Bearing AcrossAfter having spent a big chunk of her early life abroad, Manjushree Thapa returned to Nepal with a hope of writing in Nepali. With the help of Nepali poet Manjul, Thapa started relearning Nepali by translating poems from English to Nepali.
After having spent a big chunk of her early life abroad, Manjushree Thapa returned to Nepal with a hope of writing in Nepali. With the help of Nepali poet Manjul, Thapa started relearning Nepali by translating poems from English to Nepali. Over time, she developed a command over the Nepali language, but in the process realised that she did not possess the flair of writing in Nepali as the authors who were already writing in Nepali. Over the years she wrote several works of fiction and nonfiction, which secured her the recognition of being a leading voice among Nepali writers writing in English. However, she has not estranged herself from Nepali language and literature. She continued pouring over Nepali literature and she has contributed to the Nepali canon by thrusting seminal works of Nepali literature onto a larger literary arena. Her first translation work, titled The Country is Yours, features works by 49 different Nepali poets and writers. Recently, she also guest-edited La.lit’s issue, titled Translations from the Margins. Thapa, who resides in Canada, is currently in Nepal to launch her translation of Indra Bahadur Rai’s Aaja Ramita Cha. The day before her book launch, in a book bound alcove at her residence in Nepal, she had a conversation with the Post’s Sandesh Ghimire about the process of translating a literary text. Excerpts:
After writing several works of fiction and nonfiction, this is the first novel that you have translated. What drew you to the novel and how did the process begin?
I was working on my first novel when I read Aaja Ramita Cha for the first time. It was the sheer excellence of the novel that drew me to it. It’s a large social and political story, but one that’s told through the intimate personal struggles of a handful of characters. I loved the mix of psychological and sociological insights. And I loved the author’s philosophical bent. The beauty of his prose was an additional draw. This is the kind of writing I’ve aspired to myself. It’s long been one of my favourite novels—not just among Nepali novels, but worldwide. I immediately fell in love with the novel and I knew I wanted to translate it, but for almost 16 years I felt that I wasn’t ready. Also, the novel uses Darjeeling Nepali which is different than the Nepali I was used to. After I found an editor who happened to be from Darjeeling, I thought that we could do this together. After that, I began my translation and I finished the first draft at a translation residency in Canada.
What is a translation residency and how did your time at the translation residency help your work?
A translation residency is place where the translators have the time and space to focus on their project. There were several translators there. There was someone who was translating from Korean to English. I was translating from Nepali to English, and there were others who were translating various European languages. It was impossible for us to read the original texts or the translations, but there were regular discussions on the problems we faced. So whether it was a technical concern such as rendering a very Nepali flavoured word into English or more pragmatic concerns like monetary woes of a translator—I realised that the translators face similar issues. Translating is a long process and it was very encouraging to be around people who were engaged in the same task as you.
If writing is composing a song using the Guitar, then translating is comparable to moulding the tunes of guitar into the chords of the violin. As a Nepali reader, I am already aware of a lot of the cultural context of a Nepali novel, but how do you contextualise the novel to an English reader?
When I was relearning Nepali in my adult life, I was translating Lorca’s poems from English to Nepali. In his poems there is a lot of imagery of olives. The fruit evokes many aspects of the Mediterranean culture, but to the Nepali reader olive means nothing. Take for instance, the word Ramita from the book’s title. Ramita can mean commotion, gathering, and spectacle. Ultimately the context has to supply meaning to the text. Throughout the novel, the word ‘Nathey’ is used. If I used the literal meaning—nose hair—it would be too comical and lose the author’s intention. I settled with the word ‘pathetic’ which I think gets the meaning across. The most important function of a translation is to get the meaning across. After that it is essential to incorporate the style of the author, the socio-cultural context, but a translation will inevitably lack the flair of the original. In the novel, the author mixes high diction with street language—all that gets flattened out in the translation. Towards the end of the novel there is a nursery rhyme: ek dui nannibui—dui tin cheparo chin…How are you going to translate that in English? You can’t rhyme it in English, and the author’s intention will be lost in a literal translation. So you have to explain that it is a nursery rhyme. But I have also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, interpreted, worked with the text, played with it, until it became embodied in a language that felt genuine to me.
The process must have been a long one. To make the language genuine you must have worked on multiple drafts.
Yes, in the first draft you tend to remain extremely loyal to the original text and produce a very literal translation. In the second draft, I put the novel into English, so to speak—moulding the novel with the right phrases, rhythm, tone and flavour within the limits of the English language. In the third draft, which I did several months afterward, I sought the help of Basanta Thapa, editor of Himal books, who also happened to be a close friend of mine. I was going back sentence to sentence to make sure that I didn’t miss or misinterpret anything. He and many others constantly helped me to shape the book into its final form. Good translation is almost always an outcome of a collaborative effort.
Translating is a noble pursuit, but the audience here can already read in the original language. Do you have a particular group of audience in mind?
Indra Bahadur Rai’s works are riveting, and this book in particular won him the Sahitya Akademi Award, one of the highest literary awards in India. Since Nepali reading audience is very small in India, I hope that the book will be popular among Indians who cannot read the work in the original. There is also a younger generation of readers who are more comfortable reading in English—the book might be appealing for them. Another aim is to propel the book to the global audience. I also want my translation to boost the sale of the original book.
The physical copy of There is a Carnival Today looks beautiful. Are you happy and satisfied with the finished product?
The publishers have done a laudable work with the cover. It took a year to complete the project—I am definitely happy and also excited to see how the book is received. But the act of translating (or of writing) is such that you are never fully satisfied. During my time at the translation residency in Canada I learnt that the great works of the western canon get translated every 20 years or so. This helps the new generation relate to the classics. My translation is a start, and for now this is the only translation available. But hopefully there will be somebody years later willing to take on the challenge of translation—new translations will help sustain interest in a piece of literature or a literary tradition.