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Changed In Rebirth

A polished new translation, though not always very faithful

Changed In Rebirth
By Premchand Translated By Alok Rai
Oxford university Press Rs.295,Pages:215
IN this age or at least decade of a translation boom, it remains a crying shame that of the dozen novels by Premchand, only two have so far been translated into English. With this new translation of Nirmala by Alok Rai, the situation is not really improved but only compounded, for now we have both Godan and Nirmala translated twice over into English while Rangabhumi, Karmabhumi, Gaban, Kayakalpa, Sevasadan and the others still await their rebirth.

The earlier version of Nirmala, by David Rubin of Columbia University, came out in 1988, and was circulated in India by Orient Paperbacks at Rs 35 even down to the Regal pavement. Whether because he's truly ignorant of Rubin or simply ignores him, Rai doesn't mention him even once in his foreword, translator's note or long afterword. In any case, to be able to read Rai and Rubin alongside now is not only a double pleasure but also an instructive exercise in deconstructing translation.

On the very first page of the novel, for example, Rubin has 'scores of relatives' living in the household of 'Udaybhanu' while in Rai, it is 'Babu Udayabhanulal' who has 'dozens of people' living with him. (Premchand has 'scores', but also the longer name.) Among them are 'maternal and paternal uncles' in Rubin, who correctly become 'cousins maternal and paternal' in Rai; the foreigner is predictably fooled by our kinship terms.

In Rubin, 'fortune had smiled' upon Udaybhanu while in Rai it is the 'goddess of wealth' who does so. (It is, of course, Lakshmi in Hindi, who doesn't smile but is simply pleased, prasann.) Raising a dowry for his daughter Nirmala is for Udaybhanu 'a difficult problem' in Rubin - 'kathin samasya' in Premchand - while in Rai it becomes 'a tough nut to crack'. In Rai, the father 'had been apprehensive about all the debts he would have to incur' while in Rubin, more simply and accurately, he 'feared that he would have to go begging to all and sundry'.

As we proceed we find here, curiously, a reversal of the usual strengths of a foreign translator and an Indian translator. On the whole, Rubin's seems the more modest, 'faithful', and even literal version, while Rai is more sure-footed, fluent, and ambitious. ('Stars were spangled across the night sky,' says Rai, while Rubin, sticking to the Hindi collocation, has 'Stars were scattered across the sky'.) Rubin goes closely hugging the shore of the Hindi original, which bilingual readers may often even glimpse through his transparent text, while Rai launches onto the high seas of his own stylistic steam.

In his foreword, Rai is wrong to say that Premchand wrote to the end of his days in Urdu while others 'transliterated' his works into Hindi. Compare the account in the definitive Premchand: His Life and Times (Hindi 1962; English tr. 1982/1991) by Amrit Rai, according to which Sangram (1923), a play, was written originally in Hindi, as was much of Premchand's major fiction beginning with Kayakalpa (1926) through Nirmala (1927) to Godan (1936).

But Rai's outstanding contribution in this book is his highly sophisticated, theoretically aware and distinctly original 'afterword'. In it, he repeatedly characterises the novel he has just translated as 'melodramatic', 'monstrous' and 'grotesque', as if he were embarrassed by its old-fashioned values and lack of radicalism. Apparently anxious as to how contemporary feminist readers will receive a heroine who is 'a monster of passivity' to the extent of being hardly a 'person', Rai offers a resourceful if not quite whole-hearted defence of her complicit 'silence' and 'existential virginality'. He may have translated this novel with fluency and ease, but he reads it really hard, and against the grain.


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