"Look, ma, another language!"

Responses by Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers
to Joeanna Rebello Fernandes for the article in Crest, The Times of India, September 2011

Joeanna: Tulika books is a pioneer in the bilingual book space. Could you please tell us when and why Tulika decided to explore this space?
Radhika: We started from the very beginning. Tulika’s first two books were bilingual – Line and Circle and Number Birds. We got into publishing with a firm commitment to multilingual books and were excited by the concept of bilingual books. Why? Because we were Indian publishers, publishing primarily for Indian children who grow up in a multilingual environment and speak more than one language very naturally. This was back in 1996 when publishing for children was itself very nascent, and what we did what was most unusual. There were many naysayers and doomsayers at the time, and the response in the market was discouraging too, but we believed in it and stayed with it.

J: What are the kinds of ideas that Tulika wanted to explore with the bilingual books? What was the approach taken to create a bilingual book and how does one decide what is translatable?
R: We didn’t have a specific ‘line of ideas’ when we started our bilingual books. They evolve from regular picture book ideas. However, the ones that lend themselves best to bilingual books, we feel, are the simpler ‘concept’ books, with little text – where the idea is more important than the way the story is told.

We think bilingual books are a great way to learn languages. With that in mind we try to ensure that the two languages on the page are as close as possible to each other, almost literal, so you can follow one through the other. And that works best when the text is simple and straightforward. In fact, we consciously edit the text so that it works bilingually – and though the English text is the one that’s common to any title, even that is adjusted slightly to suit each of the languages it is translated into.

Where the language is idiomatic and the story is told in a storytelling kind of way, where simplifying the text would spoil the flavour or fun, we do single language translations, not bilingual. This is not to say, of course, that our bilingual books aren’t enjoyable! They are, and are very popular!

After doing so many of them, we tend to know instinctively when a manuscript that we like will work bilingually. Having said that, it’s still a big challenge to do bilingual books. We probably work harder with those than with single language translations – sitting with the translators and going over every line, trying to ensure that the translation is as close as possible without losing the natural flow and syntax of either language. Visually too, we have to alert the illustrator to the fact that there will be text in two languages on every page or doublespread, so the pictures have to be composed accordingly.

J: Could you please tell us a bit about some different titles that you have published? How many bilingual titles do you have?

R: We have 42 bilingual titles so far, in English-Hindi, -Tamil, -Malayalam, -Kannada, -Telugu, -Marathi-, -Gujarati and -Bangla. These are the usual languages we publish in, sometimes an extra language or two. English is common to all.

Some are regular picture books, just that they are bilingual. Some are part of a series, such as ‘Panchatantra’. Or in sets, such as the wildlife books (Baby Beboo Bear, Lai-Lai the Baby Elephant, etc.) that are stories about animals and come with photographs.

‘Imagine Words’ is a new-ish series of bilingual word books. They encourage vocabulary building in a more straightforward way, with ten words to a page in two languages around a particular theme. But there is nothing straightforward about the words themselves, or the pictures – they actively encourage the child’s imagination to think differently! The idea is for children to use the given words and spin their own stories with them, which are quite likely to be wacky – and fun!

J: Besides Indian languages Tulika has also expanded into publishing bilingual books in foreign languages. Could you tell us how that happened?
R: Tulika’s very first book, Line and Circle, was picked up by a UK publisher and translated into 21 languages including Albanian, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Somali and Portuguese. There have been others since then – for example, My Mother’s Sari, which went into 17 languages including Chinese, Farsi, Spanish, Polish and Serbo-Croat. Closer home, Takdir the Tiger Cub was the first to be published in Nepali by us because of the author’s Nepal connection, and a publisher in Nepal has recently taken Miaow! in Nepali and is interested in more.

The world is becoming increasingly multicultural and publishers everywhere are waking up to that. Stories are a wonderful way of crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries. Our bilingual books have a playful approach to language learning and have proved very successful in both conventional and non-conventional settings. To see a familiar language in a book that looks interesting encourages a child to pick it up and try reading in the unfamiliar language as well.

