unannounced visitor I dropped by into my dream careful not to awaken the buried whispers I lit a candle by their grave startling the slumbering shadows into a frenzy of activity bats taking wing flying blindly into one another this in turn caused the whispers to awaken look me in the eye and begin to do what they did best
Legendary publisher Naveen Kishore, founder, Seagull Books, has published his debut collection of poetry called Knotted Grief. It has been published by Speaking Tiger Books. He is the recipient of the Goethe Medal, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and was awarded the 2021 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. Those who are fortunate to communicate with him directly and regularly, have been aware of his talents as a poet for a very long time. His emails are interspered with poetry or at times are only written in verse. The manner in which he responds to situations, events, moments, emotions are well described in his poems but also the way in which he arranges the words on the page. The visual element is as important as the content, ideas and emotions. For years, I have asked Naveen Kishore to get his poems published. I have always found the poems fantastic. It is a gift to be able to compose poems easily focussing upon the reader, so it always seem as if the poems are special. So I was delighted when the publication of Knotted Grief was announced by Speaking Tiger Books.
In Knotted Grief, the collection of poems are categorised according to “Coda”, “Kashmiriyat”, “Street Full of Widows”, “Selected Griefs”, “Tilted Sky”, “Under the Skin” and “Birdcall”. The poems are of varying lengths, from a cluster of words to verses scattered on the page. The sparse arrangement on the page ensures that the reader is absorbed by the few words on the page.
Upon reading the volume, I posed a few questions to Naveen Kishore. Here is the slightly edited version of the Q&A.
How did this collection happen? The collection happened by accident when my publisher friend Xavier Hennekinne of Gazebo ‘discovered’ that I write poetry by finding some of my poems in online poetry journals. he asked my if I had a book and I said no I have many folders with poems I have been writing for the last ten years! The reason fr not having a manuscript was simple enough. I was so busy writing I couldn’t stop, take stock, and put one together. This was solved by my friend and translator Tess Lewis who offered to select a first draft so that publishers could read it like a book! I went on to share this with Xavier at Gazebo and he in turn shared it with his poetry editor Phil Day, who is himself a poet and a painter. Phil then requested I send hi the four hundred odd poems I had set aside while selecting this collection and immersed himself in these for a few months and came up with Knotted Grief as you read it now!! Gazebo will publish on April 1st. The Speaking Tiger edition happened when I shared the Australian page set version except that Ravi selected more poems because he wanted an additional thirty pages. There is no collaboration between Seagull and Speaking Tiger! I offered my manuscript as any first time author to a publisher I admire. Seagull has nothing to do with it except do what we always do spread the word for friends in publishing!
Did you compose poetry specifically for this volume or did you select from previous compositions? No. I have been writing on the human condition for many years. Kashmir is one theme but it could easily be Palestine. There is no recent or previous. You write every day. Like music. It is all a continuous riyaz.
Why did you focus upon grief? Is it one of the offshoots of the pandemic? I didnt. Choose grief. It is usually the other way round. Grief does the choosing, if I may put it like that. You are visited upon by loss of friends close ones in an ever widening or lessening circle of affection. People close to you die. Go away. So you embrace their memory. Similarly at a political, national versus personal level their is grief that springs from what we as people do to each other. Again the ‘human condition’, ‘Kashmir’ ,’Palestine’ Interchangeable grieving. The poems and yes grieving is never without hope.
You have always written fabulous poetry. Why did you choose to publish your poetry now and not earlier? I cannot as a publisher publish my own books! So one waited for someone to ‘discover’ my poems. Takes time! Besides to me the act of writing is more vital.
How many translations is this poetry being published in? Who are the publishers? Are you supervising the translations or are you letting the poems speak for themselves? So far Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh very generously offered to do the Hindi; Ravi Dee Cee of DC books is doing the Malayalam; Papyrus is doing the Marathi; Unistar in the Punjabi; Chintan in Bengali; I am reaching out in Tamil, Kannada and Assamese too. Let see. Not really supervising but making myself available for translators should they wish to talk about things. Complete freedom to take liberties as long as the essence of the ‘target’ language is hospitable to what I may be attempting in English. So yes the poems have to touch the translators.
As far as I know, the arrangement of the words on the page are as critically important as the poem itself. How will you manage this quality control in the translated texts especially if you are unfamiliar with the destination language? I am flexible. It will boil down to the combination of the translator and editor in the language edition to do the best they feel they can to convey render share the original thought in their own languages. This means they have the freedom to lay out the poems the way they wish.
You are a publisher known for publishing extensive translations. Are there any guidelines/sensibilities that you have honed as a publisher over the years that you would ensure are followed in translating your poetry as well? None. I leave it to the publisher, editor, and translators who become the first sensitive readers in that language. Having said that I may be able to help fine hone the languages I know, Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali.
Would you change the collections ever so slightly in every language or will the same edition be made available in all editions? I think mostly the Indian edition is being followed. I would more or less treat that as the one I would want translated. But open to the variant should it happen organically or for reasons that are yet to come up.
