Rohini Chowdhury Posts

” Translating the ‘Panchatantra’ ” by Rohini Chowdhury

( Puffin India has recently released a new translation of Panchatantra translated from Sanskrity by well-known writer Rohini Chowdhury. Reproduced below with the author’s permission is her essay included in the book on why she translated these beloved tales. Here is a lovely trailer for the book released by the publishers, Penguin Random House India. They have also illustrated some of the stories as cartoon strips.)   

Those who pay no heed to good counsel are destroyed halfway to their goal.

The fables of the Panchatantra have always been a part of the landscape of my life, and so, when my daughters were born and grew old enough to listen to bedtime tales and ask for them, these were amongst the first stories I told them. It was in searching for more Panchatantra tales for my daughters that I realised the absence of a complete translation for children, and one that maintained the structural integrity of the original work.  Now, one of the most interesting features of the Panchatantra is its story-within-a-story structure – stories contain stories, which contain more

One who anticipates disaster and plans ahead, survives and lives a long happy life

stories, somewhat like a Russian matryoshka doll that contains doll within doll within doll. In every translation and retelling that I could find, though the stories had been charmingly retold and often beautifully illustrated, they had been presented as stand-alone tales without the context or frame-story within which they occur in the Panchatantra. This, I felt, took away from the tales substantially. I therefore decided to translate the complete Panchatantra myself, keeping intact its original form and structure.

The translation went much slower than I had expected; the children

The one who gives a stranger all his friendship while forsaking his own kind, meets an unhappy end.

grew much faster and had soon outgrown these tales. So, for many years, I put this translation aside and became busy writing and translating other books – till a conversation with Puffin India in July 2015 brought me back to it.  I looked at the Panchatantra again, with different eyes, and realised its true significance: not only was it a masterly treatise on politics and government and a manual for conducting our daily lives with wisdom and common sense, but devised to educate the three foolish sons of a king in the ways of the world, it was also a revolutionary, and successful, experiment in teaching young people. Where traditional methods had failed with the princes, the fables of the Panchatantra succeeded – by teaching them practical wisdom, and by awakening in them a curiosity about the world. Within six months, the blockhead princes had become wise and knowledgeable young men. Since then, says the Panchatantra, its stories have been used to educate young people everywhere, a claim that is borne out by the many translations and retellings of this work that are found all over the world, even today.

We know very little about the author of the Panchatantra, except what the introduction to the work itself tells us – that his name was Vishnusharma, that he was a Brahman, exceptionally learned, a renowned teacher, and eighty years of age at the time he composed this work.  Since we have no other evidence regarding Vishnusharma, it is difficult to say whether he really was the author of the Panchatantra or himself a fictional character, invented as a literary device for the purpose of narrating the stories. Some versions of the Panchatantra – from southern India and South-east Asia – give the author’s name as Vasubhaga. Again, there is not enough evidence to confirm his identity or his existence.

The original Panchatantra is in Sanskrit, and has been written in a mixture of prose and verse, in a style that is simple and direct. The work is divided into five parts (hence the name: pancha: five and tantram: parts), each part dealing with a particular aspect of kingship, government, life and living. The stories are narrated mainly in prose, but the lessons derived from the tales are usually given in verse form.  The Panchatantra’s ‘story within a story’ structure—individual stories are placed within other stories, and each individual part or tantra replicates the structure of the work as a whole—serves to keep its audience engrossed as it takes them into a series of stories, deeper and deeper, from one level to the next.

Most of the characters of the Panchatantra are animals that behave, think and speak like humans. In every culture across the world, people have given human characteristics to animals. But the qualities that people see in particular animals vary across cultures. Thus, an owl is considered wise in England, but evil and unlucky in India. The animals of the Panchatantra conform to the ideas held about them in Indian culture. So, a heron is regarded as deceitful and cruel, for he stands still for hours on one leg pretending to be an ascetic doing penance when we all know that he is actually waiting to grab the next unwary fish that swims too close. Similarly, an elephant is noble and proud, a jackal is greedy and cunning, and a lion, though the king of the animals, is arrogant and often easily fooled by a weaker, more intelligent animal. An ox is loyal, a dog is unclean and greedy, and a cobra dangerous and untrustworthy. The audience for which the stories of the Panchatantra were meant would have known these qualities of particular animals, and so would have known instantly what to expect of them in the stories.

The author of the Panchatantra has used one more device to make it easy for his audience to understand the nature of his characters, and that is their names.  He has given his characters, whether human or animal, names that highlight certain aspects of their appearance or behaviour, or give insights into their nature. Thus we have Pingalaka the lion, whose name means ‘one who is red-gold’, named for his fiery coat, Dantila the jeweller whose name means ‘one who has big and projecting teeth’ and immediately gives us a vivid image of the man, Chaturaka the wily jackal whose name means ‘one who is sly and cunning’, and Agnimukha the bedbug, whose name means ‘fire-mouth’ and almost makes us go ‘ouch’ as we imagine his bite!

The appeal of the Panchatantra is not limited only to the young.  Apart from its wonderful stories and ageless wisdom, it is a work that looks at life head-on.  Rather than seeking to present linear solutions where good wins over evil, moral behaviour wins over the immoral or even amoral, it acknowledges that life, love and friendship can be complex, that politics, government, human interactions are not always straightforward, and even right and wrong, truth and falsehood can often be a matter of circumstance, expediency, or what is practical.

As a result, the stories of the Panchatantra became immensely popular, and travelled across the world – in translations, or carried by scholars, merchants, and travellers. Even today, the tales resonate with people of all ages, at different levels, in different ways, everywhere. In its Arabic translation, the Panchatantra became famous as Kalila wa Dimna (after the names of two of the principal characters, the jackals Karataka and Damanaka); in Europe it became known as the Fables of Bidpai. Many of the stories of the Panchatantra can be found in the fables of La Fontaine in the 17th century, and their influence can be seen in the stories of the Arabian Nights, as well as in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The stories also travelled to Indonesia in both oral and written forms.  Today there may be found more than two hundred versions of the Panchatantra across the world, in more than fifty languages. The oldest recension is probably the Sanskrit Tantrakhyayika from Kashmir; this predates the Panchatantra version available to us today. The most famous retelling of the original work is the 13th century version by Narayana, known as the Hitopdesa.

My translation, a labour of love for my daughters, is my attempt to make this great work available to the young people of today.

Rohini Chowdhury is an established children’s writer and literary translator. Her books can be bought on Amazon.

Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury, 2017.

Jumpstart, 28-29 Aug 2013

Jumpstart, 28-29 Aug 2013

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Alok Rai, Manisha Choudhury, Subir Shukla, Jumpstart 2013Jumpstart this year was focused on talking, discussing, tackling issues in children’s literature in a range of languages. The discussions were not necessarily confined to the domain of English-language publishing. The presentations, panel discussions and conversations on the side were representative of the enthusiasm, involvement and engagement that the various stakeholders in children’s literature hold. For Subir Shukla, the definition of children’s literature, was inclusive of textbooks that were being created for children in all languages across all states. It was not necessarily confined to the domain of trade literature ( picture books, chapter books, fiction and non-fiction) but that which was being created and used on a daily basis in classrooms across states. According to Subir Shukla textbooks such as the ones he was discussing had phenomenal print runs of 700,000 + as opposed to 5,000+ of trade literature, so it was a definition hard to dispute. Though there will always be quibbles about what constitutes “children’s literature”.

Anita Roy, Sampurna Chattarji and Anushka Ravishankar, Jumpstart 2013

Anita Roy, Sampurna Chattarji and Anushka Ravishankar, Jumpstart 2013

 

The first day sessions were attended very well. There were an estimated 175 people who had registered, apart from the invitees, speakers, panelists etc. But there was even better constructive engagement to be experienced on the sidelines, during the coffee and lunch breaks, the reception ( by invitation only) in the evening etc. The second day was quieter with a hum of activity in the various sessions. These were primarily masterclasses focussed on writing and illustrating, followed by the book souk — a form of B2B speed-dating between authors and publishers. Audience, Jumpstart 2013

Jumpstart 2013

Jumpstart 2013

This is the fourth edition of Jumpstart. Every year there has been something new on offer. In terms of content, formats and organisation. For instance, this year participants could register on separate days, depending upon what sessions were of interest to them rather than sign up for the two-day conference. It made a marked difference to the level of engagement between the audience and speakers. There were (mostly) focussed questions from the floor instead of too many rambling observations. The proposed format of inviting speakers to make presentations like the TED lectures was a good idea, since these are highly experienced professionals, but without a rehearsal the day before there was palpable nervousness amongst the speakers. So very soon the TED-like talks fizzled out into simple presentations from the podium followed by a panel discussion.

