Bringing worlds together!

The pandemic has hit some publishing markets very hard, while some have actually grown, like New Zealand or Australia. And what about translations, how have they fared in these difficult times where people stay at home, where travelling has become a domestic affair, if at all? Not many statistics are available at the moment, but translation rights continue to be traded. What is the situation when we look at the rights trade between Germany and India? Claudia Kaiser, Vice President of the Frankfurt Book Fair shares more about it.


Despite many efforts by organisations like the German Book Office in India or the Max Mueller Bhawan (Goethe Insitute), just to mention a few, the rights trade for translations is not a big affair – not a huge number of books of, lets say, Indian authors writing in English, are being translated into German – and the other way round we also have not seen a lot of progress. When it comes to translation rights being sold from Germany to Asia, we can see that in many cases the trade is a one-way street: Asia, especially China, is very active in buying rights and translating books – for instance, China has been the biggest market for the sale of rights for German publishers in terms of the number of titles being sold, for the last ten years or so. At the same time, the number of Chinese titles translated into German is rather low. When it comes to India, we can see that neither Germany nor India is translating a lot of books from each other. And in India, we do not talk about just one language, but 24, and some are huge language markets like Hindi or Malayalam, Bengali or Tamil. For translations from German into English, Seagull Books is an important partner for German publishers, Seagull has started a German list with demanding, modern German language literature in English.

A few German titles have been translated into Indian languages, mostly into Hindi, Malayalam or Bengali. What are the issues here, why are very few titles translated from such a rich and traditionally important publishing market as Germany, and likewise why do German publishers publish a relatively low number of translations from the Indian languages which is likewise a very diverse, vibrant market?

The Indian scenario…

Let’s look at India first: while we don’t have exact numbers, we can say that over the past 3-4 years, around 130-150 titles have been translated into English, while only 2- 5 titles have been translated into Hindi, and a similar number into Bengali and Malayalam. While GBO and Max Mueller Bhavan have undertaken a lot of efforts to recommend and inform about bestselling books in Germany, especially newer titles, these efforts have not been able to attract a lot of interest. This is because there is not a huge readership for authors who are not so well known in India, and, understandably, publishers often do not want to take the risk, especially since translated books are more expensive to the publisher. The MMB does provide translation grants, but obviously more efforts need to be undertaken, perhaps grants are not sufficiently attractive. Overall it is obvious that many translations from less well known languages into any other language would not be happening without organisations introducing titles into the markets, and making translation grants available. But of course that is not the only reason.

The German scenario…

When we look at the German market, we likewise see very few translations from the Indian English, and even less from other Indian languages, like Malayalam, Bengali or Hindi. There are some specialized publishers who publish translations from Indian languages, for instance the Draupadi Publishing House which publishes translations from Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, authors like Perumal Murugan, Sara Rai and many others.

Points to ponder…

One issue, of course, is that we do not have many translators in Germany who can translate from Indian languages mentioned above. And likewise, there are not so many translators who can translate from German to Malayalam or any other Indian language.

Claudia Kaiser
Claudia Kaiser

So what are other reasons, and what can be done to improve the situation?

The world has changed, and there is a strong movement in Western countries for more diversity – in countries like Germany we see a much stronger mix of ethnic groups, and there is a need to create more understanding for each other, for our backgrounds, our approaches to life, our thinking. It seems to be a good time, at least in Germany, a country which traditionally has a good number (13.9% of all titles in 2019 – first editions) of translations on the market, to push for more translations. Some years ago we saw the initiative “Indian literature abroad” supporting and promoting titles from India to foreign languages. Such an initiative, with a translation funding programme attached, would certainly be helpful in improving the situation. The platform Frankfurt Rights (formerly IPR license) could surely also help in creating more visibility for “Books from India”-

As for attracting more publishers in India to translate from the German language – funding programmes are available, and information about German titles is also there. Perhaps we need to get together and give it another try? Think of new ways how we could cooperate in promoting titles that might not have a huge following at the first go? Perhaps creating series could be an option, and a closer cooperation with the respective German publishers?

Importance of translators…

Finally a thought on translators – the ones who bring our worlds together and make texts and issues understandable and approachable to us. They are so important – and yet, often not recognized and appreciated sufficiently. So many translators are not able to make a living of their profession – and as long as we don’t have a financial model, a real market (because publishers are able to sell enough copies) they deserve to be supported with translation funding programmes.

Looking ahead…

To my mind, it would be very worthwhile to get together and think of new ways and measures to bring more translations into each other’s markets. Let’s re-start a dialogue, Frankfurter Buchmesse is ready to support such an initiative. The current pandemic forces us to keep going and to look after our health, and after our separate businesses first, but we should not let this stop us from finding ways to create more understanding for our cultures through books, and therefore make the world a better place.

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