After its biannual fellowships for writers of non-fiction books about post-independent India, the New India Foundation has now launched a fellowship for translations of non-fiction books from non-English languages into English. This time, too, the focus is on sponsoring “exceptional research and writing on all aspects” of India – specifically, on the “socio-economic/cultural aspect of Indian history from the year 1850 onwards”.

The first round of the translation fellowships will be awarded to three outstanding translators/writers for the research and translation of crucial non-fiction works about India. In 2021, proposals are being invited from translators for ten languages – Assamese, Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Odia, Tamil and Urdu – with the fellowship being awarded to winning candidates for a period of six months, with a stipend of Rs 6 lakh to each recipient. Niraja Gopal Jayal, Trustee, New India Foundation, spoke to on the fellowship.

What led to the launch of this initiative?
The books published by NIF Fellows will soon number 30, and we are proud of the range and excellence of these works of non-fiction on the history of post-independence India. But of course they are all in English, even when – as is often the case – the research draws upon sources in Indian languages.

The idea for the translation fellowships came up in informal conversations on the sidelines of our meetings. It struck us that there is so little we know about non-fiction in the Indian languages. Works of fiction and poetry are often translated into English. Occasionally, even memoirs in Bangla and Odia, for instance, have been published.

One NIF Fellow, Professor Ayesha Kidwai, translated her grandmother Anis Kidwai’s book Azadi ki Chaaon Mein with the title In Freedom’s Shade. By and large, however, works of non-fiction, such as social and cultural history, rarely find translation. So this will be an initiative for the translation of important books that are possibly well-known to people who belong to those linguistic communities, but not much beyond.

For those of us who read mainly in English, it will also hopefully be a voyage of discovery, of learning more from books that we simply don’t know about.

From my own perspective as an academic, I would add that, in universities, we have for a long time lamented the absence of translations of important scholarly works from the west into Indian languages. The National Translation Mission was one way of dealing with this, but this is mostly restricted to textbooks.

But how often have we thought about the converse, namely works of historical significance in Indian languages that have remained confined to specific linguistic communities? Why should they not be more widely accessible?

What criteria will you use to choose the recipients of the fellowship? Will the language experts read the original work to determine if it is worthy of translation?
The criteria are fairly straightforward – the choice of the text to be translated and the capability of the translator. The language experts and the jury would assess how significant or interesting the text is and also get a flavour of the quality of the potential translation from the translation sample that is a required part of the application.

Funding the translations is a wonderful initiative. Is there anything the NIF might also do to spread the word about the books when they are published?
Thank you. We have a dynamic team that ensures that the Foundation’s activities, from announcements of fellowships to the book prize, are well publicised, including on social media. However, I like to think that books find their own way into the hands of readers, whether serendipitously or by conversations amongst readers, in libraries and bookshops, and even in litfests.

One misses the time when every national daily had a weekend book review section, but one is encouraged by publications like yours that regularly introduce us to new books through excerpts, reviews and interviews.

Will the NIF make any efforts to aid international publication of the works?
The Foundation generally connects its Fellows with publishers who in our judgement would be the best fit for the book. NIF Fellows have published with the best publishers – university presses as well as trade publishers – most of whom already have an international presence. The Foundation will definitely assist the Translation Fellows also in finding the best publishers for their work.

What is the Foundation’s thinking about translation?
Translation studies is a vast and rich field of scholarship, and some of our language experts have been participants in academic debates on translation.

Our reason for supporting translations is fairly straightforward.

To the extent that language is the vehicle of culture, translation is valuable because it opens up access to unfamiliar worlds and cultures, to new ways of seeing and understanding.

Secondly, we recognise that, given the privileged position of English in our public sphere, regional languages have not had the opportunity to contribute as much to the circulation of ideas and to debates in this sphere. A public sphere in which one or two languages dominate to the exclusion of others is surely the poorer for it.

On the other hand, by learning to value the rich diversity of languages that we have in India means opening ourselves up to an appreciation of the histories, ideas and cultures that these languages convey, and so enriching the public sphere.