Indian literature in Germany
The Statesman (Perspective) 26 March 2013
The dilemma of how to offer Indian literature to a sufficient number of readers in Germany has, for the time being, just one solution: the services of a small publishing house with a dedicated and knowledgeable person at the helm, writes Martin Kämpchen
The way in which the Indian book market continues to grow is breathtaking and also inspiring. It teaches us several lessons. One, India’s burgeoning middle-class finally develops a taste for reading. After it begins to tire of the lure of television, reading books and journals is again an option for spending quality time after office. Two, the much-hyped attraction of computers, of the Internet and the social-networks involves a massive number of people, but looking at the percentage of the computer-literate population in India, we will get only a one-digit figure, mainly because being computer-literate implies knowing English. Hence, the computer does not yet marginalise the reading habit (of books in Indian languages).
Looking at Europe, particularly at Germany, the situation is not nearly as hopeful; rather, it is grim. Recently, a commentator in the national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Andreas Platthaus, wrote that the German book-market is engaged in a “fundamental transformation which threatens its very existence”. The most destabilising influence is said to emerge from the Internet. Big global internet companies like Amazon offer to sell books and deliver them at your doorstep. You pay with your credit card, again via the Internet. It is simple, time-saving, also reasonably safe.
The Internet penetration of the German population is by far greater than in India. This has two effects. One, buying books requires just a few clicks; but two, the urge to read books has diminished. Computer games, DVD-films, social-networking, downloading music are so much more fun, aren’t they?
These Internet companies ask for large rebates from publishers, and they only offer “what sells”. Hence small and less competitive publishers market their products with ever more difficulties. Germany once prided itself having thousands of well-stocked bookshops with on trained staff who actually read the books they recommended to their clients. Hundreds of these bookshops have closed down and given way to big, impersonal supermarket-style bookshop chains which stack mainstream books and neglect the nîche publishers and less popular topics.
Considering this scenario, it is not surprising that India, especially Indian literature and culture, find it difficult to make their existence felt. Isn’t India well-known, well-loved, well-publicised in Germany? Doesn’t India enjoy a special cultural and emotional link with Germany? Yes, indeed. Yet, France and Italy, Greece and Spain, Scandinavia and Russia have stronger cultural and emotional ties with Germany. With a Europe growing together economically and through tourism, intermarriages, and exchange programmes starting from school-age, the attachment to Europe cannot compare with India. Due to this country’s colonial past, Indian pupils and students certainly learn more about Europe’s history, geography and social life, than we in Germany learn about India. Academic life in Germany is still largely Euro-centric, although this situation has remarkably improved because virtually every University student now spends some months or a year outside Europe for self-improvement, and many of them find their way to India to travel or to work with an NGO.
Even then, India as a country with an age-old and rich culture no more attracts the same romantic yearning that she did 200 years ago with the Romantics or 50 years ago with the Hippie and Flower Children generation. All said and done, India is too overwhelmingly complex, too multi-lingual, too difficult and confusing in many respects to receive the attention it deserves. When no sufficient natural attraction exists, the lovers of India and India herself must attempt to generate it. Aware of her global cultural importance, India should not be content that just a tiny segment of her literature is being translated into German. The literatures of China or Japan, and of small European countries like Italy and Spain are more adequately represented. Germany prides itself of publishing a maximum number of literary texts from other languages, by far more than, say, the USA. Yet, Indian literature is mostly represented by Indian novels in English. Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Amit Choudhuri, Kiran Nagarkar and a few others are known names, some of them have a regular fan-following like Amitav Ghosh who once told me that outside the anglophone market, his books sell best in German translation.
The constant complaint of Indian authors who write in Indian languages is that their books, no matter how excellent they are, never earn the national and international recognition that their colleagues publishing in English can garner. This is the picture in Germany as well. Apart from Rabindranath Tagore who else is translated from Bengali? Sunil Gangopadhyay (one novel), Alokeranjan Dasgupta (who has made Germany his home), Mahasweta Devi (several novels and stories), Buddhadev Bose (one novel). Is this enough?
The crux is of course saleability. Big publishers in one voice declare that Indian books “don’t sell”. The latest opportunity was the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2006 which hosted India as its guest country. An avalanche of books on India and by Indian authors flooded the market, several books translated from Indian languages among them. Some 60 writers travelled to Frankfurt to speak of their books or read from them. The Indian government with its various agencies was in the forefront to showcase Indian literature. Two years later, I made a survey and discovered that with the exception of a few most books, among them classics like Legends of Khasak by OV Vijayan and Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, had sold miserably. As a result these big publishers virtually gave up on India. So, during the ensuing years until today very few Indian books have appeared. There were some commercial highlights. Two may be mentioned: Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger which went into many reprints and, surprisingly, Buddhadev Bose’s Moner Moto Meye (A girl after my heart), translated from Bengali by Hanne-Ruth Thompson, which sold over 10.000 copies.
