As the Crow Flies

Translations into several languages allow infusions from the original language so that the stories resonate with the sounds of different languages…” In the aftermath of the Excellence in Literary Translation Initiative award at the London Book Fair, some thoughts – May 2020


As the Crow Flies

Interview with Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers
by Radhika
Holmström for the ITI Bulletin of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, UK, May-June 2020


RH: Tulika has been running for 24 years now, and you’ve seen considerable acclaim since then, including the Literary Translation Initiative Award at last year’s London Book Fair. Could you tell us a little about the languages you publish in, and the kinds of books you produce?

RM: We cover a range of genres, but we focus on multilingual picture books for children – in English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. Around 15% of these are in two languages. Translations into several languages allow infusions from the original language so that the stories resonate with the sounds of different languages. And the books are richly visual too, with a very wide range of images and pictures, from the traditional to the contemporary.

When we started in 1996 we wanted to publish books that reflected a contemporary Indian sensibility and a whole range of children’s experiences in India today, bringing into focus different childhoods, different social milieus, and different cultures. The first books we published were bilingual books because the way we saw it was that most children in India grow up hearing different languages all around them, all the time. This was a way of giving equal primacy to the children’s own languages in an environment in which English was fast assuming superiority, given our colonial legacy.


RH: And English is also a language which many middle-class people (including my own Indian family) speak at home.

RM: Yes. Many children go to English medium schools, and indeed many speak English at home. My grandchildren are spoken to and speak in English because all of us adults grew up with English as our first language! English is now seen and accepted as an Indian language, and it’s amazing how many English words are used in different Indian languages and is accepted as the part of its vocabulary. So it is part of the reality and experience of a large section of children.

As editors, we are primarily English-speaking, and we realise the implications of this too. But we believe that multilingual books reflect the connectedness of regions, languages and cultures while retaining distinctive voices.


RH: For people living outside India, it’s always striking just how multilingual almost every Indian person is. There’s also an increasingly wide range of literature in different languages. Does children’s literature vary depending on the language it’s written in?

RM: The kind of content, the tone and style does vary. Very often books in regional languages lack a contemporary sensibility. In some cultures, writing for children always has a very didactic tone even in stories that deal with contemporary themes and issues. In fact, we have realised that the concept of a picture book which is profusely illustrated and has short, simple text is not natural to many languages.

Of course there are great exceptions, and we are always looking for them. We have translated writers like Mahasweta Devi from Bangla, Paul Zacharia from Malayalam, Asokamitran and Ambai from Tamil, Kamla Bhasin from Hindi, and P. Anuradha from Telugu.


RH: Does that have implications for translation?

RM: Children’s writers in the different languages play around a lot with language but it is kind of frowned upon while translating, Hindi being an exception. It is a second language for a lot of people across the country as it was adopted as the national language post independence, and the huge popularity of Hindi cinema and Hindi songs mean many people are familiar with the language even if they’re not fluent. As a result there has always been more open-mindedness about translating into Hindi, and less resistance to the creative use of the language while translating. 

Some languages do throw up specific issues on top of that. In Tamil, for instance, spoken language is very different from the written, so when translators use the formal written form of the language it can be particularly difficult for young readers.


RH: One thing that has also struck me is that interpreting and translation in India is a continual, dynamic process. It’s something people do without thinking, often every day, as they move between different languages. Does that have any knock-on effect on how people think about translation for children, which is considered quite a specialist area in, say, the UK?

RM: At the moment there certainly is a general feeling that all you need to translate children’s books is some competence in the source language. Many people overlook the creativity needed to retain the tone and style of the original while at the same time making it sound natural in the translated language. However, I think perceptions are changing and translating children’s books is being taken more seriously largely because of publishers like Tulika and some of the NGOs which publish in several languages.

The other problem is that many translators don’t have the exposure to or experience of picture books that many English readers take for granted. We often tell our translators to read it aloud and see if it sounds natural in their language. It surprises us how even the experienced translators don’t see the need to do this. Sometimes when they run into problems, we give them another language version as it is closer to the language they are working in rather than the English. That’s when you realise the cultural distance between English and Indian languages and why the translations sound literal.

Then there is the whole issue of the ‘purity’ or the correctness of the language, notions of which are often far more rigid with the Indian languages. There is often resistance to use colloquialisms, because they’re seen as incorrect and a corruption of the language; and the same with using English terms that are widespread in every language. There is a view that we should use the correct translation even if it is hardly ever used in everyday language. This is mainly because of the Indian perception that children read books to learn a language and for knowledge! I feel it is important that when children read less and less in their own languages they should feel comfortable reading in it and not feel distanced by formal language.


RH: You’ve also said elsewhere that ‘Translation has its own problems. There is always the politics of a language, with issues of caste and class and gender all intertwined. We are constantly grappling with these problems’. Could you explain this a little more?

RM: In India, language reflects hierarchical issues like gender, caste and class biases. For instance, many languages don’t have a term for ‘human being’: it is either man or woman (and not surpisingly, it is usually man!). And ‘farmer’ is always male even though so many women do farming. Names of professions are also caste related. So using the term for professions like washerman/washerwoman or barber immediately signals the caste that person comes from too. The problem is that many Indian translators, those for children especially, do not see a problem with doing this, whereas writers and editors working in English are much more aware of the politics of language.


RH: Do you decide which languages to translate each book into, or that some books won’t work in specific languages?

RM: If a text can be translated into one Indian language, it usually works in all the languages. When we decide that certain texts won’t work in translation, we don’t translate them at all. When we select manuscripts, translatability is a criterion we look for. It is not just about the language but also the story itself, and how relatable children will find it.

For instance, we did a book in English called What makes me ‘me’, about a little boy thinking about his nuclear family, the things he likes, food he doesn’t like to eat, his favourite things, and so on. Many of the concepts were very urban and class related. In translation some of these would seem almost alien to the readers the books would go to. Our books in the Indian languages by and large go to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, whose experiences of the world are very different. This is something we are always sensitive to.


Sometimes we really like a book but realise it will not work in translation, as the language itself is so rooted in the regional cultural context that something very intrinsic to the stories gets lost when translated into English. I don’t think this would be such a problem with writing for adults, but in children’s books the challenge is to make children enjoy the story for what it is – story, language, pictures – and feel comfortable reading them.


RH: Are there areas you’d like to develop – and where do you see yourselves going from here?

We’ve also done books in just one Indian language, like an alphabet book or a poem. It opened up so many possibilities – using word play, fun use of typography and so on in a way we can’t when there multiple translations. It was liberating! The play with words and typography also works subliminally, as a way of giving a language status. We try and do this as much as possible but at the moment the software and design industry is largely geared to English, and the romanised languages.

Ideally a multilingual publishing house like ours should have different editorial and design departments for different languages, but we don’t have the wherewithal for this. What we do have is a deep interest, passion and commitment to multilingual children’s books which means we work twice as hard in every area – editing, designing, production, marketing and distribution!

Staying with our convictions and continuing to publish in nine languages against all the odds has been an enriching experience. We hope to discover and publish more books from different languages into English, as these are the books that best reflect cultural and linguistic diversities of the India that our children grow up in.

The challenge is always to translate a book in a style of language that children hear and speak. This is more accepted now: we have come a long way since the early years! I am sure that the day will come when we translate more and more from other Indian languages and we have translators who understand and respond to the demands of translating for children.