It is reported that Irish author James Joyce had taken exile in France because he didn’t want to fight between choosing English or Gaelic as his language of expression in his motherland. Czech writer Milan Kundera, on the other hand, moved to France for political reasons – when Czechoslovakia came under Russian communist rule – and, later, chose to write in French rather than in his mother tongue Czech.

I find Kundera’s case interesting. Perhaps Kundera wrote in French to save himself the trouble of translating his Czech into French before publishing in France for a ready French audience. Or, perhaps, he wrote in French because the French literary ethos, and the French audience, did not welcome literature in a language other than French.

French literary scholar Pascale Casanova, citing the Man Booker Prize and its many non-British recipients, had stated in an interview with Charles Ruas in 2005 (see my previous post) that, unlike the English who welcome writers from their ‘colonies’, the French are rather arrogant and practically despise writers from their ‘colonies’ (typically countries in West and North Africa, Algeria being an ideal example – besides Canada, of course).

This makes me wonder how closely literature is connected to politics. If we look at history, we find that many writers were forced to write in, as well as translate their works into, another language simply because they were dominated by another culture and its language at that time. To some writers, this can mean another form of exile – an exile in one’s own land. Such influences can be seen in India’s literary and constitutional history.

Paris’ literary superiority

French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova believes there’s no such thing as ‘global literature’. However, in her groundbreaking book The World Republic of Letters, published originally in French in 1999 but which became famous in 2005 when it was published in English by Harvard University Press, Casanova puts forth a model for a literary world system which is indeed intriguing – and rather flattering of Casanova’s own country.

In an interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1 (now available through Clocktower Radio), going back to 2005, Casanova states that, just like the political and economic world before us, there is a parallel literary world. This literary world is dominated by two literary languages: French and English. In fact, this has been so thanks to the history of European language and literature, and specifically since the 19th century when Paris and London were fighting for dominance as the world’s capital.

Image courtesy http://clocktower.org/

Image courtesy http://clocktower.org/

Paris, naturally, won; with the greatest writers from across the world – Edgar Allen Poe, Mark twain, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and many more – flocking to Paris to establish themselves. There was a belief that Paris recognised genius. To be a writer and to be published in Paris was to be canonised.

Paris was the literary capital of the world. It was the place that all great writers visited. It was the place where writers were declared ‘real’ writers. Interestingly, more than the French, Paris was made into this legend by foreign writers like Poe and Faulkner and Joyce. Many writers – such as Edward Gibbons (memoirs), Oscar Wilde (Salomé) and August Strindberg (plays) – even wrote in French just for this recognition.

The ‘Paris’ myth grew and offered prestige to many writers. More and more writers congregated in Paris, further reinforcing Paris’ dominance in world literature. Apart from English which became its greatest rival from across the shores, other languages like Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian… all bowed down to Paris’ literary superiority.

[Citation: Pascale Casanova interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, 28 February 2005. Now available through Clocktower Radio.]

The literary world system

In my previous post, I had suggested that, perhaps, there is a large international market for translations of Indian regional-language writing. If such a market really exists, it opens up opportunities not only for Indian-language writers, but also for Indian-language translators. This proposal, of course, makes sense if there really is an international literary space where Indian-language writing translated into English (or other languages) can snugly fit in.

While dwelling on this possibility of an international literary space for Indian-language writing, I came upon William Deresiewicz’ 2005 review of French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova’s book La République mondiale des lettres (The World Republic of Letters). Here’s an excerpt from that review which appeared in The Nation:

Image courtesy la-plume-francophone.over-blog.com

Image courtesy la-plume-francophone.over-blog.com

…it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about – or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions – English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers ‘come from’? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren’t.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don’t. (But ‘better’ according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we’ve bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova’s words, “the fable of an enchanted world…where universality reigns through liberty and equality…the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal.”

[Citation: The literary world system by William Deresiewicz, The Nation, 3 January 2005.]

Indian writing for the global market

[No, I’m not talking about the Kama Sutra]

If Indian translators aren’t recognised and rewarded for their contribution by the industry (readers and publishers included), perhaps, relying on India as their only literary marketplace is a dead end. In that case, could Indian translators not look upon the world as a larger market for their services?

When I think of some of my favourites, such as Michael Hoffman (famous for translations of Joseph Roth, Patrick Suskind, Wolfgang Koeppen) or Gregory Rabassa (famous for translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar), and the recognition and awards they have received, I’m inclined to think that the global market may provide a much-needed break for Indian translators.

Of course, Indian authors and their publishers – both Indian and international – have to accept the idea and make headway. I understand that Penguin, Picador, Harper Collins and Hachette have already initiated programmes to put Indian authors (i.e. those who reside and write in India) on the global literary map, but their efforts have largely focused on Indian authors writing in English.

When it comes to translations, my kudos goes to a little-known publisher from Kolkata called Seagull Books – started in the early 1980s by Naveen Kishore – which has taken the initiative to publish English translations of Indian regional language books (mainly Bengali, but there’s more) and market them internationally. My collection of Mahasweta Devi’s writing couldn’t have been possible without Seagull Books.

The translator’s dilemma

Translators aren’t rewarded financially as well as they ought to be. Apparently, the economics of translated titles is not promising. The logic is something like this:

A higher fee for translation increases the cost of production and, in turn, the price at which the title is sold at the bookstore. A high price deters readers from buying the title and reduces its demand, adversely affecting its sale. With low sales, publishers can’t recover their investment and lose interest in publishing translated titles.

Moreover, in India, with her 20-odd regional languages, the universe of readers for translated titles is fragmented. Publishers can’t take the risk of printing a large number of copies for a single title. A small print run, once again, increases the unit cost of the title and its price, deterring readers from buying the book.

With fewer readers buying translated titles, fewer translated titles are published… further reducing the translator’s opportunities. Let us hope print-on-demand technology, e-books and online bookstores will ease the translator’s worries.