The city-based publishing house Pratham Books, which has been working on translating children’s books into various regional languages for many years, recently launched their Freedom to Read campaign, an initiative that commemorates UNESCO’s day dedicated to the mother language. Their digital platform, StoryWeaver, which has been operational for three years opened up access to 800 books for children, in 24 languages. “Since then, we have seen great traction across languages, and today, we offer storybooks in no less than 148 languages. We believe that every child has the right to enjoy high-quality reading material in her own mother tongue, and that led us to create the Freedom to Read campaign as well,” says Suzanne Singh, chairperson of Pratham Books.Explains Purvi Shah, head of Digital Initiatives, “Take Surjapuri for example. It’s a language that has no written script. So our partner, Yuman Hussain, who’s the founder of Azad India Foundation, which is based out of Kishanganj in Bihar, used the Devanagari script to translate books into Surjapuri. At least this way, the kids will not lose touch with their mother tongue, even if they do grow up to follow the State language.”

But to take up the mammoth task of translating Indian and foreign languages cannot be done alone. “The only way to achieve this kind of scale while maintaining a high standard of translation was to collaborate with people and organisations across regions, those who are already working in languages that have little written material. There’s no way a single organisation could achieve this – it’s the result of great collaboration and commitment. The kind of response we’ve received from our partners in India and other parts of the world has been phenomenal,” Singh adds.

Meet Amit Dudave, a school teacher working with the tribal students belonging to the Pawari tribe of Maharashtra, where their spoken language Pawari has no written script. “The first translation I had done was in 2006 when I wrote a dictionary for the kids – from Hindi to Pawari. And over time, I worked with my other colleagues to translate stories for the kids so that they would have something to read in their own language. Now, Pawari does not have a script, so we use the Devanagari script. But what it did was bridge the gap between the kids and their teachers because the kids began to open up to their tutors. And they were having fun too,” says Dudave. At the moment, there are about 24 Pawari translations available on StoryWeaver. 

“It was not an easy process. There are words in Hindi that don’t quite have a translation in Pawari, so we had to find something that would come closest in meaning. It was a great experience – to be able to connect the students with their teachers who otherwise always found a gap in communication because they didn’t know Pawari,” he adds.And then there’s Yuman Hussain, who works out of the Kishanganj area of Bihar. “Here, people speak Surjapuri, which is an interesting combination of Bengali and Bihari, but they have nothing to read in that language. In fact, I am not even sure if anything was ever written in that language. We’ve translated about 100 storybooks using the Devanagari script into Surjapuri for StoryWeaver. The thing is, kids are forgetting their mother tongue because they don’t get to read anything in them. Most schools stick to their state languages and/or English, and a lot of the local dialects are getting lost. Soon, they will just die out,” she says.

Now here’s the most interesting part. Given that a lot of these organisations are working in remote areas, the Internet is not easily available. But that did not deter anyone. Most of the translators have taken printouts of these stories so that the kids can at least read them even if they don’t have the Internet. “There will come a time when the Internet won’t be as inaccessible to them, and the digital platform will become an excellent resource. But as of now, they can browse them on their mobile devices or read the print-outs,” Hussain says.

Freedom To Read’s massive collaboration is not restricted to Maharashtra and Bihar, or even the country. Pratham Books has partnered with the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) for translations in Igbo, Hausa, Fante, Ewe, Yoruba, Kikuyu, Luganda and Swahili, the Suchana Uttor Chandipur Community Society for Santali and Kora, Unnati Institute for Social and Educational Change for Korku, Darakht-e Danesh Library for Pashto and Farsi, and so on. And then there are the language champions – independent translators who have come on board to enable the cause. Apart from Dudave, There’s Agnes NS Nyendwa who is translating books into Chinyanja (spoken by the Chewa tribe of Africa), Ankit Dwivedi for Bundelkhandi, Maharani Aulia and BE Priyanti for Basa Jawa (Javanese), Melchiade Ntibazonkiza for Kirundi (another African spoken language), and so on. All of these partners have come together to populate this massive digital library for children, offering them stories in languages they may well have rescued from extinction. 


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