Devkota in Translation

Mahesh Paudyal

Of all the Nepali men of letters, Devkota stands out as one of the first writers to feel and air the need for translating Nepali literature into different world languages. His Tashkent address, delivered as early as in 1958, was basically rooted in explicating this dire need for translation, which, to him, was the most fundamental prerequisite for taking Nepali literature to the global front. He himself lived up to his words by taking two approaches: himself sitting down to translate some of his works previously written in Nepali, and translating some of the finest works of his contemporaries like Lekhanath Paudyal, Siddhicharan Shrestha and Shyamdas Vaishnav. His own works Shakuntal and “The Lunatic”, besides a series of poems published in a bilingual edition of Indreni showcase Devkota’s calibre as a translator par excellence.

Translation was one of the key strategies through which Devkota’s fame crossed the limits of Nepali language and passed over to the International audience. Of the earliest most important translations, mention maybe made of those done by David Rubin and Michael Hutt, to be followed by others later. Rubin’s translation made Devkota known to the American Academic and literary world vindicated by the praised he received, albeit sparingly, from the American readership. Making a comment on a translation of Devkota by David Rubin and published by the University of California, its editor Allen Thrasher regards Devkota as a true artist contributing to the development of Nepali literature.  He writes, “Though the history of Nepali literature is more than five hundred years old, its true development took pace only in the twentieth century and Laxmi Prasad Devkota is the greatest writer of this era. He developed a huge archive of writing in different genres, and was influenced by English romantic poets. Like them, Devkota gave priority to romanticism, lucidity and emotionality.” In its description of the curriculum on  Asian Languages, University of Cornel mentions that writes like Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Bhanubhakta Acharya and Lekhanath Paudyal established Nepali language as a literary language.

Translating Devkota is quite a feat. He is not easily picked up by translators. His overt rootedness in Nepali lifestyle requires a translator to be equally proficient in both source and target languages and cultures and such people are not many. As a result, many translators do not dare to take up Devkota under their project, and I am one of them. The few that have seriously dealt with him have reported of untellable rewards the very task gives. Pallav Ranjan, expressing his experience of translating “Yatri” mentions that understanding the central theme of Devkota’s writing is like seeing vapour in the fog or seeing the light of thousands of fireflies at a time.

       A section of Nepali literature published by JNUF Documentation Letter mentions Devkota, together with Guru Prasad Mainali and BP Koirala as one of the greatest writers of the pre-revolutionary period and the credit goes to translation and original delivery in English. In a BBC debate conducted in October 2000, Devkota has been ranked along with Haribansha Rai Bachhan, Mukraj Anand and Michel Ondaatje as one the exponential writers in Asia, who has delivered excellent works in English

Since Devkota stands out as the most renowned Nepali writer so far, many translators have tried their hands in rendering him into different languages. We have read several circulations of the poet’s most famous poem “The Lunatic”. Besides some less-famous renderings, those in wide circulations are Michael Hutt’s and Rubin’s translation. Among Nepali writers, Taranath Sharma has tried one, in his own idiosyncratic ways of language use. I have the information that this work has also been translated into Bengali as “Jorur Bondhu  Ami Pagol” by a Nepali diplomat Sushil Kumar Lamsal in Bangladesh.

Thus Ludmila Aganina got some of Devkota’s poems in Russian. Dr. Janagam Chauhan, in one of his articles mentions that Aganina gave one of the poems to Russian poet Jheleznov, who translated it into Russian. Including this poem, a collection of Nepali poems entitled Poems of Nepali Poets was published in 1962 in Russian for the first time. The collection was edited by Aganina herself. Devkota’s story “Teej” was also translated into Russian by Aganina and was included in a collection of Nepali stories Love of Mother (1962). “In Moscow” and “Blue Are the Mountains” were among the poems published in Russian translation. Ludmila Aganina and Krishna Prakash Shrestha took initiatives and, as a result, Selected Works of L.P. Devkota was published in the following year. This has proved to be an important event in augmenting Nepal-Russia literary relations after the collapse of Soviet Union.

Devkota’s book The Lunatic and Other Poems includes thirty poems translated by the poet himself, dealing with “variety of themes, however, to be more specific, the concept of ‘Nature’, sharp satire on socio-political situation and caste based discrimination, love and memory, desire for change/revolution, pride of nationality and importance of food formulate the major themes of these poems”

Himalayan Voices, an Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature, edited and translated by Michael Hutt contains in translation some of Devkota’s poems like “Sleeping Porter,” “Prayer on a Clear Morning in the Month of Magh,” “Mad”, “Like Nothing into Nothing” and extracts from Muna Madan. Selected Nepali Poems, translated and edited by Taranath Sharma and published by Jiba Lamichhane contains five poems by Devkota, which include “A crackpot I am”, “Bolt”, “My Lord, Make Me a Sheep”, “To the Morning Sky” and “Why Does a Tiger Eat Its Cubs?”

The Himalayan Bard, published by NRNA contains a poem “Make Me a Sheep, O God,’ translated by Bhuvan Thapaliya from the poet’s original, “Prabhu Malai Bheda Banaideu.”  A comparative reading of this short rendering (extract) by a young practitioner, to me, sounds far more simple, accurate and poetic that Taranath Sharma’s prosaic rendering.

Recently, Muna Madan has been rendered into Chinese language by a Chinese poet Liu Jian. My linguistic limitations do not allow me to make any comment on the Chinese version, but my personal discussion with the translated during my recent visit to Beijing (I can pass his numbers and email to you if you need) has convinced me that he was impressed with the content of the work and is interested to take up newer projects in this line.

I also have the information that by involving the students of MPhil, the Central Department of English, TU has got some of Devkota’s stories translated. When it gets published, it shall add yet another laurel towards internationalising Devkota’s works.

As a translator, I haven’t tried my hand in many of Devkota’s works. Some of my translations of his poems published online and in print over the past few years include his poems “Give Me Rice,” “Lentils and the Green Stalks”, “The Latch”,  “Freedom Is But Humanity”, “Asia”, “Yes It’s Bullet” and “The Traveller”.

Now a passing note on my own experience of translating Devkota. Devkota’s short poems are comparatively easier that his epics or prose pieces. Unlike his epics that are overtly rooted in Nepali culture and mythological tradition with a preponderant of local images and allusions, his shorter poems rest on a tapestry of universal images and themes. In that case, the shirt, which inevitably occurs during the transition between two remote languages and cultures like Nepali and English remains minimum. The best strategy is not to render the units, but to render the text. In other words, textual render is more favourable that formal rendering in case of Devkota. For, in his short poems, more than the very structure of form of the text, his message is important. The biggest potential of taking Devkota abroad too, in my personal opinion, lies in attempting to render his short poems and prose pieces rather than his epics. In spite of their lofty subject, Devkota’s epics like Muna Madan have prevailed over the years due mainly to their musicality and folk meter which are badly thwarted in translation. I maybe wrong, but the English rendering of Muna Madan could not do much justice to the poet’s masterpiece and it failed to establish itself as one of the most popular picks for Nepali readers. I am of the opinion that if his epics are to be rendered, it should be done by Nepali speakers proficient in English under the supervision of learned scholars so that the puns are not misinterpreted, cultural allusions are not thwarted, the musicality is aptly replaces and the very heart of Nepaliness is kept intact.