Taking Nepali literature to the world

A character in Buddhisagar’s bestselling 2010 novel कर्नाली ब्लुज (Karnali Blues) has the habit of adding “हजुरको” (‘hajurko’) at the end of his sentences whenever he speaks. Eventually he runs a teashop which takes its name after the same memorable idiolect: हजुरको चियापसल (‘Hajurko Chiyapasal’). 

To the reader of Nepali, the nuance clicks immediately – a phrase is used so often that it takes on a character itself. But how does one transpose the same effect into the English medium when translating? 

Michael Hutt, whose translation of Karnali Blues was published in December by Penguin India to rave reviews, agonised over how to render हजुरको into Nepali, trying to find the perfect turn of phrase without misrepresenting it. 

“‘For you, sir teashop’ just doesn’t work,” says Hutt, a professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. “At first mention, I say something like ‘for you, sir’, so that the semantics will be apparent to an English-language reader, but keep the ‘hajurko’ in the later instances.” 

Hutt’s other translations of Nepali works include Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s मुनामदन Muna Madan in 1996 and Lil Bahadur Chhetri’s  बसाईँ Basain (as Mountains Painted with Turmeric) in 2008.

Even then, Hutt adds, ‘for you, sir’ may not be the perfect choice, as another reader of Nepali literature may immediately, upon coming across the phrase in the book, quip, “I would have translated that differently.” 

Nevertheless, Hutt believes that as a translator, he has a serious responsibility to the author and the original text to not distort the intended impact and meaning. 

For author Buddha Sagar, translation is a joint effort. He says, “The Nepali was mine, but the translation is Michael’s too.” 

There are no perfect translations of books, and Hutt believes “a sense of compromise must be reached between the original text and the translation”.

When translating from the Nepali language into English, says Hutt, there is a character embedded in the Nepali language that speaks to a Nepali speaker or reader but not to English. The levels of politeness and deference between speaker and interlocutor in conversational context, for example, is difficult to take from Nepali and replicate in English because there are not exact counterparts.

But taking excessive liberties in the name of ‘capturing the spirit of the text,’ says Hutt, is an act of violence. “If certain aspects of the original language do not come elegantly in translation, one has to accept it,” he says. “The original must not be changed beyond recognition.” 

One classic challenge, he recalls, was to choose how much Nepali to put into the translation, especially in the cases of nouns for family roles such as father, mother, sister, uncle. 

Set in far west Nepal, the narrative of Karnali Blues is informed by its society and dialect, and the use of ba, amadidi and kaka or mama are ubiquitous. This is true for most Nepali writings. Characters often have different words for different family members depending on whether they are from the father’s side or the mother’s. 

On top of this, these words do not automatically denote kinship. Many characters are called ama or kaka because they fall in the general category by their age. The effects of these nouns in a text are often impossible to translate into another language, and the meaning may be lost on the reader if they lack a certain familiarity with the culture and society. 

Quoting Derrida, English language author from Nepal Manjushree Thapa wrote in a paper in Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) published in 1999: ‘A translation never succeeds.’ 

Coupled with the differences in dialects and syntax, the difficulties when translating are often posed by the intangible aspects particular to languages, such as the tone, the cadence, humour and poetic images. A slight mistranslation can unravel and flatten the entire narrative.

Thapa adds, ’[T]here is, in each translator, a persistent desire for such successes, a desire often realised, albeit erratically, unpredictably’. She says this often leads the translator to ‘achieve a certain logic and rhetoric during translation’.

In case of Hutt’s translation of Karnali Blues, this may refere, among other choices, to the use of the English ‘sister’, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in the narration. But their Nepali equivalents are used when the characters refer to each other in quote marks. 

“Sometimes you have to make these rules for yourself as you go,” he says.

Even 22 years ago, Thapa wrote that there can be ‘traces of a desire to show an English-reading audience some uniquely Nepali aspect of the original text,’ as the ‘translator acts as a guide into literary Nepal.’

Hutt’s aim is to show that there is a vast body of creative, literary voices in Nepal, beyond the exotic image of a trekking paradise. “Nepal is spoken for and about by others so much,” he says. “One thing that has always frustrated me since I started reading Nepali is that many foreigners engage with Nepal but never read Nepali or are aware that there are nuanced and complex voices here, which can enhance their understanding of the world and humanity beyond measure.”

He is curious to see what the reviewers say of his translation of Karnali Blues. Will they pick up on the universal themes of filial love in a landscape undergoing radical socio-cultural and political changes, or see it as a book translated from a foreign language as-of-yet underrepresented in the global literary scene? 

Another case in point is Ajit Baral’s English translation of फातसुङ (Faatsung) by Chuden Kabimo. Titled Song of the Soil, the translation was published in October 2021 by the UK-based Balestier Press which specialises in contemporary world literature. 

“The story of Faatsung is incredibly poignant,” says Baral, who is with FinePrint publishers and brought out the Nepali original. “The novel was acclaimed and loved by readers of Nepali, and I felt that it had to be translated into English.”

