This is an interesting moment for literature in Nepal. Writing from other languages of Nepal is not yet garnering the broad interest and foothold it might, and the Nepali language is slowly losing its dominance over Nepal’s literary landscape.
Today, we have an English-speaking middle class and literature in English that has expanded far beyond the first, small, ultra-elite circle that received English-language education in the 1920s at Tri-Chandra College. Today’s English-speaking Nepalis are the product of the post-1990 wave of democratization, market expansion, private schools, conflict, and the related, expansion of the diaspora comprising temporary and longer-term migrants.
People in this group – belonging to the middle and upper classes, many already into early middle age – operate in the English language, perhaps even dream in it – even if in some sites of our cosmopolitan lives, we have to label ourselves non-native speakers of the English language. We have access to a much wider world than our parents or grandparents.
Yet, whether at home or abroad, English-speaking Nepalis move through the world with an acute sense of rootlessness, of un-belonging. Our English-medium education came packaged with the aspiration to be in America and Europe. Yet, when we get there, we face constant legal and racial reminders that we are ultimately seen as aliens. On the other hand, at home, in our formative years, our school system washed the native out of our tongues. As adolescents and often as adults we returned from abroad to experience our language, rituals and customs with the cold distance of a tourist or the exoticizing interest of a western gaze.
Such experiences were clearly on writer Muna Gurung’s mind when she set out to translate the poet Sulochana Manandhar’s collection, Night, into English. “Am I Nepali enough?”, Gurung asks in her introduction to the beautifully produced volume published this year by Tilted Axis Press in the UK. The answer, as she discovers, is yes.
For this project, Gurung chose 25 poems of the original 60, which makes for a slim, highly enjoyable volume. Night, published in 2014, is a highlight of the career of Sulochana Manadhar, a prominent voice in Nepali writing, known for her life’s efforts to fight the status quo.
Night centers, unsurprisingly, around the theme of darkness, and challenges our preconceived notion of nighttime. Muna Gurung’s translation preserves that inherent challenge with a fluidity akin to the source poems. Her concern is to capture the emotional core of the source poems, not to mimic the form of Manandhar’s Nepali. A translator is, after all, not simply a messenger from one language to another. The English edition is itself a complete work of its own, even if it only contains a selection from Manandhar’s collection. This completeness is suggested most vividly in the way the translated poems are woven together; the original organization of the Nepali volume collection is undone and the poems are strung together with a new logic where the first poem in the Nepali edition becomes the last in the translated edition, as if suggesting a backward-looking, reflective consideration at the source: the poems, the Nepali language and towards night.
Sulochana Manandhar wrote the poems as she stayed awake with insomnia. Despite the restlessness of insomnia that must have accompanied the writing, the poems do not plunge the reader into the depths of despair, as is common for literary works that explore tropes of night and darkness. Instead, for Manandhar, Night is “my ancestral inheritance, my birthright…/ is the land in which I feel free/ where I no longer fear subjugation”. Night is not to be feared, nor does it threaten life. It is a time of pregnancy, of expectation: “Knowledge was born from night’s womb/ and from the same womb/ came light”.
Night is a journey that one must take alone, but it is not necessarily a lonely experience. “For me,” Gurung writes in her translator’s note, “Night is especially about being a woman and finding in darkness a comfort she is unable to find elsewhere, or in anyone.”
Gurung finds the answer to be unequivocal: she is always enough, “enough of a writer, enough of a translator, enough of a Nepali woman.” Being “Nepali enough” is inseparable from being enough of all these other elements.
Gurung grew up in multiple worlds, like many of her generation, and this is where she locates her sense of feeling insufficient, incomplete. Refracted through the introduction and the translations themselves, Gurung’s question – “Am I Nepali enough?” – fragments into many parts: what does it mean to be Nepali?, is there a particular Nepali subjectivity, where does reading (Nepali) in (English) translation take us?
Her discoveries illuminate the complexity of her own response and hint at the different ways Nepalis of today, even those who never left ‘home’, might ask themselves this question. Gurung finds the answer to be unequivocal: she is always enough, “enough of a writer, enough of a translator, enough of a Nepali woman.” Being “Nepali enough” is inseparable from being enough of all these other elements.
By translating Manandhar’s work, Gurung allows readers to approach Nepali literature through an important feminist voice. This inverts the traditional practice of canon-building, in which the standard ‘top texts’ tend to be written by privileged men, whose experience and perspective is taken as the norm, while texts of women and ethnic, linguistic or sexual minorities are relegated to secondary lists, either curiosities or lesser works.