This time it was evident that the first day of the conference was meant for intensive networking. People were obviously engaged in serious conversations, business cards were being exchanged and the immense (business) possibilities of bringing so many stakeholders in children’s literature together was apparent. If only it were possible to know beforehand who were all the registered participants at Jumpstart, maybe the networking could have been more effective, since there is a limit to how many conversations one can have in a few hours. Energies do get spent. Maybe upon registering Jumpstart visitors could visit a restricted access section of the official website and view the names of expected people and their email ids, reach out to them, fix appointments, and do a bit of homework before attending the conference so the interactions could be far more constructive. Otherwise too much time was being spent in exchanging pleasantries, especially for Jumpstart virgins. Veterans, of course, knew how to mingle and move swiftly from one huddle to the next, glean information, exchange cards and initiate conversations, many to be completed days later. Over the years, I hear, many business engagements have emerged from  or facilitated by Jumpstart. This year one of the immediate ones was award-winning illustrator Julia Kaergel’s visit to Kumaon University, facilitated by Arundhati Desothali.

(C) Julia Kaergel

(C) Julia Kaergel

 

 

 

Masterclass, Jumpstart 2013The “practical” aspect of the conference – the masterclasses and the Book Souk  – are  feature that continue to enchant a number of participants. Illustrators and writers have the opportunity have face-to-face interactions with publishing professionals, experts and of course authors can meet editors of publishing firms to show them their manuscripts.  Maybe next year a session on learning how to cost one’s labour and/or the costs involved in producing children’s literature could also be factored in. It would certainly help many of the conversations to be a tad sharper and focused. People have dreams and it is up to the publishers to make them come alive through a partnership, but many of those dreams need to be realistic, only possible if economics and money are discussed.

 

Translation panel, Jumpstart 2013

Translation panel, Jumpstart 2013

Rohini Chowdhury, translator and writer, says it well about children’s literature, something that German Book Office is constantly working at and facilitating through such platforms like Jumpstart  – “Children are demanding readers, they absorb and observe, criticize and comment with a great deal more engagement and involvement than do most adults. They are also our future, and therefore, whether it is an original novel or story, or a translated work, children deserve the best that I can give.” (http://bit.ly/18OytEa )

11 Sept 2013

 

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

( I invited Rohini Chowdhury to talk about her experience in translating Bosky’s Panchatantra for Red Turtle. She translated Gulzar’s verse rendition of Panchatantra.

She is a widely published children’s writer, and an established literary translator. As a children’s writer, she has more than twenty books and several short stories to her credit. Her published writing is in Hindi and English, and covers a wide spectrum of literary genres including translations, novels, short fiction, comics, and non-fiction.

Rohini’s primary languages as a literary translator are pre-modern (Braj Bhasha and Avadhi) and modern (Khari Boli) Hindi, and English. She has translated the seventeenth century Braj Bhasha text Ardhakathanak, into modern Hindi and into English; both translations were published by Penguin India. Ardhakathanak is the autobiography of the poet, merchant and philosopher, Banarasidas; written in 1641, it is widely regarded as the first autobiography in an Indian language. Her translations include the Hindi novel Tyagpatra [The Resignation] by Jainendra, one of the leading Hindi novelists of the modern period, into English, also published by Penguin India.

Rohini was born and educated in India, and was a management professional before moving to London in 1997. She is widely travelled and brings in the nuances of the cultures of Asia, Africa and the West in her writings.

Bosky's Panchatantra by Gulzar, Rupa Publications, Rohini Chowdhury (transl)Gulzar Bosky’s Panchatantra Translated by Rohini Chowdhury, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe. Rupa Publications (2013)  Pb. Rs. 195

 When I was first asked to translate Gulzar’s verse renditions of stories from the Panchatantra, I was both excited and curious. Excited because I would be translating Gulzar, and curious because these were familiar tales, that I had grown up listening to; also, I had earlier translated several of these stories from the original Sanskrit Panchatantram. Moreover, these stories had been told and retold a hundred times before, in varying forms and formats, by writers and translators of all colours, and I wondered what new twist or angle Gulzar could possibly have given them. The excitement and curiosity were soon replaced by apprehension: Would I be able to do justice to the tales, or would my own familiarity with them stand in the way of my translation? And then, it was Gulzar that I was translating, and translating the work of a living poet of his stature brought its own demands— the quality of my translation had to match the greatness of his reputation, and please the poet as well!  As if these doubts were not enough, the tales were meant for children, and children, as anyone who has had anything to do with them will tell you, are far more demanding and discerning than adults. So there I was, faced with a trio of unprecedented challenges— an overly familiar subject, the text written by a famous and much-revered poet, and meant for children!