J: I am guessing that the Hindi bilingual books are very popular but which are the other Indian languages where you have received a favourable response?

R: Yes, our English-Hindi bilinguals are by far the bestselling language combination. But the English-Kannada, English-Tamil and English-Marathi do quite well too. And almost every day we receive mails from schools, libraries and NGOs involved with primary education showing interest in one or other of the languages – so the future is promising!
J: What age group are the books targeted at? Why is it that most of the bilingual books are essentially picture books?

R: The books say 3+ but that is only a general guide. They can be read aloud to children below 3, showing them the pictures. Slightly older children who can read one of the languages comfortably (say, English) could start learning the other language with these books – a good way to learn second/third languages in school. We’ve even had foreigners (adults) who want to learn one of the Indian languages asking for the books. So, age no bar.

Bilingual books are essentially picture books because they share the same principle as single language picture books. They make reading easier, because they have little text and you follow the pictures while reading. Also, pictures make it more interesting and less intimidating. Think of reading a page full of text when you’re just learning to read, in any language…!

J: How do you think bilingual books help grab a child's attention and also enhance hisher reading skills? How do they promote literacy?

R: Any well produced picture book will grab a child’s attention. The plus point of Tulika’s bilingual books with regard to reading skills and literacy is that close attention is paid to them especially with this in mind. The language is accessible – we use language children hear (not what they get in classroom textbooks) so they can relate to it and it is easy to understand. The sentence structures are simple. There is very little text on a page, so it is encouraging for a beginner reader/learner, not intimidating. If one of the languages is already familiar, it becomes a guide, a tool, to learning the other. The visuals attract the child to the book and give a story feel, so that the experience of learning is enjoyable.

J: There are very few people working in this space in India and given our multicultural society and inherent bilingual aptitude what more do you think can be done to promote these books?
R: We find it strange that in our richly multicultural, multilingual country, multilingual books have only just begun to be taken seriously. But at least it has, and the more it is written about the more the awareness that will be created! We’ve been in it from the start because we’ve always believed in it, and have carved out a market for it by just continuing with it and making our books available.

Marketing and promotion has in fact been the challenge. The response from the normal retail network is inadequate. We’ve handled it is by building up a network of alternative distribution channels – NGOs, government agencies and regional co-publishing, apart from the IPDA (Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives) which is a distribution agency specially set up by a group of publishers (including Tulika) needing focused marketing. People have to see the books to buy them, so you have to think of ways of taking the books to them. The newest ways, of course, are ebooks and apps, which we have also got involved with.

Our books are now regularly bought in bulk for reading literacy programmes, and their success promotes them. Today there are probably more Tulika titles in government school libraries than in private school ones and what has been most rewarding is that the same books that find their way to government school libraries in different languages have also won international acclaim and been published in other countries.

J: Do you find that children today are forgetting their mother tongue? How does one revive the love for languages?

R: Given our colonial past and the prevalence of English globally, children are indeed getting distant from the mother tongue – in urban India. Interestingly, there is simultaneously a reverse trend among an increasing number of urban parents who are aware of this and take an extra interest in reading to their children in the mother tongue, especially among NRIs. The way to go is, we believe, to do what we’ve been doing – making attractive books in Indian languages available to children, as attractive and interesting as the English ones. But also, parents have to encourage and participate.

Our latest book, Oluguti Toluguti, is a multilingual collection of Indian rhymes – 54 rhymes in 18 Indian languages, in the original script, transliterated to English and Hindi (so you get the pronunciation), and also in creative English translations that retain the general sense and rhythm of the original. We hope children will now grow up with these rather than Humpty Dumpty, get comfortable with mother tongue and other Indian languages right from the start, and move on to reading picture books in their mother tongues!

Read the article at http://www.timescrest.com/life/look-ma-another-language-6228