Last week our little critique group had its final meeting of the season. There was champagne, tons of amazing food, and lots of good writing and critiquing. I was debuting the first draft of my new, as-yet-untitled novel. As always I use a lot of Hindi words. In this case I was using more Allahabad/U.P. rural Hindi. Not quite bhojpuri, not the chaste hindi of the cities, it adds a distinctive flavor to those who populate my novel. As always I did not provide translations nor footnotes.
Weirdly, I don't mind reading translations or footnotes, if they are well-done and not too obtrusive. But I do mind including them in my own writing. And no, it's not laziness, but good guess.
Writing, for me is an immersion. I immerse myself in what I write. And I hope eventual readers do that too. A translation or a footnote is an aside. It breake through the fourth wall, the wall that lets a reader be an observer within a work and puts him/her outside looking in. And besides a piece of writing should be strong enough to make the meaning clear, without making it clear. I hope to clarify meanings for my next drafts. But no translations for me, oh no!
Why am I writing this post? Because there was a suggestion that I provide footnotes. A valid suggestion, a good one even. But I responded negatively...arrogantly, perhaps? It's interesting that this post comes just after the one on Colonizing English because they're so related.
Then I came across this very interesting literary paper by O.P. Dwivedi on Rushdie's seminal work, Midnight's Children. It's a great read but some of the most interesting statements are these:
Of Salman Rushdie he says, 'As a linguistic experimentalist, Rushdie attempts to destroy the natural rhythms of the English language’ and to dislocate ‘the English and let other things into it.’
'Its (the novel's) popularity rests on two things: the innovative use of English as a
language, and the fantastic representation of history. While Rushdie resorts to the use of ‘magic realism’ to oppose the Euro-centrism of master discourses, the innovativeness of Rushdie’s English is prompted by a desire to capture the spirit of Indian culture with all its multiplicity and diversity.'
To me there has been no better and more skilled colonizer of English than Rushdie. And this paper elucidates what I've felt for so long. I knew there was something inauthentic, dare I say even pandering to provide the exact meanings of words in fiction.
For one thing there are no exact meanings in any language. Forget concepts, even physical objects can really be translated. All we have are approximations. If I translate a charpai, as a string cot, is that what it really is? Does it convey the meaning, that char means four, and pai refers to the legs. And that charpoy is an English version of an Indian word? And when a western reader thinks of a string cot, does s/he think of the intricate woven patterns made of jute rope. Does s/he know that these are not mass-produced but are still traditionally made and that each weaver's patters are distinctively different? Do they know that every once in a while, a man would make the rounds of the neighborhood to tighten the weave, repair or re-string the charpais? And that as a little girl I loved sitting and watching gnarled, dark hands effortlessly singing through air, stringing the jute threads, creating a beautiful, tight weave out of what was essentially some pieces of wood and bamoo?
Does it make them think of warm summer nights made just a bit cooler because of the air circulating all around the charpai. Do they know that in Allahabad at least, there is also something known as a khatola, which is a smaller, lower-to-the-ground saggier version of the charpai?
Hindi and Urdu are very high context languages. A word means something mainly because of the high context. So qayamat is not just armageddon, the end of the world. It's something else. Depending on its use, it can be a descriptor of a woman's beauty, of the seductiveness of her eyes, because her loveliness is so absolute it can hasten qayamat. This is just one reason Urdu poetry or really any Asian language is impossible to really translate in any real sense.
English, and most western languages (French is not however) are low context. Things are most always what they mean. In English you have today and tomorrow. In Hindi we have kal. It could mean either. It's the context that gives it meaning.
There is a reason that English is popular. It is low context, giving it larger shared meaning. It's clear, it's precise (for the most part), and we can all understand it. It's complex but with low context, making it a perfect language for uniting the world.
But back to my point of providing translations. If by my writing I can inform the reader that a charpai is some kind of bed to sit or lie on that's enough. They don't need to know the contexts. However, it's an easter egg of sort for those who will get the context. Novels are subjective anyway. We all process them based on our emotional development, our life experiences. That's what makes them special. That, despite our differences and those of the writer, we can find something shared that resonates through the words. Good novels convey universal emotional truths that can transcend cultures. The details of some words are immaterial, if the writer can get to the heart of the truth. Which is why we can enjoy Naipaul and Kawabatta and Mahfouz and Sylvia Plath. They lay it bare and show us something about ourselves, our inside selves.
I agree with the Dwivedi paper, which states: "Rushdie rather thinks that the text of the novel should be self-explanatory and absorbing in itself. In truth, Raja Rao’s English remains Sanskritised, whereas Rushdie’s English is an example of the hybrid discourses of a cosmopolitan writer.
This short excerpt is from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's short story "Imitation," from the collection "The Thing Around Your Neck."
I've been reading some African works since I've returned from S. Africa.
"Madame!" Amaechi screams. "Chim o! Why did you cut your hair? What happened?
"Does something have to happen before I cut my hair? Clean up the hair."
I know that Chim o is some kind of exclamation of horror. I don't need to know exactly what it is because I know that Nkem has cut her hair because she has learned her husband has moved his new, young mistress into their house in Lagos, while she lives a lonely, isolated life in the U.S. And it is fraught with the knowledget that not too long ago she too had affairs with married men to survive.
This is just what I think and feel. What about you?