Monday, 30th October 2017

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Get the smell right

Is Indian civilization a myth?

By Rukun Advani
  • Published 15.01.18
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When the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, the apprehension in academic publishers' minds that sales of liberal and Left books might suffer was offset by the assumption that the economy would flourish and keep them happy. Also, since no one in the new regime was likely to be interested in looking at anything written too long after the Vedas and the Golden Age of Sanskrit, there did not seem much cause for worry. In any case, the Congress had never failed to cave in when the crunch came to choosing between freedom of expression and mob violence, so the general situation seemed well described by the French cynicism of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

But what did create chaos for publishers, as much as for everyone else, was demonetization. Once people decide against buying everything seen as inessential, roughly the first thing they stop buying in India is books. With sales plummeting, most publishers and booksellers in the business of selling general books had to look around for alternative earning methods. Some supplemented bookselling with renting out bookshop space for talks and events, some switched desperately to editorial and design services. My own attempt was to try and find out if translation rights could be sold abroad for some of the academic books I had published. The Chinese and the Japanese had bought rights for some of Partha Chatterjee's learned tomes. Why not try selling many more such to them as well as to the Europeans? In this effort I was not very successful, but my attempt did yield some quite interesting information about the whole business of publishing translations.

The key question to ask when trying to sell translation rights, I discovered, was: "What precisely is there within a book that will persuade a publisher abroad to buy translation rights?" Scholarly books, it became clear, do not travel unless the body of ideas they contain is quite path-breaking. Only four scholars that I'd published struck a chord in foreign presses, and the reason seemed to be that each of them was identified with one particular Grand Idea. Ranajit Guha was seen as Subaltern Studies. Partha Chatterjee was seen as Political Society (as against Civil Society). Ashis Nandy was known as the Intimate Enemy. And the historian, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, was connected with his notion of Connected Histories. The conclusion I came to was that in order to sell an academic author into a foreign language, the publisher needs to be able to show the buyer a Grand Idea couched within a simple mnemonic, such as Subaltern Studies, Political Society, Intimate Enemy, or Connected Histories. When no such short phrase is available, the possibilities dim.

When I put my key question to Christopher MacLehose - a friend famous for publishing world literature in English translation (Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy being among his best-known acquisitions) - he answered in an intriguing way: "The answer to your question could be 'the smell of egg in a drop of blood falling from a kitchen ceiling'." He explained what he meant by this bewildering statement. There are, he said, some logical reasons for taking on a book for translation, as well as sometimes some very illogical reasons, and often the illogical reasons are, in the eyes of the publisher of translations, more persuasive than the logical reasons. The smell of egg in a drop of blood falling from the kitchen ceiling appeared to MacLehose this way: "I bought three books by a Norwegian writer," he said, "who went on to become a huge bestseller on the slimmest of bases, namely a single translated chapter, in the course of which a man puts out his hand in a kitchen, and onto it falls a drop of blood through the ceiling. He smells in the drop of blood the smell of egg, and from this he deduces something that I cannot now remember, but this deduction of his seemed to me so incredibly clever that I decided that here was a real storyteller, and for once I was proved right."

MacLehose disclosed neither the name of the book nor that of its writer, but his eccentric decision-making suggests that at times a publisher's gut feeling or instinct is stirred by a striking image, which suggests to her a fine fictional intelligence at work that it might be worth her while to pursue.

Over the years, through conversations with friends in publishing, I have arrived at a kind of shortlist of reasons for why some publishers find it attractive to buy the right to translate a book: first, narrative strength, meaning the obvious ability to spin a yarn that most intelligent readers will both grasp as well as find difficult to put down; second, an exquisite purity in the prose; third, because there seems a general consensus among the Marathi or Greek or Bengali cognoscenti that a particular work is among the finest things ever written and it seems a downright shame that it has never been available in other languages.

A fourth reason may be that a particular work has been an incredible bestseller in its original language or has garnered hosts of prizes, making it unlikely that versions of it in other languages will do anything other than follow suit; fifth, because a writer makes a very good impression on the publisher when she reads from her work at a festival; sixth, because market gossip about a book is that two or three other publishers have offered a large sum for it, and no publisher wants to be found looking like an idiot if that work later proves a great hit.

The seventh reason has taken shape as a very short story: a publisher may take on a book if a friend of hers, once incarcerated in Siberia and now a publisher in Russia, suddenly phones her to say he wants her and her alone to take on a book which he has long kept close to his chest, namely the diary of an illegitimate daughter of Putin who had been sent to the Kamchatka for disclosing her paternity during a bout of delirious somnambulism, and who gave him, the Russian publisher, that diary in the notorious Peninsula during a night of the most hideous snowstorm ever known north of North Korea, the lady having died of frostbite in his arms the day after that, her last enigmatic words being the opening line of Rosina's aria in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

The eighth, is the bad reason: a writer's work has come in with the promise of an extremely generous subsidy. The assurance of a subvention is a terrible reason for publishing a translation but is all too often seen as sufficient. If you have integrity, you don't marry for money, you marry for love.

To round it off one might add a ninth and tenth reason, namely the evocativeness of the work's title and the attractiveness of the book jacket. If you were offered the English translation of a book called Love in the Time of Cholera or Memories of My Melancholy Whores laid out over great jackets, the title and the aesthetics would make an immediate difference. I once sold a book to a French publisher largely because the English version I had published was called Is 'Indian Civilization' a Myth? This being a question that, for the past few years, the whole world has been thinking quite seriously about.

The author is editor and publisher, Permanent Black