A novelist talks to his translator

Ajit Baral of FinePrint in Kathmandu (left) who published Faatsung, the Nepali language novel from Darjeeling by Chuden Kabimbo (right), and also translated it into English as Song of the Soil which has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize in India.

Darjeeling-based writer Chuden Kabimbo’s Nepali language novel Faatsung was translated into English as Song of the Soil and published in Kathmandu by Ajit Baral of FinePrint. Now, Song of the Soil has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature which honours Indian authors. Kabimbo and Baral sat down for a conversation recently. Excerpts:

Ajit Baral: You often stress that literature transcends geographical and linguistic boundaries. You were trying to prove that, literally, when you travelled to Nepal looking for a publisher. What made you look for a publisher in Nepal, even though your debut book, 1986, a collection of short stories, was published in Darjeeling? Did you have any inkling it might cross borders and be translated into other languages?

Chuden Kabimo: I believe love and literature don't have any boundaries. I was born in a small village from where it took hours to reach Darjeeling. I had thought I would tell the story of this smaller Darjeeling to the bigger Darjeeling, and if possible, to people beyond Darjeeling. But I didn't know that this story would go as far as it has. 

When I finished the novel, I thought it would be good if I could get some copies to Nepal. This brought me to Kathmandu, the city of my dreams, whose landmarks I grew up hearing about on the radio. Why would Kathmandu believe in an ordinary writer from a remote corner of Darjeeling? I had no reason to be hopeful. But fate had something else in store for the novel. 

I had travelled to Nepal hoping to find a publisher, but returned with the happy news of simultaneous publication in Nepal and India. My story had, as you said, already crossed one boundary. 

Every book makes a different journey. The writer guides the story forward, but after the book is published, it is the other way around. Perhaps Faatsung made me aim for the wider world. Nothing is more important for a writer than the trust of their readers. This trust gave me the courage to go to Kathmandu for the first time in my life. Readers in Nepal loved the book, which must be why the translators were interested. The year it was published in Nepal, Samik Chakrawarti translated it into Bangla in Kolkata, enabling me to cross yet another geographical boundary. It was then translated into English, taking me as far away as the UK. And then the JCB shortlist happened. The Hindi translation is now complete. Soon it will make another journey into yet another geography, and I don’t know where it will go next. 

Ajit, you yourself have been a part of this beautiful journey, first as a publisher and then as a translator. Did you ever think that this novel would come this far?

Ajit Baral: No. Not in my wildest dreams. I knew that the book was beautiful and that it would do well. Remember, I had asked you how many copies you would have printed had you printed it in India, and you had said 1,000 copies. To that, I told you we would print 10,000 copies. That is how confident I was about your book. But I never imagined that I would translate it into English as well, and it would go on to be translated into several other languages and published in the UK and India.

The idea of translating came to me much later while editing the Nepali book, when I got to appreciate it better. 

Chuden Kabimbo: I still remember the days when you started work on the manuscript. Whenever you would come across a sentence or a paragraph that struck a chord with you, you would write to me saying, ‘What a beautiful line!’ or ‘What a beautiful paragraph!’ And I would feel that you were my true reader. But when you found something wrong with my writing, you would say, ‘This doesn't make sense. Please rewrite this bit.’ At that time, I must say you came across as a mean teacher. After dozens of changes, I even started to get irritated. Did you feel annoyed about all the work you had to put into it?  

Ajit Baral: No, never. On the contrary, it was a sheer pleasure working on your manuscript. It is always fun when a draft is so good it requires little editing. And yours was just that. I may have made you rewrite a few sentences, but these were just for clarity, to make them read better, striking out repetitions, or asking questions about a character here or an incident there. I was careful not to make substantive changes to your writing which is so lyrical.  

Chuden Kabimbo: And that continued when you started translating the book …

Ajit Baral: Yes, it did. As Jhumpa Lahiri says, translating a novel ‘is the most intense form of reading and rereading there is’. It became apparent that I had overlooked a few weaknesses in the text, which I flagged and you tried to fix them. A translator should fix problems, if any, in the original text. More so in texts that  haven't gone through rigorous editing. But Anurag Basnet, who vetted and edited the translation, a champion of fidelity to the text, suggested that I remain faithful to the original. 

Now that we are at it, how did you feel when you read the novel in English translation? 

Chuden Kabimbo: When you first sent me a draft of the translation to read, I found that my own story had a different taste. The story was the same, but the tone was different. Maybe this is where the power of translation lies. 

I cannot read Bangla, so I don’t know how that is. But when I read the Hindi translation, I found its tone was also different. It had its own rhythm as well. And I realised that Nepali idioms sound pleasant in Hindi only after reading the translation.   

Translation is a bridge through which not only our language and literature but also our society and culture cross over to different places and milieu. With Faatsung being translated into three languages, I feel our geographical imagination is also transported to a new society. You can feel the snow falling when reading a Russian novel. 

Faatsung's Hindi translator Namrata Chauturvedi keeps saying that every language is endowed with the power of its geographical imagination and that geography plays a vital role in forming memories and experiences, which we tap on to write literature. 

When translating Faatsung, local references often threw her off. Having grown up in Uttar Pradesh, she hadn't seen a landslide or terrace farming in the hills, which is very different from the plains. It was therefore important for her to describe the geography in the novel. A translator has to imagine it precisely, she says, otherwise, the writing risks losing its poetic strength. 

You are also from the mountains, Ajit, but the story of the Gorkhaland movement is not your story, and you had to translate it for an audience that was culturally and geographically removed. How challenging was that? 

Ajit Baral: I cannot recall the translation being challenging on account of this. I didn't worry about certain references getting lost on readers, as I had no idea at the time that it would get published outside Nepal. In any case, our UK publishers didn't ask us to make any changes to help readers, either. In hindsight, however, we could have expanded the context of the Gorkhaland movement a little for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it. This leads me to post you a counter question: Would you have written Faatsung a little differently if you had known that it would be translated into many languages?

Chuden Kabimbo: I don’t know if I would have written it a little differently. In any case, I had written a novel, and I don’t think one has to describe everything to make the reader understand an event in a novel. My concern was only the story, and I was more interested in how much of that time of the Gorkhaland movement I can bring into the story and how I can tell the pain it unleashed without boring readers.

Yes, people in other languages may not have heard of the Gorkhaland movement. They may be unfamiliar with the grim times that Darjeeling experienced. They may also be unaware of the story of that movement in which thousands of people lost their lives. But a work of fiction is to provide a glimpse of how the events affected the characters. It is to sketch out how terrible that conflict was, or how much was burnt when that fire raged.

And I believe tears don’t have any language. When you see someone weeping, you feel their pain even though they may speak another language. I wanted to write about Darjeeling’s pain, and tell the story of that sorrow. 

Read more: Taking Nepali literature to the world, Ashish Dhakal

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