I truly liked Knotted Grief. Perhaps you will too. Buy it. Read it.
Krishnan worked with Macmillan India (1980-2000) and with Oxford University
Press (2001-2018) to source, edit and promote translations into English of
works by Indian writers from 13 languages many of which won national prizes and
are included in study courses both in India and in universities overseas.
She is currently co-ordinating multiple publishers to build a programme of Tamil-English translations. This is an initiative designed by the Tamil Nadu government and located in their Textbooks and Educational Services division.
1.How did you begin your career as an editor of texts translated from Indian languages into English?
it is fair to say that it began as both an accident and an affinity for things
Indian long submerged by training in English Literature! I always felt a vague
dissatisfaction with the texts I was reading / studying but had no clear idea
of how to access materials written by Indians. Nor how to relate them to what
seemed to be important intellectual tools gained in UG and PG degrees in English
Literature. In the late 1960s-early 70s when I was a student, books were not
that easily available. Because my father was with the Deccan Herald (Bangalore) I got to read the books he received for
review and that was about all. My college and university libraries did not
stock books by Indian authors.
after my post-graduation I got an opportunity to freelance with Macmillan India
in Madras. I was put to work on anthologies of prose, poetry, fiction and so
on. Quite dull work really but I kept asking my editor why she couldn’t include
some Indian writers other than Nehru, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. “The members of
Boards of Studies do not even consider other Indian writers worth teaching,” she
said. I thought to myself that if I ever got a chance I would campaign for the inclusion
of Indian writers in foundation English courses.
I got my
chance when my editor (Viji Sreenivasan) left, creating a vacuum which I
filled. I was a square peg in a square hole. A week later the Kerala Sahitya Akademi
and Macmillan India signed agreements to produce a two volume publication
titled Comparative Indian Literature
edited by KM George; with 16 chief editors and 200 contributors, it was a
stupendous work. The entire chronology of Indian literature was catalogued and described.
Ancient Poetry (all the languages recognized at that time) Modern Poetry.
Ancient Theatre, Modern Theatre. Fiction. Short and Long. And so on and so on.
It was 4000 pages and took five years to push into shape. I worked on nothing
might all those Indian language works, described in this publication be
accessed? Only a very small number of them were available in English
translation. So, since fools rush in, I designed a project of modern novels
from eleven Indian languages and tried to persuade Macmillans to invest in the
idea. They were astounded. They were textbook
publishers and I was their golden goose publishing for the school and college
market. Why waste editorial time and money on translation? So I set about
looking for support outside Macmillans. If I secured funding I would be allowed
to do the project. For seven years I went from door to door trying to convince
powerful institutions to part with some money for Indian literature. Mind you I
had nothing to show anyone as a promise of what might be possible. Only a
single failed translation by V Abdulla of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukal.
Finally, in March 1992, my friends Valli Alagappan, her father, Mr AMM
Arunachalam and her aunt Mrs Sivakami Narayanan who jointly ran the MR AR
Educational Society of Madras agreed to fund me. I still do not know why they
decided to help me. I had nothing to recommend me but my enthusiasm and
determination. I received a letter saying that they would set aside Rs 80,000
per book for 50 books.
No one was more surprised than my highly commercial management but there
was trouble. Though my Vice President R Narayanaswamy supported me, my Managing
Director Sharad Wasani was unwilling to let me spend a lot of time on what he
saw as an unsaleable project. When he received the forms seeking his approval
he refused to sign. I wrote him, “You are the only person in the world who will
refuse funding for his country s literature”and closed by offering to resign.
Only two people from that time left — Jayan Menon and Sukanya Chandhoke—
who will remember this.
Anyway, after Wasani changed his mind, I invited eleven eminent writers to be the chief editors for the languages I had selected for the project ( Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi) and they helped to make up lists of five post-Independence novels from their respective langauges. Because I had been dealing with 16 chief editors on the C.I.L volumes I didn’t think this strange at all but anyone who discussed the project with me was astonished at the volume of work I had undertaken. It didn’t seem like work at all to me ! At last I was getting to do what I had really wanted to do when I entered publishing 12 years before.
Many important works were published in full for the first time in English: Brushte ( Outcaste) by Matampu Kunhukuttan, Randamoozham ( Second Turn) by MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathipura by UR Ananthamurthy, Danapani (The Survivor) by Gopinath Mohanty, Subarnalatha by Ashapurna Debi, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki and Karukku by Bama.
In all, between 1996 and 2000 when I left Macmillans I published 37 volumes. They went out of circulation a year or two after I left the company and the C.I.I.L Mysore bought the whole project including unsold stocks in 2007 with a view to republishng the entire list. It never happened because the Director (UN Singh) whose dream it had been, left the Institute.
2. What were the languages you first worked on? How many languages have you worked upon so far?
The first scripts I worked on were translations from Malayalam and Tamil. In all, I’ve worked on translations from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, and just one from Dogri.
