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Tell me a story

By January 2, 2019No Comments

Source : The HBL – BLink

With over 10,000 stories in 124 languages, StoryWeaver is a vibrant reading site that helps children learn while giving a boost to obscure languages

I am a big boy now.

I can climb up the steps.

But I cannot climb down again.

I can climb on a chair.

But I cannot climb down again…

— I Can Climb

Anupam Dam, a pre-primary schoolteacher at the Purbachal Vidyapith School in Nadia, West Bengal, watched the quiet excitement among his students as they read this simple story — by Mini Shrinivasan — on a screen in the classroom. Within minutes, they were hooked to the story of a young boy climbing up, and learning how to come down. They slowly stitched together the simple words, read them aloud and figured out the rest from Deval Maniar’s large illustrations.

The story had appeared on a split screen — the Bengali version, their mother tongue, on one side, and English and Hindi on the other. The exercise was meant to prune their mother tongue skills and familiarise the Std 1 students with English. “Most of the students are first- and second-generation learners,” says Dam. “It is difficult to get them to speak in English. They understand the language, but lack the confidence to converse in it.”

Dam, along with many other teachers, is trying to engage children with languages through stories. His aide in this exercise is StoryWeaver, an online repository of stories for children. Started in 2015 by Pratham Books, a not-for-profit publisher of children’s books, StoryWeaver is not just a virtual library but is also viewed differently by diverse groups.

If Dam sees it as a teaching tool that opens up story chests for his students, Chetan Acharya, president of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal (KBM), looks at it as a medium to save small languages. To artist and traveller Sarayu Kamat, StoryWeaver books are the way to connect with a community. For language-based organisations and translation practitioners, it is a vast pool of resources.

It offers over 10,000 stories for children in 124 languages, including Bhoti (spoken in Ladakh), Kumaoni (in Uttarakhand), Santali (in eastern India) and Gondi (in south-central India) and foreign languages such as Kurdish, Afrikaans and Haitian Creole. The content on the website is available on open licence, making it free for anyone to translate it into any language. For instance, I Can Climb is available in 60 versions and 47 languages including Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer, Sinhala and Norwegian. Dam himself has translated over 25 stories on the platform — from English and Hindi to Bengali and vice versa.

“The purpose of StoryWeaver is to create a reading ecosystem, driven by the ideas of inclusion and collaboration,” says Himanshu Giri, CEO Pratham Books. Anyone can access the site or use the content for free. Translators, publishers and other organisations who make content available on StoryWeaver do so without charging a fee.

Free access separates StoryWeaver from the rest. Giri admits keeping the medium open-source is complicated when there are authors, illustrations and publishers on board. “Asking any established author or illustrator to give away rights is tough. I call myself the copyleft model,” quips Giri. Yet, StoryWeaver has managed to do so. On the upside, the platform offers authors and illustrators a reach that copyrighted material often does not have.

Bengaluru-based Pratham Books got a hint of the unprecedented reach of online stories when it put up material on open licence in 2009. It uploaded some 20 titles on a CC (creative commons) licence platform, on which a work can be freely shared, translated, altered and so on. “Over a year, 20 became 100 with derivatives in multiple languages. Our books were being used to teach English in Tokyo, they were being translated online into Hebrew and Zulu,” says Giri.

StoryWeaver thrives on collaboration, and has managed to create a larger community bound by stories. “Some partnerships have evolved organically. Someone interested in translating a story into his/her mother tongue would approach us,” says Giri. On the other hand, the platform has generated interest among diverse advocacy groups working in education, literacy and health, spurring partnerships and generating stories in local languages. The focus in StoryWeaver is on underserved, local languages. “At the time of Independence we had over 2,600 languages, we are left with 700 now,” points out Giri.

The platform attempts to push back at least a few languages from the brink of disappearance through local interventions. “Technology will not help us scale unless people help us. Language is such a thing that needs human involvement,” he adds.

Others — such as governments and organisations — are sitting up and taking note of StoryWeaver. The Arunachal Pradesh government has asked Pratham Books to establish libraries in government schools. “Around 400 classrooms are digitally equipped,” says Giri. CGnet Swara, the online voice portal that allows people in the central tribal belt to report local news, partnered with the platform to translate stories into Gondi. The website has over 250 stories in the language now.

Purvi Shah, Head, Digital Initiatives, Pratham Books, says the call to preserve a local language through stories often comes from the community. Suchana, an organisation working on child welfare and literacy in West Bengal, partnered with StoryWeaver to translate stories into Santali and Kora, another indigenous community language spoken in the region. “Suchana evangelised the idea of translating from Bengali into these languages; now we have over 84 resources in Santali and Kora on the platform,” says Shah.

