The fear and uncertainty created by the deadly invisible pathogen permeated at first our public spaces and our physical boundaries and then, slowly but perceptibly, our homes, our conversations, our skins, our souls, and our hopes. For a while, it seemed as if survival was the only mother tongue in a country of more than a thousand languages.

At Indian Novels Collective, a literary translation group, our story-telling and translation projects were disrupted. Our literary and publishing ambitions sank low. Our partnership conversations were uncertain and tentative. But slowly, human tenacity and will kicked in and we began to deal with the reality of delays and challenges, staunchly refusing to surrender to the victorious virus.

In fact, we are now optimistic that translation – a perennially under-recognised genre – can use this moment as one of renewal, where possibilities of collective resilience are reaffirmed in the most unexpected ways.

Drawing attention to translated literature

Indian Novels Collective is a non-profit organisation set up in 2018 in order to spur greater investment and interest in literature across India’s many languages. The Collective has tried not just to provide resources but also to build a community around significant works of Indian literature. Our goal is to create a change in how Indian literature is perceived altogetherby making available information and resources to ensure that the literature of major Indian languages can be appreciated across the country, and indeed, the world, through high quality translations, conversations, dialogues and performances.

Just as European literature easily accommodates French, German Russian, Czech or British authors, among others, in its corpus, we would like readers of present and future generations to be able to appreciate and engage with, for instance, Tamil, Gujarati and Assamese authors with equal ease.

To start with, we aim to curate lists of literary masterpieces from major Indian languages, which are known to readers of that language but remain unrecognised in varying degrees outside of that language. The Collective is working with publishers to sponsor translations of these works and to popularise existing translations through performances, conversations and book readings. We want to be the one-stop shop for anybody who is new to a particularIndian language (or even all of them).

As with most literary collectives, or even the publishing industry in general, a lot of our work was not virtual. Holding readings and performances in literary festivals and bookstores across the country, connecting with translators and publishers from different languages and regions, all of this is usually best done in person. We did have the customary social media and website, but did not do much with it.

Thus, once the pandemic hit, we were thrown to the winds. The funny thing was that everyone having to stay at home meant that a lot of the artists and translators we work with actually had more time to write or participate in events than they normally would. The real problem was that all the events and literary festivals we were working with at the time suddenly had to cancel, postpone, or scramble to go online. Thus, while the artists were interested, good opportunities became scarce.

At the same time, publishers and book stores saw a steep decline in sales. Our biggest disappointment was that we were unable to release the first three translations from our book list, which were to be published through Speaking Tiger (supported by a grant from the JSW Group). The plan was to publish these books sometime in April-May of this year, but due to the decline in book sales across the industry and the temporary stoppage of in-person literary events, we postponed the release.

We are optimistic about getting these translations out next year. Our list includes classics like Karmelin by Damodar Mauzo (from its original Konkani) and Padma Nadir Manji by Manik Bandopadyay (from Bengali).

Opportunities in the virtual world

Even as our plans for physical events were put to a halt, we noticed that people were engaging with literature in a whole new way – through social media. For example, people on manyAssamese WhatsApp groups were sharing electronic versions of classics of Assamese literature – like Indira Goswami’s Mamare Dhare Tarowal and Nabakanta Baruah’s Koka Deutar Har. It was almost as though the general anxiety, coupled with all the extra time, was encouraging people to return to the comfort of familiar childhood classics. And of course, it is important to acknowledge that the digital world made it much easier for people to share and talk about these novels.

While this story of reconnection is extremely heartening, it also highlights the limitation of this resurgent sense of community: Assamese people were largely just returning to Assamese works, Tamils to Tamil works, and so on. The reason for this seems to be a simple one though – people are not exposed to as many translated works, and many great works from most of these languages have never even been translated. In fact, neither of the Assamese books I mention above have English translations, despite being written by two of the most influential voices in Assamese literature.

