Multilingual Publishing for Children
In a rapidly urbanizing India, most of us are bilingual at the very least. We often have a mother-tongue that is different from the medium of instruction at school. Our grandmothers may use the mother-tongue to do their bidding in rich idiomatic ways that we are poorer for having lost. And then there is media in the form of movies, TV, radio and the Internet that is using and reshaping language in variegated ways.
“…Hey man! Jab life ho itni cool to kehna kya hai. You know when I was driving to work this morning, to maine dekha ek ladki French mein phool bech rahi thi! No kidding…sach mein…” (An excerpt from an RJ’s chatter on an FM channel)
In an Indian metro, many of us would not blink if we heard this sort of gobbledygook! In fact, many of us now even sound suspiciously like this…Depending on where we are on the purist spectrum, we will have opinions on whether this is a good or a bad thing.
So what are the signals emanating from this desi tower of Babel? How are different languages responding to each other and to the ubiquitous creep of English in our lives? How are authors, filmmakers and songwriters responding? And just as importantly, at which frequency is the book publishing industry receiving these signals? Is there reason to hope for an efflorescence of talent, or will we simply drown each other out as we shout and struggle to reshape our linguistic and cultural identities? As a multilingual publisher, you could swing between hope and despair in a single working day!
This has also to be regarded in the context of the fact that all our homage to gyan and gyanis notwithstanding; we are not a book-loving country. We don’t buy many, we aren’t spoilt for choice and we have to work hard to find the books we do want to buy. If we want to buy books for children, these problems only multiply.
We publish very few books for children in our country. We have about 300 million children, and based on current estimates of published books, each of them gets about one-twentieth of a book! (In the UK, there are about six books published per child.) Based on the available scanty data, English and Hindi are the two languages with a significant number of titles followed by Bangla and Tamil and there are no reliable estimates on the number of children’s books. However, even simple observation and anecdotal evidence is enough to establish that books for children are few and even more far between, if we talk of the Indian languages.
Text books are the bread, butter and jam for most children’s publishers and reading for pleasure is a hazy gleam in the eye of a very small number. They rarely reach beyond the middle class market in the big cities and publish largely in English. Distribution channels are weak and access to books is difficult as there are few bookshops beyond the metros and choices are limited. The idea of community libraries is largely absent or decaying. The School Library purchase system in government run schools is a mystery and a maze with many labyrinths and the few brave books that make it past the many tricky questions may end their days in a locked cupboard in the principal’s office.
As if difficult access and low choice were not daunting enough, there is the issue of price. Individual book buying is not a priority spend. Multilingualism only adds another level of complexity to a difficult situation. Assuming that it was possible to choose, in which language would a child like to buy a book? What are the differences in quality and price between a book in her mother-tongue and English? What is the perception of the parents about the value of buying a book that is not a school text? All these questions are relevant but the answers are too varied to process and employ in a sensible manner.
So why would anybody want to be a multilingual children’s publisher of ‘story books’? Because there are sudden shafts of sunlight in this grim picture that give us compelling reasons.
Enrolment figures of children in schools have been going up steadily and heartwarmingly. With infrastructure and enrolment figures improving, the government and civil society organizations are focusing on the quality of education. As the ASER surveys since 2005 conducted by citizens under the guidance of the educational NGO Pratham show, there is reason for concern. Across the states, significant numbers of children in class V are unable to read texts meant for class II and cannot perform simple mathematical operations. Pratham, with its long experience of working in the area of elementary education, has revealed how poor reading skills contribute to drop out rates.
Reading and books are a critical element in the conversation around quality of education, even if there is no great clarity or uniformity in policy about how this should be integrated into the shifting shape of the school journey, which for most is made on the road called hope.
