Jaipur: Regional Indian authors hoping for more readers are abandoning their mother tongues to write in English, a trend that threatens the country’s rich polyglot literary tradition, experts say.
The only way authors, especially new ones, can be encouraged to keep writing in their own languages is if there is more translation of their works into English and other globally spoken languages, they say.
Translation of works written in local languages is needed as “an act of literary preservation,” said Namita Gokhale, a well-known Indian novelist and organiser of a literature festival in the northern city of Jaipur.
The country of 1.1 billion people “has a rich history of Indian literature that needs to be conserved,” Gokhale said at the week-long festival aimed at highlighting India’s hot literary scene.
“We’re going to lose it” without more translation, she said on the sidelines of the festival at the weekend.
With India a rising economic power, its literature has been propelled into the global spotlight and its English-language writers are stars, courted by publishers worldwide.
As a consequence, books in India’s vernacular languages are often ignored.
“The rest of the world thinks of Indian literature as being in English,” said Neeta Gupta, who publishes books in Hindi. “But there’s a vast array of regional literature out there and it’s not getting the same attention.”
Some 350 million Indians, and the number is growing continually as India aims to become the business back office to the world, are estimated to speak English as a first language or one of sometimes several tongues.
But India has 22 official languages recognised in its constitution, not counting English which has “associate” official status and is used for administration and in the courts.
These include the main official language Hindi, which counts 422 million mother-tongue speakers, and others such as Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, Manipuri, Telegu and Urdu.
There are also 100 other “mother tongues” spoken by 10,000 or more people, according to census data, and tens of thousands of dialects.
“Because people don’t think their works are going to be read, they’re skipping writing in their own language and writing in English,” said Cherrie Channgte, literature lecturer at Mizoram University in India’s northeast.
“Unless their work has a chance of translation into English, writing in local languages will start withering,” Channgte said.
“It’s already happening,” added Channgte, whose mother tongue is Mizo but who is equally fluent in English. “Mizo literature will vanish one day.”
There is also a big need for Indian works to be translated into regional languages to promote interaction and understanding in the hugely culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse country, experts said.
“Translation is how the cultures talk to each other,” said poet Temsula Ao, an English professor at Northeastern Hill University in Shillong, also in India’s northeast.
But a big hurdle in raising the profile of regional writers nationally and internationally is a need for good translators.
Also when regional works are translated into other local languages or global languages such as French, the versions are often taken from English translations.
“This means a lot of the original flavour gets lost,” said Marc Parent, foreign fiction editor at France’s Buchet-Chastel publishers.