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The best of times, the worst of times

  • Translated by Manjushree Thapa, There’s a Carnival Today makes one pause and breathe in the air of Darjeeling and its vibrant, cosmopolitan yet Nepali culture. It also gives us a glimpse of what ‘Nepal’ meant to its people that had settled across its sout
- Kurchi Dasgupta

Nov 18, 2017-Completed in 1958, Indra Bahadur Rai’s only novel was finally published in 1964, at a time when Nepali was still not considered an official language in India. Yet even a cursory reading of Aaja Ramita Chha is enough to convince one that it is as an extraordinarily evolved literary piece, which must necessarily have come at a point of a rare cultural and linguistic flowering of a literary tradition that had Darjeeling at its centre.

Speaking Tiger Publishing has recently brought us an English translation of the novel, There’s a Carnival Today. Translated ably by Manjushree Thapa, There’s a Carnival Today makes one pause and breathe in the air of Darjeeling and its vibrant, cosmopolitan yet Nepali culture in newly independent India. It also gives us a glimpse of what ‘Nepal’ meant to its people that had settled across its southern border.

Any acceptable translation requires that the translator have an excellent background in the source language and complete control of the resources of the target language—the language into which the text is being translated.

Thapa of course has grown up with Nepali, and her facility in English is well proven by now, given her international success as a writer in the language. Despite my limited reading skills when it comes to Nepali, I painstakingly compared the translation with the original in places, and was happily surprised that not only has Thapa retained the obvious content of the text and transferred its subtleties of meaning and emotive value of words, but has given us a lucid and lyrical rendering of a beautiful but often idiosyncratic original.

“The opening section of Aaja Ramita Chha is notorious; it has done its bit to scare away readers with its mix of high and low diction, complex sentences and dense metaphors. It offers a panoramic sweep over the Darjeeling landscape and then zooms in on the protagonist, Janak.

I really enjoyed translating that section, because it required more linguistic dexterity than any other passage in the book. I knew, starting in, that if I could crack that section, I could translate the rest of the novel without too much difficulty,” shared Thapa when I asked whether there was any particular section that she found exceptionally challenging, or had brought her a special joy.

There are deviations of course, usually in the form of breaking up longer, involved sentences into two or more shorter ones (the first sentence itself is a case in example). This not only makes the translation more impactful, but also helps in conveying the original’s edgy style. Rai himself had declared in the foreword, ‘I saw that life was moving forward, but not in an organised manner...I’ve disarranged the novel in a similar way.’  Thapa, and her editor, has lent us readers a further helping hand by separating obviously discontinuous parts by inserting linefeeds.

That she has made the tenses more consistent in keeping with conventions familiar to an English language readership, Thapa clearly mentions in her note, as does she explain her handling of identity related issues and her choice of ‘carnival’ in the title.

There are, however, instances of deletion that I found a little perplexing. For example, I was moved by the lilting charm of: ‘an old Tibetan beggar standing in a spot that a patch of sunlight had selected for him.

He was holding the railing tightly, having staked his life on the righteousness of strangers on a day as cold as this’ (pg 108) but was surprised to find that the following sentence, ‘tyasko haat bigreko chha, khutta euta chaldaina’ (pg 71, Sajha Prakashan, 6th edition, 2067) finds no place in the English. An oversight perhaps? 

 

IB Rai’s novel meanders through 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s Darjeeling against the backdrop of India’s freedom movement, the communist movement in tea plantations and a rising awareness of the Gorkha-Nepali identity that would later develop into a more rigorous call for political autonomy. Love, relationships and their failures, queries into the nature of being, politics and historical time are wrought into the actions, gestures and thoughts of a core group of characters and a larger circle of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, adversaries.

Aaja Ramita Chha had spontaneously risen from the history of a particular people but it belongs within a larger body of regional novels of the time that dealt with surprisingly similar concerns and embodied equally innovative treatments, including their insistence on a lack of resolution.   

There’s a carnival today

Author: IB Rai (trans. Manjushree Thapa)

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

But translating a South Asian language into English has its hazards. The differences in syntax is the most immediate and obvious. The act of representing a regional text through a language so heavily charged with its own colonialist history must also throw up certain challenges.

So I had to ask, ‘How would you define the English you have translated into? Also, would you like to comment on the issue of translating into a language like English given its colonial/postcolonial burden?’, to which Thapa responded with: “In postcolonial literature, English is open to being occupied by non-English subjects. I enjoy that as a writer, and I enjoy that as a translator.

It’s especially gratifying to bring this particular story into English, given Darjeeling’s history as a British ‘hill station,’ and the romance it used to enjoy in the colonial imagination.

I wanted to translate the novel into standard UK/US English, rather than South Asian English, to give it as wide a readership as possible. There are, of course, many Nepali terms in it still.

But I wanted the translation to read as a standard UK/US English novel about South Asia would. It’s a special joy to be able to bring a story from one of India’s smaller languages into English, and to help expand its reach beyond the Northeast and Nepal, where it’s already a well-revered classic.”

The last sentence in Rai’s foreword reads, ‘And another thing: it seems to be possible to write only about people you like.’ I remember reading somewhere that ‘one should never translate anything one does not admire.’ At the launch of There’s a Carnival Today, Thapa pointed out that the reason she was drawn towards the project was because she felt an affinity towards the style and content of IB Rai’s writing, an immediate resonance as she entered his world.

And it was this joy of discovery that she wanted to bring to her readers: ‘For the reader’s enjoyment is, in the end, my goal. I enjoyed reading this novel in its original, and I have enjoyed translating it into English,’ she wrote in the translator’s note.

It is this joy that spills out from every word and turn of phrase as she dexterously transfers the original Nepali into English, for no amount of empathy or skill can make a good translation unless the translator feels at one with the source text’s world view and stylistic grace. 

But why Aaja Ramita Chha? At the end of the day, translation is about the choices the translator makes while recoding the original into a target language.  These choices stem from the translator’s cultural, ideological, historical and linguistic location and affinities.

Thapa could have chosen any other novel from an extensive Nepali corpus. My guess would be that her choice of Rai rests on his distinctive style that recurrently weaves together the realistic with the experimental avant garde, and his commitment towards recording effective history, which are elements that Thapa herself negotiates consistently through her own oeuvre.

There’s a Carnival Today may not be a word for word replica of Aaja Ramita Chha, but it is a very fine version of it. We must thank her for making accessible to a non-Nepali readership a work of such vigour, intellectual depth and formal elegance. 

Published: 18-11-2017 08:39

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