It is precisely in a space like this where we thought we could step in as a collective, carrying over the interest in the works of a particular language, and encouraging people to engage not only with their own languages and cultures, but those of their neighbours. As we pondered how best we could achieve this in the virtual world, we realised that rather than focusing on novels, it was poetry that lent itself better to the emotional, visceral times we are living through. And perhaps even more importantly, the brevity of poetry sustains people’s attention better than other genres, especially when the event is online!

In collaboration with KitabKhana Books, we created the Poetry Live series. Running from 31 March to April 14, it brought together 71 poets from 14 languages. The event allowed audiences to engage directly with the poets and watch the live streams later if they chose to, and encouraged cross-cultural and cross-language dialogue and social media.

It was a fine opportunity to connect poets and audiences from different languages, and featured eminent bilingual poets like K Satchidanandan, Mangalesh Dabral, Kamal Vora, Jayant Parmar, and Aparna Mohanty. The success of Poetry Live proved to us that we had to prioritise social media events in the near future. We also decided to start publishing poetry and aim to release a multilingual anthology of the works of the poets who participated in the event.

After Poetry Live, we collaborated with Jashn-e-Qalam, a unique theatre collective that performs Hindustani short stories in solo, one-act performances, followed by a lively discussion with the audience. Their aim is to revive not just the art of storytelling, but the authors and stories that used to be classics but are now largely forgotten. For example, this summer we sponsored performances of Kamleshwar’s Apne Desh Ke Log and Ismat Chugtai’s Chhui-Mui. Although these were the first virtual performances that the group had done, we were able to retain at least some of the spirit of the event through a post-show discussion on Instagram.

In October we teamed up with Niyogi Books and the Belongg Network – an anti-discrimination platform – to host a number of readings, such as SL Bhyrappa’s Brink (translated from the Kannada by R Ranganath Prasad). Those who signed up for the event could get the e-version free, rather than having to purchase a physical copy as is usual at a physical event.

Further, the read-along stretched across two weeks, from 7 October to 21 October, which encouraged deep engagement with the text, particularly through discussion groups. It placed a significant emphasis on mental health, both in the context of the book and the pandemic, which has led to a surge in mental health problems.

The collaboration with Belongg was helpful not only in expanding our audience, but also in highlighting that translations should be read not just because they are translations, but because they deal with themes and ideas that are relevant today. We are also planning to host a virtual festival with Belongg on literature (in multiple languages and in translation) focusing on sexuality, gender, and mental health in late November.

Time for cautious optimism

Overall, we have seen a clear shift from direct publishing and book-readings to holding creative, unique virtual events and expanding our social media outreach. Apart from the events mentioned above, we have beefed up our virtual backbone: updating our blog, curating and expanding our booklists, and expanding our social media outreach.

Through all of this, our emphasis has been on highlighting not just different languages or translations, but the unique (and often underrepresented) voices and ideas contained in Indian literature as a whole. We are not focused on marketing a particular book or writer, but on promoting Indian languages in general, since our purpose is to build a community rather than a business.

Despite our initial fears, we now realise that virtual events can be a success as long as they are planned right: events should be free, shorter than their physical versions, and virtual space needs to use forms and ideas that cannot be addressed in-person (like live chats or e-books). Further, we’ve seen artists grow from never having used social media before to becoming Instagram experts in a matter of months, which has not only helped virtual events, but also offered audiences the opportunity to connect with new and different artists.

Translations have become increasingly important in India in the last five years. From recognition through national awards like the JCB Prize and the DSC Prize to the creation of Indian-language specific imprints like Harper Perennial, Westland Eka or Penguin Classics, we have seen Indian languages being invested in seriously for perhaps the first time in the history of the industry.

We were all distraught when the pandemic threw a wrench into this positive movement, but that disappointment is gradually turning into cautious optimism. As hope resurfaces from the midst of fears, we have regained our “translating consciousness” and reclaimed the location of translation – multilingual, eclectic ways of expression. If I could put it in a multilingual sense, despite the challenges of tarjuma and roopantar in the post-Covid world, we believe that translation has a great future and can once again become a gulistan of creativity and culture.

Rishabh Kumar studies International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and writes on contemporary culture and literature.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.