Even if there were greater clarity, sadly, there aren’t enough books being published for children in the Indian languages, if you consider the number of potential readers. Hence, being a multilingual publisher for children seems to make perfect sense. Children are studying in and speaking many languages, they should also have access to quality books in the same languages. A multilingual publisher like Pratham not only sees a market here, but also looks upon reading as a social benefit that must be an intrinsic part of a formal school education. Books for leisure reading will provide a degree of autonomy to each student to learn and explore beyond the prescribed curriculum as well and broaden the meaning of getting an education beyond spending a prescribed number of years in the school system. Dare we hope that it might even favourably impact ‘employability’ in the long run…? Why not? We know reading improves language and communication skills, apart from providing that extra edge of knowledge.
Being a multilingual publisher at this point in time throws up interesting questions every day. Each Indian language has an oral tradition of story telling and the transition to telling stories through a printed book brings its own surprises. What is the readiness of the child for books? Which books will work and why? What is the environment where a child will be reading or being read to? All these questions are universal and yet have a special impact on a publisher who is creating a book that will be printed in several languages.
Like any other publisher, a multilingual one also wants to hit upon the sweet price point for the largest number of potential buyers and have a marketing strategy in place, before a book goes to print. With scattered information about different languages and socio-economic and regional variations, devising such a marketing strategy is a hugely difficult task. Even more so, if the publisher is committed to reaching the largest number of children in the largest number of languages. There is always a tension between the financially pragmatic decisions in the present moment, as against the knowledge that we must seed new markets in new languages for children who have not been reached.
All children’s publishers face challenges such as finding interesting authors and illustrators who bring a story to life with eye catching illustrations, providing variety across a broad age spectrum and develop a growing list so that there are fresh titles on offer. A multilingual publisher certainly has additional ones in a price sensitive market where the best practice is to use the same artwork and translate the book in as many languages as possible, to get a good print run.
There are seemingly minor issues as well, such as restraining illustrators from using text in a particular language as part of the artwork. So no ‘Crash!’ ‘Bang!’ ‘Creak’ and ‘Thump’ for emphasis. For many art college graduates brought up on books from the west, this is a constraint.
The mother of all challenges is to find really ‘good’ translators in all languages. Translators who care about children’s books and share our ideas about child-friendliness and interpret them skillfully in the target language. Translators who are not so attached to their own ideas of a ‘good children’s book’ that they sanitize the fun out of the ‘funnest’ children’s book. Translators who are not closet fundamentalists when it comes to using correct language and would rather let a child stumble over pure usage rather than find a simpler way to say the same thing over two sentences. Translators who read to their own children in their own language.
Translators who don’t mind proofing their work ten times. This is not hyperbole, as Indian language fonts have a mind of their own when it comes to being forced by evil computers to do their bidding. They will have their revenge by breaking up with a sniff just before going to press, leaving the publisher’s tears streaking the page!
Another big one is the issue of the choice of scripts. Many get chosen based on their universality over those that would work beautifully in only one language. So if translation is ‘engaged literary interpretation’, we start very early on! Finding a balance between the books with universal appeal and those rooted in a particular place or time is important to us. Folktales, feel-good stories, animal stories fall in the latter category. But books that reflect a culture, which work in one or two languages and which mirror a child’s familiar surroundings are also important in creating and nurturing interested young readers. This extends to the illustrations, especially when the story is contemporary.
All this in a country where there is a great deal of internal migration and seasonal or permanent movement to the cities.
Coming right back to the reality of a rapidly urbanizing India where different languages coexist in close proximity, foods and festivals find interested takers and spectators in new neighbourly contexts…books must reflect this shifting reality too. The smell of frying vadai/pakoras/ bhajiyas in amma’s kitchen all intermingle to create an entirely new bouquet called urban India.
Children’s publishers have to capture these new aromas and images and convey them effectively in many languages too. There is a fertile ground for this efflorescence of talent but we must water it with care and attention. Each language must find its place in this rainbow spectrum and the greatest stories ever told must find more listeners and readers.
Perhaps, this will help all of us to become better listeners and storytellers!