Placing Indian content on world map!

India is a land of rich literature and that too in various languages. But, it is not confined to our geographical borders, as it is getting its share of recognition globally.

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In recent times, we have seen Indian literary content being recognised on the global arena through the International Booker Prize or through nominations. Here, Esha Chatterjee from BEE Books, Akhil Mehta from Mehta Publishing and Raman Shresta from Rachna Books share about the whole process involved, translation rights and so on in conversation with Janani Rajeswari. S

Raman Shresta, 
Rachna Books, Sikkim

Raman has been part of ‘Rachna Book House’ for over two decades now. “We started ‘Rachna Bookstore’ in 1979. We moved into publishing under the ‘Rachna Books’ banner in 2019,” he explains. It includes academic and research books, poems and novels. Rachna Books has published the English translation of the Nepali book ‘Faatsung’, called the ’Song of the Soil’ that traces the journey of the Gorkhaland movement in Sikkim. The book had been nominated for the JCB Literary prize of 2022. It has already been translated into Hindi and Bangla.

Taking Indian work overseas: challenges and facts

“Given the recent International awards like the Booker Prize and the recent nomination, limelight is definitely on Indian books and translations,” adds Raman. As for translations, he feels that translations have always been talked about as there have been constant efforts to make them happen.

Talking about popular Indian genres abroad, he feels it’s literary fiction. It also depends on the publisher. Raman feels that the attention on Indian publishing is still negligible. “I am part of the British Council International Publishing Fellowship 2022 that took us to UK. This involved a few tours where we got to meet many publishers and distributors. Sadly, most of the focus is on pushing Western literature into India and other regions,” he adds.

As a publisher

‘Song of the Soil’ has a publisher in the UK. This book was one of the reasons why Raman become a publisher himself. “The book was originally published in Nepali but it was about an event that took place in India. Our stories were being published elsewhere but we do not have access to them,” explains Raman.

Since Rachna Books is still new in the publishing industry, Raman feels that his learning about the industry has been a revelation. “I am first a bookseller. So, when I took to publishing from that point, I retraced my steps backwards to learn more about publishing,” he adds. The networking and the fellowship have helped him connect with people who know about translation, rights and so on. But sometimes apart from buying rights, it’s also about collaborating for co-publishing.

‘Song of Soil’ has been published in three countries: UK, Nepal and India. Rachna Books is mainly looking at publishing in print.

Making Indian content visible

“We need to start reading each other’s content. For that, we need to start translating,” says Raman. He adds that number of books that we read is nothing compared to what people read abroad. “This is because we are reading in different regions and in different languages. There is enough content if we read each other’s books from within the country. This will definitely take our content globally,” says Raman.

Esha Chatterjee,
BEE Books, Kolkata

Esha has been associated with publishing since 2016 as she hails from a Bengali publishing background.“I always felt that there is a lot of content which has the possibility of getting international readership through translation,” she explains. Her publishing house BEE Books focuses on translations, majorly from Bengali and a few other languages.

Growth of the translation market

Esha points out that when she started out, the market for translation was still growing and the focus was mainly on originals. “But over the last eight years, there has been a paradigm shift in the way international publishers look at translation across all languages,” she adds. It has become an important market, from a financial point of view.

International market for exchange of rights

Esha says during post COVID period, there has been a huge focus on South-East Asian literature, when it comes to the market for buying publishing rights. “In this region, India plays an important part now that we have a Booker Prize winner and a shortlist this year again,” she says.

She adds that this is a probably the best time when international publishers are interested in meeting us when we say we are into translation from India. “I think that it’s a great time for regional publishing and contemporary translation,” she says.

Genres gaining visibility

“It’s mostly restricted to literary fiction. In countries like Japan, Scandinavian countries and so on, commercial writing like thrillers are more popular,” explains Esha. She also points out that this year there is a general interest in translations. “There have been conversations with the U.S markets regarding commercial literature,” she adds. Talking about non-fiction writing, Esha says, “Some publishers in the U.S and U.K have published some books on non-fiction. But that is again restricted to the history of India that the world knows. Also, memoirs and non-fictions are mostly backed by big names or renowned subjects.”

BEE Books going global

Esha has sold the rights to four books that have been published till date. “I have sold the rights to an anthology of the best poetry in Bengali to a publisher in U.K,” she says. It was published in UK, the U.S and in Australia. The next is a short story collection from Assam that depicts what Assamese literature has to offer. “One of our most famous books from 2019 was published across 11 languages,”says Esha. She adds that more in the pipeline.

From a political point of view in publishing, to enter Europe one needs to go via UK. So, if UK acquires a book that is good in their language English, the rest of the European markets start looking at it. Since UK is the entry point, we send our books to them and then it goes to other countries,” she explains.

Response to Indian writing through translation

The focus of most of the Indian publishing houses selling rights is to get more and more books into the markets in UK or in the U.S. “I am sure that if we continue doing so, in the next five years, we could see a huge volume and variety of titles in their market,” says a hopeful Esha. She adds that at this point, the number does not even count as a considerable fraction.

“When it comes to translations, countries like Russia, Japan, Korea and so on, produce more titles every month. If the competition is at international level, it’s about making a variety of titles available,”she adds.

Challenges in selling rights globally

The most important challenge is having multiple languages. “For instance, I am very confident about the languages I know from the East of India. But I have no idea about the languages from the South. I don’t know how the book would read in their original languages,” she explains. Since India is a diverse country, it’s difficult to represent the nation as a whole and get your voice heard. Esha feels this is why many noteworthy books get missed out.

Esha says that the second challenge is that in a country with so many publishers and books, there are hardly a handful of literary agents to represent literature outside India. “It’s not possible for a single person to represent 20-25 books. We need more agents, mediators and sub-agents,” she adds.

The third challenge would be language barrier as you need to get everything translated to sell. But many publishers are unable to translate them to represent them in an international arena. “There are no translation grants or support from agencies. However, in European countries a lot of support is offered for translations. As a result, more translation work is being done,” she points out.

Multiple platform rights

Esha says that the international rights are sold for multiple platforms, in particular print. Bigger publishers have units that acquire audio and film rights too. “In 2019, we did an audio with Storytel Sweden for the ‘Kadambari Devi Suicide Note’ for Frankfurt book Fair. It was narrated by actor Konkona Sen Sharma,” she shares.

Indian publishing overseas: Need of the hour

Esha feels that the visibility of the books that we see overseas are the result of individual efforts of publishers and also international translators like Daisy Rockwell. “She fell in love with Hindi, got it translated in English and got it published in UK and it gained attraction,” says Esha.

“The need of the hour is probably an independent and private association of Indian publishers who will come together and be a representative body in all the book fairs every year. They will just make the effort to participate,” she adds.

Today, the representation from India is very scattered and company sponsored. There needs to be some support for the publishers to represent them at book fairs.

“So, if this possible then it will definitely open the doors for Indian regional publishing into the international market,” signs off Esha.

Akhil Mehta,
Mehta Publishing House, Pune

Akhil Mehta has been part of Mehta Publishing House, which carries with it a legacy of over four decades. Talking about today’s publishing world, Akhil says: “Thanks to platforms like Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP), Indian authors writing in English are getting the kind of recognition that wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago.” He adds that books are available as they are being distributed to places like the U.S through KDP. It’s easy for such an author to sell his/her book overseas. You can have a distribution channel in countries like the U.S and UK sitting in India. So, it’s possible to try it out on a one book-based module on POD basis. He says that non-fiction from India is ruling the roost now.

“That’s the overall trend and non-fiction books are doing well across the world. Another reason could be that people love reading the hidden stories from India. This would include exploring various personalities and cultures across various states,” says Akhil talking about why the genre is doing well world over.

Janani Rajeswari S
Janani Rajeswari S

Selling rights overseas

Akhil recalls how they began selling publishing rights back in 2013 or 2014. “My father went to the Frankfurt Book fair to sell the rights of some of the books,” he adds. Although the number of rights sold were less, some good content has been recognised in the process. For instance, Raja Ravi Varma has come out in French. “I would say that it is an achievement. So, if we try to explore, I am sure there is a lot to gain,” he says. “We have done two books so far: one in French and one in Finnish.”

Challenges in selling rights

Akhil says that it is time management. “If we try to explore the French or Portuguese market, I am sure there is an ample market,”he opines. Just as excited as Indian publishers are to purchase rights from other countries, it’s possible to sell our rights too with some effort. So, when you sell rights, it usually involves the print, e-book and audio rights. “However, if you target a bigger publisher and better media, there is also a scope for all the subsequent rights coming along with translation rights. This could help in creating adaptations,” says Akhil. It’s important that the publisher updates the rights’ catalogue every month. There needs to be a team that is touch with the international publishers. “Currently, we don’t have a backing of that sort. Ultimately, it’s a sales job that needs rigourous work,” he says.

But Akhil feels that as a Marathi publisher, he would like to reach out publishers from other parts of India at first. “I would be keener about it as it is easier and we would like progress that way first,” he adds. There are steps and ladders to it.

Translation plays a major role

Akhil says that it’s difficult to find a translator who is well-versed in the source and the target language. But even if we do find people, we can’t say they are good translators. “In the recent future, we see that English is going to be the medium to translating to other languages,” he adds. The other angle to it is that many publishers are also looking at bringing their content into India. “They are also directly writing about content from India in their respective languages,” he adds. That speaks volumes about our content.

Indian publishers participating in International fairs

Akhil feels that any platform given to opportunists is good. It really depends upon how they capitalise it. “I think it’s really wonderful to see Indian publishers and distributors going to international book fairs held in Frankfurt, Bologna and so on. These events are putting Indian content on the world map where people can see a lot of good content is being produced in India,” he concludes.

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