Domoruchorit by Troilokyonath Mukhopadhyay is a collection of seven stories describing the incredible adventures of Domorudhor, located in the outskirts of Kolkata at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s introduction discusses the folkloric tradition that is discernible in the text, and places it in the tradition of novels in which the protagonists narrate tall, exaggerated tales about themselves. Chronicled by this focalized narrator, a sort of anti-hero, through the leisurely mode of the adda, it is a series of facetious and irreverent interactions between Domorudhor and his friends Lombodor and Shonkor Ghosh. In the course of the raconteur’s merging of factual storytelling and reminiscing with the spinning of bizarre anecdotes, the interface between the real and the supernatural is sometimes blurred, but at times challenged by his listeners.
I was mystified by the language of the translated text, its deployment of numerous words that sound outlandish, obscure, almost manufactured, like pong, bop, gobsmack, clomp, shemozzle, gofer, lekgotla, screed, jeremiad, hunker, scunge, razzle (the list could go on). I discovered that they are all valid words, often permitted within informal or comic usage in English. I also checked that both the original word and corresponding dictionary equivalent in English are both pretty standard ones. Lekgotla is jatala (meeting) in the Bangla text, shemozzle is gole (noise) and razzle is naach (dance). But the use of a vocabulary in English that is onomatopoeic and often visually imaginable gives the translation its earthy, rustic, folksy flavour in a way that a mere formal translation would not be able to.
Similarly, the unfamiliar idiomatic expressions scattered through the text sometimes had me bemused. Although I could deduce their general meaning, I ascertained that each one of them is a legitimate proverb in English. I have taught English literature for forty years now, but I had not known of many of them. ‘Seeing me in the buff’ (seeing naked), ‘rat me out’ (expose) or ‘knocking the old bat into the middle of next week’ (beating severely) are certainly more colourful than their cut-and-dry, verbatim English counterparts. The Bangla text mostly describes these phrases literally—for ‘rat me out to Durlobhi’, the Bangla text merely says Durlobhi ke giya khobor diyachhilo (went and informed Durlobhi), for ‘you have already talked a blue streak’ it has anek to shunilam tomar kotha (heard enough of your chatter), for ‘ran hell for leather’ the Bangla text has douriya…hnaap chharilam (fled and heaved a sigh of relief), for ‘boarded the gravy train’ it says du poishasongotiachhe (I have adequate means) and for ‘living in clover’ it says shukhenirapode bash koritechhi (living happily and safely). But the Bangla text is culturally rooted, so it does not need appealing to the senses to be graphically evocative to its readers. The only idiom I could not trace was ‘penny pincher of the first water’ (p.101) but I assume that was an erroneous replacement for ‘penny pincher of the first order’. The idiom ‘sating hunger with lime’ (p. 27) used to describe marrying for the third time, metaphorically represented in Bangla as pittirokkhe (causing bile), is also untraceable in English.
These quaint words and expressions, however, are a very laudable attempt by the translator to have the reader unacquainted with Bangla, possibly a non-Indian reader, on board within a local ambience that would not be remotely tangible in a more formal sort of English. But even assuming the ‘foreignness’ of the target readership, I cannot accept the use of ‘saving the bacon’ (p.186) because the predominant word in that idiomatic parlance is alien to the specific cultural context. Similarly, the words ‘goblins’ and ‘gnomes’ (pp. 89-90) hardly serve as English substitutes for bhoot pret (ghosts and spirits) in the Bangla original because such creatures are unknown in the Bengali cultural imaginary.
Oxford University Press could have avoided a few oversights in glossing and formatting. The Kalighat ‘pot’ (as the text phonetically spells the well-known patachitra) is glossed as ‘an earthen pot of convex shape where colourful images are painted.’ The text that reads ‘…your face is like that of Devi Kali painted on the Kalighat pot’ (p. 28) obviously refers to the cloth-based scroll painting, and no conflation of the phonetics of the two languages can identify patachitra with the English ‘pot’, although a very few dictionaries have ‘earthen pot’ among its rare meanings. The Bangla word ‘pot’ needed to be italicized and distinguished from the English ‘pot.’ Similarly, the slang word ‘magi’ for slut/ harlot/ bitch is italicized only intermittently. It needed to be italicized throughout to prevent its confusion with the phonetically different Magi in English.
Several episode numbers with their titles have been missed out in the different tales (episode III in the first tale, episode II in the second, episodes II and IV in the fourth, and episode V in the seventh), although I have verified that the text of the Bangla original has all there.
There are a few examples of grammatically incorrect Indian English (e.g., Nor any surly postmaster is on duty here (p.109), I could scarcely doubt that those legs were very mine (p.140), we are being late (p. 68)), but were they done to ethnicize the text? If so, they are too few in number to create the desired impact. And there are a few typos (Kuntola embarked that chariot (p.187), caning by back (p.138)) that should also not have been there.
These nitpickings apart, it is a very commendable translation. The tone of wry humour through the original is transcribed as best as possible into a language that does not historically share the same culture. In the well-researched, scholar-friendly Afterword, the translator elaborates how critical attention has recently been aroused in Troilokyonath Mukhopadhyay’s works as magic realist, explaining that much could be said on both sides of the question of magic realism in the book. He has also cross-referred to contemporary discourses and popular fictional works with similar subjects that critique colonial rule, the Babu culture, caste hierarchies and the prevalent gender politics including child marriage and regimens for widows. Some of the hard-hitting truths of society, politics and culture in Bengal at the turn of the century have been retrieved for the reader not literate in Bangla by Arnab Bhattacharya with this timely translation.
Nivedita Sen teaches English in Hansraj College, University of Delhi, Delhi.