Like many others, I thought I had seen the worst of the rude shocks of 2020 when Delhi was scorched this February in a conflagration of hate and violence. But then along came Covid-19. And as devastating as the riots had been, the pandemic has eroded one’s sense of proportion entirely. What remains clear, in the five months since our lives were first upended by Covid-19, is that nobody knows when this nightmare will be over.
How does one even begin to comprehend what this means for the future of publishing – especially in a country already so constrained by economic disparities and a struggling literacy rate, and where reading is still largely considered a luxury rather than a way of life? And the prospects become even more skewed when it comes to English-language trade publishing, which comprises only a thin slice of the publishing pie.
Boatmen between two worlds
In the wake of successive lockdowns, with book sales shrinking across the board and some bookstores being forced to close down, I found myself thinking in particular about translations, and how the pandemic might make it even more challenging to publish these. Translations have been intrinsic not only to my reading life but to my journey in publishing.
I grew as an editor through my engagement with translators and texts that opened my eyes to the rich literary traditions of the subcontinent. It was a special thrill to publish a brave new voice that English readers might never have encountered otherwise, or else to work on a lost classic that spoke to the burning issues of the present moment.
None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of so many translators, serving as steadfast emissaries between two cultural realms, or boatmen (as the oft-used metaphor goes) ferrying travellers between two distant shores. Italo Calvino once famously said, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”
But for all their importance in bridging cultures and enabling readers to glimpse unfamiliar worlds, translations are usually more difficult to push and promote unless the original writer is already a star or the book in question has gained some amount of fame (or notoriety). For the translator – who has poured months (if not years) of toil and passion into the endeavour, often alongside the demands of another job or other responsibilities, for modest recompense and with no institutional support – the rewards gleaned from such an enterprise are often overshadowed by the struggles involved.
And yet translators continue to persevere. Now, even as the punishing realities of the “new normal” play out, one wonders what new shapes their struggles will take.
And so I reached out to translators, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with over the years. Concerned about their welfare but also curious to know how they were absorbing the rapid changes around them, I braced myself for grim conversations.
But as the sample size grew, so did my appreciation of the humility and generosity with which each translator shared their thoughts, recounting their daily irritations, larger concerns and ways of coping with what had become unavoidable. And in doing so, they calmly and quietly taught me a thing or two about the tenacity of hope in what seems like a hopeless situation.
“Translation was always marginal, and the pandemic is making marginal things (and people) more so,” says Daisy Rockwell, a translator, writer and artist based in the USA. Rockwell, who translates from Hindi and Urdu into English – and is credited with definitive renditions of the works of Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Sobti, among others – has found her time and focus completely consumed by parental obligations during the months of lockdown.
She said, “If you are quarantined with a child or children right now there is no act of writing to take solace in.” Instead, she has sought relief in baking, painting and reading. She is proud of her sourdough bread and has even chanced upon a way to make naan with sourdough batter. And in addition to finding ways to keep her daughter happy and preoccupied, she is also growing obscure types of basil. Basically, “all things that require constant attention and make tiny advances day by day.”
Rockwell’s predicament is not uncommon. Aniruddhan Vasudevan and Aruni Kashyap – both of whom are currently based in the USA, pursuing academic careers – feel that the reality of the pandemic has certainly made it even more difficult to focus on translating.
Vasudevan translates from Tamil and is best known for his lauded renditions of the works of Perumal Murugan. He recently graduated with a PhD but the thrill of this hard-earned accomplishment is marred by the intense homesickness he feels for Chennai. He was supposed to have spent this summer with friends and family at home, but Covid-19 upturned those plans completely.
And while he finds writing and translating extremely “calming and clarifying”, he feels there has been a definite “slowing down” which prevents him from being as productive as he would like. He misses Chennai, but tries not to dwell on it too much.
However, the post-Covid-19 experience has been particularly painful for Kashyap, an academic and novelist who writes in English and also translates from Assamese. “My brother died and I couldn’t return home so it was a major emotional setback that I am still dealing with.” One cannot begin to imagine the agony of bereavement further aggravated by separation from close family during such a difficult time.
Kashyap said that the experience has taught him patience. Cooking has offered some solace too. “I can compete for MasterChef now,” he added. Kashyap had been inspired to take up translating because he felt it could help combat the severely racist attitudes he had encountered towards people of North-East India in general. “I thought translation could be an act of resistance,” he said, adding that it has helped evolve his craft as a writer as well. And though it has now become harder to concentrate on writing or translating, Kashyap feels that the pandemic has strengthened his relationship with reading.