3. How do you select which book is to be translated especially if it is a language you are unfamiliar with?
As I said because of the work I did on Comparative Indian Literature it wasn’t difficult to identify what needed to be translated particularly if the Sahitya Akademi had not already commissioned translations. Then again once the Macmillan project took off I was flooded with advice and suggestions. The difficulty was what to leave out. A great disadvantage is that I could not and therefore did not read the critical material on any of these works. I rely a great deal on the advice of others. But when it comes to translators I use a process of running trial drafts of different kinds of passages from the selected work — one might be a descriptive paragraph, a second something very emotional or lyrical, a third passage would cover conversation – to check the translator’s strengths and where s/he might back off, or skip or be lazy. The editing process can take anything from two drafts to six depending on the competence of the translator and the cooperation between all parties. Long silences, gaps in the process are not healthy for the project nor is impatience or being a speed queen the answer. As for the reception of a translation! Much depends on how well the publisher promotes the finished product. Publishing is only 50% of the responsibility. The other 50% depends on promotion and follow-up.
4. Do you think it is necessary for an editor to be familiar with the source language? If not, how can the editor ensure that the translation is true to the original text?
Of course it is important for the editor to know the source language but then in how many languages can one gain proficiency? The editor/ publisher must appoint reviewers who will read the translation carefully to ensure (as far as possible) that nothing has been left out or distorted. Then the editor can take over and polish in consultation with the translator and author.
5. What are the kind of guidelines you think an editor of translations should be bear in mind while working on a manuscript?
Listen very carefully to the voice of the author. Does it chime with the
translator’s? It helps to have someone read out the original even if you do not
know the language while you follow the English in a parallel reading. You
cannot but help hear the inflexions and emotions as the reading proceeds.
Be respectful. Very important to gain the confidence of the translator. Make suggestions tactfully. Once the translator is convinced you are not out to destroy his work or appropriate it, he will breathe easy and work and redraft willingly. It helps to read other works from the same period and familiarize oneself with the language – bank of that time. You need to enter that world emotionally through images and atmosphere not just intellectually through words.
6. What is your definition of a “good translation”? What are the qualities it must have?
This is something I have been trying to figure out for 30 years! Sometimes a smooth read will fail to capture the imagination of the reader. Sometimes even if a translation is jerky and appears to be rushing along, it will work. I think it is a combination of inspiration and zeal on the part of the translator and very patient work on the part of the editor. The qualities? The language must bring the author alive. It must make you think “If XY had written in English instead of in Marathi this is how he might have phrased it”. Now it is all very well to say this to ourselves but to someone who is not Indian, this might still not work at all. Basically I think we should be translating first for our Indian market before trying to reach spaces and minds outside India.
7. When you began translating texts into English for the Indian market, at the time, most publishing houses ignored translations. Today the reality is very different. Most publishing houses have dedicated translation lists and even the local literary awards are recognising translators. What in your opinion are the pros and cons of this deluge of translations in the market — locally and globally?
It is extremely encouraging to see the increased interest in translations and the care with which they are produced but a worrying feature is the way publishers are responding to criteria laid out by the big literary bursaries and prizes for translation. There is a growing tendency to ignore works published more than 20 or 30 years ago and no one seems to want to do a fresh translation of a classic. Then there is the secret craving on the part of publishers to promote a translation as not a translation. So the translator’s name disappears from the cover page, a most unfair practice. I put this down to the second-classing of translations—as if they are something inferior and not worthy of being viewed as works of art in themselves.
8. Recently machine translations such as Google’s neural technology are making an impact in the space of translation. How do you feel about the impact of machine translation in the literary sphere?
Any technology which helps the human translator will be of enormous help I’m sure but I doubt whether it can supplant imagination and nuanced word choices. For mundane passages for instance this interview can be processed by Google translation but — a poem full of feeling and fire? I doubt it. An approximation would surely be possible but would it be good enough? I’ve always maintained that the translator is as much an artist as the writer of the original work.
9. Your name in Indian publishing is synonymous with translation evangelism. You have been responsible for kick-starting many notable projects. The current one being the Translation Initiative of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University (TEMU). Please elaborate more on this project.
Actually I did not initiate the TEMU project. That was designed by K
Jayakumar the first VC of the University. It was a simple plan: an advisory
committee selected works, I commissioned the translations and marketed the idea
with multiple publishers. In some cases, the publishers already had scripts on
hand; in other cases, I found the translators and did some light editing before
handing over to the concerned group. The University signed agreements with the
publishers to buy 300 copies at a discounted price and the publishers agreed to
carry the logo and mission statement of the University in the selected works. I
did not initiate any project other than the Macmillan list. In OUP I enlarged
and diversified an already extant list which had not — till I began work in
2001— published a single woman writer. Nor had Dalit or Adivasi writers been
considered. That was an arm I grew for OUP India and it has done well.
For a year now, I’ve been working with the Tamil Nadu Textbook Educational Services on a Tamil- English translation project modelled on the TEMU plan. Our collaborators in the first phase are OBS, Niyogi, OUP, Ratna Books, Harper Collins and Vitasta.