Manandhar herself is explicitly feminist, conscious that most Nepali female writers have their literary creation strangled. She writes: “Women, after all, are the source of creation and are therefore full of poetic consciousness. But often labelled ‘Housewife Poems’, many of our grandmothers’, mothers’ and sisters’ poetry has been cast to a corner of the kitchen, and usually burned with wood fire or washed away with the stains of baby rags.” Manandhar has first-hand experience of this: although she is a renowned figure of Nepali literature, she has had to self-publish most of her works, which are then distributed via a network of family and friends.
For Nepali writers and readers, this translation project should open up a wide field of reflection about how and why we choose – or think we choose – to read what we do. Whose work is important and made easy to access has everything to do with power relations and social structures. Do we read men or women? Do we read a socially dominant voice or a so-called marginal one? What language do we read in? If we read in English, whose work is available and why?
The power dynamics at work in Manandhar’s self-publication in Nepali as well as in the growing need and desire for English-language translations work on many different levels within Nepal and the diaspora. But they also describe a much broader context of global English-language publishing, where what we read in English from other countries is the product of structural inequalities built into the political economy of publishing, and of subtle and not-so-subtle biases.
Whether we see these dynamics within Nepal as well as in the external world depends on our perspective – and our willingness to be clear-eyed. For Nepali writers and readers, this translation project should open up a wide field of reflection about how and why we choose – or think we choose – to read what we do. Whose work is important and made easy to access has everything to do with power relations and social structures. Do we read men or women? Do we read a socially dominant voice or a so-called marginal one? What language do we read in? If we read in English, whose work is available and why?
Night is published by the UK-based non-profit Tilted Axis Press as part of its series ‘Translating Feminisms’, and Gurung and Manandhar could not have found a more appropriate publisher. Tilted Axis challenges mainstream publishing. Choosing to translate a self-published volume of Nepali poetry, likely unknown even to Nepali readers, demonstrates the radical nature of the publisher’s project.
First, the Press wants to “[tilt] the axis of world literature from the center to the margins” by “[publishing] books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting… artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new.” The Translating Feminisms series challenges the homogeneity demanded by white feminism, by ensuring that women of color “have the creative agency to contextualize their own work, resisting the commodification, fetishization and/or erasure of their femaleness on their own terms.” Finally, Tilted Axis states that its “wider project [is] of decolonization through [and] of translation.”
The decolonization of literature can be achieved when translated literature is not read in what Deborah Smith, the award-winning British translator of South Korean literature and founder of Tilted Axis, has called “reading anthropologically”, that is, to read primarily to learn more about a country or a group. Instead, she argues, we should read artistically, against efforts to homogenize and simplify cultures alien to us. Or, we can add, cultures that we are alienated from.
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And it is a sense of alienation that underscores translation projects from Nepali to English. On the most fundamental level, it seems to be that Nepali writers begin translating Nepali literature into English out of a sense of obligation, or even guilt, for having been an absentee Nepali. Writer Manjushree Thapa, who grew up as much outside Nepal as in it, has often spoken of learning Nepali in her twenties from the poet Manjul. Writer and friend Prawin Adhikari, who writes in English and translates between Nepali and English, once told me that he did not have the inner voice to write in Nepali. In this context, translation serves both to bring the writer closer to home and to make Nepali literature accessible to a wider audience, including Nepalis who might only engage with literature from their country in translation.
In school, Nepali language and literature are drudgery, the result of conscious and subtle pro-English bias helped along by outdated Nepali language teaching methods. Many of us leave school without really having the skill to read or write in Nepali. But it must not necessarily be so. Muna Gurung writes that in translating Night she discovered that: “Nepali literature does not have to be difficult or inaccessible”. This recognition makes the translation from Nepali to English an approachable task. It opens up the field for future translators from Nepali into English, or even from other languages of Nepal into Nepali or English.
Gurung chose to translate a feminist writer and in doing so, discovered that the answer to her question of “am I Nepali enough” included consideration of “am I enough of a Nepali woman”.
For Nepali readers wanting to connect with Nepali literature, the lessons from the slim volume are many: read widely, read people unlike yourself, do not fetishize your own culture, accept translation as a legitimate way to engage with Nepali literature. You are Nepali enough.