In about four decades, RATNA SAGAR has established itself as a brand to reckon with in the educational segment in India. Having consolidated the gains as a schoolbook publisher, Dr Dhanesh Jain, the founder of Ratna Sagar and himself a scholar and former teacher of linguistics, sometime in late 2015 thought of diversifying into publishing English translations of literary texts from Indian languages.
Early brainstorming with knowledgeable persons – Ashok Vajpeyi, the Hindi writer and poet and A.R. Venkatachalapathy, the cultural historian in Chennai – convinced us of the scope for publishing translations of literary texts and that many languages though rich in literature, were relatively untapped for this genre. Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, former director of the National Book Trust, said that while the market of readers in English has enlarged, the number of good authors in English has not kept pace. ‘This gap is being filled by translations from Indian languages, which have a rich corpus.’ Padma awardee professor of linguistics Dr Anvita Abbi opined, ‘tolerance for others emerges when we understand other’s cultures through translations’. She also warned us that translation from Indian languages into English is not easy not only because of the differences in linguistic structures and syntax but also because ‘English shares neither our culture nor our worldview’.
We realized that to sustain an exclusive list of translations, translators must be accorded the respect and recognition they deserved. It was decided that names of translators will go on the jacket (a practice not consistently followed by some publishers then). Copyright for the translation was to be in the translator’s name. And most importantly, translators were offered a royalty in equal measure to that of the original author.
Our focus was more on translators than authors as we had two dozen languages to choose from. It made the task easier when a translator was ‘in love’ with an author’s work and had an urge to share the ‘beauty of the original’. As the word spread around and we started making enquiries, manuscripts started coming in. Most of the translated authors were Sahitya Akademi award winners and the translators too were experts in both the source language and in English.
The first clutch of three translations from Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil was launched at the India International Centre in October 2017. These were Gangadhar Gadgil’s stories A Faceless Evening, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s novel The Sixth Finger and Appadurai Muttulingam’s stories After Yesterday. The sentiments expressed at the launch greatly encouraged us and Ratna Books as an imprint for translations was in the public domain.
In the meantime, JCB prize for literature and other prizes kindled the interest in translation and institutional support for translations also helped the editor for translations in some publishing houses to transit from a ‘back of house’ position to a more central position. As Professor Harish Trivedi put it, ‘there is a glamour attached to Indian writing in English which is not going away anytime soon’. Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee observed that ‘translation has come from circumference to centre-stage’.
Further publishing contracts and with more manuscripts on the way covering different languages convinced us that we had to now concentrate on marketing and promotion of the list. We decided on a series of select launches with the distributor’s support. These were at Kitab Khana in Mumbai, the Kochi International Book Fest and with the Madras Book Club in Chennai. Many of the authors and translators were well established authors in their respective regions and many teachers welcomed the translations in English. Reading copies were also handed out to principals, which helped in getting library orders in some cases. Dr Jain encouraged this symbiotic relationship building as it brought in goodwill for the school list too.
Dr Jain had an obsession with quality, both in terms of the translation as well as in production values including design and layout. Thus, in keeping with his vision, all the books in the imprint are in the hardback format and, have the highest design standards. The books under the Ratna Translation Series have been also priced suitably for the general reader.
We are greatly encouraged by the Valley of Words (VoW) Awards for translation in 2019 to Prabha Sridevan for Chudamani’s stories Echoes of the Veena, and in 2020 to Nadeem Khan for Avadhoot Dongare’s two novellas The Story of Being Useless and Three Contexts of a Writer. Prema Jayakumar’s translation of Mukundan’s The Bells are Ringing in Haridwar was shortlisted in 2020, and Nandini Vijayaraghavan’s translation of Kalki’s Parthiban’s Dream was shortlisted for the same award in 2022. P. Balaswamy’s translation of T. Janakiraman’s The Crimson Hibiscus was longlisted in 2021, B. Anuradha’s Prison Notes of a Woman Activist was longlisted in 2022 and Imayam’s If there is a God and other stories was longlisted for the same award in 2023.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, we faced a crisis with the sudden passing away of Dr Dhanesh Jain at the end of March 2019. He was the guide and mentor, and a constant source of inspiration. Though Ratna Books continues to realise his dream, it will never be the same.