Rich regional literature needs to reach all across the country, says Navdeep Suri

 Rich regional literature needs to reach all across the country, says Navdeep Suri

Rajkumari Sharma Tankha

A Game of Fire is a classic novel by Nanak Singh, called the father of the Punjabi novel, of a city in turmoil and the unexpected heroes who rise from the catastrophe. A sequel to Hymns in Bloodits message is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1948. The book is now translated to English by Singh’s grandson Navdeep Suri. In an interview with Life & More, Suri talks at length about the book and its translation process. Excerpts:

What drew you to translating A Game of Fire by Nanak Singh?
It is the second of my grandfather’s famous novels on the Partition. I’d translated Hymns in Blood last year and its sequel A Game of Fire was a natural choice. I believe that these two novels, published in 1948 in the wake of the Partition, present a very powerful account of events as seen by Nanak Singh himself. To that extent, they are a rare piece of contemporaneous history. Hymns in Blood is set in an idyllic village in the Pothohar region near Rawalpindi and traces the events that led to the exodus of Hindu and Sikh communities towards Amritsar. And A Game of Fire is set entirely in Amritsar in 1947 and translating it helped me understand my own city much better.

Can you share a bit about the process of translating the book? What were some of the challenges you faced?
I like to read the entire book and then wait till it sinks in. But even as I read, I can’t stop my head from mulling over some particularly interesting turn of phrase and wonder how I would have to translate it. Sometimes I have to stop myself and admonish. Just read on and understand the story before trying to translate bits and pieces.

What aspects of Nanak Singh’s writing style did you find particularly challenging or interesting to translate?
I love his fluid narrative and the way he goes back and forth between the characters, the way he sort of pauses the narrative to insert an important perspective. And I love the way he fleshes out the characters. In A Game of Fire, there is this manservant called Kanhaiyya and I just loved his description on Page 42-43.

Were there any cultural or linguistic nuances in the original text that were difficult to convey in English? How did you approach these challenges?
As a translator, you always have those challenges. Sometimes it is an idiom or a proverb that is so rooted in a culture that you find it hard to do justice. Sometimes it’s a poem – as in this book. But I think an additional dimension in this novel was a character who is from the hills and sings Pahari songs. That inserts a third language into the mix and you have to find ways of dealing with that too.

A Game of Fire is set against the backdrop of historical events. How did you ensure accuracy in translating historical and cultural references?
I make it a point to do extensive research on the timeline and context of the book. I did a lot of work on understanding the whole background to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when I was translating Khooni Vaiskahi, the long poem that my grandfather wrote after surviving the massacre. But I have to say that this his one posed fewer challenges because my grandfather was living in Amritsar at the time, he was already a respected public intellectual and as he says in the foreword, he is telling this story as he saw it.

Did you work closely with any experts or consultants while translating the book? If so, how did their input influence your translation?
I was pretty much able to handle this one on my own. The only time I had to consult an expert was to make sure that I was doing justice to some of the quotes from the Guru Granth Sahib because I am not particularly well-versed with the scriptures.

Nanak Singh is known for his evocative storytelling. How did you strive to maintain the emotional impact of his writing in your translation?
This is never easy. Sometimes you mull over different expressions for a long while, sometimes you put in an initial thought and come back to review it, sometimes you resort to Thesaurus to see if there is a better descriptor that you are missing out on. But at the end of the day, it is for the reader to make that judgement.

Were there any specific passages or scenes in the book that were particularly memorable or challenging to translate? If so, can you tell us about them?
I think there are two that are both memorable and challenging.
The first is Krishna’s remarkable speech from around Page 180. I found it remarkable that my grandfather had been able to channel his own thoughts on communal amity, his robust faith in the equality of all faiths through one of his characters.
And the second was this very emotional scene towards the end of the book when Yusuf reunites with his beloved Naseem. I loved the drama that the author had introduced into that scene and it was a real challenge to capture its ebb and flow.

What do you hope readers will take away from your translation of A Game of Fire?
I think there are two aspects of the book. First, it is a great novel and provides a wonderful historical perspective on the crucial final weeks before the Partition. And second, it leaves us with the author’s enduring message from his own life – he is a devout Sikh but his religion is his personal matter while his commitment to humanity is universal. He also delivers a word of caution against political leaders and media outlets that arouse our religious passions.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring translators who are interested in working on literary translations?
Please do it! We have such wonderful literature in so many of our languages and not enough is being translated. How will we get to know our own great country if we don’t understand other parts of it? But remember that it is a labour of love on which you are embarking. Do it only if you feel deeply committed to the cause.


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