Interview: Rashmi Dhanwani, coauthor, The India Literature and Publishing Sector Study commissioned by British Council – ‘Resources for translators are scant.’

ByChintan Girish Modi
Mar 12, 2022 01:03 AM IST

On the challenges of making literature written in Indian languages more widely available to international English-speaking readership

Rashmi Dhanwani, Founder of the Art X Company, is one of three authors who worked on The India Literature and Publishing Sector Study (December 2020 – May 2021). Commissioned by the British Council, the research project tries to understand the challenges of making literature written in Indian languages more widely available to international English-speaking audiences. The project report was released in February 2022. Dhanwani’s co-authors are Dr Padmini Ray Murray and Kavya Iyer Ramalingam.

Rashmi Dhanwani (Courtesy British Council)
Rashmi Dhanwani (Courtesy British Council)

What got you interested in working on this study?

The Art X Company has been conducting a range of research studies across various themes, locations and genres since 2015. We have built expertise in sector studies, impact analysis and audience research. Sustained research of this nature across the last six years has allowed us to develop a nuanced understanding of the local context, and the experience of working with international organisations has equipped us to deal with projects of magnitude.

For British Council, we have undertaken several research projects and over the years have developed an understanding of both the organisation’s positioning and project outcomes, as well its legacy in developing and supporting evidence-based projects. We have been privy to the British Council’s extensive work in the field of literature over the years, and when the chance to apply to tackle such a comprehensive topic as proposed by the British Council came along, we found ourselves aligned across synergies.

The opportunity to delve deeper into many of the challenges that publishing, and translation professionals have highlighted to us in the past, was exciting. Moreover, as cultural managers who work with local actors, we were aware of the missed potential of Indian literature in translation due to existing structural and systemic issues. We thus got interested in this study, hoping that it would be the much-needed gateway to seek insights to strengthen and support the publishing and translation sector in India.

Could you describe the nature of the collaboration between the British Council and the Art X Company, and the team that you assembled in order to meet your research objectives?

The Art X Company has a close working relationship with British Council. While all the fieldwork and report writing was undertaken by us, for this particular initiative, British Council was instrumental in connecting us to stakeholders in the UK who provided valuable insights for the research. The various stakeholders from within British Council such as Dr Rebecca Hart, Debanjan Chakraborthy, and Harrier Williams, among others, also participated in discussions and internal and external stakeholder consultations. They were also responsible for the final design, and dissemination of the report.

The core project team mainly consisted of a Project Lead (me), a Research Lead (Dr Ray Murray) and Research Assistants (Kavya Iyer). Each of these roles had distinct responsibilities to ensure that the project ran smoothly. While the Project Lead focused on the big picture, building contacts and driving timelines, the research team developed the research questions and processes, conducted, transcribed, coded and analysed all the data, culminating in the writing of the report. This project was supported by a team of research interns and consultants, including data analysts, who we brought on board for various phases of the study. A project of this nature in a complex cultural ecosystem like India is only possible to tackle with an able, sensitive and committed team and set of stakeholders – and we were fortunate to have had this magic combination in place!

How did you design the study, in terms of methodology, scope and timelines?

A mixed-methods approach was taken for this study consisting of a review of secondary data, focus group discussions (FGDs) and a large number of interviews. The research was divided into three phases: preparation and desk research; fieldwork (consisting of one-on-one interviews and FGDs); and finally, analysis and write-up, including a final focus group for feedback from key stakeholders.

The secondary research was important in two ways: for understanding the landscape which then aided the formulation of the interview questions, and to highlight existing initiatives and bolster the findings from the field.

The in-depth interviews were key in understanding the nuanced experiences from different kinds of stakeholders in the ecosystem while the Focus Group Discussions helped reflect on collective themes and share/debate ideas, problems and solutions.

While reviewing participants for the study, we ensured a balance of (priority) languages, geographies and media, while cutting through intersectionalities of gender, caste, scale, which enabled the study to include voices from across the spectrum of the sector. The project was originally planned for four-six months, but since the time the project was started, we have been through two devastating waves across both countries, not to mention, the impact of the waning of the previous wave. This did create certain challenges for us with respect to the timing of reaching the right respondents and the sensitivity of the situation at hand.

Moreover, there was a significant danger of these evolving circumstances impacting the absorption and articulation of responses to core research questions by the respondents of the study. An approach that was both rigorous and yet flexible to account for these evolving situations helped us navigate through most of these challenges.

