The art of translating Indra Bahadur Rai

By The Editors

10 May 2018

Interview with Nepali author and translator Prawin Adhikari.
Indra Bahadur Rai Photo: Himadri Barman / Facebook

Indra Bahadur Rai
Photo: Himadri Barman / Facebook

Indra Bahadur Rai, the Nepali-language novelist and critic from Darjeeling, passed away on 6 March 2018. Also known as I B Rai, he emerged in the early 1960s as one of the most ambitious literary voices writing in Nepali, and over the decades, became a cultural icon among the Nepali-speaking communities in India (whom Rai called ‘Indian Nepalis’) as well as in Nepal. In the months before his death, new English-language translations of two of his best-known works  the novel Aaja Ramita Chha (There’s a Carnival Today) and a short-story collection Raatbhari Huri Chalyo (Long Night of Storm were published, opening Rai’s writings to a new and wider readership.

In this interview, we talk to novelist Prawin Adhikari, who translated Long Night of Storm, about I B Rai’s place in the Nepali-language literary canon, his ability to speak across national divides and the state of translations in Southasia.

Himal Southasian: Could you briefly explain why Indra Bahadur Rai is such an important figure in Nepali-language literature?

Prawin Adhikari: Indra Bahadur Rai was the most prominent among the second generation of Indian Nepali writers. His predecessors like Surya Bikram Gyawali, Dharanidhar Koirala and Parasmani Pradhan articulated the establishment of the Nepali language – then called khas kura – as the language of the people from the hills of Nepal. They gave to the Nepali state a tool for unification or subjugation, depending upon the vantage. But I B Rai was instrumental in the effort to enshrine the Nepali language as an official language in the Constitution of India. He suffered professionally and personally for leading the charge for the dignity of the Nepali language in India. In some ways, the struggle for Gorkha identity in West Bengal would be much feebler without I B Rai’s work in service of the Nepali speakers of India.

He was also the most conversant among his peers with the trends and ideas developing in the arts and literatures around the world. His scholarship was deep and deliberate, which enabled him to create literary movements like Tesro Aayam (Third Dimension) or Leela Lekhan (Leela Writing). Perhaps he made it alright for Nepali writers to move away from the anxieties about the narrowness of Nepal’s intellectual life – from questions like ke Nepal sano chha; is Nepal a small place? Perhaps he showed his peers the richness and depth of expression, experimentation and thought permitted by the Nepali language. In my opinion, he wrested the language away from the caste elites in Kathmandu and brought it to the Janajati people of the eastern hills. He didn’t simply tell stories about the downtrodden and the poor – he gave them a complex inner voice and worldview, elevated them to fuller beings worthy of empathy and dignity. He provided the germ from which many struggles for the dignity of a people have grown in Nepal and in the Nepali-language communities of India.

HSA: What drew you to Long Night of Storm as a reader, but more importantly, as a translator? Could you tell us something about the people and stories one encounters in this collection of short stories?


Novelist and translator Prawin Adhikari. Photo: Iona Liddell

Author and translator Prawin Adhikari.
Photo: Iona Liddell

PA: Some of I B Rai’s short stories are essential reading for anybody engaging with Nepali-language literature – they are assigned reading in schools and colleges in both Nepal and India, and are a window into a particular time, place and attitude. I read stories in the collection Vipana Katipaya when I was a young student. A story like ‘Jayamaya Aafu Matrai Likhapani Aaipugi’ – translated in Long Night of Storm as ‘The Long March out of Burma’ – leaves you shuddering with its emotional power. Stories from the collection Kathastha are invitations to deep ruminations on life. His earlier stories are deeply engaging, his later stories are formidable challenges to the reader’s intellect, but, more than anything else, his stories are compelling,

I had been wanting to adapt his stories into screenplays, but I hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of translating them. When Manjushree Thapa began translating Rai’s best-known work, the novel There’s a Carnival Today, Anurag Basnet, an editor with the Speaking Tiger books, asked me if I would translate Rai’s short stories. I jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be difficult, but I also had a great resource in Anurag, who is from Kalimpong and grew up reading Rai’s stories. My parents’ generation knew Rai’s work intimately, but most readers of my generation haven’t read the stories in Nepali. Indeed, even most readers in Darjeeling don’t know of his stories beyond the couple of stories prescribed in their school curriculum.

Rai’s early stories are preoccupied with the desire to create a people who are rooted and rootless, living simple lives but enriched with a complex worldview. I don’t see the stories as articulating the lives of their characters as much as I see them as working in concert to create a particular people – those living in and around the city of Darjeeling. ‘Jaar: A Real Story’, for instance, is a companion to ‘Hami Jastai Mainaki Aama’ (‘One Among Us’), in that the stories explain why the Nepali jati (translated as a people or race), as Rai put it, forever radiates away from its ancestral lands, yearning for a glimpse of the mountains each day, burdened with nothing more than the deep nostalgia for what has been left behind.

