Living in Translation.

Aruni Kashyap (quoted here in 2017 on the difficulty of translation) has a wonderful essay in Catapult, “Living in Translation, or Why I Love Daffodils, an Unpopular Postcolonial Flower”; it’s one of those that can’t be summarized, so I’ll toss a few chunks out there and hope you rise to the bait:

Unlike many of my other schoolmates, I didn’t speak English at home. My father grew up poor in a village where the only English words used were the ones that had percolated deep into the Indian languages and were no more considered English: telephone, inland letter, telegram, Colgate, kerosene (daily necessity, since we didn’t have power), etc. On the other hand, my mother grew up in poverty in a small town called Golaghat and studied in an Assamese-medium government school, but never spoke English except in phrases, only when necessary. A professor of Assamese literature, her quotes, framed or unframed, came from the vast repertoire of the literary body in which she earned a doctorate. My parents didn’t have access to English books and didn’t read English, unless required.

Unable to resolve the language dilemma, I decided to broach the matter at the dinner table, announcing that I would never write in English again. After a while, Ma suggested, “You don’t have to stop writing in English. You can also write in Assamese. You should write in a language that makes you feel happy.” I was surprised by these possibilities. […]

For most English writers, it is a famous English-language novel that encourages them to pursue writing: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for Chimamanda Adichie, or Song of Solomon for Junot Diaz. Due to my parents’ upbringing, we had just a handful of English books at home, such as a tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb, etc. My parents thought that their son’s English learning in school was enough. Perhaps that’s why one of the first novels to dismantle and remake my heart was by Assamese writer Indira Goswami: Dotal Hatir Uye Khowa Howdah (later translated from Assamese to English by the author as The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker).

[…] In Moth Eaten, the central story is that of Giribala. The story of this rebellious transgressive teenage widow—who is found eating meat, and who falls in love with a British manuscript curator, leading to tragic consequences—is unforgettable. […] When I was a high school student, the novel wasn’t an easy read. Even though the narration is in standard Assamese, which I find no hurdle to read, the dialogues in the novel are in the South Kamrup dialect, from the village of Amranga. Not everyone in the state would find it easy to understand the dialogues, but it added a gritty realism to the book and made it impossible to translate.

The tragic story of Giribala and her aunts shook me to the core, saddening me for weeks. But it is the kind of satisfactory sadness and addictive rage only a powerful novel could provide. A few years later, when I was a student of English literature at Delhi University, I found a copy of this novel’s English translation (by the author) in a bookshop not very far from Professor Goswami’s Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies. I was disappointed to find that the dialogues in the translation are in standard English. The prose retains the original flavor, but the experience of reading it in English is different. Both versions of the book are compelling, heartbreaking, and follow the forbidden love stories of three widows, but I felt as if I was reading an entirely new book in English. When I read the original Assamese novel, the sounds that ring in my mind are far more redolent, immediate, with whiplashes’ power and speed. In English, something is missing.

Reading the novel full of stunning imagery and extended metaphors during my high school years helped me refine my prose. In my American creative writing classroom, when I talk about lush prose, I always bring up three of my favorites: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Indira Goswami—the queen of metaphors and similes. However, it was the voice of the omniscient narrator that would stay with me even longer, shaping what I expect from fiction. Goswami used a local dialect in the Assamese edition. Many Assamese readers wouldn’t understand it with ease. But she didn’t assume her reader was dumb. She refused to make it accessible for people who didn’t speak in the dialect. Reading the book required work from the reader. But her fiction is for those who are ready to do that work. […]

Perhaps this is also because Goswami and Debi didn’t write with the anxiety of being seen as Indian. Unlike the Indian writer in English, they were also not forced to accommodate a reader who didn’t live in India; or understand complex Indian realities. Also, Indian readers know that India is confusing. We don’t feel alienated if we don’t understand some cultural or historical specificities. These parameters—of living in perennial translation, and accepting that not everything is accessible—were foundational to me as a writer.

I haven’t even gotten to the daffodils (“perhaps one of the most disliked flowers among postcolonial writers”) or the discussion of Amitav Ghosh (“This is a Bengali novel, just written in English”); I hope you’ll click the link and read all about them. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Wow, what a great essay. Just the two words together, daffodil and poem, instantly wrenched me back to my school days, and I have JUST now realised that I had no idea what the flower even looked like.

