Good storybooks with local content that resonates with young Tamil readers are slowly trickling into the Singapore market, thanks to a Singapore publisher on a mission.
BY PAMELA HO
Published on 1 February 2016
BY PAMELA HO
A Singaporean child who loves reading Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl may find reading an equally engaging storybook in Chinese, Malay or Tamil a complete chore.
Vijayanand Thamotharan, founder of Crimson Earth — a Singapore publishing firm that produces English magazines and Tamil literary books — says that while it’s not surprising to see a seven year-old reading Harry Potter books in Singapore, it’s definitely unusual to see a seven year-old reading J K Rowling’s bestsellers in Tamil. “The child wouldn’t have the language maturity,” states the former engineer.
As Tamil is a second language here, the language maturity of a Singaporean child is two or three years behind that of a child in India who studies Tamil as a first language and speaks it at home. Imagine if you’re a 15 year-old with the linguistic ability of a 12 year-old, would you be content reading a book targeted at 12 year-olds? Chances are, you would want to read a book for teens!
The problem with imported children’s books is that there’s a mismatch between maturity of content and language for Singaporean children. Authors from India also base their stories on their culture, heritage and parenting philosophies, which make it hard for Singaporean children to connect with. “If we don’t do something to engage our children and create a love for the language, we will lose them,” says Thamotharan, a father of four. “But in Singapore, we didn’t have a Roald Dahl in Tamil.”
NORTHERN EXPOSURE Prema Govin (left) and Vijayanand Thamotharan (right) setting up Crimson Earth’s booth at the New Delhi World Book Fair 2015. They’ve also displayed in Frankfurt and Bologna. PHOTO Ng Kah Gay
For this reason, Prema Govin, a former teacher turned writer/editor, resorted to creating local fiction for Tamil children. Published under Crimson Earth, her books include the Varathan series — about a boy who discovers a robot and the adventures they embark on — and Keerthi, a story based on a girl who discovers ancient scrolls when she joins her father on a rebuilding project.
“My children love reading adventure thrillers in English, but I couldn’t find such books in Tamil. I started writing children’s books three years ago to inspire them to read Tamil books,” shares Govin. To cater to second-language learners aged 10 to 16, she keeps the language simple while introducing vocabulary they can use in their own creative writing.
With 27 books published and 16 books planned for release this year, Crimson Earth is still, at its core, driven by passion. Their first children’s book, Veena and the Missing Emblem, was actually penned by Thamotharan’s 14 year-old daughter, Arati Arundhati Vijayanand. Written when she was 12, the adventure-themed novella is about a little girl — a prefect in Poyang Primary School in Bukit Panjang — who investigates the loss of a medal and reinstates the school’s reputation.
So impressed was the National Library’s review committee with this local-flavoured Tamil children’s book, they grabbed 75 copies to stock our local libraries! Crimson Earth has also received the National Arts Council’s Presentation and Participation Grant, which enables them to continue presenting quality works that enrich Singapore’s artistic diversity and encourage engagement.
ADVENTURE TIME To encourage children studying Tamil in Singapore to read, former teacher Prema Govin resorted to writing adventure-themed fiction stories like Keerthi (above) to engage them.
START THEM YOUNG William Phuan, co-founder of The Select Centre, believes translating quality children’s books helps expand cultural consciousness from young. PHOTO Sim Pei Lin
In addition to creating original content, Crimson Earth has also translated into Tamil popular English and Chinese picture books published by Epigram Books. Written by Singaporean authors, these titles include The Rock and the Bird by Chew Chia Shao Wei (winner of the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award 2015, and the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition 2009), The Robot in My Playground by Pauline Loh, and Justice Bao: The Case of the Missing Coins by Catherine Khoo.
Edmund Wee, CEO of Epigram Books, says that while they have translated Chinese, Malay and Tamil books by Singaporeans into English, the reverse is not feasible as they’re unable to evaluate the quality of the Tamil translations. “The few English-to-Mother Tongue translations we’ve undertaken were done under exceptional circumstances; so I laud the efforts of Crimson Earth to fill the gap in Tamil books for children here. I’m pleased we’re able to help in having stories that interest them.
“What they’re doing is definitely very important. As a multicultural society, our books should be accessible in one another’s languages,” adds William Phuan, co-founder of The Select Centre, which focuses on training translators and translating literature from Singapore and Southeast Asia. “This will help expand our cultural consciousness and create a more intercultural mind-set, especially if we can start them young.”
SPREAD THE WORD Epigram Books’ Edmund Wee is pleased that picture books like Justice Bao: The Case of the Missing Coins are finding new audiences through translation.
While there are other Tamil publishers in Singapore — such as Raji Publication, Kumaresh Enterprises and Lakshmi Publications — their focus is largely on assessment books, Ministry of Education-endorsed dictionaries and adult titles covering politics, philosophy and religion.
Crimson Earth focuses on literary works, targeted at Tamil students from pre-school to tertiary levels. For higher-level students, they have published selected works by Cultural Medallion recipient, P Krishnan (aka Puthumaithasan), who has written not only radio plays but also translated English classics like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Tamil.
In the pipeline: out-of-print works by Cultural Medallion recipients and SEA Write Award winners, including JM Sali, Na Govindasamy, Rama Kannabiran and M Balakrishnan (aka Ma Ilangkannan). “In 2016, we also plan to infuse manga and anime culture into Tamil literature, using Singapore as backdrop,” reveals Thamotharan. “We want Singapore to be recognised for producing good-quality books in Tamil, not only in the region, but in parts of the world where Tamil is being taught.”
Outside of India, Tamil is an official language in two countries: Singapore and Sri Lanka, while widely spoken in Malaysia and Mauritius. Beyond that, there are about 17 countries around the world where Tamil is spoken and studied as a subject in schools, including Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom.
“Being minorities, these diaspora communities are all struggling to get good literature in Tamil,” reveals Thamotharan. “Wherever they want to learn Tamil, there will be books available for them; it’s a matter of necessity — to communicate and to preserve identity. There is a vacuum we can fill; we will build up slowly.”
For more on Crimson Earth, visit www.crimsonearth.com.
HOOKED ON CLASSICS English classics like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (left) and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth were translated to Tamil by Cultural Medallion recipient, P Krishnan. PHOTOS Crimson Earth