Filling the Gap
India was the first country that has been invited to present itself for the second time at the world's largest book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Indian literature, particularly Bengali, is largely unknown in Germany up to now, however.
The historian, literary specialist, and Bengali translator Christian Weiss wants to change that. In autumn of 2003, he launched the Draupadi Verlag in Heidelberg, specializing in Bengali literature.
83 Percent Muslims in Bangladesh
Bengal is a region in South Asia which encompasses what is now Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.
The two parts of the country were divided in 1947 during the decolonization of the Indian subcontinent. Since the population of present-day Bangladesh is approximately 83 percent Muslim, it was separated from the Hindu-dominated and better developed West Bengal to comply with the demands of the Muslim leaders who participated in the negotiations on independence.
Before Christian Weiss, who was born near Stuttgart, traveled to India for the first time in 1983 while a student, he studied Bengali with the Bengalese writer Alokeranjan Dasgupta, who was living in exile in Germany. It was also Dasgupta who aroused his interest in Bengali literature. Alokeranjan Dasgupta himself is one of the most renowned authors of Bengali literature and was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2004.
The award is conferred annually by the German-Indian Society to authors and creative artists who have made a special contribution to giving the German-speaking audience a better understanding of the spirit and life of India. Not without good reason, Weiss calls Dasgupta his teacher. "He gave me advice about what literature I should concentrate on."
World literature dominated by Eurocentrism
Over time, Weiss was increasingly fascinated by Bengali literature. But before long, he became aware of a problem that preoccupies him to this day. "There is an imbalance between European and Indian literature." In this context, he speaks of "Eurocentrism."
Whereas Günter Grass, Bertolt Brecht, and Hermann Hesse are well-known to most intellectuals in India, German readers are at best familiar with the Bengali Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore and the Indian author of the bestseller The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy.
During the past 20 years, Weiss has traveled to India frequently, sometimes for several months. In Germany he has worked as a translator of Bengali literature, among other things, for several years.
Before establishing his publishing house, Christian Weiss also collaborated with various publishers as an editor. Because of the lack of support he encountered on the part of the publishers, he decided to found his own publishing company.
With the Draupadi Verlag, he wants to "fill a gap" that he identifies in the German book market. Authors who are well-known in Bangladesh and West Bengal and have won numerous awards for their work, but have not been translated and published in Germany yet, are meant to fill this gap.
The Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, for example, is not only well-known in India for her strong, realistic prose. The 80-year-old also has a reputation in France and the British and American English-speaking world. In Germany, however, up until now rather few people know her work. Christian Weiss does not understand why the writer, who has won several awards, attracts so little attention in Germany.
In his view, there is a market for South Asian literature; he lacks only the range. "Why shouldn't we also translate material of appropriate quality and offer it to the German audience?" Weiss asks rhetorically.
Christian Weiss does not only want to support Bengali authors who are already successful, however. Unknown talents should also be encouraged.
Weiss is a member of the Heidelberg South Asia Group, whose activities include translating books from Bengali into German. The German translation of Mahasweta Devi's Daulati, in which the author herself also played a substantial role as editor, was a product of this initiative. In addition, the members of the group also organize literary and public service events.
Christian Weiss prefers authors who depict living conditions in India from a sociocritical perspective. In this way, he hopes to sensitize readers to current problems in the region.
As a result of the attention the Frankfurt Book Fair is devoting to the region, perhaps Weiss will succeed in making readers aware of the political situation and the literary scene in West Bengal.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson