Asian Paints

Written locally, read globally

Literature in local languages struggles to reach global audiences in translation
Sewa Bhattarai
June 7, 2018
WRITERS WITHOUT BORDERS: Assamese writer Rita Chaudhury (above, right) at a panel discussion at the the 22nd Nepal International Book Fair in Kathmandu last week. Her book, Chinatown Days reached a global audience only after it was translated into English.

Assamese writer Rita Chaudhury had penned numerous books and even won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in India for her works. But few knew of her in India, let alone the world, because she wrote in Assamese.

It was only after her novel Chinatown Days was translated into English, that she was propelled to fame. Chaudhury was in Nepal last week for the 22nd Nepal International Book Fair and shared her experience of writing about Chinese tea plantation workers brought to India by the British. When India went to war with China in 1962, the Chinese were detained and later deported.

“There are hundreds of regional languages in India, and many have rich literature,” Chaudhury pointed out. “But because the few that are translated are not done well, the literature remains confined within the communities.”

Nepal, too, suffers from this introverted cycle where its literature is produced and consumed at home, and is hardly known on the world stage. For every three books translated from English to Nepali, only one Nepali book is translated into English.

Writer and translation researcher Manjushree Thapa, who recently rendered Indra Bahadur Rai’s novel Aja Ramita Chha into English, agrees that translation has given Nepali literature greater visibility.

“Indra Bahadur Rai’s work is as important as India’s best writers of his generation, but the language gap has prevented him from being read widely,” said Thapa. “Nepal just doesn’t have a high enough profile in the world, other than stories about Everest or trekking. I don’t think it is the quality of Nepali literature, but its powerlessness in the world that keeps it from being read widely.”

Pic: Bikram Rai

However, many others believe that it is not just translation at fault here, but the overall quality of Nepali literature itself. “Nepali literature does not experiment so much with themes, techniques, structures,” said Narayan Wagle, whose book Palpasa Cafe was translated into English, French, Korean, and Sinhala. “We must first read literature from other languages, so that we know what the world is writing and where we stand in that spectrum. Translation is not such a respected profession here, and unless translators find their work rewarding, a two-way exchange cannot flourish.”

With the recent publication of the first professional, peer-reviewed journal in Nepal, and Nepal Academy’s ongoing effort to publish a translator’s directory, one has reason to hope translation will slowly become more professional and popular. However, it might take longer for Nepal’s 100 or so local languages to get even that exposure.

At another level, Nepal’s many languages have to struggle even harder. Maithili, the second most popular language in Nepal, is spoken by 11% of the people and is known to be one of the oldest Indo-European languages. The 14th century Maithili poet Vidyapati influenced later writers in many languages, but Maithili enjoys a far less exalted status today.

“Maithili continues to produce quality literature, but nobody gets to read it, sometimes not even Maithili readers,” noted Janakpur based writer Rajendra Bimal. “Nobody wants to invest in Maithili literature because the market is so small. That could change if we provided mother tongue instruction in primary schools so that children grow up to appreciate, create and invest in their own language.”

Experts of Newari, with 3% speakers and a prolific culture, agree that regional literature is losing out to modernity. “Newari writers have a problem finding publishers, and then finding readers,” said Yagya Ratna Dhakhwa, vice-chancellor of Nepal Bhasa Academy.

It may take a long time for Nepal to improve the quality and quantity of its translation and gain the world’s attention, but in the meantime Rita Chaudhury says intra-language translations have great potential.

Chaudhary is director of the National Book Trust of India which does translations of Indian books into other regional languages. She said: “This way, regional literatures enrich one another.”

Manjushree Thapa agreed that books in Nepal’s languages need to be translated into other Nepali languages, too: “Nepal’s literature in other languages like Maithili, Nepal Bhasa, must be translated into Nepali so that Nepal’s literature becomes more inclusive and diverse.”

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