All this also draws attention to another fact about translations, especially in the Indian context: there are no full-time translators in publishing. Given how difficult it is for most writers to subsist solely on their royalties, you can multiply the potential difficulties when it comes to translators.
While it is not uncommon for translators to also work in academia, diligently carving out time for translating amidst their research or teaching obligations, some have jobs as varied as being an architect or a civil servant or even a businessman. Often they are well aware that translation alone will not help to pay the bills, and while this can be a cause for concern, it does not deter them from lovingly pursuing their craft.
‘Come hell or high water’
For Ranjit Hoskote, who wears many hats – writer, poet, curator and translator – just as gracefully as he moves between several languages, translation is an act of devotion, “a key element of life and work” that is integral to his experience of the world. He said, “My commitment to translation is not dependent on external circumstances. It is an inner mandate. Translation has a central place in my life and literary practice, and it will continue to hold that place, come hell or high water.”
Hoskote is currently in the midst of multiple translation projects – including a volume bringing together three Sanskrit poets of love, to be published as a Penguin Classic, as well as a series of she’rs from the ghazals of Mir Taqi Mir, the great 18th-century Urdu poet. Furthermore, he said, each of these projects have come to inform one another.
It is this fertile cross-pollination – between languages and literatures and perspectives – that also helps shape Hoskote’s practice as a poet while simultaneously kindling his imagination as a curator. “Writing is my rudder as well as my anchor,” he maintained. “It offers solace, cogency, and a measure of serenity in these turbulent and uncertain times.”
J Devika, an academic by profession, wishes she could translate full-time. She is otherwise renowned for her translations from Malayalam, particularly of the works of feminist writer KR Meera. Translation, for her, is an immersive experience, one that she finds both intellectually challenging and gratifying. “My interest in translation was always political,” she said.
As a doctoral student, she had been appalled by the systemic erasure of first-generation feminists from Kerala’s history. “I vowed that this will never happen to the current generation of feminist authors. The best way was to help them migrate – flee, so to say – into another language.”
Like many of the translators I spoke to, Devika has been particularly distressed by how Covid-19 has made deep-rooted economic inequalities even more apparent. She is haunted by “nightmarish images” of migrant workers stranded without proper facilities, their misery compounded by “the chilling indifference of those in power.”
As someone “with an income and relatively less to worry about”, Devika has been able to find some degree of solace during the lockdown by translating the writings of the great Ayurvedic physician, the late Raghavan Tirumulpad. ‘It healed me,” she said. “I think the pandemic is a time when one needs to heal one’s inner world so that one does not fall prey to fear and loathing.”
The migrant crisis in particular came to preoccupy Ministhy S Nair, an acclaimed translator of Malayalam literature who is also an IAS officer deployed in Uttar Pradesh. Ministhy recounts her experiences during the frantic early months of the pandemic, when she had the additional responsibility of coordinating and facilitating the return of migrant labourers who belonged to UP but were stranded in Kerala due to Covid-19.
“Since I come from Kerala, I was made the Nodal Officer,” she said. This entailed ensuring the welfare – in terms of food, safety and travel – of labourers returning from Kerala and Lakshadweep. Her team in UP worked day in and day out from March to June, coordinating constantly with their counterparts in Kerala as well as the UP Home Department and other volunteers, while also answering thousands of calls from distressed workers.
A particular incident stands out in Ministhy’s memory. “One man in Alleppey, belonging to Bundelkhand, was on the verge of suicide when his call reached my team member who sensitively counselled him.” Ministhy and her team flew into action, ensuring that the administrative machinery was able to reach out to that distraught labourer in time. “On the day we put him on a train, he thanked us saying, I am going to meet my four-year-old again!’ We were thrilled.” Her team successfully brought back around 26,000 migrant labourers in twenty special trains and also sent Keralites, who were stuck in UP, back home via two special trains from Delhi and Gorakhpur.
Ministhy’s Covid-10-related duties had to be carried out in addition to her full-time job as a civil servant as well as her responsibilities at home managing a household. In the midst of all this, it seems incredible to even contemplate something like translating. But that’s where she surprises you.
“I simply love returning to the world of books after a hectic work schedule,” she said. “It gives me the energy to do my day job better!” For her, the pandemic has only heightened her belief in the need for literature and for translations in particular. Ministhy, whose foray into translating was serendipitous, feels that every difficulty is an opportunity in disguise. “In a world where a virus has shown us our common vulnerability, translations are the need of the hour to highlight our common humanity.”
What does the future hold for translators?
