Responses by Deeya Nayar, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
to questions from Joeanna Rebello Fernandes for the article in The Times of India, Chennai, April 2015

Joeanna: You said the jumping-off point for the project was the folktales. What made Tulika take this leap of faith and publish in the native languages in addition to English? 

Deeya: We’d identified these two very charming folktales a long time ago, from a Verrier Elwin collection. When we decided to do them we were sure they had to be written up by people from the region, who’d be able to capture flavour – illustrators too, if we could find the right people. We are multilingual publishers, and in our sensibility it followed quite naturally to explore the idea of publishing in the local languages so children there could read a folktale from their own regions in their own languages. Provided, of course, that someone would distribute those copies for us, reaching it to those they were published for. Since we publish in nine languages anyway, adding two more wasn’t in itself a major leap of faith.

J: What challenges, big and small, did Tulika confront with this pioneering exercise?  

D: Marketing was the only ‘challenge’, really. We worked backwards – first found someone, and then went ahead with the translation. But yes, we did have to persevere with it.

Khasi was easier, because the author, Esther Syiem, put us in touch with a gentleman in Shillong who runs the Khasi Book Stall that is into promoting books in Khasi. And he was keen on taking on anything written by Esther, because she is a well known writer in both English and Khasi, though this was her first book for children. He even agreed to take the Arunachal folktale, translated into Khasi by Esther.

With Mishmi, there was a lot of enthusiasm among the people we were in touch with, but because this was going to be the first ever book to be published in Mishmi, it took a while longer for the whole thing to come through. We didn’t give up though. The author Mamang Dai (again, a well known writer) put us in touch with a group in Arunachal Pradesh who are trying to promote Mishmi, and who run libraries for children. One of them, Sokhep Kri, did the translation and had to liaise with CALSOM (the apex Mishmi cultural body) to give consent to distributing the books and to decide the script to be adopted (Roman or Devanagari). They settled on Roman finally. But there were no hitches as such. A lot of zeal from both translators!

J: I believe Tulika was the first publisher to commit Mishmi to text. The attempt could not have been without trepidation? Can you elaborate on how you went about it? 

D: No trepidation at all! We were very excited, and like I said, the only concern was to be sure someone local would take the books for distribution so it could reach children there.

An interesting fallout of doing the Mishmi version was that we discovered there were some important ‘changes’ in the Verrier Elwin story. He had called the girl ‘Hambrumai’ which means ‘floor mat’, whereas Sokhep said she should actually be ‘Hambreelmai’, hambreel being a kind of small fish (which connects with the idea of her flowing down the river later). ‘Mai’ is a usual suffix for female Mishmi names. The porcupine too changed from Elwin’s Hairum to Sheipung – sheipung is the actual word for porcupine, hairum means chameleon. Perhaps it goes to show the importance of engaging with the local language of the region. When they travel to other cultures, stories sometimes change or are misrepresented and that becomes the popular accepted version. It’s tricky. According to Prof. Ganesh Devy, who led the landmark People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Arunachal has the highest number of languages (not dialects), and even Mamang, who though from Arunachal is not Mishmi, didn’t notice the problem with these two words. Opens up one’s mind, when you deal with languages – quite fascinating!

J: Why not go bilingual with these titles?  

D: Our bilingual books are used a lot for language learning, so we like the two languages to be as close as possible in meaning to each other. This can only happen if the text is very, very simple. So concept books work better, where the flow of language, the writing or telling of the story, isn’t so important. For ‘story’ books we have to allow for freer translation, whatever works best in the language – they can’t follow the original with the same precision because they wouldn’t read well. They also have a lot more text, and it would look clumsy to have two large chunks of text on the same spread.

J: Is it the publisher's long-term aim to publish in more regional languages? Is there a market for them? 

D: Tulika’s primary programme when it started in 1996 was to publish multilingual children’s books. We started off with five languages, and grew to nine. Clearly, languages excite us! We’d be happy to expand, but the main deterrent is marketing. It always has been, but we’ve hung in there and it’s picked up, in some languages. We’ve done other languages from time to time against specific requirements – in Odia, Nepali, and recently in Mundari (a tribal language of Jharkhand). There may be a market for all the other languages, but to access it isn’t easy. We don’t have that kind of reach on our own. But always happy to partner someone who can.

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