On Books, Bhasha, and Baazar

As a gatekeeper of the literary polysystem, translator Arunava Sinha shares with us insights on the markets of translation and publishing

LILA: Thank you for joining us for this conversation. To start off, the invention of the printing press many centuries ago radically restructured our ideas and perceptions of language, text, and the world. How does one look at the publishing sphere today? Is it a market, an industry, or simply a site of exchange?

Arunava Sinha: In a technical sense, yes, it is a market, for there is a chain of intermediaries between the ‘creator/producer’ and the final reader—that is typical of a market, where there is no direct contact between the creator and the user. Like any other market, here too, price plays a very significant role in determining who has the access, what is being produced, and who gets paid how much for producing that particular product. Essentially, the very introduction of these elements of payment and pricing immediately starts distorting any artistic world. The moment a work of art is produced keeping the payment in mind, somewhere a compromise is made with the creative impulses which give rise to a work of art. When the creation is created keeping in mind the audience and their wants, by double-guessing what the reader might like to read, the decisions do not remain with the creator alone anymore. The intermediaries—the publishers in this case, comprising of not only the editors but also the sales & marketing teams—then get to decide what will go out in the market, for whom, and in what form.

This business of the market, which adds an element of ‘success’ to the work of art, might or might not have anything to do with the quality of the work—the intrinsic as well as the perceived qualities. This parameter is concerned less with the quality and more with the quantity of the product. One could rightly argue that the readers would buy a certain product only for its quality; in this way, the response of the readers/buyers is then used as a surrogate for quality. In fact, to add, that is why we have the literary prizes where the juries claim to know better than the readers. The bottom line is that the market keeps a lot of art away from the people because many artists either do not have access to the market mechanisms or their work is considered unsuitable. When the market mechanisms come in, inevitably the choices start to have a lot to do with prolonging the status quo. This is very different from the way publishing functioned 50 years ago, and understandably so. The profits were made back then too, but the publishers were not entirely concerned with calculating the revenue possibility of every single book published, which is unfortunately the case now. The ‘successful’ books did bring revenue to meet out the costs of the company but, unlike now, the creators of the art were not being compensated only on the basis of the number of the copies sold. In all honesty, one could still applaud the market mechanisms if they were successful in putting good art out there, but they’re not. Even the jury-approved books are often not read by the average reader.

LILA: The Hindi poet, Mangalesh Dabral, during our conversation for the previous issue, emphasised on the role of the digital spaces and the revival of the little magazine movement to counter the hegemonic frameworks of the media and the publishing industry. How can we, then, consider the role of the independent platforms like Scroll.in and OpenAxis, which you are associated with, in this process of confrontation and subversion within/against the market, to bring the creative-critical voices to the fore?

AS: There are a number of such platforms, which are dispersed and focused both geographically and thematically, and are gaining readers only on the basis of the quality of the published work. And, certainly, they do offer a challenge to the hegemony of the big-players. The media industry, however, is very different from the other industries in the sense that its primary source of revenue are not its readers. The readers are actually the products whom it serves to its real customers—the advertisers. In the case of social media, we, as users, are sold to the advertisers, especially in the emerging marketplace of social approval where there are no costs involved yet to ‘like’, ‘comment’, and approve.

The media is indeed a ‘true market’ for sensing what people want to read and then catering anything but news for its readers. The big-players in India, in order to keep their advertisement flow intact, have also become staunchly pro-establishment. Some of these supposed upholders of the truth have gone so far that they are now receiving backlash from their advertisers. The moral frameworks of the society are so skewed that commercial brands, the forces of the market, are now having to step in and emerge as the beacons of ethics—something that they are not known for. In comparison, the smaller organisations are not doing anything new, but simply by sticking to the basics, to the creative-critical, they are standing out.

LILA: Many other authors, representing different linguistic geographies, in their reflections on ‘Intellect’, highlighted the need to share, connect, and exchange between the various literary and cultural registers in India. How does translation—as a process and as an industry—feature in the bhasha-baazar  or beyond these platforms?

AS: In a multilingual society like India, there is literally no choice but translation. It is the only means by which knowledge, learning, arts, or anything that is created with words as the medium can be taken across to the people outside the landscapes within which it’s created. All education is, in fact, translation. Translation is not merely the process of expressing material from one set of words—loosely called ‘languages’—into another. It is, instead, the process of transference—from thoughts to words by a writer and from words to meaning by a reader. Translation is a part of the fabric of our everyday life. An India without translation cannot be conceived even in the imagination. People of the past, divided by their linguistic identities, engaged more in wars and less in any intellectual exchanges. Without translation in today’s bhasha-baazar, we’d perhaps go straight into that. We’re bound to!

LILA: In a world powered by globalisation, the baazars of bhasha and beyond certainly interact with or influence each other, crossing boundaries of all kinds. Expectedly, the publishing market too, then, is bound to respond to the changes around it—from the growing anti-racism and anti-caste movements to the pandemic. How does the publishing market, from bookstores to book prizes, articulate its position in response to these ever-changing socio-political dynamics?

