Meet Christian Weiss, champion of the German edition of Indian literatures

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Tucked away in a run-of-the-mill apartment building in Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most notable publishing houses, Draupadi Verlag. Founded in 2003 by Christian Weiss, a fan of India, it has created a place where the literatures of the Indian subcontinent flourish on German soil.

Christian Weiss was born in a suburb of Stuttgart in the late 1950s at a time when India was only just beginning to appear on the German literary horizon. He was fortunate in his childhood to have a piano teacher, a cultured lady who was interested in Indian philosophy, who had visited India and was a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore. It was his descriptions of his experiences there that first made him aware of a country far beyond the limits of his suburban world.

Yet India did not take on any personal importance for him until he traveled to Heidelberg as a student of German literature and history. It was there that a series of happy accidents drove him on his long road to India and Draupadi Verlag. In 1983 he met a Bengali man who invited him to join a study group he planned to take to Kolkata. To make the most of this trip, he advised participants to learn Bengali before their departure.

Three months from the end, Christian Weiss enrolled in Bengali lessons at the South Asian Institute of the University of Heidelberg. His teacher there was Alokeranjan Dasgupta, a poet and writer who was also well known in Bengal for his contributions to the magazine. Desh.

Armed with a few basic Bengali, Weiss arrived in bustling Kolkata in November 1983 for a three-month stay. The group of students were introduced to major religions, the variety of cultures, Indian history and the complex politics of the country. Weiss was impressed by the warmth of the people, especially when he answered their question about his origin by saying: “Aami Paschim Germany theke eshechi” (“I am from West Germany”).

On this memorable trip, Christian also visited Santiniketan and Darjeeling and even spent time in Dakshineshwar, a religious complex on the shore of the Hooghly, to get a feel for the spirituality that reigned across the country. “These three months in India were a real turning point in my life,” he said.

Upon his return, he immediately enrolled in further Bengali courses at the University of Heidelberg. Although he did his Masters in History and German, he was fascinated by Bengali literature, which was now becoming accessible to him. At the end of his studies, he started working for Springer Verlag, a publishing house based in Heidelberg.

At the same time, he began to translate Bengali literature into German. Looking for a publisher for his translations, he was disappointed by the works published by the two small companies active in this field at the time.

So in 2003, twenty years after his first visit to India, Christian decided he had to remedy the fact that rich Indian literatures had found so little resonance in Germany. Apart from Tagore and a few novelists who wrote in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, few authors from the subcontinent had been translated into German. Those who wrote in the main regional languages, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam, etc., were unfortunately completely unknown in the German-speaking world.

In order to correct this imbalance, he decides to start his own publishing house. His small apartment in Heidelberg became the headquarters of this unique new company and has remained since.

While searching for a suitable name for his business, Christian thought of Draupadi, a woman whose importance in the cultural imagination of Indians has spanned the ages. In addition to reading the Mahabharata and watching the Peter Brook epic film, he also read a very moving short story by Mahasweta Devi on Draupadi, a tribal woman who stands up for human dignity in the face of injustice.

“Draupadi attracted me more than any other character,” Weisss said. “She is a symbol of the women’s movement, of rebellion, of courage in the face of adversity and of character.”

Initially, Draupadi Verlag only published books by well-known Indian authors: poetry, fiction and non-fiction written in major Indian languages. However, attention has now broadened to include writers of lesser renown. In his library, he proudly displays translations of works by great literary artists such as Tagore, Mahasweta Devi and Nirmal Verma alongside more modern Hindi writers such as Sara Rai and Geetanjali Shree, Tamil writers Thoppil Mohammed Meeran and Perumal Murugan, and the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan.

In his selection of books, Christian Weiss is also guided by his commitment to social justice and his willingness to give voice to disadvantaged authors generally ignored by publishers and society. Tulsi Ram who wrote about his childhood as an untouchable in his autobiographical work Murdahiya, probably would not have found a publisher in Europe if Draupadi Verlag had not decided to publish it.

The same is true of the stories of Nepalese authors in Auf der Suche nach dem eignen Breast (The search for one’s own being). Among Draupadi Verlag’s recent and most successful publications is also the German translation of Baby Halder’s autobiography, which details her life as a domestic worker in the English version titled A less ordinary life. The German version, titled Kein gewöhnliches Leben has sold 2,500 copies.

Over the years, the books he published have found readers all over the German-speaking world and have been praised for the quality of the translations. “The secret to my success in finding quality translators is my relationship with the South Asian Institute at Heidelberg University,” he says. It is there that he finds experts in important Indian languages ​​who not only recommend new authors and new works, but can either translate the works themselves or have excellent contacts with other talents in the field. domain. During his many travels in India, he was able to establish personal contacts with authors and publishers and deepen his knowledge of current literary trends and works in India.

In 2015, Weiss began to branch out to also include works by local Heidelberg authors. However, these represent only a small percentage of Draupadi Verlag’s publications, with the focus still being on the Indian subcontinent. In addition to Indian authors, the company has also published works by Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi authors.

Although Draupadi Verlag has not been around for very long and serves a niche market, it has started to receive official recognition and has won major awards. In 2007 Christian Weiss received the Gisela Bonn Prize from the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft. This award, awarded in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, included a trip to India.

This was followed in 2016 by the Bundesverdienstkreuz, an award similar to India’s Padma Shri, awarded by the German government to those who have made a significant contribution to the country. And more recently, in 2020, Draupadi Verlag was among the small publishing houses to win the German Publishers Award. This recognition led to increased recognition and sales, and cemented its place in the German publishing world.

While finances have generally been a major hurdle, Weiss learned to tap into institutional funding. “As you know, Germany is a rich country,” he says. “There are funds available. It just takes patience and persistence and the willingness to write many requests for financial support. This is how he was sometimes able to find the necessary funds to invite Indian authors to book fairs and reading tours. Baby Halder, for example, was invited to take a book tour of Germany, and all costs were covered by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

In recent times, with the ever increasing popularity of e-books, the famous Swiss publishing house Union Verlag has expressed interest in collaborating with Draupadi Verlag. They have included German translations of selected books in Hindi, Tamil and Urdu in their e-book portfolio, the first time that a major German-language publisher has been involved in delivering Indian literature to a European audience.

Asked about the other challenges he currently faces, he looked around his living room and gestured towards the walls. “Storage space,” he said with a contrite smile. The walls are lined with shelves that groan under the weight of the books he has published. He now has books stacked up to his knees along the walls of his office and the hallway.

Although the road to his success was as steep as the stairs to his third-floor office, Weiss said he got great satisfaction from the trip. “What I really love is working with people. I like bringing them together – authors and translators – to collaborate with them on a publishing project and help it succeed.


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