Epiphany amid translation woes

Epiphany amid translation woes

Sudhansu Mohanty

It’s a quarter century since I last translated stories, published as The HarperCollins Book of Oriya Short Stories. It’s Sudeshna, my co-translator, who’s now put me back on the rails. Her gentle nudge to help translate Jnanpith laureate Gopinath Mohanty’s stories got me started.

The stories and the landscape grew organically. If she targeted 10 stories, I goaded her for more. Then some more. But I sensed the numbers were overwhelming her. My translation experience of the 1990s was different: we were (stories and I) a part of the same century, we belonged to the same world spread across space and time during that decade. They felt like one, though sometimes like coaxing Grandma to part with the rare Queen Victoria’s portrait-head on one side of the coin! The Internet, the millennial generation, the digital playbook hadn’t arrived, the taste still confined to hard copies — the books held in our hands.

It feels different now — the foretaste of Gen Z. Will they travel back a century to an unrecognisable world, where tradition was potentate, and where changes were the Almighty’s call — and where mobiles didn’t work their magic?

As we went along, we discussed, debated, even disagreed. Apart from culture-specific limitations, how to translate the authentic voice of the storyteller without impugning the vernacular's lilt and ululation? Will it interest young readers whose fast-reads mimic fast foods/quick bites? Will philosophic reflections on ‘kamana-sadhana’ transcendental reality or rich imageries interest them?

Though contemporaries and simpatico, Sudeshna and I have forked tastes. I'm the village yokel; she modern, smarter. Traditionalist, I get swayed with philosophical underpinnings. So off I went with two stories — ‘Abha’ for the elaborate imageries not transmuting to easy rendition; ‘Punarjanma’ because the abstruse held me in thrall. Sudeshna wasn’t happy and didn’t mince words: ‘I was flipping through “Punarjanma” and I’d come across it too, but had dumped it as I couldn’t understand much of it. It’ll take multiple readings before I can actually sit down to work on it. And I found myself thinking, why does Sudhansu have to climb mountains when we can go around one! First ‘Abha’, now this!’

But we climbed the mountains! Ironically, it’s Sudeshna who did most of the climbing.

But our woes didn’t end here. How do we juxtapose the newly-convert village grandee chomping biscuits with his earlier ever-chanting avatar of Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! How’d the wizened personage be cast as a split personality to telegraph both tonic and dismay among villagers? How to navigate the pollution-purity duality with no wiggle room to breach the Hindu religious order? How to segue the sudden recrudescence of his long-dormant desires with the past ascetic life?

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