What is your target audience for the report that you have published?

The target audience includes the publishing, translation and literature community in the country across all languages, regions and genres. It also hopes to reach important educational and skilling centres, government institutions, policy makers and think tanks who play a vital role in defining the ecosystem. It is also aimed at international (specifically British) publishers to help them understand and navigate the Indian context.

What are five of the key findings that emerged from this research?

The full study has detailed insights. These are just five of them.

1.On the publishing ecosystem: The nuances and modalities of publishing differ from language to language across India. These are further distinguishable from multinational companies operating in India, and the Indian, English publishing market in terms of marketing strategies, kind of books, relationships with bookstores, digital marketing etc.

2.On the translation ecosystem: While the translation of Indian literature into English, as well as translation between languages, have long-established traditions in India, resources for translators are fairly scant. Consequently, translation is considered less of a profession and more of an amateur undertaking or done out of “passion”.

3.About literature festivals: Unless a literary festival is single-language focused and not based in the major metros, it tends to be English-speaker centric, with little room for Indian language programming.

4.Perceptions of Indian literature in English translation abroad: There is a lack of awareness of what is available in translation from India, due to lack of proactive research, including a lack of knowledge with regards to the variety of languages and their literary outputs in India. Only niche publishers make a concerted effort to look beyond established perceptions.

5.Major skill gaps: In agenting, in formalised courses on translation and publishing, in marketing for international audiences, and a lack of a translator’s guild or association

To what extent are these generalizable? Which parts of India did you source data from?

The answer to this question is slightly nuanced. Some of the structural, institutional, access, skills and quality-related observations could be applicable to multiple languages and regions. On the other hand, the historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural diversity of a country like India, does play a significant role in defining the kind of opportunities, support systems, protocols and networks that exist within very language communities. This is underscored by the fact that the report has an entire section dedicated specifically to “language-specific insights”. The data has been sourced from ecosystem stakeholders belonging to the eight focus languages: Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. In terms of regions and cities, the priority areas identified were Assam (Guwahati), Delhi, Karnataka (Bengaluru), Kerala (Kochi), Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan (Jaipur), Tamil Nadu (Chennai), Telangana (Hyderabad), West Bengal (Kolkata), and the UK which included respondents from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What are some of the concrete, implementable recommendations that the literature and publishing sector could use from this study, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Some recommendations that can be implemented right away include:

1. The creation of a curated database of Indian literature available in English translation, and a showcase of such a database that could be accessed by agents, publishers and others interested in buying rights for the UK market

2. The creation of a forum for exchange between Indian and British publishers, which the British Council could facilitate because many Indian publishers, authors and agents mentioned that access to their counterparts in the UK was often a challenge

3. The execution of structured training programmes for translators (facilitated by various international cultural organisations or government institutes) which can help create spaces to discuss and brainstorm challenges faced, both with regards to the work of translation, as well as how to translate with a specific target audience in mind

The executive summary of the report is available in 12 languages. What is your dissemination/distribution strategy to reach people reading in these languages?

The dissemination strategy is led by two primary objectives:

1. The dissemination of the report “India Literature and Publishing Sector Study” to the wider public, particularly sector stakeholders

2. Engagement with sector stakeholders (publishers, translators, literary festival directors, and others), in order to inform them about upcoming activities, grants and programmes of British Council under the Literature and Publishing domain and potentially build deeper relationships for its programmes

In practice, this will involve curation and production of the soft launch for the report, and curation and production of discussions and roundtables in collaboration with festivals around different parts of the country which are happening in the next four months. We are planning for events at the Jaipur Literature Festival with the Jaipur BookMark, at the Kolkata Literary Meet, and at the Kerala Literature Festival. In addition, there’s a report release being planned at the London Book Fair in April.

How do the British Council and the Art X Company plan to take this work forward?

The Art X Company and British Council have partnered on many projects. We are glad to be working with an organisation such as British Council that is so dedicated to supporting and empowering the Indian creative economy and its creative professionals. The literary sector is a part of the larger creative economy, and our next important project is going to be the third edition of the Taking the Temperature report – with British Council and Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Taking the Temperature is a series of three reports to understand the impact of Covid-19 on India’s creative economy and guide policymaking for it. The first two editions assessed the initial and the deepening impact of Covid-19 on the creative sector, and the final edition aims to assess the impact of the pandemic over the past 18 months.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher.

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