The Story of a Ripple-Making Pebble

Keywords: women in publishing, mother tongue, poverty alleviation

Geeta Dharmarajan, Founder and Executive Director of Katha in conversation with Rizio Yohannan Raj and Abhirami Sriram (2006)

RYR: Why did you start KATHA as a publishing house that exclusively publishes Indian writing in English translation?

G.D. Katha began its translation initiative more than two decades back by identifying the lacunae in contemporary India’s literary exchange within itself and with the world. Our books are primarily the best of India translated. We publish creative literature from 21 Indian languages in English translation, and in the process, deal with more than 300 Indian bhasha writers. But of course, though the idea itself has sprung from the particularly multi-cultural Indian context, it has now branched out to address the question of connectivity across the world. So we have Asian and European works in translation, works that form academic interfaces to help readers understand the processes of literature, non-fiction books that try to interpret culture at large, and so on and so forth. These works naturally find their audiences across the world.

Katha is mainly a translation house, yes, but we are also a well-regarded publisher of books for children. And our academic series is respected, too. I believe that translations are important for our country, to link our richly diverse societies. I have always worked with children and those coming into the world of books. Katha’s main vision goal is to enhance the joy of reading and the love of books.

RYR: As a publisher principally engaged in translation from the Indian bhashas, does Katha see a difference between the Indian and Western rites of this passage?

G.D: India is probably the only country, which translates for herself Old so it often is a rite of passage of an insider in search of the co-insider. We are probably the only people who translate ourselves, pare the originals to the translations, who criticise each translation with an eye on the original. So everything seems so flipped.

A.S: When we talk about hands-on translation of the story, the pragmatics of the literature or criticism of translation imported from the West does not always work, does it? G.D: Translation for India is an age old art. And the storyteller translates ways that keep a story alive – something that translators of the written rd can learn from, maybe. If the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have survived it is because they have gone into different tribal languages and are available in 40 to 50 bhashas. But in the final analysis, a good story is magical and when translated well takes ideas across the narrowing walls of language, culture, ethnicity. Modern India has underplayed the need and role of translation.

A.S: What is this magic of the story that you keep talking about?

G.D: As humans we all love story. And India is the quintessential land of storytellers. I believe that the short story captures the genius that is India in ways that no other narrative can. Because of its still close proximity to the spoken word, it carries with it the strength of the oral tradition often, the mystery of myth, its power. But today we’ve abdicated from our role as storytellers, leaving mythmaking to the people who have the voice and the power. So the story has been robbed from the makers of it – the ordinary people – who lapse into a culture of Silence. We have given away the power to those who have a voice, voice to those who have power. So the question – Can our stories give us a counter culture that will bring us freedom to choose? The bhakti poets of a thousand years ago, showed us the way. And story today, the best of them, take us on this route of discovery in intangible ways. Have you seen the peepal leaf which catches even the slightest of winds? Katha Strives to be that peepal leaf that catches the creative wind of story. We struggle to understand/translate the peoples and the cultures of the 410 languages we have. I see translation as a non-divisive force in India. And Translation for Equity as a tool for poverty alleviation!

RYR: What are your other main concerns?

G.D: A search for excellence has been a strong practice in Katha from 1991. We are the only group which has proactively searched for and found, nurtured, celebrated and published emerging translators. Our translation contests have brought thousands of translators into discovery of language, story and their own abilities, thus building a translators’ pool for India. In 1998, we started our academic outreach which worked wonders. Katha is a maverick in that sense, using subversivness to overcome the difficulties of being a fiercely independent publisher, a group that is a language activist.

RYR: Do the subversive methods include strategising the editing of translations, too?

G.D: Yes, though we are very careful. The word is important for us, just as important is the sprit of the story, its atman. And Katha editors strive to help translators bring this forth, in tandem, to match the power and vigour of the original. We believe that a good story gives knowledge invisibly and, like the best of educations, helps individuals understand the process of transformation of the self, and from there, of society. We see ourselves as benchmarking organisation as far as translation practice goes, in India.

A.S: Does this mean that Katha is in a gatekeeper’s role?

G.D: India is too large and too vast with too many languages and just too, too many storytellers for any gatekeeper to be effective or necessary! We are not gatekeepers. Rather we are trying to open the gates for all.

RYR: What does it mean to propagate the multi-textural bhasha narrative parallel to the near homogenised Anglophilic urban narrative?

G.D: It means participating strongly in the debate about diversity and identity in today’s India which revolves around complex issues of onus and ownership and the role of English in our lives which impacts the way we learn, and live. We believe that translation strengthens the original language, builds that self-esteem and self-confidence in our many languages. It strives to find an answer to the questions – if India’s 220 million children do not get to read and speak in English, do they get left out of life altogether? Can children have a chance to get knowledge if they do not know English? For many of us, what is at stake is the character of our identity. A just India can come only when our young, and those in the margins, have been given a voice. Katha considers English as one of the Indian languages, and that most Indians by virtue of their birth in this multi-linguistic milieu are at least bilingual. And we believe that the hegemonic status English enjoys can be broken only when more and more people can use English as naturally as they do their own mother tongues. As you know, we work with more than 6,000 children living in 54 slum clusters across Delhi. And across colleges where students come in from bhashas schools. Translation for Equity will work is a Katha striving. This will make fiction and academic writing available to all across every chasm you can think of! We hope that Translation for Equity will work, as an idea and as a powerful force for poverty alleviation.

RYR: How can we counter the daily loss of language?

G.D: We need to break the hegemony of English and Hindi. We have to rewrite the history of our understanding even as we nurture bhasha. Bring children into talking, reading and discussing in their own mother tongues. Start taking pride in our own languages.

RYR: And how do we do this?

G.D: By putting our hope in children. We know that to make an impact we do not need to be a huge boulder. We are that small pebble which makes a lake ripple. Now, if we are that little pebble we need to be willing to sink, we need to be willing to become invisible. And allow the ripple to do its work. That is the hope, really the hope.

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