Translator: Jason Grunebaum | Author: Uday Prakash | Work: Judge Sa’b | Original Language: Hindi | Genre: Fiction
जज सा’ब तो सबसे ज्यादा हंसते थे. ठहाका लगा कर. कई बार, जब उनका मुंह पान से भरा रहता था और सुनील गालियां देने लगता था, जिसे सुन कर सब हंसते थे और जज सा’ब ठहाका मारते थे, तो पान की पीक उनके कपड़ों पर गिर जाती थी और तब वे भी बहुत गाली देते थे और फिर सुनील से चूना मांग कर पान की पीक के ऊपर रगड़ते थे क्योंकि इससे दाग छूट जाता था.
Judge Sa’b laughed the loudest, from the innermost gut of his belly, and it wasn’t uncommon for his mouth to be full of paan: Sunil began swearing up a blue streak, everyone loved it, Judge Sa’b couldn’t control himself, and dribbled red paan juice onto his clothing, cursing like hell and asking Sunil for a dab of slaked lime chuna to rub on the stains so they wouldn’t set.
Everyone likes a good laugh or hearing a funny joke. People can be funny and writing can be funny. But what happens when we read about people having a laugh?
For some time now, I’ve been mildly disdainful when reading about people laugh in English prose writing. (He tells a joke. She laughs. She says something funny. He laughs.) I may have learned this dislike in fiction workshops where maybe it was presented as species of transgression against the imperative to show rather than tell. Or, maybe I simply dislike the expectation that if someone laughs in a story then I’d better laugh too. Whatever the case, it’s a reading tic of mine that bugs me almost as much as expository laughter itself. The thing is, when I read reported laughter in Hindi, it doesn’t stick out in the same way as it does in English—even as described chortles and guffaws accrue and repeat. I feel Hindi prose tolerates more described laughter than English. Yet, as I’m bringing funny into English, I often feel it’s necessary and justified to sometimes modify laughter to, say, a smile.
There are fourteen instances of laughter or laughing in the Hindi original of Uday Prakash’s “Judge Sa’b” that I recently translated (is that a lot?)—a story about the changing times in the Delhi of today, a pitiable ex-judge who goes missing, and the interdiction in Hindi letters against writing using authentic, gritty, lovely, profanity-laced language. Most reported fun in the story is had standing around the paan shop of Sunil, whose off-color Hindi rants lead to hysterics among the regular crowd of paan chewers. (A related but separate issue was how to render the many occasions of “to swear” or “swearing” with some needed variety in English.) This laughter isn’t all idle fun. A refrain that’s repeated four times in the story, with a slight variation in each instance, contrasts paanwallah Sunil’s freewheeling language with the restrictions the others feel—in particular the narrator, whose writing life is regularly ruined when he uses “enchanting” Sunil-like language to paint a blue streak into his prose. This laughter for the men is like a practiced artifice that conceals both pleasure and unease, a protective proxy for what they are not permitted to utter. In these four instances, I decided to leave the laughter as laughter, both to tie the four refrains together, and because the word served a more important purpose in the story than simply showing glee. Four other laughs made it into English as-is. The others were rendered as a “smile,” a “mirthy reaction,” and “delight.” As for the act of laughing, “people loved it,” or “everyone [was] in stiches,” “a funny bone was tickled,” and one person “…laughed, as everyone else did.” In the end, I felt I was able to find enough English variations on laughing and laughter, while letting simple laughter just be itself when necessary. And the lesson I learned was to try and be a bit kinder to described laughter in English prose.
Jason Grunebaum is a writer and Hindi translator whose book-length translations include Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Yale University Press) and The Walls of Delhi (Seven Stories Press). He has received an NEA Literature Fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and his work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature.