Many in Pakistan ask why readers worldwide are not appreciative of the genius of Saadat Hasan Manto or Qurratul Ain Hyder even while they are reading and raving about Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk or Fyodor Dostoevsky. After all, we firmly believe that these writers, along with a host of others such as Krishan Chander, Abdullah Hussein and Khadija Mastoor as well as Urdu’s many classical and contemporary poets, are second to none in the world.
The Herald interviews Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications in Chennai to understand the current publishing scene in India, particularly with reference to works translated into English from other Indian languages.
Q. What sort of market exists in India for translations, particularly in English?
A. The English book market in India is growing across the board and that people are interested in quality translations. But it requires a certain quality [editing, packaging and so on] that is not met all the time.
Q. What are the challenges in publishing translations?
A. Many of the authors we publish are well known in their local languages. They have a mystique about them. Ibn-e-Safi is known to anyone who reads Urdu. And Rajesh Kumar, any Tamil reader knows his name. We have to work carefully not just on the translations but on the whole design, packaging and marketing campaign to try to show the quality of a writer’s work to an Urdu reader, or for that matter, to a Tamil reader.
Q. How difficult is it to find skilled translators and editors?
A. We were lucky with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi [who translated Ibn-e-Safi’s books for Blaft]. He is generally into much more academic, hi-fi Persian poetry and all. He agreed to do this because he used to read these books when he was young. For him it was kind of a trip down memory lane.
Q. Does it pay in India to publish translations?
A. For us, the problem is distribution. Bookstores don’t keep a close track of titles that sell and others they need to reorder. There is a market but it’s the logistics of getting to the customer that is difficult.
Q. How do you select authors for translations? Is it a market driven decision or something more personal?
A. We started with a Tamil pulp-fiction book based on the idea that the material which was being translated from regional languages was always very serious, always about social issues and poverty and so on. There are great books like that but they are not very representative of what people actually read in Tamil. The Tamil reader also reads something for pleasure. So we thought the fiction that the Tamil, Hindi and Urdu readers read for fun, is not getting translated into English. Russian best-selling thriller novelists get their stuff translated into English and French but Indian authors are not getting their stuff translated because it is not considered as serious literature. So we did that with the Tamil pulp-fiction book and we got a lot of response. Other people had been waiting for the same thing.
Q. Were you surprised by the response?
A. I was surprised it did so well in India. I was expecting it to be easy to sell abroad but not so easy to sell in India. But it was a hit in India. So I was a little surprised by that.
Q. Do you think people are curious about what is being written in their country in languages they don’t have access to?
A. Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if it is so much the case in Pakistan because Urdu is a more established language in Pakistan than Hindi is in India. But in India there is a large part of the country that cannot talk to each other and English is the medium in which they can.
Q. Why did you start publishing translations?
A. The Tamil book was the first one. And even before it came out, we were asking about other languages. And when you ask about Urdu, the first name you hear is Ibn-e-Safi.
Q. What are you plans for the future?
A. We have branched out in other genres. We did folklore, we did a book of Tamil folk stories in translation. And we did an experimental Tamil novel. The way we want to branch out is to look at languages not only from South Asia but from the global south, like Indonesian and African languages that have not been translated before. If you look at international translation journals, or translated fiction, 99 per cent of everything is European or Japanese or Korean. It is the northern countries. There is a language called Sundanese in Indonesia, which has got 40 million speakers and literature going back hundreds of years, but nothing has ever been translated into English. We want to get into that, try and find out about literatures in Africa and Asia that have been ignored. - (This interview was conducted over the telephone)
Hoori Noorani is the proprietor of the Karachi-based publisher, Maktaba-e-Daniyal. She discusses the challenges of publishing in Pakistan, particularly the high costs of publishing translations.
Q. How do you select books and authors to publish?
A. Firstly, I inherited a wonderful list from my father because he had some very good authors already on board: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hasan, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Fehmida Riaz and a lot of other people. They are still our main titles. The main idea [for setting up Maktaba-e-Daniyal] was to publish progressive, liberal literature so that is what I still look for. [The works] should at least not negate progressive ideas even if they are not directly political.
Q. You have translated Latin American and Russian fiction. Was it because it fell in the ‘progressive’ realm?
A. Yes, we published some translations from Russian literature because of the progressive background. We also published many others because of my own background. I studied Russian literature so there is an interest in that. But one of our main Russian works was the history of Sindh by a Russian scholar. Dr Aslam Farrukhi translated Latin American short stories for us and that is maybe not so much because of its progressive background but because I think that literature from that part of the world is a wonderful tradition. We are working on a translation of Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc. It should be done in the next month or two.
Q. When a book wins the Booker Prize or an author wins the Nobel Prize for literature, do you get an indication from the market that people want to read these books in translation?
A. Yes, we do. But again there is a limited readership. [Look at what] Ajmal Kamal does in his magazine Aaj. He does translations from Iranian, Indian and Latin American literatures, which are hugely appreciated. So yes, there is an interest.
Q. Compared to an Urdu novel, how do translations sell?
A. Well, it depends. I have Urdu translations of Russian novels, translated in Russia, and I am having them recomposed. They were done for Progress Publishers in Moscow by different people. I am also trying to publish the short stories of different [Russian] writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky because I feel that his novels are very well known but his short stories are not and he is a wonderful short story writer. And I think those will sell very well here. Again, the translation of Ayesha Siddiqa’s book should sell very well here because it is relevant today.
Q. Why is Military Inc being translated, so many years after its publication?
A. The translation started immediately but there were a few hurdles. Ayesha was away for a little while. That is why it has taken long. Also, we ran into some financial hurdles. We do not do translations [quite often] because the cost of paying for a translator is very high. A small publishing house like ours cannot afford it. So, that has delayed the book.
Q. Is it hard to find able translators?
A. I have not worked so much with translators here. The Russian translations were all done in Russia by different Indian authors or Urdu-speakers living in Moscow. We took permission from Progress Publishers and published them here. But probably finding an able translator is also a hurdle.
Q. Why aren’t books in English by Pakistani authors available in Urdu?
A. Perhaps there is a larger market for them in English abroad. They sell in larger quantities in English, maybe not in Pakistan but in India and elsewhere in the world. I am sure they would want to have their books available in Urdu but it is not a priority for them to publish in Urdu. And I have no idea why publishers who can afford are not jumping to do it. I am sure it would generate interest.
Q. How many copies of a best-seller do you produce?
A. Our best-seller is Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. When a new book by him, which is very rare, comes out, we do 5,000 copies and then reprint about 2,000 more if the stocks run out.
Q. Is 5,000 copies a big number for Pakistan?
A. It is.
Q. How would it compare with a Hindi best-seller in India?
A. There is a much larger market in India. They publish in all their languages, including in English, in much larger quantities. Publishing is also much cheaper there. Obviously, the more people read, the more you print and the cheaper the book becomes. So there is no comparison of quantity.
Q. What are the challenges faced by publishers, especially smaller publishing houses?
A. Firstly, book publishing is not considered an industry so we cannot get bank loans, for instance. Paper is extremely expensive as is printing and binding. So the cost of the book becomes very high. Then there is a dearth of libraries. And, of course, everything starts from the root factor. There are very few people who read books. Publishers also do not have the money to market books properly.
The Herald is Pakistan’s premier current affairs magazine published by the Dawn Media Group every month from Karachi.