Meeting the students at the Seagull School of Publishing

It is always a privilege for French writers to be translated into English. And when the book is published by what, in my view, is the most prestigious publishing house for foreign/translated literature—the Calcutta-based Seagull Books, it becomes a real honour. And sometimes even an adventure for the mind . . .

In January 2015, my novel Attachment came out in Calcutta. It had also been published in Bengali. As a result, I got invited to three Indian literary festivals, The Apeejay Literary Festival, the Jaipur Lit Fest, and the newly created Pondi-Partages Festival, in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu.

My trip started in Calcutta, at Seagull. I will never forget what was awaiting me there. Not only did the publishing house look like a cosy place where everyone immediately made me feel as if I was visiting my ‘family’—although I had never met them before—but I also discovered the way they worked, in particular through the amazing Seagull School of Publishing.

At the Seagull School, I met students from all over the world. Passionate about books, art and design, and the way they could invent and design the cover of a book on their computers, being both creative and original while remaining faithful to the spirit of the author and conveying a strong message to the reader. I remember thinking that in Europe where books have often become like any other industrialized ‘product’, I had not seen this kind of enthusiasm in the publishing industry for ages. From what the students told me, every book, every author seemed to be special. Well, they made them special!

But the thing that struck me most was a debate I had with the class. Just before I had left France, the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo had taken place. Of course one could argue that the issue was linked to drawings and words, which were exactly their field. But, the level of discussion was amazing. Not only did they know a lot about French philosophers from the eighteenth century or the notion of the freedom of expression but they had obviously given this tragedy a lot of personal thought. I assume they had been very well trained by their ‘teachers’ at the Seagull School—and particularly by Naveen Kishore who is a poet, an intellectual and a thinker himself. But believe me—I was to be interviewed by many western and non-western media after that and it turned out that their questions were the most clever, open-minded and fruitful ones I have ever been asked on this difficult subject. Barbarism, secularism, the Enlightenment, tolerance, mutual understanding, the veil, Voltaire and Ibn Rushd . . . : we discussed the issue through every possible prism. With no prejudice, but a real appetite to learn and exchange. On both sides. As far as I am concerned, this debate forced me to deepen my understanding of the world, be it on a geopolitical or human level. I am not sure I was quite the same before and after this debate. Being in the School had been both inspiring and stimulating. I remember thinking: What else could a writer want from his/her publisher? This is a gift for the mind.

When France was hit again recently, this conversation came back to my mind. I wished we could have started it again. All together, at the Seagull School. I thought to myself that Seagull was not only training students to become publishes or work in the publishing industry but had carefully selected individuals who were readers themselves, which meant that they had been influenced by many authors, and also that they themselves could, in return, make an impact on the authors.

Florence Noiville

(French author and journalist who has been a staff writer for Le Monde since 1994 and editor of foreign fiction for Le Monde des Livres, the paper’s literary supplement. Apart from her novels, she has written a biography of Nobel Prize–winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, for which she won the 2004 biography award. Florence taught as a guest faculty in the January–March 2015 courses at the Seagull School of Publishing.)

My Experience at the Seagull School

A school of publishing was not something I had experienced before I was invited to take a session at the Seagull School of Publishing. ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman?’ might sum up my bewilderment about the creature I was going to face. I was feeling a little stupid until I discovered that the School in Kolkata was, thus far, the only one of its kind in the country and ignorance about its nature was forgivable.

I have never been a happy speaker, particularly not before an unknown group. But the Seagull people are old friends. They have published all my translations of Marathi plays. They have also published a tome I wrote on Marathi drama which Naveen Kishore described as Draupadi’s thali. Or did he compare it to Hanuman’s tail? I’m not sure. But with the love, care and meticulous attention to production values that Seagull showered on it, the book came out looking proud and noble. So if Seagull had established a school for publishing, they were going to give their fortunate students not just the knowhow, but also a passion for publishing.

My experience of taking a class of some ten or twelve unknown young men and women was a little tentative at first. But the coldness I felt in my feet was offset by the informal warmth of the book-lined room. I had been asked to speak about translation and my work in that field. The question in my mind was, how do I connect what I know and what I have done with these people who are here to learn about publishing? The question apparent on their faces was, what will she tell us that will add to our knowledge of publishing? As I began to speak, I found the link that they and I were looking for. I wasn’t going to talk about the process of translating, an arduous and solitary task which assumes the neutrality of a transparent medium on paper but is privately a road marked by bumps and potholes; but about the myriad ways that publishers handle translations.

Suddenly I had a flood of stories to tell of publishers who mauled translations, of publishers who did not give translators credit, of publishers who neglected to distribute what they had printed. I told them the story of an invitation I had received from the American Centre in Mumbai to the launch of two American books translated from English into Marathi. I asked the person who was calling me, who the translators were. She said she didn’t know. Nor did she offer to ferret out such lowly information.

Before I knew it, I had engaged the class for two hours and it was time for questions. You might manage to sail through a lecture; but when it comes to questions, you might find yourself becalmed. The room might grow awkwardly silent. You might have to look around with a bright smile saying, ‘No questions?’ or more jocularly, ‘You’d rather have lunch?’ You can never tell what brings on the silence. Have you been so irrelevant that there honestly are no questions to ask? Have you spoken for so long that minds have grown numb?

Mercifully for me, questions began coming, not fast and furious by any means, but gradually and steadily; interesting questions which told me the bunch of people I had addressed were bright and motivated. One question was about how I chose the texts I translated. Had publishers commissioned me or was it authors? I explained that commissioning was too grand a word for the transaction that took place between translator and publisher. Commissioning meant money changing hands. Translation meant no money changing hands. So why do you translate was the next question. Rather grandiosely, I said, ‘We translate for love.’ It’s true too.

And what better way to end a morning’s vocal exercise than by stuffing oneself with ten different dishes laid out for lunch by my hospitable hosts, holding a scintillating conversation with Naveen and the Seagull staff (that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sailed into and out of like a one-woman Armada), and neutralizing the awe of the moment with another helping of mishti. Or was it two?

Shanta Gokhale

(Marathi novelist, playwright, translator, bilingual columnist, theatre historian and critic. She taught as a guest faculty in the June–August 2015 Editing course at the Seagull School of Publishing.)