Ujjwal Prasai is known for his astute observations of the various facets of Nepalese society. As a regular columnist for the Kantipur Daily, Prasai writes on a myriad of topics, from the education system in Nepal, contemporary Nepalese politics to the socio-cultural aspects of his hometown Jhapa. On April 8, he ventured into another side of literature by publishing his translation of Manjushree Thapa’s novel “All of Us in Our Own Lives” titled “Eklai Eklai”.
Manjushree Thapa, one of Nepal’s most prolific writers writing in English, published “All of Us in Our Own Lives” in 2016. Weaving together the lives of several characters bound together by a thread of foreign aid, Thapa has explored the pervasive nature of INGOs and NGOs in Nepal in his novel. Speaking to the Nepali Times about Prasai’s translation, she remarked that “the story was sent back in the language it should have been originally written in.”
In an interview with the Post Shranup Tandukar, Prasai spoke about his experience translating a feature-length fiction film, his thoughts on the value of translations, and the importance of literature itself in Nepal. Extracts.
How was your passion for literature born?
I have been interested in literature since childhood. I studied in a private school, an “English boarding school”, in Kakarbhitta, Jhapa, where few teachers encouraged us to develop an interest in literature. Then, when a public library opened in my hometown, I started devouring classic Nepalese literature from writers such as BP Koirala, Parijat and Shankar Lamichhane.
Ayn Rand was also someone I read often in the past, although I don’t conform to Rand’s outlook now. When Arundhati Roy’s “God of Little Things” was published, it received rave reviews in the newspapers, but it was not available near me. So, I crossed the border to Siliguri, India, but the book was not in stock there either. Then as a last resort, I got my hands on a pirated copy, (which I still have), and became a fan of her as soon as I read the book.
You are a columnist, poet, fiction writer, critic, editor and even political commentator. How does the profession of translator differ from these roles?
The translation process is the writing itself, but the difference is that there is a point of reference. When you write fiction, you have the freedom to draw inspiration from anything and everything. Writing is by no means an easy task, but the process of writing and translating is more or less the same: reading, proofreading, comprehension, countless drafts of how the text can be improved, l examining whether a word or text is more appropriate than its synonyms, editing and re-editing, receiving feedback and incorporating suggestions. In this way, translation and writing are the same but different.
How did your journey of translating this book start and how long did it take?
I had read ‘All of Us in Our Own Lives’ as soon as it came out. I enjoyed the book as it exposed the foreign aid sector in Nepal through women’s perspectives while incorporating contemporary events like the April 2015 earthquake. I had wanted to work with Manjushree Thapa since ‘The Tutor of History’, so when the editor approached me I was more than ready to get started. In 2016 we had a verbal agreement to start translating the book and the translation work started in 2017.
Anurag Basnet, former editor of Rupa Publications and Penguin Books India, once said that the translators tried to convey as accurately as possible the emotion they felt while reading the book. What emotions did you feel while reading the book?
The philosophy of “All of us in our own lives” is about the effects of chance encounters and coincidences. Coincidences are common, but sometimes a coincidence can change the trajectory of a person’s life. Even our meeting can turn into a friendship for life. This philosophy was extremely interesting to me.
The structure of Nepal and foreign aid also play a big role in helping these chance encounters. Two characters in the text [Indira and Ava] meet and connect different facets of Nepalese society – the socio-cultural structure, the geopolitical aspect (since foreign aid always comes with some sort of geopolitics) and the development perspective in Nepal. This story is about ordinary Nepalese, but also a story about Nepalese society in a larger sense, and the fact that Thapa was able to weave those two things together effortlessly is what impressed me about this book.
The title of the book ‘All of Us in Our Own Lives’ translated as ‘Eklai Eklai’ suggests that the Nepali version is a more nuanced translation than just a literal translation. What was your experience of the translation process?
As this was my first foray into fiction translation, it was daunting at first. For other non-fiction writing, a translation would focus on the readers’ ability to grasp the meaning of the original text, but in the case of fiction, one must also be aware of the artistic value of the text. Many things are difficult to translate while many things are simply untranslatable.
Since I haven’t really lived in the West, translating the games set in Canada was a challenge. I saw the sea but I did not experience it. If I had been swimming in the endless sea for days or had been to the beach often, I could have written it well. In the text, a character called Ava undergoes a physical and internal transformation while swimming in the sea. I had to watch videos of the sea and seashores to get an idea of the experience of swimming in the sea.
In the first pages, mention is made of ‘DVF wrap’ clothing. I had no idea what it was, so I asked Manjushree and she explained to me that it was a type of clothing. In Nepal, it is not a common term, so Nepalese readers would not accept it. So, even if I didn’t want to, I had to write a description of the clothes, something like an expensive type of clothes. This specific type of clothing was mentioned because it symbolized the expensive taste of the corporate world. A novelist does not always state things directly but shows things indirectly. It’s a small thing but it’s a difficult thing to translate.
A four-letter expletive that begins with “F” is common in contemporary English literature, but its meaning is highly contextual. I couldn’t make it vulgar because in English it’s not vulgar but transposing its essence into Nepali was difficult.
Manjushree Thapa quoting Derrida once wrote in a report: “A translation never succeeds. What do you think of your translation?
Yes I agree. A 100% successful translation does not exist. It’s always a compromise. Even for the title[‘Eklai Eklai’], it was a compromise. Without compromise, a translation cannot exist.
Jerry Pinto (famous for translating Marathi literature into English), in his speeches on translation, says he appreciates translations because people could not have read Marathi literature without translations. I myself could not have read Gabriel García Márquez without translations. Will it be possible to learn all the languages of the world to live its literature?
In Nepal, publishers cannot be generous with money for translations, so there is a problem. There are plenty of things to do. For example, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Friere is an enlightening book. I don’t know if anyone has translated it into Nepali, but if we could get it translated and put it in the hands of teachers and educators in Nepal, it would make a big difference. As far as translations are concerned, no matter how, by raising funds in different fields or by creating institutions, we have to do it.
In your opinion, how important is it for Nepali writers to write Nepali stories in English?
I think fluent and articulate English is an important skill. At this time in Nepal, we must always wear the badge of being the birthplace of Buddha and the country with Mount Everest to be known to the world. If we could raise the quality of our literature and our cinema, it could rather become our trademark. For example, Iran has become popular all over the world, even in the villages of Nepal, because of its cinema. If we focus on art, film and literature, we can grow by leaps and bounds. We cannot become a great manufacturing nation. We cannot produce cars and textiles to compete globally; there is China and India right next to us. Their enormous resources will easily eclipse and surpass us. But we can compete on culture. We have our own culture and we can showcase it better than anyone.
It is important to write in English, translate Nepali literature into English and also write in Nepali and other different languages that exist in Nepal. What I mean is that we must invest in literature and linguistics. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but that also means there’s a lot of opportunity here too.