10. Can the art of translation and editing a translation be taught or is it a lived experience?
Commitment, determination and passion are crucial to sustained work in
this area. To find a forgotten work, to convince people that it must appear in
English, to struggle with the translator at its rebirth and to learn that a
major publisher in the language of the original work decided to reprint the
book (which had lain in a rabbit – hole for four decades) —- that is the best
thing an editor of translations can hope to enjoy.
Strategies in translation can certainly be taught. Translator training is certainly possible and necessary but finally the translator is on her own except for her editor and together they complete the phantom work. It might succeed. It might not. It might succeed as an aesthetic product and bomb in the sales department. But then that is the fate of any human product which is judged by both ignorant people and by those who know far more than you do. No amount of reading about tennis or watching it on television can help you to be a good player on the court!
11. Translations are most often construed as being undertaken as a labour of love with little financial resources being available for underwriting the costs involved in the task. What are the economics of publishing translations in India? What has been your experience?
Love is great but it won’t put food on the table. Translations need financial support either from a patron or from another line of books from the same publisher who sets aside resources for the translations list.
12. What do you think is the future of literary translations in the world of publishing?
The world literary mart is only just waking up to the hidden power of translations and what they do to cross-pollinate creativity across cultures and civilizations. Consider all the talk about world peace! How can this happen if cultural understanding isn’t an organic process? One way to ensure this is to expose children and young adults to writing from different parts of the world at an impressionable time in their lives. Translation can help the humanities to make a brilliant comeback in a global sense. Comparative literature is impossible to teach without discussing the central role of translation. If we are to survive all the artificially orchestrated hatred and violence and misunderstandings created by politicians and power –mongers, venues of mutual understanding need to be very deliberately developed. Cultural competence, soft –skills — these are words one hears very often but what are we doing to build that theatre of human understanding? I think that if literary translations can be included in academic programmes and introduced into high-interest professions like management, finance and public policy it would help humanize these professions and give publishers the big print runs and inflow they need to keep doing what only they can do.
Note:Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (OUP) was a reprint of the Feminist Press publication, 1993, NY and not commissioned or developed by Oxford University Press.
While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black ClassicsI was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto calledA World To Win (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.
No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.
( My interview with Shandana Minhas was published on the literary website, Bookwitty. )
Award-winning writer Shandana Minhas and her husband, journalist and playwright Imran Yusuf recently founded Mongrel Books, a small press based in Karachi. Their first title, The Mongrel Book of Voices, Volume 1, Breakups was published in January 2017. It consists of different forms around the theme of breakups, very broadly interpreted, with work by 21 writers from 9 countries. It’s available in bookstores across Pakistan, and there is a Kindle edition too. Three more titles are to be published later this year.
Shandana Minhas’s first novel, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the Karachi Literature Festival Fiction Prize. Daddy’s Boy is her third novel. She has also written for stage, screen, Op-Ed pages, and is an honorary fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her short fiction has appeared in The Indian Quarterly and Griffith Review. Imran Yusuf’s play Stumped won the first NAPA playwriting award in Pakistan and was staged in Delhi and Kolkata as well. He has also had readings in theatres in London.
Following is an interview with Shandana Minhas:
Why did you decide to found Mongrel Books? How did you choose the name?
We thought shelves in Pakistan had room for, and need of, books that might not otherwise make it to the market. And books that are affordable too. For instance, I am currently reading Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which Imran bought from the local chain bookstore for Rs 2095. Which means that was the only book we could buy that month. Even second hand books in ‘old book stores’ now cost between 250-650 rupees. That’s the price range we would like to stay within.
I have always called myself a mongrel, in terms of being a little bit of this and a little bit of that. My father is Muslim, my mother is Christian and I’m not even going to start on the ethnic mix. We also had a lot of mongrels around the house when we were growing up, in Karachi, we’d spend all day on the streets and bring them home with us. When we were deciding on a name it was the first choice for us. There were others though. What made up my mind to stick with Mongrel was somebody I was brainstorming with telling me I shouldn’t call it Mongrel because a lot of Pakistanis didn’t like dogs and I would alienate potential customers. I heard a lot of that when I was a kid too, of course, when there were so many dogs around. ‘The angels won’t come to your house’ or ‘You can’t pray with them around’. I still say ‘Excellent!’ Seriously, the term reminds us of a kinder time, of a less homogenous or monolithic culture.
What is its focus? What are your first books about?
Mongrel Books’ focus in fiction is good story telling, and in non-fiction work that challenges or enriches contemporary ways of looking and seeing.
Will you be publishing only in English? Or in translation as well?
We will publish original work in English as well as translations into English. Pakistan itself has a vast reservoir of stories in Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindko, Seraiki and other languages, and we hope to build relationships with translators to bring some of those to people who might not otherwise know them.
What are the new projects you are working on?
