The cultural dominance of the English language, worldwide, owes a lot to its colonial legacy. Things are no different in India, where English is still in a position of privilege in the fields of education, academia and publishing. Every year, thousands of nonfiction books, novels and academic treatises are published here in English, by some of the biggest presses in the world. And it’s because of this heightened emphasis on the English language that the country’s vernacular tongues—rich in literary and scholarly heritage—have been more or less marginalised, especially when it comes to mainstream publishing.
And yet, there remain huge demographic pockets within India where people read, write and think in languages other than English. In other words, these are potential markets still untapped by big international publishers. But not anymore. Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, Juggernaut and Bloomsbury are among the several major publishers in India who are now beginning to look beyond English, diverting significant resources and funds towards publishing translated as well as original content in various vernacular languages.
Oxford University Press (OUP), which has had a notable presence in India for over 100 years now, is looking to establish itself in this area in a big way. Sugata Ghosh, director of Global Academic Publishing at Oxford University Press, India, shares plans with Guardian 20. “The many conversations with students, teachers, scholars, researchers, public intellectuals, thinkers, friends, over the years have often and always indicated towards the lack of theory building in languages other than English,” says Ghosh. “While it is important to translate our books from English to Indian languages, it is equally important that we build knowledge systems in these languages itself. Without the free flow of resources from one language to the other, our thinking world will be sapped of creativity, vitality, energy, and most importantly diversity. The impact therefore on our readership, we hope, will be expansive and positive.” [For a more comprehensive interview with Ghosh on this topic, turn to page 27.]
It’s not as if top publishers haven’t attempted to crack the vernacular market in India previously. Sporadic attempts have been made in the past, with a handful of books brought out, say, in Hindi by some publishing brand headquartered in New York or London. But the way international publishers are opening up to vernacular languages now—not least the OUP—is something unprecedented.
Vivek Mehra, Managing Director and CEO, SAGE India, has set himself a goal of bringing out 15 books in vernacular languages in the coming year. He says, “We have been publishing translations for some time now and we have been approached to publish original content. The key to original publishing is being able to maintain SAGE’s standard of quality. For now, we are cautiously approaching new projects because we are still working through issues on quality assurance. In 2018 we have set ourselves a modest target of 10 new titles in Hindi, and about 5 in Marathi.”
Ten new titles in Hindi by SAGE. But aren’t enough books being brought out in Hindi already, by publishers who have been part of the Hindi-speaking world for decades now? How would the reader benefit if they buy books in Hindi from a multinational publishing house like SAGE? Mehra says, “While there are many publishers in regional languages, there are hardly any global ones. Even among the ones publishing in Indian languages, most are in fiction. We specialise in academic content. Here there is room for many more players to enter. Our strength lies in our content, our rigorous content management process, the reach and most of all our customer and author focus. We pay royalties diligently and ensure students and academics find value in our publishing.”
Juggernaut, the online publishing platform, launched in April 2015 by Chiki Sarkar, branched out in Hindi publishing in May this year, and has already brought out some 500 books in Hindi till now. “We are aiming to provide new contemporary voices in Hindi and run a professional publishing platform which will be a win-win for both the publisher and the author. The emphasis on good-looking covers, strong editorial support and good publishing practices will all be the hallmarks of our offering. We hope to stand out as a strong voice of contemporary India,” says Renu Agal, executive editor, Hindi, Juggernaut Books.
According to Agal, Juggernaut has recently released the last unpublished stories of acclaimed Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak, and is also working on his other books. Also, veteran author Mridula Garg’s Chittacobra is also available on the Juggernaut app. Both these books received tremendous response from the readers.
Juggernaut is also in a co-publishing agreement with various Hindi-language publishers, like Prabhat Prakashan, Diamond Books, Delhi Press and so on. Then there is the focus on books translated from English into other Indian languages. Agal is of the view that although there are more than enough practicing translators in India, very few are trained specialists of their craft. She says, “This is a resource which needs to be built up. But because the margins are low, the translators do not get paid as well. This does have an impact on the quality of the work. But we constantly try to get the best translators and pay them the best rates possible.”