His later stories attempt to explain to his readers his literary theories of Tesro Aayam and Leela Lekhan – theories I do not have a deep enough grasp of to attempt explaining here. My understanding is that they are about the struggle to write of a phenomenon completely, exhaustively, leading to the realisation that it is impossible to write of anything exhaustively. This means the writing represents only the surface of a phenomenon, of the great and incomprehensible game that is existence (Rai uses the term ‘leela’) and our reaction to it. I am sure I have got the theories completely wrong. But reading Rai’s short stories can give a reader some sense of what he is trying to indicate.

Most of the stories included in Long Night of Storm had been translated previously, but that didn’t deter me. I knew there was service to be done through a new set of translations – to the history of Nepali-language literature, to Rai’s legacy and to new readers. I knew it would be challenging, but I had by then also realised that every writer with more than one language should attempt translating – the slow, deliberate reading required, the constant onion-peeling of a word, the few triumphs and many long days of humbling certainly helps prepare a person for the inevitable failure as a writer. The masochism was appealing.

HSA: Did you ever meet Rai for the purposes of the translation work? Did he have a chance to look at the English-language translation?

PA: I was fortunate to meet Rai in the summer of 2016. Anurag Basnet, who edited both Manjushree Thapa’s and my translations of Rai, had come to Kathmandu on business. We travelled to Gangtok to launch the latest volume of La.Lit – a Patan-based literary magazine where I am an assistant editor – and to participate in a talk on my collection of short stories, The Vanishing Act. On the way, we met Rai at his home in Loch Nagar in Darjeeling.

I had completed the translations of a few stories and was eager to show I B Rai my work – he studied English, read widely in English, yet wrote in a very sophisticated Nepali – but the prospect of showing him the work was frightening. The very first error he spotted was also the biggest in the entire collection – the impossibility of translating the word jaar. In the end, we didn’t translate the word, left it in, and skirted around the concept. [Jaar is how a husband referred to a man who eloped with his wife. The concept had legal status in Nepal’s 1854 national code, which entitled a husband to “cut down” his jaar.]

Anurag and I left the stories with Rai, hoping that he would send back editing suggestions in a month’s time. What arrived instead was a one-page letter addressed to Anurag, saying that Rai thought the translations were “improvements both in clarity of subject matter and in beauty of the written form”, and with the suggestion that Anurag and I complete the translation of the rest of the stories. “The remaining ten stories may please be not sent to me for additional approval,” Rai wrote. He was being much, much too kind, but his endorsement helped restore some of the confidence I had lost during our brief meeting.

Even then, his health was failing. A shimmer of sprightliness clung to him still, but now I suspect it was the chipper face he maintained for his wife, who, as hinted in his short stories, was always frail of health. When she passed away a few months after our visit, he must have given up.

HSA: What kind of preparation did you make in translating these stories? Rai’s works are dense with observations of social life in parts of India and Nepal around his native Darjeeling. Especially when it comes to the problem of language, one assumes that familiarity with non-literary aspects of a society has a discernible impact on the nature of translations. Were there particular sources or books that you think shaped the way you translated Rai? 

PA: I confronted the text head on. A lot of time was spent consulting dictionaries – the Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh, the Oxford English Dictionary, online crowd-sourced dictionaries of Hindi and Urdu, a Hindi dictionary edited by Ram Prasad Saxena, etc. Google Maps for place names. A lot of what I call the ‘ass-on-chair position’. There was no other way around it. The short stories were not unfamiliar to me, but I knew there would be quirks of usage that would trip me – how a variation in syntax can be misread, for instance. “Kamta gahro bhaena” (word-by-word translation reads “little-difficult-wasn’t”) – this sentence, without its verbal inflection, can be misread, or, with its verbal inflection, it can mean the same as “kamta gahro bhayo” (word-by-word translation reads “little-difficult-was”) – in either instance meaning that the task was very difficult. There were many such examples that arise from the dialect itself. But there were other quirks unique to Rai or necessarily arising from his experiments with the language. If there are divergences between renditions of the same text by different translators, they are owing as much to Rai’s literary experiments as they are to the translators, I believe.

The challenges I faced were of two distinct sorts: the rendering of proper nouns and the impossibility of maintaining the density of expression in Rai’s prose. The first sort required a lot of time online, jumping from one database to another to chase after a satisfactory English equivalent as much as possible: the uttis of the forest becoming the Nepali alder, etc.

The second challenge is insurmountable. “Panile jungle karaunchha. Vrishtiko khabar thulo bhaekochha” ends up becoming “The forest resounded with the roar of rushing waters, amplifying the declarations of a torrential rain.” The translation here is a failure – it has neither the aural precision nor the economy. A better rendition would have connected words in the two languages at the etymological level. I regret the disappearance of ‘khabar’, meaning news, from the English.

Rai’s world and speech may have been from Darjeeling, but that world isn’t very far away from mine either. Quite a bit can be achieved in translation – or the error due to omission can be reduced – if one has empathy for the characters, so that the words become their world rather than just reports about their world. Which is to say, careful reading compensates for the lack of familiarity with the setting, the culture, etc.

Long Night of Storm Photo: Speaking Tiger

Long Night of Storm
Photo: Speaking Tiger

HSA: Your translation of Long Night of Storm was released around the same time as novelist Manjushree Thapa’s translation of There’s a Carnival Today. Since you both share the publisher as well, we were wondering if you two had a working relationship.

PA: The two projects were intended as companion pieces, but I didn’t correspond with Thapa while translating the short stories. It helped that Anurag Basnet was editing both books, but the working relationship didn’t go beyond that. We complained to each other about how tough the task was when we met to discuss the translation issue of La.Lit, which she was guest editing, but we didn’t compare notes on our translations.

I was anxious to avoid translating Rai in the context of previous translations – by Michael Hutt, Anmole Prasad, Prem Poddar and Dorjee Tshering Lepcha in Gorkhas Imagined, by Manjushree Thapa in The Country is Yours, etc. I was worried that I would constantly compare my rendition against theirs. I didn’t even share drafts with my friends.

HSA: Do you feel Rai is adequately recognised for crossing the nation-state divide, both in Nepal, where his works have acquired canonical status, and India, where he was born and was a citizen? Was this something that you had to consider as you worked on the translations – the intersections of language, community and nationhood?

PA: There are quite a few stories in Long Night of Storm that are pointedly about the question of nation and nationality or ethnic allegiance, of the fractures within the ‘Nepali’ or ‘Gorkha’ community in Darjeeling and surrounding areas. He wasn’t writing of – or for – people west of the Mechi river. At the same time, Nepali literature from Simla to Rangoon had to look constantly to Kathmandu for validation. Rai did his time in Nepal, crossing the border to teach in a school in Nepal, but his life’s work has been in service of a section of the Indian citizenry seeking dignity for their language and identity. In that sense, I think it does him a disservice to insist upon his ‘Nepaliness’.

Apart from ‘Jaar’ and ‘Pahad ra Kholaharu’ (‘Mountains and Rivers’) – both stories available in translation in Long Night of Storm – Nepal doesn’t feature in his stories in any significant way. It is true that readers in Nepal were shown the potential of their language through Rai’s work, but I think time has come to allow Rai to belong firmly to the people of Darjeeling. The rest of us have been fortunate to be able to read him. The writer that emerges from behind the short stories, in my estimation, would loathe to be identified with any idea other than that of the literature of the Nepali language.

HSA: Then, how useful is it also to think about Rai as an individual artist: a critic-novelist with high-modernist ambitions, working in mid-century India in a language that was not yet officially recognised, writing about a community that is at the margins of Indian political and cultural life, and at the same time being seen in Nepal as one among the avant garde of the national literary movement. Did you see aspects of this tension in his works?

PA: Rai insisted upon his status as an individual artist – he was accused of not lending his weight to the great political and literary questions of his time. But he answered his critics through this craft – that his great subject was life itself and that ideologies of various stripes are distractions. “A leaf, an unknown insect, a day – how they live life is truly how life should be lived, without becoming fodder to ideologies without being torn apart between them… We were not born into this life to spend it kowtowing before ideologies,” he writes in the short story ‘Euta Vicharko Yatrapath’ (‘The Journey of a Thought’).

He was undeniably an intellectual giant among his peers. The political outcomes – the canonisation in Nepal, the neglect in India – were inevitable, I think. He was aware of the hard border that divided his community between two countries, he grieved the itinerant lives of his people – from the couple running away to Muglan in ‘Jaar’ to a civil servant journeying to his ancestral home to seek evidence of the glue that binds a people together in ‘Mountains and Rivers’ – but, above all else, he delighted in the minutiae of the quotidian, obsessively running his tongue over a phrase or paring an image in his mind’s eye to find the essential quality of an experience or enigma. The world has now appropriated him – Rai had wanted to simply be in the world, delighting in it, distrusting it.

HSA: What are your thoughts on Rai as a literary critic? How do you think that affected his fiction?