‘I do believe the pandemic will change things, it’s bound to,’ said Maharghya Chakraborty, who translates from Bengali alongside working for a design house. “I, for one, am genuinely concerned about what it means for people like me who are just starting out. Things are bound to get more competitive in some way or the other.”
Chakraborty found his way into translating “purely by chance”, and his translations of some of Taslima Nasrin’s works have been well received. But the current state of uncertainty does make him wonder about the future. “Will people read? Will books get published? Will people read translations if the larger industry goes through a tumultuous time?”
What makes these questions all the more poignant is that translated works have become more visible in recent years – on major prize lists, at important literature festivals, as literary milestones in the international arena – and there is, hence, the underlying fear that this long-overdue, hard-won renaissance could now be blighted by the impact of Covid-19.
N Kalyan Raman, who translates from Tamil, feels that one cannot really predict how publishers will respond to the crisis. “I imagine they will cut back the supply to align with the reduction in demand,” he said. “Along with other genres, I expect that fewer translations will be published. Publishers may rely even more on brand-name authors than they do already, and take fewer risks with the work of new and/or younger authors. I really wouldn’t know.”
Raman does, however, outline two major concerns. First, he hopes that publishers will continue to offer a 50:50 share of the royalties to authors and translators, and not tweak this “to favour authors at the expense of translators”, as he has noticed in some recent instances. “Translators, for their part, would do well to reject unequal arrangements.”
Second, he wishes that publishers could find a way to engage more deeply and proactively with diverse literary milieus, so as to publish translations of the best works available in Indian languages.
In this vein, Hoskote voices some concerns of his own – from how translation continues to be largely regarded as a second-order activity, with translators not always receiving the kind of recognition and financial support “that would make their practice viable”, to how the paradigm of translation continues to be largely confined to bringing over works from other Indian languages into English despite laudable efforts of the Sahitya Akademi to promote the fluid passage of works from one Indian language into another.
Redressing these issues would require more proactive engagement, not just from publishers alone but from the literary community at large. He also mentions that while there are informal networks that translators build through colleagues and friends, there is regrettably “no formal system of collegial support on which they can rely” for feedback, counsel or assistance of any kind.
Now, in light of this last point, it might be instructive to look at the UK as a point of reference. While publishers are tightening their belts in Britain as well, and the sale of translation rights has also been adversely impacted across the board, the UK does seem to have one significant recourse for translators: the Translators Association, which operates under the aegis of the Society of Authors, a UK-based trade union.
According to Sawad Hussain, a UK-based translator from Arabic to English, “In order to join you have to have published a book-length work, but once you’re a member there are a number of benefits. Namely, the vetting of contracts by their legal team which I’ve personally found very useful to ensure that certain clauses are worded to protect me as a translator. Additionally there is a mailing list where a number of issues are discussed from rates to contacts at publishing houses, to how to ensure better visibility when publishing.” She added that during the height of the pandemic translators could even apply to the Translators Association for financial assistance.
There is no question that translators publishing in India could benefit immensely from the creation of a similar translators’ union. It remains to be seen, however, whether the imperative to set up such a collective will be strengthened in the shadow of Covid-19 or not.
Even so, one need not take a bleak view of things. Rahul Soni, Executive Editor (Literary) at HarperCollins India, feels that while things are likely to change post-Covid-19, with publishers perhaps “playing it a little more safe than before”, he does not believe that this will adversely impact the way translated works are acquired and published. In addition to having published some acclaimed translations, Soni is also an accomplished translator himself, and so is able to consider the scenario from both angles rather pragmatically.
“I don’t think the current situation is going to make anything much better or much worse in this case,” he said. “For the time being, we can draw hope from the fact that in the last few years there have been increasing conversations around translated works.” He warned that publishers and editors must always be on guard against publishing low-quality translations, “which have always been the bane of Indian-language literature and end up doing it a great disservice.”
Moreover, he rightly points out that the underlying purpose for publishing translations – which have always been a hard sell, with a dedicated but relatively small readership – has not been immediate monetary profit but rather the belief that “this is something important”.
An opportunity in disguise
Krishna Manavalli was in for a shock when her translation of Chandrashekhar Kambar’s Two Plays was published right at the time the lockdown started. Manavalli, who is based in Mysore, translates from Kannada, among other languages, into English. She recalled the worried conversations that ensued between her and the book’s publicist, and the strategies that had to be completely improvised in lieu of a limited set of viable options. Were the book’s chances doomed?
