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Meet the 23-year-old translator of the popular Banaras Talkies

Himadri Agarwal talks about bringing Satya Vyas’ Hindi book ‘Banaras Talkies’ into English, and choosing to retain some original phrases

Cricket on the ghats of Varanasi
Cricket on the ghats of Varanasi

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Satya Vyas’ Hindi campus novel, Banaras Talkies, set amidst the wise-cracking law students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), was an immediate hit upon its release in January 2015, going in for a second print run within weeks and another four print runs by March 2016. In the years since, it has been recognised as one of the most popular contemporary Hindi novels, a supremely funny coming-of-age tale that captures the linguistic energy of its setting (Varanasi in the late 2000s) with its crackling, all-sorts register, risqué jokes and multilingual puns (English and Bhojpuri inflections are used liberally). The colourful characters range from plucky lover boy Suraj to cricket fanatic Anurag (or “Dada”) and Jaivardhan, with his favourite proclamation, “Ghanta!”.

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Navigating the intricacies of this linguistic melting pot, therefore, was always going to be a challenge for Himadri Agarwal’s eponymous English translation of Banaras Talkies, released recently by Penguin Random House India.

The 23-year-old Agarwal, who will soon begin a PhD in English literature at the University of Maryland, US, had previously translated some short stories by the Urdu writer Rashid Jahan (1905-52), a vastly different realm in terms of lexicon.

“One of the things I was very clear about from the beginning of the translation process,” Agarwal told me during a Zoom interview, “was that I had to speak to as many people from Varanasi as I could. I spoke to friends who speak Bhojpuri. Reading books about a specific time period or a region helps you research-wise, yes. But knowing how people’s words sound in the moment during casual conversation, that helps you with the word-by-word flow when you are finally translating.”

It has paid off. For even during the most quicksilver bits of one-upmanship-via-language (there’s a lot of that, with ragging sessions, friendly put-downs and savage comebacks), the translation remains elegant, never feeling laboured. There are many instances where the attention to detail comes to the fore.

Book cover for the translation of ‘Banaras Talkies’
Book cover for the translation of ‘Banaras Talkies’

During a ragging session in the original Hindi text, for example, a senior rebukes a junior with a long-winded name (Ram Pratap Narayan Dubey)—his father’s name is relatively short (Shridhar Dubey). The original line is “Beta ka naam Hanuman ki poonch aur baap ka naam Hitler ki moonch”; the translation is, “The son’s name is a monkey’s tail and the father’s name is a complete fail.” Obviously, the translation had to be a rhyming quip but the fascinating bit is that the Hindu monkey-god “Hanuman” has been translated to “monkey”. The reason is that in several parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (including the north Bihar town I was born in), “Hanuman” is used interchangeably with “bandar”, the Hindi word for “monkey”. This is the kind of idiosyncrasy readers from these parts of the world immediately pick up on and I was happy to see the translation reflecting that.

“I picked up on the Hanuman thing while talking to a friend from Uttar Pradesh,” Agarwal said. “When I was translating lines like that one, where the rhyming and the humour had to be conveyed in an efficient manner, these were some of the challenging parts of the text for me. In some places, I have made changes to make the translation a little more accessible for contemporary readers, like the choice to replace the Bollywood music of a decade ago to things like Justin Bieber and Maroon 5.”

Of course, courageous translation sometimes is as much about ceding space to the original. In the Translator’s Note in the book, Agarwal writes about this choice and what it means at a philosophical level. “I chose retention—to retain words and phrases from the original, particularly ones that were ‘un-translatable’ or hard to find equivalents for. What I like about this is its humility. When you choose to retain parts of the original, you admit to the insufficiencies of language and to your own insufficiency as a translator.”

Translating humour is challenging enough on its own because cultural specificities define so much of what we find hilarious prima facie. Banaras Talkies provides an additional layer of difficulty for the translator because a lot of its humour is expressed through…let’s call it colourful invective. Friends cussing friends, cursing professors, wishing a hex upon the local photocopy vendor.

“Part of my strategy was to read a lot of funny books-in-translation, not just Hindi books, because I wanted to see how humour has been translated. Translating insults was one of the hardest parts, to be honest. An English insult won’t land in the same way that a Bhojpuri cuss does. I tried to find out how people from this part of the world would react to different situations, the words they would use in each of them. I went back to all of the invectives at least twice, to see if I could do better.”

A good bildungsroman makes you look at your own life a little more closely. And a good coming-of-age story gives readers the licence to laugh at the follies of youth and forgive its (and, perhaps, one’s own) excesses. That’s Banaras Talkies: a novel whose cheerfully juvenile brand of humour cloaks a rich, generous, vivacious heart.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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