PA: I haven’t read much of his work as a critic and, like I mentioned, I don’t have a deep grasp of his critical writings. Not for want of trying, but more because his writing can be quite dense. Curiously, when I met Rai, he asked me to translate his earlier stories, the ones that readers love, and leave the later work alone – they are untranslatable anyway, he said. I relate this anecdote to suggest that perhaps he no longer put much stock in his own work as a critic and creator of literary theories. Rather, he seems to have returned to the more emotionally quickened stories of his youth, like ‘The Long March out of Burma’ or ‘Long Night of Storm’. Or perhaps he took one look at me and realised I’d be swimming out of my depth and decided to err on the side of pity.

Rai was connected to Kolkata, from where he could get the latest books published in the West. When he was already an active intellectual, when the society around him was rapidly becoming more literate, Nepal was barely peeping from beyond the dark shrouds of ignorance forced upon it by the Ranas. Therefore, it is no coincidence that his ideas were more contemporaneous than those of the writers from Nepal’s hills. Access was certainly an issue, but Rai seems to have actively pursued exposure to ideas also. Therefore, if one reads Rai’s ‘Euta Dinko Samanyata’ (‘The Ordinariness of a Day’), for instance, it is easy to see how deeply insightful Rai was about his own milieu and the people in it – comparable to any story by John Cheever or John Updike. Yet, the preoccupations in the stories are also as narrow and parochial as possible, the better to examine a minute slice of life in the hills. I cannot speculate whether Rai consciously set out to emulate or challenge any literary trend in the world, but he certainly was widely read and deeply reflective.

HSA: Translators, especially those who also do their own original writing, are often accused of literary interventionism. Did you have to negotiate the author in you with the translator in you, if indeed this is a real distinction?

PA: I didn’t have to negotiate the author in me while translating Rai’s stories, and yes, I distinguish between the writer and the translator in me. I have tried as best as possible to not leave out anything whatsoever from the original while adding nothing whatsoever into the translation. As best as possible, I emphasise. When the choice was between smoothing over awkward bits to make the text more readable and maintaining accuracy, I have tried to choose the latter. It is not the most sensible thing to do, especially if you don’t want the reader to feel like they are reading something in translation. This absolute transparency is difficult to achieve and a claim to it permits the translator too many excuses to intervene.

The act of translation has to be in service of a certain reader – the original writer, the translator, the bilingually proficient reader or the adventitious reader. My belief is that a good translation serves all four of these readers. That is nearly impossible to achieve – for instance, with the use of English names for local flora. Perhaps the use of English names for plants and flowers disallows a reader to feel a native affinity towards the settings and characters in the stories. However, retaining only the Nepali names of the trees and shrubs would have created an unnecessary distance for the adventitious reader. But I also had to make judicious choices to not go to an extreme in the other direction, for instance, by calling a millstone a quern, however accurate a translation of jaanto that may be. How many people reading in English today – across the world – would know the word?

HSA: What is your assessment of the translation ‘industry’ in Southasia?

PA: It is imperative to translate between the languages of Southasia, and, fortunately, the work is picking up – there is interest and there is a market for it. Writers like Jerry Pinto and Manjushree Thapa are translating from a regional or national language into English. Especially in India, increasingly more works are being translated between national languages – the north and south of India are mutually unintelligible, so a Hindi translation of Ghachar Ghochar helps bring a brilliant Kannada novel into other Indian languages. Arunava Sinha, who translates from Bengali, has translated over three dozen works into English. Just as the need is urgent, the production is profuse. But we still need greater contact across the region.

Southasia is at a strange phase of literary translation – as more and more middle-class children grow up with a weakening grasp of their mother tongues and with greater ease with English, they are having to read literature from their native cultures in English translations. At the same time, local literatures are gaining more credence with greater claims for identity in national politics. Local-language literatures are both tokens for exchange and mirrors for self-reflection. They are a way of seeking out allies.

There’s been significant work in literary translations in Nepal too; La.Lit’s latest volume was of translations into English from various languages of the country. I have just finished editing Yug Pathak’s Nepali translation of Kannada author Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar. (The Nepali translation was itself based on another translation, that in English by Srinath Perur.) Writers and translators like Muna Gurung, Ujjwal Prasai, Nayan Sindhuliya and Dinesh Kafle are finishing translations of various works – into English or Nepali. Michael Hutt is translating Nepali-language novelist Buddhisagar’s Karnali Blues into English. The theatre scene in Kathmandu is nurtured mostly by translations from around the world. And these are only the examples of which I am aware.

I hope more writers translate. Before long, we will lose entire languages from human memory. Before that, I hope, we manage to translate stories from such languages so that, at the least, a faint echo will remain to remind us of the lost words and the worlds enfolded in them.


~Prawin Adhikari writes screenplays and fiction, and translates between Nepali and English. He is an assistant editor at La.Lit, the literary magazine. He is the author of The Vanishing Act (Rupa, 2014) and his translation of Indra Bahadur Rai’s short stories has been published as Long Night of Storm (Speaking Tiger, 2018).

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