Minakshi Thakur has worked as a publisher and editor for sixteen years in book publishing. Also an author in her own right, she set up Eka – an imprint that publishes original texts and translations in nine Indian languages and English – for Westland Books after its acquisition by Amazon.
Following Amazon’s exit, the multi-platform, multi-language, publishing platform, Pratilipi, is rebuilding Westland Books and its imprints, including Eka, with the same editorial team. Thakur spoke to Scroll.in about the future of publishing, especially in India’s non-English languages alongside English, translations, and digital platforms. Excerpts from the interview:
You were instrumental in setting up Harper Hindi and Harper Perennial (at HarperCollins) – imprints dedicated to publishing Indian languages in translation. What prompted you to set them up?
My first job in publishing was at Katha, which Geeta Dharmarajan had started. It had a great list, including translations from various Indian languages into English. I think back then it was the only publishing house that published nothing but translations. I worked there for a year and then I came to Harper, where I worked for a decade. I joined as a copy editor of English language books but the year I joined Harper, they decided to get into Hindi language publishing.
So then I set up the Hindi imprint, called Harper Hindi, and then two years later we decided that we needed something similar for other languages. That is how Harper Perennial came to be – it is also an imprint of Harper Worldwide. In India, we thought it made sense to do modern classics and we started with that, then eventually we moved on to more contemporary writers. We published around 60 books.
I wanted a diverse list. If a multinational publishing company was to become truly Indian, if they wanted to have an Indian arm, we thought then they ought to include Indian languages as well as writers in regional languages. Both Harper Hindi and Harper Perennial facilitated this.
What were the challenges you faced in the early years of publishing translations? Is it a more complex process than publishing a book in its original language?
Yes, it was quite a complex process. First you had to identify the right books and the right authors. The editors of trade publications, even though they were bilingual or multilingual, were not reading enough in Indian languages. Even if they did read in their own languages, they did not know what was happening in other Indian languages.
So what we did was, we started talking to journalists, regional publishers, and reviewers to find out what was being published. We tried to find the writers who were winning the big awards in their languages and also the writers who had not been translated yet but whose stories would do well in English. By this time, translators had began to approach us with manuscripts. But there were also languages that had no translators. For example, back then, it was very difficult to find a translator in the Kashmiri language and, oddly enough, Hindi, despite having a large number of readers and writers, simply did not have enough translators.
Even if you did find translators, the quality of translation would be very poor. This was mainly because of two reasons – most translators had day jobs which made it difficult for them to write, and also because they were either not paid anything at all, or paid a small one-time fee. There were no mentorship programmes. That has changed over the years.
At Harper, I started the culture of fair payments to the translators. We figured that one way to do it was to split royalties between the author and translator. This gave translators the incentive to keep translating. In those days, very rarely would the translator’s name appear on the front cover and gradually we made sure that their names were not only on the front cover but also on the copyright page.
Another challenge was this: sometimes the translation would be ready and then we would realise that the translator had not even spoken to the author. That has changed, and now they tend to work together – the translator asks the right questions to the author, the editor is also actively involved in the creation of the manuscript. Now it’s a collaborative process between the author, translator, and editor. This has significantly improved the quality of translations.
Within translations too there is a hierarchy of languages – more books are translated from the Bengali, Malayalam, Urdu – why do you think that is the cases?
These days Malayalam books seem to be winning all the big awards and publishers are also keen to publish translations from the language. The Malayalam publishing industry is dynamic, and so are the writings. Each author will surprise you with their stories, with their rootedness in reality – I think that’s the kind of stories that the English language reader now wants to read. The ‘otherness’ of Malayalam literature is interesting to readers – they want to know more about the culture, the context. The writing is quirky and experimental and it really grabs your attention.
Bengali has the greatest number of translators among Indian languages. Translators of Bengali have been doing this for a long time and they have become influential in their field. There are strong influencers in Bengali and that is why it works – the stories are from familiar territory and they travel well across languages and cultures. Bengali is universal, while Malayalam is unique.
In other languages, I feel young translators need to be encouraged to translate. I have seen quite a few good translators in Marathi because it has a very strong literary tradition, and the historical novel is a specialty of the language. They sell in huge numbers. Urdu also has some fantastic translators. However, translators of North Eastern languages, or Kashmiri are very few. Editors need to keep an eye out for translators from these languages.
In terms of business, what kind of books in translation make more sales? Does the popularity of translators have a role to play?