We are set to publish a comedy of errors set in space, a first novel from talented Pakistani sci-fi writer Sidra F. Sheikh. And a non-fiction title from journalist Kamal Siddiqi, The Other Pakistanis, which bears anecdotal witness to the lives of non-Muslims here. Then there is another first novel about corporate life in Karachi from a highly original, unsettling writer who prefers to remain mysterious till the pages – and the bodies –cool. For next year, I’m collaborating with gifted illustrator Aziza Ahmad on a collection of graphic short stories, In Laws from Space and other tales of Domestic Woe, there is a novel and a short story collection from the reading pile I’ve got my beady eyes on, and fiction that children here can actually relate to as well. And of course we plan to do the second volume of The Mongrel Book of Voices.
Does your having previously published fiction in India have anything to do with launching a publishing house in Pakistan?
Peripherally, yes. Indian publishing is excellent; skilled, curious, open and vast. That vastness…there is a fine line between being embraced and being swallowed. Apart from a respite from the strangeness of being intellectually intimate with somebody you will never meet – your editor, your publisher, your agent, there is a practicality to local publishing for local writers as well. Distance, visa regimes, arbitration options and banking laws are not friends to Pakistani writers being published across the border. Even something as simple as receiving your royalties can become a Kafkaesque nightmare. For example, I still haven’t received a payment I was due in 2014.
What is the Pakistani readership like? Is there sufficient book hunger for local books in English?
All I can offer you is what has been offered to me, in spoken words. There is no centralized data collection. The circulation of Urdu digests featuring a steady diet of misogynistic moralizing to upwardly mobile women is in the hundreds of thousands. The number of people who go to the Karachi International Book fair – where sales actually happen – has climbed every year and might now be half a million, and though a lot of stalls there sell what might politely be dubbed literature of a religious persuasion, children’s books do well too, as do cookbooks – ring binding and all – and cheap editions of novels considered to be classics. Cookbooks, pulp piety, platonic romances, children’s books, nostalgia…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.
…it seems, then, that Pakistanis are hungry readers but they just might not have the most balanced diet.
But figures are much lower for English titles. In chain bookstores, state-of-the-nation non-fiction sells the most. One bookseller tells me English language fiction only has to sell five hundred copies to be considered a bestseller. An internationally visible title from conglomerate publishing will have no trouble getting pre-orders. Other figures I have been given for what constitutes a bestseller in the English language in Pakistan are eight hundred and fifty and three thousand. Pricing does little to diminish the perception that English is just the language for the narcissistic preoccupations of a parasitic elite rather than, say, the language of a minority whose holy book might be the King James Bible. The more upmarket demographic happily invests thousands in the latest coffee table exceptionalism – Our ruins! Our textiles! Our jewellery! Our truck art! Our haemorrhoids!
So far, most books were routed through India but will having a local publishing program make a difference to the price points?
Absolutely. And that might have all kinds of interesting knock on effects. Like most other places in the world, here too there is an increasing gap between the haves and the have nots. If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?
If we persist in the perpetuation of a world where our children can’t eat, wear or drive the same things, or go to the same schools, maybe they can at least read the same books?
What are your plans for the future?
The plan for the immediate future is financial survival, the acquisition of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of publishing, and Jedi level time management. It would be premature for us to project further than that.
Today in global publishing there is stress on ensuring free speech and it is not muzzled in any way. What are the pros and cons of publishing in Pakistan?
I note with sadness that the second question would not be prefaced by the first if Mongrel Books was, say, an Estonian press. But there are real dangers, and there is real loss. This makes the need for stories greater. Human beings, as far better writers than me have noted recently, think in stories, learn how to live and how to love from stories, which is why the control of storytelling seems to be a matter of such concern to fundamentalists. So it is a bittersweet truth that, as a pro, we know that what we do here matters.
The cons of publishing in Pakistan are the cons of running a small business in any developing economy. Our most pressing concerns are childcare for the working mother, sourcing quality paper, shoddy printing jobs, the ethics of unregulated labor practices in the binding industry, or that big academic publishers snap up and hoard what paper does come in its warehouses, uninterrupted electricity supply, and the bank manager having no internet access when we need to make international payments. So to temper any impulse to simply label us as yet another example of ‘defying the Taliban’ – something we see being used to market everything from T-shirts to bad filmmaking – please note that the only thing we are currently defying is common sense.
Will you be publishing in traditional print format or embracing ebooks and digital features such as audio, augmented reality etc.?
We will be publishing in traditional print format as well as e-books. As for augmenting reality, I will simply say that I still do not own or know how to use a smartphone. (But my partner does.)
Pakistani authors writing in English are very prominent internationally. Why do you think no other publishing house apart from OUP [Oxford University Press] has set roots locally to encourage literary talent?
OUP in Pakistan is primarily an academic publisher looking to engineer its own access to the cash cow of state curriculums, so its risk aversion makes business sense. The only reason we are actually even mentioning it in a conversation about literary talent is because in recent years it has muddied the waters by pitching its self-marketing fairs in Karachi and Islamabad as ‘literature festivals’, effectively capitalizing on lucrative sponsorship from imperialist powers struggling to maintain influence amongst suddenly speaking subalterns. Other older publishers seem comfortable with the grooves they are in, textbooks and backlists. And there are issues like piracy, lack of transparency in accounting and royalties keeping writers away too. An increasing amount are choosing to self-publish.
