book becomes a big seller in India, then their European publishing wing might take it up. Till that happens, the exposure is not as international as we would like it to be. At the most, we can hope from the Indian diaspora. We have had sessions where people in London have contacted us because they have bought the book. A lot of Malayalees abroad are alienated from the language but would still like to read stories that happen in Kerala or Malayalam stories. That way, translation helps. Yes, that audience is there. The truly English-speaking audience, however, is still to be captured.
Fathima EV – The anglophone world is slowly waking up to translations – translations are making profits. Even in a very insular market like the US, they have started publishing translations. Hopefully, things will be better in the future.
Nandakumar K – Hope so. And prizes such as JCB help because word reaches out to that world. We are hoping not just for our sake as a translator but for the sake of Indian languages and literature.
Fathima EV – We have such a repertoire of stories. They have to go across the borders and read. Winning an award such as this works wonders for us.
IPP – UNESCO has recently declared 2022 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. How do you think we can make the most of this initiative as a publishing industry?
Fathima EV – Like Nandakumar mentioned publishers will have to look for an international edition of a book. That is totally within the publishers – we can’t do anything about it. It’s not easy finding a publisher especially if the author is a beginner.
Nandakumar K – It is totally within the publisher’s realm to increase this.
IPP – Can literary agents can help in translations?
Nandakumar K – Definitely, yes. They have a bigger reach than any individual writer or translator.
Fathima EV – Jennifer Croft started the translation debate and the movement called Translator on the Cover. She says the translator is a literary agent and a seller, a promoter of the book, and the voice of the author. The translator does a lot of work. If a literary agent takes us through this difficult process, it will be good for us, definitely – for the translations and for the translators. And authors, of course.
IPP – Any message for our readers?
Fathima EV – Read more translations so that we can serve the languages, the vernacular, regional languages, and literature. Because we have such a diverse repository of new writing.