Reading Rupi: Translating English across cultures

Reading Indian writing in English represents an act of translation every time I read. Yes, even when the book is written in English, every book represents a journey through and across culture. 

It might seem strange to hear a native English speaker say that I read English in translation, but I do. Given the idiomatic differences between American English and Indian English, language does occasionally pose a barrier. 

Like the time I first encountered the word “mugging” in Five Point Someone. The context told me that the Indian idiom did not denote theft as it does in American English, but something closer to “cramming.”

More often, these translation issues arise when I encounter a word like mundu, as I did in The Better Man. That word led me on an etymological wild goose chase that ended with Honey Singh. 

For me, reading becomes more than a passive act. Reading Indian literature is an active search for meaning across cultures. The farther removed from the culture I am, the deeper my search for meaning. It’s easy enough for me to read a thriller set in Bangalore when I’m sitting at MTR.


Reading becomes something entirely different, however, when I am reading a book about Santhal culture set in Jharkhand while I’m in South Carolina. 


That’s the story of The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. My first act of translation occurred on page one when I read “dhai-budhi.” The term was obviously enough “midwife” in English. Then, I encountered “dahni-bidya” or “witchcraft.” To a native Santali speaker, these words are as different as chalk and cheese, but to my non-native eyes, they were as similar as there and their. 

For the first few pages, I felt a profound sense of disorientation. Then, I read the map on the verso of the title page. This did not help much until I saw a place I recognized: Ghatshila, the hometown of the author, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. I traced the location on Google and tried to re-create Rupi’s world in Jharkhand from my back porch in South Carolina. It helped make her fictional world real. 

When I read across cultures, my brain is like a train. Each culture has its own car. The train moves along slowly and clumsily until the coupling locks into place. When that connection between the culture cars is finally bridged, the story glides along the tracks, and the ride is smooth. 

Those first couple miles are rough, though. If you want to know why Indian writers working in English struggle to make the jump to a global market, my experience is the answer. Reading across cultures is real work. I crave the knowledge this reading provides. I thirst for new words and experiences. Unfortunately, most readers don’t want to work. When reading fiction, they seek escape, fun, and fantasy. The most work most readers are willing to do is figure out whodunnit. 

To reach a broader audience, publishers often edit books for foreign markets. This decision seems inocuous enough, but it isn’t. It’s an act of destruction of the writer’s intention and the fictional world that’s created. 

For example, if dahni-bidya and dhai-budhi had been translated, I would have lost a layer of meaning and connectedness to Santhal culture. It struck me as I read how closely these words resembled each other. Whether they are etymologically connected is irrelevant. What matters is that their very use, rather than an English translation, connected the words in my head. Without making that—most probably wrong—connection, I would never have pondered the position of women within Santhal culture more deeply. 

Some books overcome this translation issue by using a glossary or footnotes. Both take extra work to produce, and their value to cultural outsiders is questionable. When a writer is already translating experience across culture, how much effort should we really expect? Is a glossary the literary equivalent of cultural gymnastics? Shouldn’t the reader do some of the work? Meet the writer halfway?

What would I lose in the process of using a glossary? Would I lose the time it took me to find an online Santali-English dictionary? Would I lose the time it took me to head on a virtual journey with Google? 

Or would we call those losses gains?

Would a glossary have made my reading easier? Yes. Simpler? Yes. Lazier? Most definitely yes. 

But what would I have lost in translation without getting lost in translation? Without getting lost in the syllables and elemental nature of language? 

I don’t know. For I can’t unread what I have read or read a book that has not been written. All I know is that my reading is richer because I didn’t have a glossary. 

Perhaps you are wondering if you should read Rupi? Can you read her even if you don’t have my experience in India or aren’t Indian yourself?

Yes. You should and you can. 

The writing is lucid. Shekhar’s narrative flows easily. The story itself is not so complex that you can’t follow it. Yet, if you have the time and inclination, the story has depths for you to plumb. 

Rupi and her family are in many ways like any other family. Their experiences are grounded in their Santhal identity, but many aspects of their struggles and joys are universal. 

I do ask that you try to understand the context of this narrative. Rupi comes of age with India. Her Jharkhand is not for the most part contemporary Jharkhand. Rather, Rupi’s experience seems to parallel India’s independence and Jharkhand’s struggle for statehood. When you read about attitudes toward witchcraft, you must set aside your notions about what witchcraft is or isn’t. You must appreciate that the story takes place in a different place and time. 

Most importantly, I ask that you do not judge Rupi for whom you think she is, but instead for whom she thinks she is. Her decisions, right or wrong, are hers alone. They represent only her experience and no one else’s. They are not meant to telegraph across all Santhal women, but to show a snapshot of one woman’s life. 

For that’s the beauty of reading Rupi. 

2 thoughts on “Reading Rupi: Translating English across cultures

  1. I absolutely agree- taking out local words and phrases is not just doing a disservice to the writer, but taking away an essential layer of meaning, perhaps even the essence and flavor of the writing.

    Like

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