What is the history of independent publishing in Pakistan? Is there space for it now?
I can’t answer that. I don’t think anyone can! There is no way to tell what is going on or what has been going on in terms of publishing, beyond the surface of it, because as I mentioned earlier there has been no centralized data collection. And booksellers here still play things very close to the chest.
My monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 1 November 2014 and in print on 2 November 2014. Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-happy-readers/article6555142.ece . I am also c&p the text below.
A recent article, “The Percy Jackson problem”, argued that Rick Riordan’s rewriting of Greek myths for a contemporary audience is unacceptable since it lures young readers away from the “classics”. The journalist also did not subscribe to the view that kids should be allowed to read whatever they are reading as long as they are reading! Apparently the huge crowds of youngsters (outnumbering the adults) filling synagogues, theatres, and basketball stadiums to attend the interactions with Riordan, a former middle-school English and history teacher — who is currently on a tour to promote the last book in the Olympians series, The Blood of Olympus — was insufficient evidence that children were happy reading. A publishing colleague sent me a furious response to the article saying that it was mean spirited and unfair given that Riordan has touched thousands of kids’ lives in a positive way and reached many reluctant readers.
New generations of readers are crucial for the survival of publishing. While delivering his acceptance speech at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2014, Salman Rushdie said, “I always believed that the book is completed by the reader that out of the intimacy of strangers created by the act of reading emerges the book as it exists for that reader; and that out of that private act of union comes love, the love of literature, of reading, of that particular book …”
The powerful impact an author can have on a reader, even in a large group, was demonstrated at a literary evening that I curated at the Embassy of Ireland. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, three Indian authors were invited to a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by the ambassador H.E. Feilim McLaughlin. The authors spoke powerfully of their engagement with conflict and how it has influenced their writing. The audience sat in pin-drop silence. Some wept. Most had lumps in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences touched a raw nerve in many, especially those with direct links with Partition, the 1984 riots and communal conflicts.
Of late there has been a growing debate on how the Internet is cutting into the time of readers. It is estimated that, by 2018, 3.9 billion people will be online; many on smartphones. It is not surprising to discover that Adobe has been collecting data about its customers’ reading pattern. Last week, Nielsen announced that it was expanding its ratings to include all kinds of digital content. The writer-reader relationship is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. People are operating these devices not just to communicate with each other but also to read articles and books online. Consequently word-of-mouth recommendations will only grow. The relatively new ReadMyStori.com “is a platform that helps authors get readers to read, appreciate and popularise their work”. Authors say that at least 40 per cent of downloads are converted into book sales.
As Tim Parks points out in an NYRB article (June 10, 2014), “The conditions in which we read today are not those of 50 or even 30 years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”
An excellent example of such a response to the changing reading environment is Samanvay: IHC Indian Languages’ Festival (November 6-11, 2014), comprising 90 speakers and performers in 20 languages and dialects. The theme is “Translations Transnations” with focus on Indian languages that have a transnational presence like Bangla, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, English, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam, Punjabi and Sanskrit.
The effect of storytelling sessions and stress on reading books other than textbooks is also evident in the crowds of happy children that attend Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature (IGNCA, New Delhi, November 29-30, 2014). The youngsters can be seen mobbing authors and illustrators, seeking autographs, asking a zillion questions, offering authors manuscripts to read, listening in rapt attention to the writers, participating in workshops and buying piles of book at the temporary bookstore.
This year, 83 speakers such as Jamila Gavin, Natasha Sharma, The Storywallahs, Vivek Menon, Rui Sousa and Prayag Shukla will participate.
These children are accessing e-books and books in print, but it does not matter as long as they are reading!
(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 5 July 2014) and in print ( 6 July 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6180413.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )
In 1826, Henry Carey employed 30 presses to print editions of Lord Byron’s Don Juan in 36 hours to capitalize on the demand, and to maximize profits in a small window of opportunity before the pirates struck with cheaper editions. With the Industrial revolution in the nineteenth century new printing techniques meant works could be printed much faster than on traditional hand presses. Mass production implied cheaper editions. It also catered to a growing demand (albeit uneven) with rising literacy and disposable income. According to Michael Bhasker in his brilliantly insightful and award-winning book, The Content Machine “at no point is publishing separable from the technological potential of its position”.
This could be applicable to the ongoing ugly spat between Amazon and publishers in different territories. In USA, Amazon is renegotiating its ebook deal with Hachette Book Group, New York, seeking better terms. In UK publishers are up in arms against the retail giant since it has asked publishers (among other demands) to give it the right to publish out-of-stock books using print-on-demand (POD). In Germany, the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association has filed an antitrust complaint against the US giant claiming that Amazon’s aim is to negotiate bigger price cuts on the purchase of e-books which the association put at up to 50 percent. Last week the French Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a new law nicknamed “The Anti-Amazon Law”. According to Melville House blog “the new law forbids the combination of free shipping and a 5% discount on online book sales, meaning that sites like Amazon cannot offer consumers free delivery as a way to undercut independent bookshops, and it drastically curtails the kind of discount packages Amazon can attempt.” In the publishing industry income generation comes from selling of content in various formats, using different frames and licensing to territories across the world.
