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.)



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