Library of India

Why did India’s ambitious global translations project, die prematurely?

ILA or Indian Literature in Translation was launched with great hope and a clear focus, but things fell apart quickly.

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.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.