There are some schools of thought that view a book as providing a “reading service”, with content that can easily be stripped and repackaged in smaller morsels for distribution on various platforms, catering conveniently to myriad reading sensibilities, at the right price point for the customer. Online retailers specialize in selling printed and ebooks. Amazon began its successful online retail business selling books. It slowly built its business to include self-publishing (KDP), cloud hosting services (Amazon EC2) and now the Amazon Fire Phone. Another data collection and mining online giant, Google announced its decision to invest US$1b on a fleet of satellites to extend Internet access to regions where it is impossible to lay cables. (In June, Google invested $500 million in buying SkyBox.) In India Flipkart announced the launch of its maiden tablet— Flipkart Digiflip Pro XT 712. With the proliferation of electronic devices I would not be surprised to learn if the current contracts signed with publishers will be renegotiated by online retailers to shift from distribution to seeking “universal rights”, in the long run bypassing publishers entirely. Although news reports are buzzing with analysis and speculation about these disputes, details are extremely hard to come by. But it stands to reason, owning copyright to content already being made available on these platforms will negate the need for these service providers to enter into third party negotiations, making them efficient and effective distributors. After all content is the oil of 21st century.
Digital inroads into the industry have shown a voracious appetite for length agnostic readers, especially on smartphones and tablets. Byliner’s briefly successful run was a commendable pioneering effort. In its place other publishers will step in. The first to do so is Deca (www.decastories.com), a collective of award-winning journalists committed to releasing “stories, longform and deeply reported stories” once a month on Kindle. Myra Hvistendahl’s “And the City Swallowed Them” is their inaugural offering. It is an enthralling story about the murder of a Canadian model in Shanghai. If this is the benchmark for readers, then it is a high one for publishers worldwide.
These changes in the English-language space of publishing will have an effect on other languages too. For now Worldreader is making digital books for early readers available on smartphones in Indian languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi and Kannada. Even Harlequin has begun language experiments in India but it is early days. In the not so distant future many more languages will be represented realistically on the internet, using technological innovation to their advantage, garnering new readers and publishing markets too.
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below.
I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.
Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:
Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories)translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.
Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.
There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.
Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.
Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.
Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.
(My article on translations in 2013, trends and changes has been published this morning in DNA, 20 Dec 2013. I cannot find the link online but here is a clipping of it sent via email to me. I am also c&p the text below. )
2013 was a positive year for publishing, certainly for translations that were visible. Translations were on the DSC Prize South Asian Literature 2014 shortlist that mainly focuses on general fiction in English, not in a separate category— Anand’s Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli). Other translations that left an impression upon literary conversations of the year are — Shamsur Rahman’s The Mirror of Beauty ( translated from Urdu by the author); Habib Tanvir’sMemoir ( translated by Mahmood Farooqui); Sunanda Sankar’s A Life Long Ago ( translated from Bengali by Anchita Ghatak) and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto); Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck); Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum); Syed Rafiq Husain’s The Mirror of Wonders ( translated from Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Malarvan’s War Journey: Diary of a Tamil Tiger ( translated by M Malathy); Mohinder Singh Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition ( translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna); Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart ( translated from Hindi by Ira Pande) and an anthology of New Urdu Writings: From India & Pakistan ( edited by Rakhshanda Jalil). In fact Penguin India’s best fiction title for the year was The Mirror of Beauty, according to Managing Editor, Sivapriya. She adds, “At Penguin we are developing a focused translations list that spans contemporary texts and modern classics and older classics.”
HarperCollins has an imprint dedicated to translations from Indian literature—Harper Perennial. Minakshi Thakur, Sr. Commissioning Editor says that “The translation market grew marginally in terms of value in 2013, but in terms of numbers it grew considerably. Harper did 10 translations as opposed to the 5 or 6 we were doing every year until 2012, from 2014 we’ll do about 12 titles every year.” Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu “Translations from Indian languages to English, from one Indian language to others and from world languages to Indian languages is definitely on the rise. Personally I have sold more translation rights and published more translations this year than before. Good Indian language authors are in demand like never before.” This assessment is corroborated by Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan who says that “When we decided to do translations some twenty years ago, it was a very new phenomenon. We did translations from English to Hindi, Indian languages to Hindi and international languages to Hindi (without English as a medium).”
Another interesting aspect of translations too has successful publishing collaborations like that of making short fiction by Ayfer Tunc, Turkish writer and editor of Orhan Pamuk, The Aziz Bey Incident and other stories. It has been translated into Tamil and Hindi, but the English edition of this book is not available in India, all though it was released at the London Book Fair 2013. According to Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette, “the books sell well enough without being blockbusters —they were conceived with mid- range sales of 3k-5k like all translations are, and most of the time they tend to deliver that.”
