Back in 2010, a group of India’s best literary writers, publishers and thinkers came together for something they believed was absolutely essential to projecting India’s literary cannon on the international stage. Poet Ashok Vajpeyi conceived the idea, formulated along the lines of what former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had envisioned, and the Indian Literature Abroad – better known as the ILA – project was born.
The objectives were precise: translate works written in 24-plus different languages in India into the eight languages recognised by UNESCO. Inevitably, a committee was formed at once, including in its ranks UR Ananthamurthy, Namita Gokhale, K Satchidanandan, Urvashi Butalia, Mini Krishnan, N Kamala, Varyam Singh, Oscar Pujol, Supriya Chaudhari, Sabaree Mitra, and Zikrur Rahman, besides Vajpeyi himself.
Cut to six years later. In March 2016, Mini Krishnan, who has built a significant part of the translations list at Oxford University Press, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Hindu about three wasted years for the project, after which, without any clear indication or communication, it was taken “elsewhere”. “Between May 2010 and December 2012 I helped to select the writers and books. The fatiguing admin work and travels were all undertaken by Namita Gokhale. I know that some publishers overseas did show interest in some of the books but I do not know why things did not progress after a point,” she says.
An energetic beginning runs out of funds
For a couple of years, the committee selected works and prepared catalogues. In 2011, a catalogue prepared by the committee arrived at the Frankfurt Book Fair with much about it being written in the Indian media as well. The catalogue listed works that were to be translated, around which tie-ups with international publishers would be established. A number of overseas publishers showed interest.
The committee then changed tack a little and identified a number of universities within the country to act as nodal points for translation into specific languages. For example, Jadavpur University, where Chaudhuri taught at the time, was identified as the nodal centre for translation into English, while Delhi University was identified as a nodal centre for Spanish. Memorandums of Understanding were signed with the universities, binding them to undertake responsibility for coordinating the translations and complete the project within given timeline.
It was, of course, clear from the beginning that the project needed funding. From authors and translators, to editors and publishers, everyone had to be paid. But it appears that not a rupee was released by the Ministry of Culture, under which the project was to have run. And by late 2013, the project was pulled from the committee and transferred to the Sahitya Akademi. A new committee was reconvened and some of the previous members found themselves on the new one as well – among them the poet and Akademi award winner K Satchidanandan.
However, even in the hands of the Akademi – which has an operating, although lumbering, translation practice, the fortunes of the project did not change. “I continued to be involved even when the project was moved to the Sahitya Akademi, and Gopichand Narang, then the president, summoned a meeting of concerned academics. But being a pragmatist, he knew nothing would move without special grants and was sceptical from the beginning, though he was all for such a project,” Satchidanandan says.
Not surprisingly, these funds never did come. As Satchidanandan points out, he was told that the Akademi’s spending on the projects came from its own limited funds. He adds, “When publishers from abroad whom I knew complained to me they had not received the promised grant even after the books (two books) were published, I could only direct them to the Secretary, who said they might be paid from the Akademi's own funds. I assume it has been done, as I have not received any more complaints.”
Why committee members are disappointed and angry
Namita Gokhale – author, publisher and co-orchestrator of the Jaipur Literary Festival – was at the centre of most of the committee’s activities. And quite predictably she has – for good reason – been the most disenchanted with the experience. “All of us involved with the project put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort into this project, which was killed by wilful bureaucratic interference. I don't really want to revisit ILA and the disappointments associated with it. Over the last few years I have tried to work towards the same goals at an individual level, and also through the excellent initiatives of Jaipur Bookmark, the publishing segment that happens alongside JLF,” she says.
What kept the project going as long as it did was the sheer motivation of the people involved in it. Says Chaudhuri, “There was no shortage of goodwill. India is among the few countries that do not have such a translation programme. Everyone on the committee gave all they could and we had so much motivation and energy to carry this project through. Most of us even attended the first meeting at the Akademi, because we believed this was important.”
Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books, had this to say, “In the bureaucracy, in our ministries, there is no sense of pride. And then, there's a lot of suspicion of publishers – or an unwillingness to trust them. It's always assumed that publishers are after foreign trips and if they make contacts with foreign publishers then they will exploit these or get known. It's as petty as that. Why do so few valuable projects not get off the ground bureaucratically in India? Because we don't really care about the value of the things we should be promoting, instead we see them as vehicles for privileges and concessions that we might get, so naturally we (by we I mean Indians, and especially Indian bureaucrats) have to stop that.”
Adds Butalia, commenting on India’s lack of a translation programme, “Go to any international book fair, the smallest countries will be offering translation subsidies. In the last few years Turkish literature has really taken off on the world stage – why? Because of Turkey's very generous translation schemes. And the training they provide to translators.”
The future looks bleak
Almost all the committee members have been unaware of the status of the project since 2013, and most believe it has been shut down. A link to the project still exists on the website of the Ministry of Culture and also on the website of the Sahitya Akademi. According to the secretary of the Akademi, Sreenivas Rao, the project is still up and running. “We have translated three books and have asked for further grants from the Ministry of Culture. As soon as they come through we will translate more works,” he says.
The three translations: Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan (into Swedish), Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Herbert (into German), and Ambai’s In A Forest, A Deer (into French). Asked whether the erstwhile members of the first committee were informed of developments, Rao refused to comment. The Ministry of Culture, despite repeated attempts, did not respond to questions.
Did the change of government at the Centre have anything to do with this? Says Satchidandan, “What I find is that it is hard to sustain autonomous institutions and defend them from political interventions, especially with the kind of government we now have who are keen to destroy every public institution by turning them into their ideological tools and discourage and kill those institutions like the NGOs who are not always ready to dance to their tune. This government has every reason to fight and reject the Nehruvian legacy of encouraging freedom and autonomy in public institutions and universities and ensuring quality in their leadership.”