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Sunday, May 20, 2001

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A niche for Indian writing in France

COME the month of March and Parisians have two sure appointments: one is with spring and the other with the Salon du Livre or the Paris Book Fair. One perhaps is not all that sure, for though the date is fixed and remains constant over the years, March 21, Spring, that capricious inconstant creature, sometimes fails to keep the rendez-vous (like this year!) though she is waited for expectantly by one and all. The Paris Book Fair, however, has remained right on schedule for the last 21 years and lived up to the expectations of the book-loving capital that Paris is.

The city is a reader's delight, abounding as it does in bookshops both large and small, mega-bookstores with orderly, alphabetically-arranged and labelled endless rows of books, quaint little bookshops piled high with books in no apparent order, small stands of second-hand books, the "bouquinistes" that line the banks of the Seine and where it is easy to pick up a bargain, bookshops specialising in rare books or in books in English. Though from time to time statistics speak of a fall in the book-reading public especially among the youth, readers are seen with regular frequency in the metro and trains, on park benches, at caf tables, cigarette and cup of coffee in hand. Another haunt could be one of the cafs with a special library area or a literary caf where literary and cultural events are held to the accompaniment of a good meal or just a glass of wine. However, the not to be missed rendez-vous for the voracious reader is the book fair with its promise of new treasures and also the possibility of getting the purchase autographed by the author.

Though the Paris Book Fair lacks the gargantuan proportions of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the international quality of the London Book Fair, as it is a largely Franco-French affair that is the annual meeting ground of the French-speaking publishing industry, it has slowly been opening up to other languages, other cultures, other worlds. Each year a country is chosen as the guest of honour - in 1993 it was India - and in this way is brought to the attention of the French public. This year saw the participation of three Indian publishers, an event that was exceptional in more ways than one. Indian publishers rarely if ever frequent the Paris Book Fair, unless they can expressly combine it with the London Fair that is held during the same period. This year they were present with the specific intention, not of buying the rights for French books or negotiating co- publication agreements, as is usually the case, but to propose their own books and sell translation rights for their publication in French. The most surprising aspect of their visit was that they had been invited by the French Ministry of Culture to meet their French counterparts and sell rights for Indian books.

This initiative was part of the run-up to the "Belles Etrangres" literary festival planned for 2002 when India and Indian literature will take centre stage. For the first time Indian writers and their writing will be presented to the French- speaking public not only in France but in the neighbouring French-speaking countries as well. The French Ministry of Culture prides itself on its regular and systematic efforts to introduce foreign literatures to French readers. Only those foreign writers are invited to this festival whose works are available in French and are accessible to the French readership. Therefore, the need to encourage French publishers to bring out as many Indian works as possible before 2002.

It is to this end that three representatives of our publishing industry spent a week in rain-washed Paris witnessing the over- flowing waters of the Seine, attending the fair, interacting with their counterparts, attempting to understand the problems of translation in a monolingual culture and ably putting across the richness, variety and depth of Indian fiction in the Indian languages and English.

All three, Mini Krishnan, ex-Macmillan and currently with Oxford University Press, Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha and V.K. Karthika of Penguin India were pleasantly surprised at the openness and receptivity to translation.

Expecting to encounter a conservative monolingual culture that has traditionally been unreceptive to foreign cultures other than the ones they have colonised and appropriated, Mini Krishnan, who did pioneering work in translation from the Indian languages, notably the Modern Indian Novels in Translation series, had this to say, "As someone who is familiar with the resistance, hostility and deep suspicion with which the translation enterprise is viewed, I was happy to meet publishers who are hands-on editors, who have actually worked on scripts themselves, who are trying to cross this bridge translocating texts from one culture to another and who appeared receptive to our kind of literature and to the idea of translation from the regional languages."

Geeta Dharamarajan, who firmly put translation onto the Indian publishing agenda with the Katha Prize Stories series and who had met her French counterparts here on an earlier visit, felt the difference in attitude was perceptible. From a hesitant position that only focussed on the likely problems, they seemed to have moved to a stage where they can distinguish between Marathi and Malayalam. "This difference in the perception of Indian literature," Geeta felt "was because they themselves feel that their own literature is not moving forward in a creative fashion and therefore, bringing in other literatures seems to be a positive step. The soil seems ready now and if you plant a seed, I think it will take root."

What struck Karthika, Commissioning editor with Penguin India, and whose task, in one sense, was much easier as the representative of Indian writing in English, was when a publisher who had expressed great interest in her list of women writers and first novels explained that her interest stemmed from the fact that it was a good novel or because it was a strong women's voice. At no stage did she link it to India. Obviously, the English language list interested them but what was encouraging, according to Karthika, was that "they are willing to look at home-grown writers, and not only writers who come via the West. It is a new voice in fiction that they appreciate, but if not originally written in English, then they want to see the English translation first. Though open to it, they haven't a clue. It is completely new territory for them. Their biggest problem is will it travel?"

The first step in providing the answer to this question lies in the availability of a good English translation. This would allow Indian language writing to be presented and assessed. This would allow French publishers to decide if it is powerful, if it will go down well with readers, if it is likely to travel well. Once that is decided then the novel can hopefully be translated directly from the original as there exists a group of dedicated French translators with excellent command and practical experience of a variety of Indian languages ranging from Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali to Tamil, Malayalam, and Marathi. For languages for which good translators are hard to come by, the solution would be to opt for indirect translations via English, which though far from the ideal solution, would at least have the merit of avoiding the pitfalls of an inadequate translation while representing Indian writing to the largest possible extent.

And this precisely is the objective of the "Belles Etrangres" literary festival scheduled for 2002: to provide a balanced and as complete as possible representation of the literary landscape of India by drawing not only on Indian writing in English but also Indian writing in the various Indian languages. In order for this laudatory venture to succeed, Indian and French publishers need to join hands now.

RAJESH SHARMA

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