But I need not have worried, not about the ‘overly familiar’ at least! As I worked through the tales, I was drawn into their magic once more, and this time the magic came with the added sparkle of Gulzar’s wit and lively humour. Gulzar’s gentle imagination had fleshed out the original tales with dialogue and descriptions, and added events and happenings the way one does when telling a well-loved story to a child several times. The humour and the detail made these stories uniquely Gulzar’s, familiar yes, but new as well!

Gulzar Sahib approved my translation of the first story, and I breathed a sigh of relief. So the second worry was gone too! I could now focus on what, in any case, is any translator’s primary concern— to transmit the original in as accurate and as interesting a manner as possible to her audience, which, in my case, would be made up mainly of children.

Gulzar’s Panchatantra stories are in Hindustani, that inimitable mix of Hindi and Urdu that is so rarely heard these days, the tales related as he would have related them to his daughter, Bosky, when she was little. My main challenge now became to transmit the tones and nuances of his sparkling, softly flowing, idiomatic Hindustani into the much staider, crisper English.

Each language brings with it its own context, social, historical, cultural, so that when we move from one language into another, we also move worlds.  Translation therefore becomes a negotiation between languages and cultures, and the translator, as mediator, must address the issues that arise in such a negotiation: How accurately must the translation follow the original? Which words may be kept, which must be discarded? How best may an idea that is intrinsic to the original culture but alien to the other be transmitted? Can it be transmitted at all? I, too, asked these questions as I sat down to translate Gulzar’s stories.

Gulzar’s use of idiom makes the stories easy to read, but difficult to translate without taking some liberties with the original. Take, for example, the Hindi phrase, ‘jhoot ke pair nahin hote’ which translates literally into  ‘falsehood has no feet’.  In Hindi the phrase makes perfect sense, in English, not so much, not without further explanation of some sort. We finally settled upon ‘A lie never goes very far/For it has no feet at all’.

Certain cultural and social norms which are easily conveyed in Hindi, are almost impossible to convey in English, and compromises are inevitable. Consider the Hindu practice whereby a woman may not address her husband by name. This is conveyed perfectly in Hindi but in English translation, the cultural context is by and large lost. Take the tale of Manram Swaroop, the Brahmin. Though he had a wonderful name, no one ever used it: the entire village called him ‘Panditji’, and his wife, of course, would never address him by name:

His wife would call him

‘Hey, sir!’

‘Ho, sir!’

‘Do you hear me?’

That’s how she would address him…

Though technically correct and adequate for the purpose of telling the story, the translation does not and cannot in itself capture the social and cultural implications that are implicit in this tradition, unless it be accompanied by further explanation, either in the main text itself or in footnotes. But any such explanation would have made the text heavier, and given that my translation was not a scholarly exercise but aimed at young readers, I decided to skip the explanation.

Puns and double meanings are ever the translator’s bane and Gulzar’s gentle and clever play on words throughout the text presented another challenge in translation. Unfortunately, in some instances, this was inevitably lost in translation, though sometimes English actually enhanced the humour of the original. In the tale of the singing donkey, for example, English gave me the facility of playing with two words ‘donkey’ and ‘ass’ to convey the two meanings (the animal, and a fool) of the single Hindi word ‘gadha’.

Gulzar’s stories are in free verse, and therefore, to stay as close to the spirit of the original as possible, I wanted my translation to be in free verse as well.  Translating into verse constrains the translator even further for verse demands economy in the use of words, so that the translator must use words not only effectively, but both efficiently as well. I found myself writing and rewriting, cutting and pruning and editing, till the lines fell into place just so. An arduous exercise, but worth the effort.

Of course, as I worked, every decision I made— the words I used, the phrases I chose to explain or leave to the readers’ understanding, the ideas I chose to convey or glossed over briefly – was influenced by the fact that this work was meant for children.

One might ask, and I asked myself this: why should a translation aimed at children require more care from the translator than a translation aimed at adults? The answer, I realized, lay in the responsibility I feel when writing for children. Children are demanding readers, they absorb and observe, criticize and comment with a great deal more engagement and involvement than do most adults. They are also our future, and therefore, whether it is an original novel or story, or a translated work, children deserve the best that I can give.

London, 11 Sept 2013

(C) Rohini Chowdhury

Email: rohini.chowdhury@gmail.com

 

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