Some of the biggest titles of Penguin Random House, which has partnered with Manjul Publishing, have now made it, as translations, into Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi. “We started the co-publishing partnership in 2016 and has expanded ever since,” says Vaishali Mathur, Head of Language Publishing and Rights, Penguin Random House India. In the same vein, Bloomsbury is now getting a raft of Harry Potter books—including Tales of Beedle the Bard, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—translated into Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Bangla, which shows how seriously international publishers in India are trying to cross Anglophone divide.
Yogesh Sharma, vice president, sales and marketing, Bloomsbury India, speaks to us about the price factor of books published in vernacular languages. “Prices are generally lower and the margins aren’t as good as they are for the English language titles. A significant part of the sale of the books in regional languages comes from tier-2 and tier-3 towns, so the prices need to be kept low,” he says.
Sharma also talks about the unorganised distribution channels in such towns, but also recognises an opportunity there. “The distribution channels in different regions are mostly unorganised and tough to crack, which has kept some publishers away from regional markets in the past. As sales through online platforms for both print and e-books consolidate, and national level distributors for the mainstream English language market increasingly recognise the opportunity in the regional language markets, major players are warming up to these markets too,” he says.
This year, several major publishing houses in metropolitan India have set out to explore the uncharted terrain of vernacular languages. Sharma says, “Earlier, for major international players, it [the engagement with vernacular languages] was all very sporadic, and generally limited to bestselling titles originally but has been much more focused for some in the last few years. Most publishers are facing challenging times in their core English language markets, and some see the regional markets as additional business opportunities.”
Satyanand Nirupam, editorial director, Rajkamal Prakashan, speaks about this emerging trend. According to him, “There have been few efforts by English language publishers in the past but it didn’t work out quite well. But I am hopeful that this new step where considerable attention is been given to Hindi and other Indian languages, will create new challenges. We take it as a positive step. But it is essential that there should be a proper team for this endeavour. It is likely that through careful understanding of vernacular markets and the buyers’ psychology, the attempt will be a successful one.”
An interview with Vaishali Mathur, Head of Language Publishing and Rights, Penguin Random House India
Q. How do you determine which books should be translated? Similarly, how would you shortlist which manuscripts ought to be made into a book in terms of original content?
A. There are certain authors like Devdutt Pattanaik, Ram Guha, Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murthy and many more who write in English but have and huge following in the language market as well. We bring to the language reader our biggest and most read authors and titles. Besides this our list is composed of a fair mix of genres and titles that we or the language publisher feels would work in the market. For instance, the self-help books do very well in the regional space as do home remedies.
Q. What is it that’s constantly pulling all the major publishers, including Penguin, towards vernacular languages? Why this sudden trend?
A. This is not a sudden trend. Penguin has been in the market for more than a decade now. We strongly work on the belief that there is much to be gained from translations. It is a literary exchange from which all benefit. And I strongly feel that this will only grow.
Q. Could you talk about your co-publishing initiative with Manjul Publishers? Will Manjul provide their own translators? How do you plan to ensure the quality of the books translated?
A. Manjul Publishers are very well known publishers of translations and original books. Our relationship with them is now more than a year old. We take a call on books to be published jointly. Thereafter offers are made and the books are put on schedule. The translations and quality checks happen at both ends to ensure proper standards. This gives the authors the best of both worlds.
Q. Tell us about publishing original content in Hindi and other vernacular languages? Are you looking to expand into this area in the near future?
A. The idea is to publish the best in languages or original. For instance, we have done Devlok 1 with Devdutt Pattanaik in Hindi taking the transcriptions from the TV series. This is in collaboration with the Epic channel and the book has been the number-one seller for the past year, since its publication. Of course we are looking at growing this initiative, and we are looking forward to initiating more projects in the future.
Q. Please share with us the names of some of your prominent titles which have been translated or are going to be translated into languages other than English.
A. From best-selling romance author Ravinder Singh’s This Love that Feels Right to Aarushi, we have aneclectic mix of titles and genres. We have published Sonali Bendre’s Modern Gurukulin Marathi. We also have Ruzebh N Bharucha’s spiritual fiction Rabdain Hindi and Marathi, Ruchir Sharma’s Rise and Fall of Nations in Hindi. Dial D for Donby Neeraj Kumar in Hindi, Kiss of Life by EmraanHashmi in Hindi and many more. We now have almost all of Devdutt Pattanaik’s books that have been published by Penguin in Hindi and some in Marathi as well. The big sellers are Jaya and Sita. Book of Ram has been brought out in Hindi and it will be out in Marathi soon.