Dispatch from Diggi Palace: The Politics of International Publishing

But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men serve rotis.

“Voice of Rajasthan,” exclaims Zee News, a right-wing national news channel and the official sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), over and over again from big, bright roadside billboards. As I ride from the Jaipur airport to Diggi Palace, I am reminded of the commercial scale of this event. Formerly a royal palace, the venue now services a different kind of royalty as a heritage hotel and the site of the tenth JLF in the capital city of Rajasthan. Paradoxically, it is this corporate sponsor, which recently made headlines for telecasting fake news, that enables the participation of a panel of Rajasthani Dalit writers, among other lesser known writers such as Kashmiri poet Naseem Shafaie, Rajasthani writer and critic Geeta Samaur, and Odia translator Jatindra K Nayak. It also renders JLF the world’s largest free event of its kind, according to the official website. But as the Dalit writers discuss their literature and politics, turbaned working class men (Rajasthan is notorious for its discrimination against women) unaware of such a panel, serve rotis, providing the silk-clad speakers and delegates with an “authentic” and exotic Rajasthani-Indian experience. These servers aren’t invited to attend the panel on “Cultural Appropriation” either. I eat rotis off their tongs all five days. In a hurry to catch a beloved writer or a publisher “contact” at the lunch table and pushed by the impatient hungry guests, I don’t stop to ask what the turbaned roti-makers think of all this. I collude as well, to appropriate their stories and voices.

Jaipur BookMark (JBM) is a B2B event that focuses solely on translation. In this glitzy literature festival, translation finds a spot for the third-year running and Asymptote Editor-at-Large for India, Poorna Swami, and I, are at JBM to represent the journal. The B2B format asks that the speakers pay for their travel and accommodation, as opposed to the main JLF event. We camp with a generous family friend in the suburbs, but are still of a class that can afford flight tickets. Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books would later rue this lack of funds in one of the panels, but not without asserting that some voices simply must be recorded and made available to the wider audience, even if it means waiting a long while before some of these books see the dingy light of a printing press.

Far from the madding crowd dressed in their winter festival best, right at the entrance to Diggi palace but unnoticeable, and covered by at least three security guards at all times, is the JBM venue. On a quaint terrace, it’s exclusive to invitees—translators, publishers, and writers. As one eager member of the audience fights to be let in, the Festival Producer Sanjoy Roy, who happens to be passing by, waves her in with a welcoming hand. The tame audience, hovering between ten and thirty, reveals that not many others have come upon such serendipitous generosity. The recurring few participate in enriching discussions over five days—on the politics of translation; the difficulty and the joy of it; and the omniscient complaint of abysmal funds and supporters, despite the obvious necessity for literary translations in an ever divided world.

The sessions go beyond India, although are predictably dominated by writers from the festival’s home country. Spoken Word Poets from Nepal, Ujjwala Maharjan and Yukta Bajracharya perform their poems on “privilege,”—beautifully idiosyncratic in a panel on “Trends in Media and Publishing” (where Asymptote is presented by Swami and me). Assistant Editor of La.Lit magazine Prawin Adhikari sits alongside Swami in a session where ten panelists each present their list of ten must-read books in translation from South Asia. Welsh-German writer and translator Eluned Gramich runs out of time while passionately narrating the history of the Welsh language but not before pointing out the oddity that more Welsh books are available in translation in Germany than in Wales. There are two separate panels on European literature, one of which is focused on Spain, with the international participation reflecting the global concerns that plague translation.

“Politics of Literary Translation” is one of the most well attended sessions, with people overflowing onto the balconies and out the door. The ambitious panel has eleven speakers present what each sees as the current political issue in literary translation. Although they are unable to discuss their concerns at length, it serves as a good touchstone for conversations that will haunt the translation community for a long time to come—the supremacy of English in literary translation and the myth of unlimited digital access that privileges English; the trend of publishing houses seeking either male, metafictional, postmodern voices, or writers from the third world that showcase “poverty porn”; and the sad reality that translations are being passed off as originals to encourage sales.

Despite the overwhelming criticism of the state of translation and especially of literary translation, the platform also brings together wonderful translation initiatives, including one that a few panelists at the JBM have devised: Yali. Deriving its name from an Indian goddess fashioned from various animal parts, symbolic of the act of translation, the India-based organization will be a platform for translators to come together and a source of support and guidance for young and upcoming translators. Kannada writer Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar will be translated into six Indian languages as part of its India in Translation Year, five of them expected to come out in 2017. Most of the translators will be working from Srinath Perur’s English translation of the book, acknowledging that the once prevalent exchanges between Indian languages are being increasingly mediated by English.

JBM also manages to integrate translation events in the main program of JLF, boasting of panels with eminent translators, writers, and publishers such as Deborah Smith—translator of the Man Booker Prize–winning-novel The Vegetarian and publisher of Tilted Axis Press; Sinha—translator and curator of the niche Seagull Books; and Arshia Sattar—translator, writer, and co-director of Sangam House.

It is heartening to be in the audience of some of these well-attended panels on translation at the main festival, with young and aspiring translators full of optimistic questions on the process and prospects of translation. Smith and Sinha command an eager audience as they discuss the economics of translation (quite dire), their charming but difficult entrées into the world of translation, and the native and non-native relatability to a language, in a panel aptly titled “Translators: Center Stage”, moderated by JBM’s orchestrator and Yatra Books’ publisher, Neeta Gupta.

Also at the main festival are Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Imayam, with publisher Kannan of Kalachuvadu serving as an interpreter. Translation finds its way into the festival as it is lived and experienced, beyond the important but cloistered world of literary translation. Murugan, who declared himself to be dead as a writer when his freedom of expression was threatened after the publication of his controversial book Madhorubagan (published in English as One Part Woman), points out that many translators live abroad and hence misunderstand the nuances in language that only a local can distinguish; the question of nativity and non-nativity and the problem of accurate representation transcends a specific panel.

I get testy when loud music from the central, open food court interferes with a poetry session at the Mughal Tent, but I check myself. Poet Kate Tempest’s recitation soars above the music. Festivals like this can sometimes be democratising. Displacing literature from the sanitised echelons of academia to return it to the chaos of the world is certainly an act of democratisation, whether performed intentionally or not. The silence of residencies and libraries, or even of one’s own room, is a luxury that the majority are denied. JLF serves as a good reminder of this privilege.

Janani Ganesan is an Assistant Managing Editor for Asymptote. Previously, she was a Correspondent for Tehelka magazine, Delhi and worked at Verso Books, New York. She has a Masters in Liberal Studies from The New School, New York.


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