  2. I’m glad you like it! And having clicked on your name-link, I am struck by your essay on the motmot, by the photos, and by the word itself: motmot! The OED says:

    Etymology: < post-classical Latin motmot (17th cent., earlier momot: see quots. below; > scientific Latin Momotus, name of the typical genus); further etymology unknown. Compare French momot (1779 in Buffon), Spanish momot (1805 or earlier).

    And the AHD:

    [New Latin motmot, probably of imitative origin.]

  3. Looks like it could be Nahuatl momotl or something like that.

  4. You missed his link to an alternative history map of Africa Uncolonised.

    I couldn’t find a country called Kusaal…

  5. A host of golden motmots fluttering and dancing in the breeze. might have worked better in India. That is a really great site you have, Dinesh Rao; birds, flowers, spiders and bats are my favourite subjects (and photographing them, which is harder than I’d thought).

    Loathing Wordsworth and his daffodil poem is one thing, everybody aged about thirteen in Britain goes through that. Whether you then go on to say you hate the flower itself might depend on how easily distracted you are by symbols, but a metaphorical list of “most disliked flowers” headed by one he’s never even seen is not my cup of Assam tea (I drink a lot of Assam).

  6. motmot

    Meet the tody and tody motmot.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    I couldn’t find a country called Kusaal

    The country is (of course) called Kʋsaʋg “Kusago.”

    It seems to have been subsumed into “Wogodogo”, presumably the Greater Mossi Empire, a not implausible creation in itself. The Kusaasi, however, ever fond of their independence, would not have stood for that.

    Songhai, shown to the north of Wogodogo, was actually brought down by the Moroccans long before the European invasions got that far.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tondibi

    (I suppose you could argue that in this parallel universe Judar Pasha never existed, though.)

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Land of the Blacks” in Arabic is of course Bilād as-Sūdān, not “Alkebu-Lan.” Whatever that is. Mind you, I can’t see North African Arabic speakers being happy with calling the entire continent “Sudan”, so …

    [Ah: I see there’s a footnote to that very effect]

    It’s a very Eurocentric idea of what Africa would have been like without the European invasions …

  9. PlasticPaddy says:

    @de
    From Bathrobe’s link:
    The origin and meaning of the toponym are disputed. The Arabic for ‘Land of the Blacks’ would be Bilad as-Sudan, which is how the present-day country of Sudan got its name.Other translations offered for Alkebu-Lan (also rendered as Al-Kebulan or Alkebulan) are ‘Garden of Life’, ‘Cradle of Life’, or simply ‘the Motherland’. Although supposedly of ancient origin, the term was popularized by the academic Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan (b. 1918).

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Plastic:

    Quite so, as I eventually noticed.

    (Simultaneous posting, due to the abrogation of the customary restrictions on space-time on this site. Grandfather paradox, nothing.)

  11. Although supposedly of ancient origin, the term was popularized by the academic Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan (b. 1918).

    “Supposedly” is le mot juste; Dr. Ben was a master purveyor of bullshit, about his own life as well as everything else.

  12. The actual, verifiable history of Africa is so rich, various, and impressive I don’t understand why so many people need to make up fantasies about it.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed. The fantasies can be fun (though, as is the way of fantasies, they are rarely as interesting as reality); the mischief comes – as always – when people start mistaking their fantasies for the reality. (As you’d expect, such people are not usually all that familiar with the reality.)

  14. The motmots have (officially) been given the Chinese name 翠鴗 cuì lì meaning, er, ‘kingfisher kingfisher’ or ’emerald kingfisher’….

    In Japanese they are known as ハチクイモドキ hachi-kui modoki or ‘mock bee-eater’ (presumably because they were felt to be similar to or related to the bee-eaters.

  15. It’s a very Eurocentric idea of what Africa would have been like without the European invasions …
    Indeed – it looks like a collection of European-style nation states with neat borders, not like the structure of empires, kingdoms, and “unorganized” tribal areas, with fuzzy borders, that one would expect absent European colonization.

