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JCB Prize 2022 shortlist: Can translators be editors?

JCB Prize 2022 shortlisted author-translator duo Chuden Kabimo and Ajit Baral talk about how a place finds its way to a new society through translation

A sign from October 1986, in support of Gorkhaland. Chuden Kabimo’s 2019 Nepali book Faatsung was translated into English by Ajit Baral as Song Of The Soil. It tells the story of the Gorkhaland agitation of the 1980s. (Getty Images)

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The JCB Prize for Literature announced its 2022 shortlist on 21 October. This is perhaps the first time that an Indian award, not earmarked for translated work, has picked only translations from various Indian languages into English for its shortlist. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner next month, Lounge will run free-flowing conversations between the shortlisted author-translator duos, on the very act of translation, being translated, and what happens to a sense of place and idiom when they move languages.

The first in this series is a conversation between Chuden Kabimo and translator Ajit Baral. Kabimo’s 2019 Nepali book Faatsung was translated into English by Baral as Song Of The Soil. It tells the story of the Gorkhaland agitation of the 1980s.

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? When you decided to come to Nepal, did you have any inkling it might be translated, transcending the linguistic boundary, too?

Chuden Kabimo: I believe love and literature don’t have any boundaries or fixed geographies. This belief is not new. I was born in a small village from where it took hours to reach the main city of Darjeeling mentioned on our ration cards. When writing this novel, I had thought I would tell the story of this smaller Darjeeling to the bigger Darjeeling. And if possible, to the people beyond Darjeeling. But I didn’t know this story would embark on a long journey, which I am beginning to realise now.

I had travelled to Nepal hoping to find a publisher who would publish it, even if in modest numbers, but returned with the happy news of simultaneous publications in Nepal and India. When I think back, I feel that my story had, as you said, already crossed one boundary.

Yes, 1986 is my first collection of short stories. (At that time) winning the hearts of Nepali readers in India was enough for me. I could not have imagined going to a new country… Nepali readers bestowed much love on (Faatsung). Perhaps that was why translators got attracted to it. The year it was published, Samik Chakraborty translated it into Bangla and got it published from Kolkata, enabling me to cross yet another geographical boundary. It was then translated into English, taking me as far away as the UK, and to the JCB shortlist. The Hindi translation is now complete. Soon it will make another journey into yet another geography. I don’t know how long a journey it will traverse. But this journey has solidified my age-old belief that love and literature don’t have any border or geography.

You 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?

AB: Not in my wildest dreams. I knew that the book was beautiful and that it would do well. Remember, when I called you to say that we were publishing it, I had asked you how many copies you would have printed had you printed it in India? And you had said 1,000 copies, and I had said that we would print 10,000 copies initially (we ended up printing 7,000). That’s how confident I was about the book. But I could have never imagined that I would translate it into English, that it would be translated into several languages and be published in the UK and India.

The idea of translating it came later in the editing process, when I saw it in a new light and appreciated it better.

CK: How did you find the process? I still remember how you would write to me whenever you would come across a sentence or a paragraph that struck a chord with you.... And I would feel that you were my true reader. But when you found something wrong you would (ask me to) rewrite. At that time, I would feel that you were a mean teacher.... I had started to feel irritated even. Did you feel annoyed that you had to put so much into a book that wasn’t yours?

Song Of The Soil: By Chuden Kabimo, translated by Ajit Baral, Rachna Books,  166 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Song Of The Soil: By Chuden Kabimo, translated by Ajit Baral, Rachna Books, 166 pages, 399.

AB: Never. On the contrary, it was a pleasure working on your manuscript. And I was conscious of not making substantive changes to your writing, which is lyrical. To summarise, I was (only) flagging the problematic areas.

CK: And that continued when you started translating it…

AB: Yes, it did. When I reread it during translation, which, as Jhumpa Lahiri says, “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 tried to fix. I think the translator should fix any problems in the original text. But Anurag Basnet, who vetted and edited the translation, a champion of fidelity to the text, suggested that I remain faithful to the text.

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

CK: I found that (it) had a different taste. The story was the same, the tone was different. Maybe this is where the power of translation lies. Translation is a bridge through which not only language and literature but also society and culture cross to a different milieu. After Faatsung got translated into three languages, I felt that our geographical imagination too can traverse to a new society through translation. Doesn’t falling snow come to us along with the story when we read a Russian story?

I will talk about Faatsung’s Hindi translator, Namrata Chaturvedi. She 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, reference to geography often threw her off. Having grown up in Uttar Pradesh, she hadn’t seen a landslide or farming in the hills. It was therefore important for her to see the geography described in the novel. She further says a translator has to imagine it precisely. Otherwise, the writing risks losing its poetic strength.

While you come from the hills, the story of the Gorkhaland movement is not your story, and you had to translate that story for an audience culturally and geographically far removed. How challenging was the task?

AB: 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 that it would get published outside Nepal. 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 ask: Would you have written Faatsung a little differently if you had known that it would be translated into many languages?

CK: I don’t know if I would have made any changes. In any case, I don’t think one has to describe everything to make you understand an event in a novel. 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.

People in other languages may not have heard of the Gorkhaland movement. They may be unfamiliar with the grim time that Darjeeling experienced, or be unaware of the story of that movement in which thousands of people lost their lives. But the work of fiction is to provide a glimpse of what fired up an incident. I tried to do just that while writing Faatsung.

Also, tears don’t have any language. When you see someone weeping, you feel his pain even though he may speak another language. I wanted to write the same pain of Darjeeling. I wanted to tell the story of that sorrow.

While doing that, I wouldn’t have made the mistake of unnecessarily thinking about translations.

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