What should be done to improve salability? At various fora, I had suggested a book series or an imprint imbedded in a large literary publishing house with the reputation and reach to get its books to their prospective readers. Early last year, I discussed this idea with Michael Krüger whose Hanser Verlag is a large independent literary publishing house. He had just returned from the Jaipur Litfest and expressed his admiration for the vitality of the Indian literary scene. What about transferring some of it to Germany? But Krüger expressed himself against isolating Indian literatures into a book-series which he saw as crutches which Indian literature should not need. “Good books must not shy away from competing with the literatures of other languages”, he said. “Give me any good book by an Indian author, and I shall publish it!”
Easier said than done. Who will select books in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil or Malayalam which may stand a chance in the international market? Only after having translated them ~ and translated them well ~ can a publisher read the text and agree to print it. There are only few translators capable of translating literary texts from Indian languages directly into German. Translations via English have become philologically unacceptable as too much of the flavour of the originals gets lost. The dilemma of how to offer Indian literature to a sufficient number of German readers persists.
The Role of the Draupadi Verlag
The dilemma of how to offer Indian literature to a sufficient number of readers in Germany has, for the time being, just one solution: the services of a small publishing house with a dedicated and knowledgeable person at the helm. In the past decades this has happened three times. Wolf Mersch published Indian literature in the 1980s, followed by Roland Beer whose Lotos Verlag disseminated Indian literatures in the 1990s. Both publishers were stopped short by early illness. It is exactly 10 years since the Draupadi Verlag in Heidelberg has begun its operations. The moving force is Christian Weiss, an Indologist who worked for a large publisher earlier before launching his own firm. The focus of all three publishers was and is on Indian language literature. The Draupadi Verlag is virtually a one-man-company. Christian Weiss selects the texts, has them translated, does much of the copy editing and looks after the other aspects of publishing himself. He is an idealist, mentored by Alokeranjan Dasgupta (see photo, Weiss on the left); he does not look for profits, but lives simply and alone. Weiss’ forte is his absolute dedication to Indian literature and his wide contacts in the Indian literary scene. He takes Indian authors around when they visit Germany, he organises reading tours and visits to literary fairs and seminars. Wherever Indian culture is discussed and presented in Germany, you can be sure to see Weiss sitting quietly behind a sales table stacked with books from his Draupadi Verlag.
Since 2003, he has brought out over 70 books. Among them are 14 translations from Hindi, five from Bengali, two each from Tamil and Malayalam and four from English. Among the authors he has published are Uday Prakash, Nirmal Verma, Geetanjali Shree, Ajneya, K Satchidanandan, and Mahasweta Devi. Several volumes on Rabindranath Tagore and a number of anthologies of Indian poetry, essays and short stories are on the backlist.
This is an impressive result. It was achieved on a shoe-string budget, assisted by translators and editors who are idealists like Weiss himself. It was achieved by arduously unearthing sponsors for most book projects, by soliciting support from associations, foundations, big firms which sometimes dole out money for honourable cultural causes, from government agencies, including Indian government ministries and the National Book Trust. As he has to make do with whatever and whoever is available, his books cannot always be perfect. But what Christian Weiss has accomplished considering the restrictive circumstances is amazing.
Depending on the book’s get-up, a mainstream publisher needs a print run of more or less 3,000 to make a profit. The Draupadi Verlag is content with sales below 1,000 per title. Once it sold 2.200 copies, viz. of the translation of Baby Halder’s autobiographical book A Life Less Ordinary. Such modest print runs are on the one hand an opportunity to publish texts which are interesting, yet do not promise a great sale. On the other hand, a book that does not sell well won’t acquire a slot in the wholesale market from which most booksellers order their books. As a result, Christian Weiss himself posts many books to buyers or to the bookshop ~ an awful business.
Christian Weiss has his band of loyal followers who buy from him and support him. One is Jose Punnamparambil, a journalist resident in Germany, who edits the journal Meine Welt which targets the Indian diaspora in Germany. This journal has published Indian poetry and short stories since over three decades, it publishes review articles on books by Draupadi Verlag and other publishers and creates awareness of Indian literature which then should draw new readers to the Draupadi Verlag.
Does all this not sound familiar to readers in Kolkata? Don’t we have such small publishers and booksellers around College Street who operate from one office-room undaunted by numerous difficulties, by the shortage of funds, by a lack of a distribution network? And yet they continue, and in retrospect we realise that by their sheer tenacity and longevity they alter the landscape of contemporary literature. They are the brothers-in-arms of Christian Weiss.
The author is based in Santiniketan. His last book is Simply do it: Do it simply; Niyogi Books, New Delhi 2013