Writers create national literature but translators create world literature.
Years ago, when writer Gurunath Naik wanted some of his Marathi fiction and non-fiction books translated into English, he approached a large pool of people, seeking help with his project. These included journalists, newspaper editors, Marathi teachers and others. Although some of them showed some interest, none followed through when they realized it would not be a profitable proposition. Naik’s wish remained unfulfilled. He passed away a few years ago, taking with him the dream of seeing the English version of at least one of his books. A prolific writer, his books are no longer available in the public domain.
It is the story of many Marathi writers seeking pan-Indian and international audiences for their books of fiction, non-fiction, biography, autobiography, short stories and poetry.
Marathi literature is a challenge for translators, especially into English, say editors who spoke with Outlook. The challenge is to retain the original idiom and express the meaning in a way that the reader of the translated work understands, they say. They also agree that Marathi literature is limited by geographical boundaries due to a lack of translations. “Unless the works are translated into English, the rich literature will not reach the global reader,” says Rohan Natekar, a freelance translator.
The Marathi publishing industry is unable to attract qualified translators as it is not commercially viable. Most translators are paid much less than copywriters. Random substitution of English words for Marathi words has become a textual irritant that often impairs the quality of translations, a source said. Also, translation from Marathi to English is not considered commercially viable by either publishers or retailers, as profits are low. Another major problem is the influx of low-priced books into the market, which has given literary titles fierce competition for shelf space in bookstores. Retailers consider that works translated into Marathi have a shorter shelf life due to lack of readers and lack of promotions for these works.
Popular comedian PL Deshpande, known as Marathi Wodehouse, had often said that his works would be the hardest to translate.
Internationally acclaimed painter and writer Prakash Bal Joshi laments the current state of the Marathi publishing industry. Talk to Outlook, he points out that translations cannot be a mechanical process. “The translator must be involved and must understand the original work, otherwise it cannot be done. When someone translates a poem, story, or other literary work, you are translating the people’s ethics, aspirations, and more. You are translating one culture to another,” says Joshi. According to him, translation is an important aspect to get to know people, their cultures, their beliefs, etc.
“Marathi literature has high standards. When you translate Marathi into another language, you enrich Marathi because the translated work will find new readers. Compared to other regional languages, there are fewer Marathi works translated into English. Marathi publishing is in a terrible state as it has to compete with digital publishing and e-books. When original Marathi literary works find no buyers, who will buy their translations? Joshi asks. His collection of short stories in Marathi, Prakash Bal Joshi Hyanche Kathahas been translated into English by Mirror in the hall. The original collection is also being translated into Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam and French.
Humor in Marathi is the hardest to translate, say many editors. Translators cannot find adequate English alternatives when translating puns, cultural background, proverbs and social references. “The essence of humor gets lost when you try to translate it,” says Natekar. One of the most popular Marathi comedians, PL Deshpande – known as Marathi PG Wodehouse – had often said that his works would be the most difficult to translate. Many have tried to translate Deshpande’s works but the results are disastrous. “I threw away a few books that were translated by a well-known translator. The attempt was dismal, with most of Pu La’s (Deshpande) humor completely lost,” says Deepali Rane, who works in a publishing house.
Yashodhan ‘Yeshu’ Patil, owner of Shabd Publication, has been publishing Marathi literature since 2004. Of the 150 titles published to date, three have won the Sahitya Akademi, while three others have received the Yuva Akademi award. Although his publishing house has published books by a number of well-known Marathi authors and poets, they are taking small steps in translating Marathi books into English and other regional languages. “It is difficult to translate Marathi into English or other languages, mainly because there are no good translators who are competent in both languages,” Patil tells Outlook. “The translated version must have a different life from the original, while keeping the essence intact. Translators are looking for a word-for-word translation, not the gist. Unless translators and authors talk to each other, it’s hard to get to the bottom of it,” he adds.
