Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gaining in translation: Mita Kapur and Siyahi

Just a pointer to Siyahi, a new literary consultancy founded by Mita Kapur, who has done a fine job of organising and overseeing the Jaipur Literature Festival for the past three years. Mita told me recently that the mission of the new project is to bring literature in regional languages to the forefront by ensuring cross-language translations globally. The genesis of Siyahi was her many interactions with discontented Indian writers. “Every time I spoke to writers from languages other than English,” she says, “there was a sense of discontent – invariably they felt they hadn’t been represented well enough in the mainstream.”

The Jaipur festival itself has made a conscious effort to incorporate writers from around the country, but there can only be limited results at an event attended largely by people whose first language is English. Besides, in a country as vast as India – connected more by English than by any other single language – it becomes all too easy for pockets of insularity to form, denying readers of one region the chance to savour the literature of another: as Mita points out, the average reader in Gujarat or Rajasthan would not even have heard of a major Malayalam writer like O V Vijayan, much less had access to his work. Those of us working on the literary beat for English-language media are always aware that there's a huge lacuna in our understanding of Indian literature, that what we get to experience and write about is only the tip of a very large iceberg, since there is little or no access to high-quality translations of work in other languages.

“I felt more needed to be done in terms of giving regional languages a chance to compete on an equal footing,” Mita says. Hence Siyahi, which is intended as a forum for authors, poets, researchers, translators and publishers.
The next five years will see the consultancy facilitate the publication of 10 to 12 books each year through mainstream publishers, nationally and internationally. They have signed up two writers, Sampurna Chattarji and Karthika Nair, with Harper Collins, and have also begun work on translation. (One of the books is Kissa-e-Rangeen Guftaar, a hand-written Urdu novel by Ajmat Ullah Niyaj Dehli, first published in 1817, which is being translated into Hindi and later, possibly, into English as well.) They are also tying up with publishers in the South.

To provide a platform for writers and publishers, Sihayi will have literature-based events in the form of festivals and seminars. A keynote event will be the “Translating Bharat” conference, to be held in Jaipur in January, just before the literature festival. Since Translating Bharat will take place on January 21 and 22, and the regular fest will follow from the 23rd to the 27th,
the authorities have decided to call it the Jaipur Literature Week. Highlights will include a session on the North-Eastern languages, including a Mizo reading (the audience will be given papers with an English translation), a dastaangoi enactment by Mahmoud Farooqui and a performance of “Kabir ke Dohe” by singer Tipaniya ji (who, Mita notes regretfully, has performed in the US but never before in Jaipur – despite being Rajasthani).

Mita spends much of her time these days traveling with her laptop, arranging meetings with publishers, authors and potential translators, or having prolonged online discussions with her co-directors and editors, and she looks appropriately frazzled through it all, but she also admits that Siyahi was born out of “laughter and insanity”. Her original name for the consultancy was the tongue-in-cheek “Rejection Note” (a reference to the predicament of many promising regional-language writers, whose manuscripts good publishers often don’t have time for) before deciding to change it to something more austere. She’s pragmatic too, knowing that nothing will get done in a hurry. “We’ll have to build things up gradually,” she says. “For instance, I want translations to be of a very high quality – which hasn’t historically been the case in India – so I’m looking at samples of 2-3 chapters before hiring anyone.” Siyahi will also consider drawing up separate contracts for translators, rather than paying them on a measly Rs 1-2 per word basis, which she believes has the effect of encouraging assembly-line work.

Do keep an eye out for details of the Translating Bharat conference in January – they should be available online soon. And Mita Kapur's contact details are here.

[Some posts about the past two editions of the Jaipur Literature Festival: 1, 2, 3, 4]


  1. I'm sorry - this rant has *nothing* to do with siyahi but ever since i started scouting the net for that column of gary kirsten (we kissed the earth on landing back in SA) ,I seemed to come across your blog http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2006/01/boy-in-bubble.html

    So, i hope you dislike GK's possible elevation as much as I do and if you can ferret out that India diatribe of his and post it, I promise to visit your blog each day and read every single post ;-)

  2. Ambik: I don't remember the column you're talking about - was it about returning to SA after some match-fixing interrogations in India, or a general series loss/encounters with bottle-throwing spectators like in 1996? To be honest, at this point I'm not interested enough in Indian cricket to worry about the pros/cons of GK being coach. Besides, I'm not convinced that the issue of who is coach has a big bearing on the team's performance anyway (unless there's serious personal friction between the coach and some of the players, as happened with Chappell).

    But yes, Kirsten was not among my favourite cricketers in his playing days, to put it very mildly.

  3. I don't understand how somebody can raise the topic of Kirsten , when the discussion is about Indian Literature in regional languages. The topic is more profound than a Dour, cranky South African.

    Anyway the Indian team is doing brilliantly since that old buffoon called 'Chappell' left with a 'Chappal' on his face. We don't have an official coach but are doing well due to Venky and Robin putting in their honest effort and thinking about the team than gathering headlines.

  4. KIRSTEN’S 1996-97 INDIA TOUR DIARY Published in the December 1996-January 1997 issue of SA Cricket Action . Cheers. Ambik

  5. "(One of the books is Kissa-e-Rangeen Guftaar, a hand-written Urdu novel by Ajmat Ullah Niyaj Dehli, first published in 1817, which is being translated into Hindi and later, possibly, into English as well.) "
    Why should an Urdu novel be translated into Hindi? Strange.
    Rajkamal publications has done a fantastic job over the years in transliterating urdu books in devnagri and providing meanings of difficult words.

  6. Why should an Urdu novel be translated into Hindi? Strange.

    Rahul: I didn't get it. What's strange about that? Incidentally, the book in question is a very old work that isn't currently available in any other language.

  7. I am having almost similar discussions for the organisation of an Indian Literature event in Italy in January'08 where I am trying to convince that there is literature beyond the well known Indian writers who write in English. I am glad for Syahi and hope that they grow and proliferate.

  8. Doesn't Katha already do the same thing as this new initiative? And what about all those Sahitya Akademi translations? Not that there is anything wrong with multiple efforts in the same field. Perhaps the older efforts just need to be marketed better.

  9. Jai,I am not making the case that Urdu and Hindi are same languages. But,transliterated Urdu with the help of a dictionary,if required,should be fairly accessible to a Hindi speaker.
    Besides,there is always the danger of the translation going overboard towards using Sanskritized Hindi.

  10. Thanks for the heads-up.
    Have sent her a sample story.

    Rejection letters make a zing! sound when they bounce.

  11. hi please i will like to know if you take works from Nigerian authors. i am a new nigerian author, my book is a children , teenager's book. but i am looking for a publisher. thank you.