AS: For the time being, let us focus only on the industry of the publishers, which does not include the book-sellers and other constituents of the larger market, though they all follow similar patters to an extent. The publishing market has been predicated on the assumption that all writers have equal opportunities and therefore the publishers can use whatever their criteria is to decide whom to publish and whom not. This is sort of like the ‘merit’ myth. And, by extension, also applies to the translators, for  being the gatekeepers of a literary polysystem. For every book that I translate there is always a book that I do not. There is only a limited number of books that I, as a translator, can work on. There are many translators who are adamantly concerned, according to them, only on the quality, which is a position that I do not resonate with, for now we need to broaden the idea of both quality and merit. Whenever one is selecting a work out of a pool, whether for publishing, translating, or an award, there is an underlying assumption that all the writers had equal opportunities and that therefore it is okay to pick a preference. The truth, on the other hand, is that there are many people—and books—who have not had an equal access to the publishing infrastructure due to the deep-rooted structural inequalities within the society, stemming from the larger politics of race, religion, caste, economics, and ideology.

In such a scenario, I, as a publisher, cannot bring about a structural change in the society at large because those in power do not want to lose it. But what can I still do? This is where, through the choices that I make, I can ensure a greater ‘representation’. By publishing people who have not been published, I can attempt to enlarge the pool of the published literature, which could then pave the way for other such literatures to enter the ‘mainstream’. This seeding and these chances are essential at this stage of history that we are passing through today, where the respective equivalent of the white man in power must be displaced from the centre. The early Indian writing in English, for example, speaks volumes about the uniformity in the backgrounds and the sensibilities of the erstwhile writers—something that does not reign anymore. These allowed chances can also be equated with the reservations in the sense that the latter are not meant to correct structural inequalities but to give those who have historically not had a say in decision making a chance to take decisions.

To make these changes happen, the publisher has to reach out and decide consciously. And translation has to do the same thing. No doubt that many successful books from various Indian languages are being translated into English and brought to a new readership, but what about the books that do not have a readership in their very languages—perhaps because the writers came from the margins? Only if you make conscious choices now can you set the field for more equal—or rather, less unequal—opportunities for different kinds of writers. And, of course, in the process many privileged writers will be left out. But, historically if you have benefitted, you’ve also got to un-benefit at some point. In a market economy, when those with privilege lose out on an opportunity, a new institution comes up to take them on board; the same thing will happen in publishing—self-publishing, in fact, has been there for a while now to ‘support’ those who’re having to compensate. Perhaps only if some things like books, art, education, and health could have been kept out of the capitalistic profit-making structures, many a progressive strides could have been made. Oddly enough, the only product that this system has been successful in taking to the masses is the mobile phone. This infrastructure, in my opinion, must be put to use in providing the basic education to children. While online classes might not be the best idea, they’re far easier to set up than setting-up a school in every village.

Finally, to speak of the literary awards, while their long-lists and short-lists now feature many writers of colour, they still have to have been published by the big publishers, and only the most privileged of them all would be able to access the big names. If you, as a jury member, were really looking out, you’d perhaps let a small publisher submit five books for every one book that a big publisher submits. And, as pointed out by Amit Chaudhuri, since high financial rewards are associated with these awards, they end up terribly skewing literature because people then start to write for the awards, making writing a business plan. In that sense, these awards are only an extension of the publishing system. I’d personally like to see an award that uses the prize money to buy more copies of the book and distributes them; the writer will anyway get to enjoy the royalty. Apart from that, I don’t believe if one can say that one book is better than the rest. One can perhaps say that one likes a particular book more or that these are the ten best books, but to rate one above everything else is an untenable proposition. And, adding to that, to judge a book’s worth within a year of its publishing is not a true evaluation of its worth; a book is great because it is great five or ten years later. Maybe we should start an award that judges books that were published ten years ago.

LILA: By taking the text from the margins to the centre, from the local to the global, does translation then strive towards creating a more egalitarian bhasha-baazar as it levels the linguistic hierarchies between the ‘dialect’ and the ‘language’? How do the ideas of domestication and foreignisation, as argued by the scholars Eugene Nida and Lawrence Venuti respectively, feature in the intangible market of/by translation? Which one do you associate yourself and your practise with?

AS: If we are of the opinion that translation is necessary to bring more diversity in the realm of ideas, then domestication makes no sense because you are actually wiping out the diversity by homogenising it to a frame of reference that your reader within a certain cultural system understands. It may serve a commercial purpose as it will become easy to get the book across to the readers. It will, however, not serve the greater purpose. You have to, then, be clear as to what your purpose is. While I am not saying that one is better than the other, at least the clarity of the objective is necessarily required. On the other hand, if you are translating genuinely to introduce new ideas and new thoughts into an existing cultural system, then you cannot domesticate. In that case, you must be prepared for the unfamiliarity with which the reader will read this completely new text. The reader’s frame of reference must be expanded by the introduction of the ‘foreign’.

Does that make things more egalitarian—that would be an extreme claim. Let us instead say that it is one step away from the absence of egalitarianism. For a reader in Delhi, a Tamil text and a Spanish text are equally distant. And, for the same reasons, the reader would wish to read a new text that brings in something very diverse in—as if to disrupt—the relatively homogenous cultural fabric that they inhabit. So, to me, as the reader, all the languages of the world are the same i.e. they’re not the languages that I understand, and I’d love to know what is going on in there.

When I started translating, I was very much a part of the domesticating school, and it needed a certain amount of thinking to get to the point of foreignizing the translation. I am, however, definitely not in favour of the mechanical ways of achieving this objective. To those who say that one must leave some words untranslated to make it clear that it is a different language, my only question is: which words? Therefore, my process is not concerned at all with these ideas of leaving a few words or phrases untranslated. I only see whether the translated text brings in something about it—maybe intangibly—about the fact that this book was not written in English, that it is ‘originated’ in a different social, cultural, political, economic, and religious framework. At least I hope to see that in my translation. But if you were to ask me how I achieve that, I do not have an easy answer for such an integrated, organic process.

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