Of course, these days translators also have a big role to play. Let’s say if a book has been translated by J Devika or Jayasree Kalathil or Kalyan Raman – it’s more likely to catch a reader’s attention than a new translator’s work. It is very important to find the right fit for each book. Even though the translator is highly accomplished, sometimes they are simply not the best fit for what a particular book demands. Think, for example, Poonachi. Westland published the translation of the novel in six Indian languages and I still had to let go of a few translations because it was not right for the book.
In terms of sales, novels tend to do infinitely better. Poetry has rather a niche market. Poetry in translation does not bring much revenue, nonetheless, we publish them out of love. Novels also do better than short fiction – hopefully, that will change soon. It is also equally important to understand how important or popular the author is in the language that they are writing. The marketing of the books must tap into this potential.
Despite the growing number of books being published in translation, women translators are still rare to come by. Is that changing?
In English there are fantastic women translators but they are very few in number. In regional languages, however, I find many more women translators. Most Marathi translators are women – those who translate from English to Marathi and vice versa.
I have been doing this for so many years yet I don’t know the reason for the dearth of women translators in the English language. Urdu, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil, and Malayalam still have a healthy number of women translating. If we want to read more women in translation and publish them, we need to encourage more women to translate stories that speak to them.
What kind of translations do you think will get more popular in the coming years? Any translation or publishing trend that you are excited about?
After Amazon shut down Westland, we joined Pratilipi and it is a completely different world from traditional publishing. What Pratilipi does is, it publishes user-generated stories on its website and apps in 12 Indian languages. English is actually the poorest performing language of all.
The platform has a huge readership with nearly 2 crore daily active users. There are three Android apps – one is Pratilipi, another is Pratilipi Comics, which publishes episodic comics – and the longer they are, the better they do. So there’s obviously a readership and a regular Hindi language reader is spending nearly 90 minutes on these apps every day. For Bengali, there are nearly 45,000 daily readers.
The third app, Pratilipi FM, serialises stories in the audio format. The top-performing stories are made into comics, translated into other regional languages, and turned into audio series. Every week we see more readers coming to these apps, and the comics are doing especially well.
This kind of diversification and multi-format publications is going to transform the publishing industry. The readers will also evolve. Westland will publish its books in this multi-format publishing style. We are interested in cross-publication and I know it will become an interesting trend. Translation will do excellently in such a publishing environment, since it will also be adopted into different formats as well. I can already see this happening – a story originates in print and then moves across different formats.
Is this a good time to be a translator? Are publishers more eager than before to translate books into English?
It is a great time to be a translator. It is so heartening to see universities actively offering courses on translation and teaching translation in their curriculum, but we still need more and more institutions to step up. Everyone wants to be a writer these days – so why not also encourage writers to translate?
We go to Netflix or Amazon Prime and look up movies in languages that we do not speak or even understand. People are excited to watch regional content – visually it’s no less than the Hindi mainstream. So why won’t they be interested in reading or listening to books in regional languages also? Translators are the ones who make stories travel. Publishers are picky about what kind of literary fiction they want to publish. This is why they are so eager to publish translations – the diversity of fiction in regional languages is truly remarkable.
So now that Eka is part of Pratilipi, will there be a greater demand for books to be translated across the non-English languages of India?
We are already doing that, and a few other publishers have also realised that it is one way to grow their business. The challenge for an English language publisher is to break into the monopoly of regional publishers since they are really big and have been around for many years.
But there are publishing companies like Manjul who publish in five or six Indian languages. Jaico also publishes in several languages. We want to take some of Pratilipi’s top performing stories and publish them as Westland books. There’s no editorial intervention at Pratilipi, but we will offer our editorial services to these authors.
What institutional support do you think needs to be urgently provided to young translators to encourage a full-time career?
There’s the Sahitya Akademi, of course. It is sitting on a pile of money but doesn’t seem to be doing much with it – I think it’s time to stop depending on the government. We need cultural organisations to give grants to young translators or, let’s say, corporates could own or co-own an imprint with publishers that are interested in translations.
For example, Rohan Murty has set up the wonderful Murty Classical Library of India. There could also be sponsors who encourage young translators to pick up projects. But it has to be done in an organised manner, an ad hoc basis is not the way to go about it. Think about the Prabha Khaitan Foundation funding some of Zubaan’s works – here translators are encouraged to translate Zubaan books in English into Indian languages. So that’s a great initiative. We really need to pay translators properly, given how well translated works sell these days.