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Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances

On 23 April 2016 Vivek Shanbhag and I were invited by Namita Gokhale, co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival to be in conversation at the Apeejay Languages Festival 2016, Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, New Delhi. We were to discuss his recently translated novel from Kannada to English, Ghachar Ghochar, as part of the topic, “Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances”. Before we began the discussion I read out a note contextualising the conversation. I realised that Vivek Shanbhag and I had spent a while chatting a few days earlier and would happily fall into a chat easily. Hence the note which was passed by Vivek Shanbhag too. With his permission I am publishing it here. 

Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances 

Vivek Shanbhag 1Vivek Shanbhag is a noted writer, editor and translator. For seven years while holding a busy day job he edited a literary journal of Kannada writing called Desh Kala. It was phenomenal in the impact it had in discovering new writers. It is probably the only contemporary journal in an Indian regional language that continues to be talked about in English and now edited excerpts of it are to be published.

Although he has been a name in Kannada and other literary circles for a while, few probably know his mother tongue is Konkani. A language that can be written in five different scripts –Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, and Persian.  (Now it is the Devnagari script that is accepted officially by state governments. )Yet Vivek Shanbhag chooses to write in Kannada. And he is not alone in this comfortable oscillation between mother tongue and the language of professional writing. I gather from him it is common practice among the Kannada, Marathi, Telugu writers. For instance, one of the finest Marathi short story writers G. A. Kulkarni was a Kannadiga; Girish Karnad’s mother tongue is Konkani but he writes Vivek Shanbhag 2in Kannada and the list goes on.

Earlier this year the English translation of Vivek’s fine novella Ghachar Ghochar was published by HarperCollins India. It has been translated by Srinath Perur. It was the only translated text from an Indian regional language included in the special edition of Granta on India ( 2015) edited by Ian Jack. “Ghachar Ghochar” is a nonsensical phrase yet the story is an impressively crafted vignette of a middle class family in Karnataka. Peppered with sufficient local characteristics for it to be representative of a Kannadiga family with universal issues such as socio-eco mobility & status of women. It is no wonder that this novella has caught the English readers by storm.

And yet,

Ghachar GhocharWhen you read Ghachar Ghochar it reads like the finest example of world literature. By world literature I mean translations of literary fiction from various cultures. It reads smoothly in the destination language of English but translation purists tell me exasperatedly that it does not retain the “flavour” of the original Kannada text.

One last point. I believe that “cultures” are not necessarily defined by political boundaries but geo-political formations. Under the British this region fell under the Bombay and Madras presidencies. Today it is bordered by the Arabian Sea, Goa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Kannada is the official language of Karnataka and spoken by about 66.26% of the people as of 2001. Other linguistic minorities in the state are Urdu (10.54%), Telugu (7.03%), Tamil (3.57%), Marathi (3.6%), Tulu (3.0%), Hindi (2.56%), Konkani (1.46%), Malayalam (1.33%) and Kodava Takk (0.3%).

With this note Vivek and I launched into our conversation. It touched upon various aspects of translation, Kannada literature, how is Kannada literature defined, the significance of literary awards, the process of translation, etc. 

6 May 2016

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

My column, “PubSpeak” in BusinessWorld online, May 2013. The link is here: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/hear-this-story/881657.0/page/0

In September 2011 at the PubNext conference, I heard of a bouquet of books being offered in Tamil at a very reasonable price, but on a data card. This is strategic marketing since this highlights the potential for the phone and tablet market. It also coincides with the growth in 3G or mobile broadband connections in India.

Nearly a decade ago, a friend from the phone industry and I experimented with the conversion of a short story into an audio file. We hired a recording studio and voice actors for the dramatisation. After some trial and error we generated a short audio clip, designed to suit the needs of the telephone industry (landline as well as mobile). Listeners could pause the story at any point and resume listening at a later time, an especially convenient feature for women. The business model was good but the experiment was a little before its time. One issue in particular was the general scarcity of good content. Now the time is right. The technology has been available for a while and consumers are able to use these multiple platforms with increased sensitivity and understanding.

With the audio publishing industry growing at a fast pace and the equally rapid increase in the mobile phone broadband user base, there is a lot of potential for the dissemination of content via mobile platforms. And here “content” is defined specifically as the transference of text from the printed matter to the digital platform or conversion to audio files.


In their recently published book, Cellphone Nation, Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron discuss at length (albeit anecdotally) the impact mobile telephony has had on India since it was introduced in 1993. The statistics they rattle off about cellular phones are fascinating. In India there are more than 900 million telephone subscribers, of whom 600 million subscriptions are active, implying there is a phone for every two Indians, from infants to the aged. The authors go on to discuss the different aspects of Indian society, across genders and professions that mobile telephony has brought about changes, often for the better. Their insightful analysis of the effect texting has had on the evolution of languages and script is relevant to the publishing industry’s concerns with digital formats and the need to increase readership. Their evidence shows that rapidity with which languages and scripts are evolving today is the fastest seen since the Bible was translated. This phenomenon can be linked directly to the ease with which people have adopted text messages as a mode of communication. The adaptation to this medium was faster in those languages that used the Roman script. In order to access other language markets like those in India that operated in different non-Roman scripts, cellphone manufacturers and service providers quickly released the Panini Keypad. It enabled people to download software to write in all languages of India on the phone, fast and easily.

According to Shiv Putcha, Principal Analyst, Consumer Services, OVUM Telecom, the number of mobile connections in 2017 is projected to be about 1.35 billion, number of mobile broadband connections to be 351 million and the number of smartphones to be 163 million. These numbers indicate the potential of the technology to get across directly to readers. A small first step has been made in this direction by the announcement made by Harlequin UK in March 2013. They will be using the biNu app on phones (including feature phones) and tablets to deliver 8,700 titles from their stable, especially to the developing markets like Asia, Africa and South America. Tim Cooper, commercial director for Harlequin UK in the publishing industry business magazine, the Bookseller says “We’ve already established our Mills & Boon imprint in India, but it is our aim to make our content available to women across the world.”

biNu is a startup that was launched in early 2012 and is backed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures. The app’s interface is functional. It is not exciting or sophisticated but the potential to disseminate book-publishing content is easily discernible. According to Mark Shoebridge, VP Marketing, biNU, the app is available in English, Hindi and nearly 40 other languages, and supports over 200 fonts. Currently, news on biNu is available in Bengali, Kannada Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. The app is available through Google Play for Android. It is designed specifically to work on the standard phones (feature phones and low-end Androids) that are used by more than 90 per cent of Indians. This infrastructure is a short step away from making audio books on phones a reality. Jayashree, Co-founder and Director TALK audiobooks says that “audiobooks attract VAT which at 5.5 per cent is not very high. (Books do not attract any tax in India.) If the audiobooks were to be made available for downloads on the phone they will probably attract service tax which is 12.5 per cent. But content on mobile will be the future.”

It will probably take a little more time for this particular market segment in publishing to mature but the indications are there it will happen. Some of the hurdles that will need to be addressed will be getting the copyright permission for using the content, accurate reporting of the usage of content (text and audio) by the telephone and internet service providers, plus working out the ideal price points given that books, especially in the Indian languages are very reasonably priced.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist