Found in Translation
What kind of stories do children find appealing? Strong narratives, arresting visuals and irreverent ideas are crucial, according to children’s writer Anita Vachharajani. Gijubhai Badheka’s Gujarati folk tales not only meet these criteria, but like most folk tales, are also a combination of the absurd, the philosophical and the fun. A contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, Badheka wrote a variety of children’s stories, which were later retold and illustrated in Hindi by author, painter and cartoonist Aabid Surti. Associated with children’s publishing since 1998 and author of children’s books Amazing India and Nonie’s Magic Quilt, Vachharajani has translated Badheka’s folk tales into English that include a set of two books titled The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II). She has used both Badheka’s and Surti’s texts for the English version. In an e-mail interview, Vachharajani tells Shinibali Mitra Saigal that folk tales show kids how “sense and nonsense can be tossed together for fun.”
What prompted you to translate Gijubhai’s Gujarati folk tales?
My husband Amit is a Gujarati, and he introduced me to these folk tales. Gijubhai was an educationist who propagated freedom and love as being central to the process of learning. I translated some of Gijubhai’s nonsense verse for The Tenth Rasa: The Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse, edited by Michael Heyman. Later, the editors at Pratham Books asked me to translate Aabid Surti’s Hindi re-tellings of Gijubhai’s stories. I worked with both the Gujarati and the Hindi texts.
Which was your favourite Gijubhai story in the collection and why did you like it? Each one was a discovery. The one I had the most fun with was Uncle Know-All. It's about an old know-it-all who lords over a village of fools and the bizarre nuggets of wisdom he doles out. It had a really weird and completely irreverent feel .
What is more difficult? Writing an original story or translating one? Both are challenging. When one translates, one has to make sure that the text lives and sparkles in the target language as well. In an original story, you can take the narrative where you want to, whereas in a translation, your path is more or less decided for you. Your job is to make that path as rich and joyous as possible.
Can you always retain the subtle nuances of the original? You do lose some nuances. It’s inevitable. But you aim to capture the spirit of the original, without becoming heavy or pedantic. Also, even as you lose one set of nuances, you create others. Since I had both the Hindi and the Gujarati texts to work with, I could see that each version was slightly different. It’s an intuitive process and every re-teller of a story – especially in the folk tradition – makes choices and decisions to suit his or her style. Gijubhai himself was re-telling some of these stories, and you can sense that the language – informal, chatty – is entirely his own.
Do you think knowledge of folk tales will disappear if they are not translated into English? Unless we make a legitimate and viable space for folk art, it will be sidelined with time. As for our stories, we must keep telling and re-inventing them in new contexts to keep them alive. Re-telling a story in multiple languages takes it to a new audience, and that’s an exciting thought, as so many more people can read it.
The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II), Pratham Books, Rs.40.
Appeared in the Timeout of Sept, 2011