The editors deplore the skills of the existing translators, with few exceptions, and believe that they do not take their job seriously. “For a majority, translation is a secondary income. There is an urgent need for trained translators who will translate with the tone of writing in mind,” says another editor.
“In Marathi, there are gendered nouns like night, river, dawn and dusk, all of which are feminine, but when translated into English they become neuter. So much gets lost in translation,” explains the editor, who withdrew the translations because of the poor quality of the work. “It consumes time and money, and publication deadlines get out of hand,” adds the editor.
The first decade of 2000s was considered the golden age of the Marathi publishing industry. Many publishers have specialized in translated works and a number of Marathi books have been translated into English. Without a second thought, the publishers then released print runs of 2,000 to 3,000 copies per title, in the fiction and non-fiction categories. There were many book fairs held in big towns, cities and even smaller places, and people were buying Marathi books, including translations, a bookseller said. However, the last decade has seen the decline of the Marathi publishing industry, with demonetization, GST and Covid-19 slowing it down.
Internationally, some have taken up the challenge of promoting Marathi literature through translated works. Ian Raeside, a Marathi lecturer at the University of London, has translated a collection of modern short stories written by Gangadhar Gadgil, Arvind Gokhale, PB Bhave, Vyankatesh Madgulkar, DB Mokashi, DM Mirasdar, Maltibai Bedekar and others, titled The Rough and the Smooth. Raeside also translated the book Garambicha Bapu by SN Pendse as The wild Bapu of Garambi. Shubha Slee translated Kiran Nagarkar’s first book, Saat Sakkam Trechalisin English in 1995 and published it as seven six is forty threewhile Sudhakar Marathe translated Bhalchandra’s novel Nemade Kosla in English as Cocoon for Pan Macmillan India. Penguin India Released CrowfallShanta Gokhale’s English translation Tya Varshi.
“There must be an aggressive promotional strategy for translated works from Marathi to English, as it is the window of power to the world. The irony is that few Maharashtrians read Marathi literature,” says Joshi. Interestingly, the loss of readership of Marathi literary works has been a gain for Hindi literature in the Marathi-speaking world. “The emerging trend is that many Maharashtrians have shifted to reading Hindi literature and given the green light to Marathi. It also drives down the Marathi readership,” says Patil.
Many in Marathi literary circles point out that the Marathi departments of various universities in Maharashtra have failed to play the central role in helping the growth of Marathi literature and its translations into English. According to Marathi teacher Dr Aruna Rege, “Marathi departments should motivate students to undertake the work of translating Marathi literary works. Students need guidance and stimulation to get started,” Rege told Outlook. “If the rest of the country needs to watch literary works in Marathi, they need to be informed by translations. A demand must be created for translated Marathi literary works,” says Rege.
Currently, there is little funding for commissioning translators, so the field is unable to attract qualified translators. The main reason for the dwindling number of works translated from Marathi to English is that it is considered a “delicate area”, according to publishers. However, many non-Indian language books have been translated into Marathi, and they have had a better run than the original Marathi titles or translations into English or other regional Indian languages.
For those who have Marathi as their mother tongue and a functional command of English, translation into Marathi is possible. However, the pool of available translators with adequate English writing skills is not too impressive, the sources say. “The ongoing problem with translators is that they don’t have the creative skills to translate fiction, poetry, etc. It’s not just a word-for-word translation. Skills and specialist skills are rare,” says a well-known writer who was looking for a translator to publish his works in English.
“Editors don’t even care about translations. They are more concerned with selling the original. Marathi publishers need a bit more aggressiveness and sophistication in promoting our books,” adds the writer.
Although writers sought specific imprints for translated books, except for a small number, few publishers responded. “There is a bitter divide between English and regional writers. Unless Marathi writers and translators talk to each other, they will not be able to establish a rapport. The translator must understand the book, the story, the characters and its essence. Only then can the translation have a life of its own,” says Patil.
(This appeared in the print edition as “A Popular Refrain”)
Haima Deshpande in Bombay