As the partnership between Suchana and StoryWeaver has grown, so has the link of Santal and Kora communities with their stories. Since readers were often in remote areas, translated stories were downloaded in PDF format, saved on devices and taken to the grassroots. To make it effective in areas without internet access, the platform allows stories to be saved offline. “Suchana has raised funds to print these stories into books,” Shah says. It is making the stories accessible to Bengali-speaking teachers so that they can, in turn, spread the Santali books within the Santal communities and widen the reader base, she adds.

Shah calls it the “ripple effect”, where a child warms up to the idea of reading, slowly sheds the fear of words and graduates to reading more. “The goal is to create a large repository of mother tongue resources and instil in children the joy of reading in their language. That is why we never digress from stories,” adds Shah.

The KBM’s association with StoryWeaver is over two years old and has resulted in nearly 120 stories being translated into Konkani. “Children should get a chance to read and think in their mother tongue. This is a small effort to save a language,” says Acharya of KBM. Konkani, among the 22 languages that are a part of Schedule Eight of the Constitution and written in five different scripts, was waiting for a boost that would connect it with the young.

“Stories are one way of doing it,” Acharya says. At the primary and secondary school run by the KBM in Madgaon, students were trained to browse and read on StoryWeaver. The mandal also conducted a workshop for schoolteachers, training them to use the platform and even try their hand at translation. Pratham Books and KBM together printed 50 translated titles. “We made 500 copies of each book, and distributed them for free in 250 schools,” Acharya adds.

StoryWeaver has also forayed into languages that barely have a history of children’s literature. Earlier this year, it held a hackathon in Haryana by bringing together schoolteachers from 20 government schools to translate children’s stories into Haryanvi, a language that closely resembles Hindi but does not boast a strong literary tradition. “It is a deep-rooted oral language, and yet the schoolteachers who came for the hackathon did not remember reading a Haryanvi story growing up,” says Amna Singh, associate language editor at Pratham Books. When a language begins to fade out of official use, it’s considered an early marker of a bleak future. “Documenting it is the best way to keep a language alive,” Singh says.

At the two-day event, teachers were trained on the nuances of translating for children. They translated 74 stories from Hindi to Haryanvi, peer-reviewed and polished each other’s work, and enhanced the StoryWeaver pool. The experience emboldened the team to conduct a second hackathon in Kolkata, this time bringing together language experts, students of literature and schoolteachers. The exercise had participants splitting their hair on how to aptly translate “You are being silly, Mr Brown” into Bengali.

“They animatedly discussed the most suitable translation for ‘silly’,” Singh recalls.

Participants with different skill sets made the exercise vibrant. “The schoolteachers were game changers. They were the closest to the children and would not allow a story to be sanitised,” she adds. The teachers argued that if a story was cleansed to speak a language the children were unfamiliar with, it would never lure them to the classroom.

Collaborations at StoryWeaver have often extended into foreign shores and the Philippines-based QwertyWorks, a professional translation group, is one such international ally. “We uploaded our very first book from StoryWeaver in April this year,” says Jake Irwin Estrada, founder and CEO. In a matter of months, the group translated 67 books from the platform — 23 were translated into Tagalog and 44 into Cebuano — two languages spoken in the Philippines. “We are currently working on translating more books into secondary Philippine languages such as Hiligaynon, Ilokano, Bikolano, and Tausug and Maranao,” adds Estrada.

While most stories remain online, Estrada keeps a limited number of printed books to be distributed among children who attend public day-care centres near his office in Manila. “Some of these children don’t have enough money to buy food for school, let alone books,” says Estrada. The children, he says, are shocked when they receive books in their native language, and are allowed to take them home. “They end up receiving from us the first book that they will ever own,” he adds.

StoryWeaver boasts a handful of “champions” — people who have translated hundreds of stories into a particular language for free. And then there are those like Sarayu Kamat who have taken the stories into the community. On a recent trip to Bastar, she took with her 200 stories in Gondi, each of them printed in colour on A4 sheets and spiral bound into small books. “We visited several houses in Kanker and distributed the books. We also donated some to the local school library,” Kamat says. She shares pictures of young Manisha, who belongs to the Muria tribe in Chhattisgarh, enjoying the Gondi book Kamat had gifted her.

As the portal scales new milestones such as breaching the 10,000-story mark, Giri wants the community to own it: “We want people to run it. We want publishers to join this.” Even if for-profit publishers would share their backlist (older books from a publisher) on StoryWeaver, he says, it would go a long way.

“The goal next year is to get a few known children’s publishers from India on board,” he says. “If people own it, they will value it more.”

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