Jumpstart is an annual platform provided in India by the German Book Office (GBO) that is targeted specifically at professionals within the children’s book industry, bringing together authors, publishers, illustrators, designers, booksellers and retailers, teachers and librarians. It began in 2009 with a small workshop for professionals. But over the years it has blossomed into a two-day event that is clearly demarcated by open sessions that include panel discussions and workshops/master classes. Each event revolves around a theme that is encapsulated well in three words — “Join the Dots” (2010); “Out of the Box” ( 2011); “Off the Page” (2012) and this year it is “Speaking in Tongues”. The event is scheduled to be held on 29-30 August 2013, the India International Centre, New Delhi. Since last year the Book Souk, matchmaking between publishers and authors, has become a key aspect of the festival too. Key publishers such as Scholastic India, National Book Trust, HarperCollins, Hachette, Young Zubaan, Tulika, Tara, Karadi Tales, Pratham, Eklavya and others have participated in past Jumpstart festivals with direct, positive outcomes. For instance Pratham Books has recently acquired the publishing rights to five books by the French artist Herve Tullet who participated in 2012.
According to Prashasti Rastogi, Director, German Book Office, Delhi “This year we will focus on language. The festival is organised by the German Book Office New and Frankfurt Academy with support from the Federal Foreign Office, Germany. Our partners are Pratham Books as are our Knowledge Partners along with India International Centre and CMYK Book Store. Pratham Books is partnering for a session with language teachers and librarians.”
The focus on publishing children’s literature in different languages, the challenges and the thrill of doing so are what are to be discussed at the end of August. One of the panel discussions during the open session will be “Translation is tricky. Dialogue is difficult.” Some of the questions being raised are “How can we know that a book that works in one language will work in another? Which stories travel? Which ones ‘stick’? Why are there so few children’s books translated from one Indian language to another? Are illustrations just as culture-bound as words? ” The other Open Sessions that sound fascinating are “Art as language, designer as author” where award-winning illustrators Julia Kaergel, Emily Gravett will be co-panelists with publisher Arundhati Deosthali and Dorling Kindersley Design Director Stuart Jackman; “What is your bhasha? What is your language?” A workshop for teachers and librarians where panel of speakers who have experiences to share about the teaching and learning of different languages and its impact on learning as a whole. Authors will share experiences on why they choose to write in a particular language and their own experiments with it. To the right is a photograph that I took last year from the open session when Herve Tullet was on stage.
Such an event is important given that of 1.1 billion people in India, only 2 per cent are able to read and write English. The number of young people below the age of thirty is 550 million who are not only literate in English, but prefer to communicate in the language . The per capita number of book titles published in India is around 8 per 1,00,000 population. This number is much lower in comparison to those of the countries like the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France, and Germany. According to Rubin D’Cruz, Asst Editor, Malayalam, NBT, in terms of languages, the per capita number of titles published per 1,00,000 persons is 6.3 in Bengali, 6.2 in Gujarati, 5 in Hindi, 4.8 in Kannada, 4.2 in Telugu, 3.9 in Urdu, and 7.7 in Assamese (the highest). The publishing industry in Tamil and Malayalam are extremely active and although the Assamese speaking population is relatively low, the publishing industry in Assamese is a lot more active than it is in Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, Gujarati or Kannada. Some of the statistics from 2012 are:
From the National Youth Readership Survey, National Book Trust, 2010:
1. Of 1.1 billion people in India, only 2 per cent are able to read and write English.
2. 42% of India’s book-buyers are habitual readers; per capita consumption is Rs 80
3. Literate youth=333 m (2009) = 27.4% of total Indian pop or 73% of total youth pop. Signif: Rural (62%; 206.6m) and Urban (126.1m)
4. Pop of literate youth (2001-9) has grown 2.49% higher than the overall pop growth (2.08%)
5. Growth more rapid in Urban (3.15% p.a) than Rural (2.11% p.a.) areas.
6. Hindi is the principal medium of instruction, however as the youth go for higher education the proportion of Hindi as the medium of instruction declines.
7. Approx 25% literate youth read books for pleasure, relaxation and knowledge enhancement; more females read (27%) for leisure than males.
8. Schools are imp for readership development. 59% developed a reading habit in schools. Peer influence is also an important factor.
Actually publishing in India is exciting. As long as you understand the peculiarities of India like the multi-lingual character of the territory, the reverence Indian readers have for the written word. There exists a thriving middle class; increasing amounts of disposable income coupled with a disposition to read for pleasure rather than to clear an examination (a noticeable shift in recent years). Earlier the inclination was to buy books for children, but slowly between the ages of 8+ till graduation from university the casual reader disappeared, so there were no books available for this segment too. Today there is still a considerable vacuum in this age-group, but the market is slowly being transformed as is evident by the appearance of at least three new imprints for young adults in the past year – Inked (Penguin India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications) and Scholastic Nova (Scholastic India).
As the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, also patron of Sahitya Akademi, said in a speech he delivered extempore in 1962. “…to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” (p.319-320 Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, Sahitya Akademi. Eds, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas.)
If the previous editions of Jumpstart are anything to go by, Jumpstart 2013 sounds very promising. I am definitely going to attend this year too!