‘Faatsung’, a Nepalese language novel written by Chuden Kabimo and translated into English as ‘Song of the Soil’ by Ajit Baral, has been shortlisted for this year’s JCB Prize for Literature. The INR 2.5 million (NRS 4 million) prize is awarded annually to an outstanding work of fiction by an Indian author. Authors shortlisted for the prize receive INR 100,000 and their translators 50,000. If the winning work is a translation, the translator receives an additional INR 1 million. The five books shortlisted for this year’s prize are translations, a watershed moment for Indian literature.
Along with “Song of the Soil,” the shortlist includes “The Paradise of Food” by Khalid Jawed, translated from Urdu by Baran Farooqi; “Tomb of Sand” by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell; “Valli” by Sheela Tomy, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil; and “Imaan” by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha.
Baral, co-founder of FinePrint Books and director of the Nepal Literature Festival, spoke with the Post’s Aarati Baral about his profession and the future of Nepalese literature in translation.
‘Song of the Soil’, your translation of the novel ‘Faatsung’ has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize. How do you feel? What significance does this achievement have for Nepalese literature?
I am thrilled beyond belief. I could never have imagined that ‘Song of the Soil’ would be in the running for a major literary prize when I first decided to translate ‘Faatsung’. Now that he’s on the shortlist, it seems surreal.
When Geetanjali Shree won the International Booker Prize earlier this year for “Ret Samadhi,” many said it would do the literature of the subcontinent immensely. I agree with this point of view. A prestigious prize honors not only the winning book but also the literature of the region.
The shortlist of “Song of the Soil” will hopefully inspire international publishers and literary agencies to seek out books from our part of the world.
How did you come up with the idea of translating “Faatsung”? What sparked your interest in the book and what do you think caught the jury’s attention?
I first read the novel in manuscript form when Chuden Kabimo sent it to us for review. I cracked and decided in no time to publish it. But the idea of translating it came much later when I edited it, as I came to appreciate the novel better.
The lyricism of Kabimo’s writing, and perhaps the spiciness of the Darjeeling dialect, sealed it for me. His story of the struggle for identity of Nepali-speaking people in Darjeeling, popularly known as the Gorkhaland movement, resonated with me. This movement is not unlike the Maoist movement in Nepal, which began with high hopes for the country but ended, after ten years of bloodshed, with a compromise that only benefited a few.
The jury liked how Kabimo wrote about a violent movement without resorting to violence. The book, in their own words, “[made] poetry from brutal situations, but with honesty, humor and gentleness.”
What was your biggest challenge while translating the book?
Kabimo writes in short, simple sentences. So it was not so difficult to convey their essences in English. But retaining the lyricism of the writing and the tenor of the dialogues was difficult. The same was true for finding the English equivalents of regional words such as sikuwa, jhyampal, etc. In such cases, I had to opt for the more approximate terms.
What should we do to increase Nepal’s presence in the literary world outside of Nepal? What about books written in languages other than Nepali?
There is no other way but to write more books. And not just any book, but great books. We need to give impetus to translation and encourage people with literary skills to start translating too. Now is also the time to do translations. Publishing houses around the world are now more open to publishing translations to diversify their lists.
I may sound pessimistic, but I don’t see much hope for local languages. They are dying out and very little is written in languages other than Nepali and English. Nor is there a market for books written in local languages that are of interest to publishers. The revival of local languages, I’m afraid, is a lost cause.
As a publisher, what have you done to improve the quality and quantity of translation in Nepal? What should we do to create a suitable environment for translators?
An editor can’t do much. We can, however, play our part by being judicious about the books we translate, finding the right people to translate them, and rigorously checking the translations, because lack of checking ruins most translations. That’s exactly what we’ve done over the years. Some of our translations, such as “Microsoft dekhi Bahundandasamma” and “Khabuj”, have been highly appreciated for the quality of the translation.
I see hope for translation among Nepalese writers writing in English. Manjushree Thapa, Muna Gurung, Prawin Adhikari, etc., have admirably translated works of Nepalese literature into English. I’ve heard about 20 other English writers – with masters in creative writing to boot – are interested in translating. If they could be encouraged to undertake translations with a small incentive, things would improve for translations.
However, we need concerted governmental and institutional support for translation to bring about meaningful changes to the translation scene in Nepal. There are no incentives for translators, so we have to set up scholarships and residencies to encourage them to dedicate themselves to translation.
What skills are needed to become good translators? When and how did you start translating texts?
One cannot hope to be a good translator without a perfect understanding of the source language and a perfect mastery of the target language. If you have an ear for the rhythm of the original language and the style of the writer, even better.
It also helps to have patience and restraint. After all, translation is a long and tiring job, and you can’t get away from the text.
In addition to being a writer and translator, you are also an avid reader. What kind of books do you like the most? What are your favorites?
Although a big fan of travel writing, I read books in all genres. I especially like long novels about people in political turmoil, like Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance.” I’m a big fan of VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux. I have read all of Naipaul’s books except the last one, “The Mask of Africa”, which I had trouble reading through. I’ve read most of Theroux’s books, including ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, which along with Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ deepened my interest in travelogues.
The most recent books that I have enjoyed immensely are “Men in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker” by Thomas Kunkel, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders and “Washingtonian Black” by Esi Edugyan .
Many books in Nepal are awaiting translation. What books would you like to translate in the future or would you like to see translated?
Very few works of Nepalese literature have been translated into English. Thus, a translator working from Nepali to English has the luxury of choosing between BP Koirala, Bhupi and Buddhisagar. I’d like to see someone well versed in poetry take up Bhupi’s poetry. An emblematic poet, he must be read outside of Nepal. I would also like to see some of BP Koirala’s books in English.
We need to translate books by younger contemporary writers like Nayan Raj Pandey, Upendra Subba and Amar Nyaupane. I would love to translate ‘Kathmanduma Ek Din’ by Shivani Singh Tharu. Although stiff in places, it is one of the most rigorously written novels to come out of Nepal.
What message would you like to convey to young people who love to read and write?
Read anything you can get your hands on: newspapers, magazines, guilty pleasures, serious fiction and non-fiction. Sooner or later you’ll find your way around in the books and eventually develop a taste for a certain genre. Otherwise, even better, you would have developed an eclectic taste! And write as much as you can. Start a journal. Always carry a notebook. Write down ideas and impressions you have of people and places. Study the people, note how they talk and look, and describe the characteristics that stand out. Read carefully for the writer’s style. And become part of the community of readers and writers.