Traduttore, traditore is an Italian phrase meaning Translator, Traitor. This Italian pun was in response to the translation of Dante’s work into French, which Italian readers believed missed the essence of The Divine Comedy. It is now widely used to signal the idea that translation is a betrayal of the original.
I find it particularly appropriate in the context of Nepal’s history of having a One Language policy. This was first implemented during Rana rule, but it has continued since, officially and unofficially, as an obsession with making things sound “Nepali.” As a Kathmandu Newa, I can’t help but notice this when I hear Nepali names of places, festivals and even everyday words which, in being translated, have lost their meaning and even their history. Even younger Newas now use translated versions of these names, to fit in with their peers.
Think of the large open field in the middle of Kathmandu (at least it was, until a few years ago) called Tudikhel. Most Newas call this Ti Khyo, which means the field or khyo of narkat, or ti or giant reed plant. The other Khy inexplicably translated as Khel, is Jawlakhel, or ja: whola khayo, or the field to disperse the rice — an ancient practice that accompanied the showing of Machindranath’s bhoto. Rani Pokhari is Nhu Pukhu, which means new pond, after King Pratap Malla created it. These place names reflect our history, and rituals that happen at particular spots at a specific time of the year. This is how history, tradition, and people’s connection with places are kept alive.
When we translate these words into Nepali, we often create meaningless words. Chabil means nothing until you know that is is actually Cha: bahi, or the bihara of Charumati. The same goes for Chagal, cha: ga:, which was a place known for its black clay. Similarly, tha bahi becomes Thamel, laga becomes Lagan, Shree gha becomes Shreegal.
In school it was drilled into us that “Nepal is a garden of diverse flowers.” But for many of us, our linguistic experience of growing up here has felt like being a weed in the bed of of one single flower.
What I call the Nepalization of Nepal bhasa words is especially awkward when it comes to festivals and rituals. The insistence adding “Jatra” to every name says a lot about the dominant Nepali state’s understanding of other cultures. Sa Paru is translated as Gai Jatra, the famous cow festival. Hilarious, no? Indeed, sa means cow, but paru in the Nepal Sambat is the day after a particular full moon. Where is the jatra in this? Indra Jatra, or Yenya Punhi, is one day in the 7-8 day festival of Yen (as Newas call Kathmandu), and Indra is only one of several deities worshiped during it. Not only does the renaming of the festival reduce its complexity, it also misunderstands the atypical role Indra plays in it. The Gathamuga festival, where Newas drive away demons who have entered their dwellings during farming season from cities and villages, is inexplicably marked as Ghantakarna or Gathemangal, or even both on calendars. Why not just call it as the people who observe it do? The names of their tangible and intangible things are part of their heritage and identity, and part of Nepal’s diversity.
Nepal is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, particularly for the size of our population — we speak 71 languages, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages. Yet this diversity is not respected or given space in the country’s policies or practices. In school it was drilled into us that “Nepal is a garden of diverse flowers.” But for many of us, our linguistic experience of growing up here has felt like being a weed in the bed of of one single flower.
Cultural traditions, places and names can be translated, but this is sometimes a transposition; not everything needs a corresponding equivalent in other languages or cultures. We can respect things as they are. I am sure this is the case for many languages other than Nepa Bhasa too. By translating everything into Nepali or Nepalization, we are actually sanitizing our diversity and erasing our memory, people’s links to places, and links between the past and the present.
Correction: A previous version of this story called Nepal bhasa “Newari” and referred to the Newa community as “Newar”. It has since been changed.