The plot line of Faatsung focuses on the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling, which Baral felt resonates with Nepal’s armed struggle. In addition, Baral’s idea was not to translate and publish the book in Nepal only. 

“Many in Nepal who read Nepali always have the option to read the book in its original language,” he says. “My idea was to bring the book to foreign readers as well.”

There is an increasing focus on translation in the world at present, adds Baral, and many publishers are now putting out more translated works than before. This is evidenced by the widespread popularity of authors like Haruki Murakami, Elena Ferrante, Olga Tokarczuk, Han Kang and Mieko Kawakami. 

Speaking in Tongues

But translation itself is not a new craft. The word ‘translate’ comes from Latin translatus ‘carried over, bear across’ and translators have been integral to cultural and intellectual exchanges since The Epic of Gilgamesh was translated four thousand years ago from Sumerian into Akkadian. 

Many works of Greek philosophers and mathematicians survived in large part due to their Arabic translations. Even in Nepal, Bhanubhakta Acharya’s रामायण Ramayan, which is considered the first Nepali epic, was itself translated from Sanskrit. 

And while Nepali literature is relatively young, there are also writers who are pioneers in social realism, psychological fiction and experimental writings, and have made unique contributions to understanding the human condition. 

Michael Hutt says a certain section of readership, for example in the UK, is now used to reading books translated from different languages. In addition to Russian, French and Italian, writings from Czech, Korean and Japanese are also gaining readership. 

“There is an entire range of different languages, and people are engaging with those books as literature,” he says, “And they are being evaluated as literature that strikes our imagination and our emotions.”

Nepali stories being translated into English and published internationally in this scene provides readers with a unique geographical flavour. Says Baral: “This increases the probability of more authentic and local stories from Nepal being published abroad as readers there will be able to find something new in them.”

Chuden Kabimo, author of Faatsung, also sees the English translation of his book as a positive addition to literature and emphasises the role of translations as bridges. He says, “In translation, it’s not just the book that is being transmitted, but identities, cultures and history as well. This helps mediate the apparent separation between communities and peoples of different nationalities, and help us understand each other better.”

It is like borders coming down, he explains, as the story travels from one person to the next, one country to the next. And since its translation, Song of the Soil has now also been added to the BA English curriculum at the SRM University in Sikkim where, Kabimo believes, the story and culture will now also be passed from one generation to the next.

But there is still a long way to go, as linguistic limitations are compounded by systemic challenges. Whether a translation is good or not depends on numerous factors that include the quality of the original text, the translator’s command of both languages and the skills of an editor. All of these are largely dependent upon the state of literature and the studies and practice of translation, which are currently lacking in Nepal.

“Language is the first barrier. Our command of English is not perfect,” remarks Baral, “and in many cases the flair that should come from an English-language text has been lacking in our translations.” 

Sometimes the text reads too much like Nepali, and is jarring. This calls to mind the English translation of Narayan Wagle’s 2005 novel पल्पसा क्याफे Palpasa Café, which was not as well-received as the original Nepali. 

Knowing both languages is not enough either. Buddhisagar, whose pen name itself translates as ‘Ocean of Wisdom’ says: “Even Google can translate. Translators should also be writers themselves, they should have a sense of poetry and creativity. They must be up to date with their society and the world.”

Additionally, translation is not a one-time thing. Citing Milan Kundera’s The Joke, Buddhisagar remarks how it has been translated five different times into English. “Translations need periodic polishing,” he says, “But there is not enough conversation on translating in Nepal at present. Even literature has not been taken that seriously.”

There is also a gap between the theoretical approach to translating and the actual practice. “Theory is important for background, surely,” explains Baral, “but we need more hands-on experience on how to translate, and what the different options of translation are. Workshops could be conducted so that writers and translators can meet and work together.”

One way to address the limitations is to have a good editor who is equally accomplished in the languages. “A sentence can be translated in many ways,” Baral says, “but to have an editor who can pick out the right one from the mix makes all the difference.”

Anurag Basnet, who was previously an editor with Rupa Publications and Penguin Books India in New Delhi, agrees. Himself a translator of Nepali and Hindi books into English, he describes his editorial process as starting with going line-by-line with the translator.

“That is where the most fights happen,” he laughs. After that, the editor has to ensure that the text stands independently in English. 

Basnet believes that literary translation is even more important now, especially in the context of South Asia, where despite having similar languages, culture and history, we do not talk to each other. 

“There is a lot of writing happening in the various languages,” he adds, “but there is not as much communication between the languages.”

He feels that translating is in a way the best recommendation one can give for a book. As a translator you are trying to convey as precisely as possible the emotion you felt when you read the book, he says, but a big challenge is that translation, while an intense and engaging process, is not yet financially rewarding. 

“There are almost no supporting mechanisms, either from the government or other sources. This needs to be addressed urgently,” he adds: “It cannot always be a labour of love.”

Ashish Dhakal


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