  16. The whole premise is Eurocentric.

    Slave trade and colonization existed and prospered in Africa without any European involvement.

    Moroccan invasion of Songhai (1590 AD), Omani conquest of Zanzibar and Swahili coast (17th century), Egyptian invasion of Sudan, Darfur, Equatoria (19th century), etc.

    All accompanied with pretty significant slave traffic.

    Without Europe to meddle, there would have been even more of that.

  17. Did you even click the link? It has nothing to do with the slave trade; it’s about what Africa might have looked like without European colonization.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think the Atlantic slave trade was on a somewhat greater scale.

    Part of the problem with the fantasy map (or with the accompanying article, at least) is that it is conflating one set of European crimes, the Atlantic slave trade, with another, the wholesale invasions and grabbing of territory, on the whole a much later development. (Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of Côte d’Ivoire, was three years old when the French seized his birthplace; the area I used to live in in Ghana was annexed by the Brits in 1904, and where I used to live in Nigeria, pretty much at the same date. At independence, the older folk had lived through the entire colonial period: seen ’em come, seen ’em go.) By that stage, the Europeans had got all moral about slavery, and went around altruistically suppressing it where convenient.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Whatever that is.

    Footnote 2:

    The origin and meaning of the toponym are disputed. The Arabic for ‘Land of the Blacks’ would be Bilad as-Sudan, which is how the present-day country of Sudan got its name.Other translations offered for Alkebu-Lan (also rendered as Al-Kebulan or Alkebulan) are ‘Garden of Life’, ‘Cradle of Life’, or simply ‘the Motherland’. Although supposedly of ancient origin, the term was popularized by the academic Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan (b. 1918). The term is not a 20th-century invention, however. Its first traceable use is in La Iberiada (1813), an epic poem from 1813 by Ramón Valvidares y Longo. In the index, where the origin of ‘Africa’ is explained, it reads: “Han dado las naciones á este pais diversos nombres, llamándole Ephrikia los Turcos, Alkebulan los Arabes, Besecath los Indios, y los pueblos del territorio Iphrikia ó Aphrikia: los Griegos, en fin, le apellidaron Libia, y despues Africa, cuyo nombre han adoptado los Españoles, Italianos, Latinos, Ingleses y algunos otros pueblos de la Europa”.

    …sure, whatever.

    (Also, the Swahili on the map is Google-translated at best.)

  20. Part of the problem with the fantasy map (or with the accompanying article, at least) is that it is conflating one set of European crimes, the Atlantic slave trade, with another, the wholesale invasions and grabbing of territory, on the whole a much later development.

    There is exactly one mention of the slave trade in the article: “Cyon focuses on Africa – or rather, Alkebu-Lan – which in his version of events doesn’t suffer the ignomy [sic] and injustice of the European slave trade and subsequent colonization.” The point is to imagine what the map of Africa might look like if it hadn’t been carved up arbitrarily by Europeans; I’m not sure why the slave trade is getting so much attention here.

  21. A host of golden motmots fluttering and dancing in the breeze. might have worked better in India.
    Except that motmots are neotropical birds 🙂

  22. AncientP Crown says:

    Oh. Well, I’m very neotropical myself. ^^

    <231135246dc^^
    LKjhb

    n===

  23. Neotropical in the sense that they are found mainly in Central and South America.

    Perhaps you were misled by Dinesh Rao’s name?

    The Japanese and Chinese names of the motmots are both clearly coined names, presumably given by naturalists (ornithologists), who decided that the name should reflect the close taxonomic relationship to bee-eaters, kingfishers, etc. It’s possible that they were given by someone who had never seen a live motmot in their entire lives.

  24. BR: Neotropical in the sense that they are found mainly in Central and South America.
    Thanks.

    BR: Perhaps you were misled by Dinesh Rao’s name?
    It could well be. It sounds Indian to me, but then my name’s Crown and I live in Norway, so… No, wait, he says on his blog he’s lived in India as well as in Central America and other places (including Israel).

  25. John Cowan says:

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt is also based on the European population being wiped out by the Black Death. There’s lots of information about it online. There isn’t too much about Africa, though, which remains mostly a source of slaves.

  26. AJPC: Sorry for the confusion; I’m Indian, but live in Mexico

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