Despite initial setbacks and gnawing uncertainty, her patience bore fruit when the glowing reviews started pouring in – both online and in print. “Many translators have complained about how reviewers often talk only about the original work, merely mentioning the translator as an afterthought,” she said. “But that has definitely not been the case here, which is so gratifying.”
This has also encouraged her to believe that despite the limitations enforced by the lockdown, the thirst for literature – and translations – has not ceased. And now the pandemic has given her “a new sense of urgency, a feeling that we must speak, write, and communicate more than ever in these lonely and threatening times”.
Janani Kannan’s translation of Perumal Murugan’s Rising Heat was also published during the lockdown in July – and she is already working on her next translation project. The pandemic has made this even more challenging, caught as she already is between her day job as an architect in the USA and the needs of her five-year-old. Her initial hope was to spend more time translating. But that has not happened.
Kannan said, “I find myself with less mental juice at the end of the day to take on additional work.” Nonetheless, translating helps her keep to a routine, offering its own kind of solace – “that feeling of a connection to a familiar habit that has not changed when almost everything around is changing in response to the pandemic”.
“When there’s so much to be uncertain about, there is nothing to be overly anxious about because our individual actions have lost meaning,” said Rita Kothari, a translation theorist, translator and academic. She believes that this maxim has enabled her to brave the current uncertainty with serenity. Her husband, Abhijit Kothari, is a businessman and part-time academic who collaborated with her on the translation of KM Munshi’s Gujarati magnum opus: the Patan trilogy.
During the early part of the lockdown, they enjoyed working together on two very diverse initiatives: a translation of the Gujarati poet Akho and a chapter on Munshi’s relationship with modernity for an academic book. Rita Kothari has now embarked on an altogether different project. In this vein, she says, “The pandemic has not created a pattern, but the leisure it provided to contemplate is immense, and I understand that that is my privileged life.” For Abhijit Kothari, “the challenge is in planning for the future while living day to day”.
“The pandemic has reinforced a truth I have always known: that books are an indispensable part of my life, and bring me immense solace and joy – and that’s true whether I read them or write them,” said Rohini Chowdhury, a writer and translator based in the UK. Chowdhury is currently taking a break from translating.
Not only is the pandemic making it difficult to concentrate now, but her recent three-volume translation of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, published in Penguin Classics shortly before the lockdown, was an all-consuming labour of love that took over four years to complete. She also runs a story website – longlongtimeago.com – with the objective of “collecting traditional stories from around the world.
During the pandemic, Chowdhury has been preoccupied with streamlining this website, handling all the tech work herself. This has helped combat the anxiety she has struggled with during this difficult time – in particular, worrying about the health and safety of her daughters and other family far away. She finds it “particularly relaxing because it requires just the right amount of concentration to get my mind busy, but is mechanical enough for focus to not become a problem.”
For Rana Safvi, a historian and translator from Urdu, the pandemic has offered a chance to read, write and listen more. She has been proactive about hosting a series of conversations on Instagram in addition to the Hindustani podcast which she started with HT Smartcast – and which has proved a valuable way for her to stay connected with her readers. “This pandemic has actually made the world smaller for us, bringing us face to face, albeit virtually, with our favourite authors and poets, which would have been impossible a year ago,”: she said.
Engaging with so many writers, scholars and historians during this time has been particularly enriching for her. “The generosity with which so many experts came forward to share their learning with an online audience was phenomenal.” She feels that this has offered people a glimpse of what it can be like to access knowledge freely and, in doing so, to learn and grow together. “It has opened my mind to so many possibilities.” Safvi considers this part of her “lockdown learnings”, and hopes for a future beyond Covid-19 that enables us to collectively focus on the larger picture and not just on short-term gains.
Despite the various anxieties that preoccupy them, all of the translators I spoke to are determined to be pragmatic yet hopeful. Having worked for over a decade in this industry, I have learned that one needs to be something of an optimist to survive in publishing. This is not always easy. (And given my natural proclivity towards cynicism, I’ve needed to work at it harder than most.)
But optimism, even fleetingly conjured, can be astonishingly infectious within a community of book-lovers, deeply invested as we are in the healing power of stories. While this optimism is by no means a magic wand – especially when confronted with dwindling sales for fiction, the dearth of marginalised voices being represented, the relatively low salaries for publishing professionals or the endless speculation predicting the death of the book industry as we know it – it has proved a useful coping mechanism over the years.
Covid-19 made me question whether this optimism will survive the pandemic. Thankfully, my interactions with these wonderful translators have shown me that it quite possibly will.
Ambar Sahil Chatterjee has worked in publishing for over a decade. Formerly a senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House India, he now consults with A Suitable Agency.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.