If Bhai (as Damodar Mauzo the Konkani writer and Sahitya Akademi award winner is fondly known in Goa) isn’t already in the canon of the great contemporary Indian short story writers, his nomination to the long list of the 25,000 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, one of the richest Short Story Collection prizes in the world, for Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa, 2014 issued by Rupa, indicates that he’ll be arriving there quite soon.
Teresa’s Man is a collection of 14 short stories written over four decades, translated into English by Xavier Cota. This is Bhai’s second collection in Cota’s English translations, after These Are My Children, (Katha, 2007), while a third, translated by Vidya Pai and entitled Mirage and Other Stories, (Peepal Tree), was also released in late 2014.
In much of his earlier translated fiction, which includes his celebrated first novel Carmelin, translated by Vidya Pai, Sahitya Akademi (2004), and his novella Tsunami Simon translated by Xavier Cota, (Ponytail Books, 2009), Bhai’s focus was on the minority Goan Catholic community, where ‘he often wrote about issues which the Christians themselves would shy away from discussing too openly’ as the sociologist Alito Sequeira avers. Bhai’s unique perspective emerged perhaps thanks to his experiences as a Saraswat brahmin shopkeeper in the predominantly Christian coastal village of Majorda in South Goa, where he had a ringside view of this community.
However in the collection under review, apart from the title story ‘Teresa’s Man’ and ‘Coinsanv’s Cattle’, Bhai appears to be in a hurry to suggest that he has also written about the Goan Hindu community, and the longest story in the collection: ‘A Writer’s Tale’— is set in a seminar attended by writers from different States of India in cosmopolitan Delhi.
Teresa’s Man has been well translated by Xavier Cota (though I will subject the translations to a critique in the second part of this review) and features stories that display Bhai’s mastery over a range of short story writing modes—from ‘The Vignaharta’ with an O Henry-like ‘twist in the tail’, where an impoverished but proud narrator is panicking because he doesn’t have enough money to celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi in an appropriate way and hence risks losing face in his family and community; to the Chekhovian slice-of-life ‘Happy Birthday’ which describes the pains a couple take, in order to keep up appearances, to hide from their party guests the fact that their handsome young son, ironically named Chaitanya (liveliness), is suffering from a debilitating cretinism.
Bhai’s effortless mastery in using dramatic irony is displayed in ‘She’s Dead’ where in Delhi, a Goan MLA tries to gently break the news of the death of a Minister’s wife to him, while he, blissfully unaware of what has happened, wants to paint the town red, away from his domineering but now dead wife’s clutches.
Bhai has a sharp eye for the erotic, as in his description of Teresa just after a bath (see the excerpt below) or the longing of a Hindu wife to be soul kissed by her conservative husband in ‘From the Mouth of Babes’.
Further he is adept at discovering what T.S. Eliot called the ‘objective correlative’ as the vehicle for his thought. For instance, in order to castigate the growing fundamentalism creeping into society, he depicts a dalit who is driving cattle to a slaughterhouse in Goa, which he has been told is an egalitarian state, ‘the Land of the Humans’—but gets a hammering from people, incited by Right-wing animal rights activists who say they ‘revere the cow as … mother and Nandi the bull as the vehicle of Lord Shiva’. This ability is also manifested in ‘Bandh’ which portrays Goa’s syncretic culture at its worst and best during the 1986 Konkani language agitation.
The only story in the collection that doesn’t quite work for me is ‘For Death Does Not Come’, an allegory about people degrading the environment, narrated through a snake’s improbable interior monologue and its dialogues with a tree.
Teresa’s Man can be enjoyed by adults for its excellent technique, its deep psychological insights and its author’s gentle, pluralistic vision; and by children too, for its engaging stories and plots narrated in simple language.
Xavier Cota along with Vidya Pai have been the principal translators of Bhai Mauzo’s work. While Cota, a retired banker and social activist, has been exclusively translating Bhai in his spare time, Vidya Pai, a Mangalorean Konkani speaker residing in Kolkata, has been more prolific and has translated both Bhai and other important Konkani writers too, including Pundalik Naik and Mahabaleshwar Sail.
Though neither of them are translation theorists themselves, they and most other Konkani to English translators working today, can be said to be unconsciously informed by some version of what Anthony Pym calls ‘natural equivalence’ theory (Exploring Translation Theories, Routledge, 2014). What this amounts to, as Pym summarizes, is that the translator works with the assumption that there is an ‘equal value’ between start-text and end-text; and that this ‘equivalence can be established on any linguistic level from form to function’.
This results for instance, in translators at time contorting the form of one language to fit that of another, ignoring Ferdinand de Saussure’s widely accepted dictum that a language creates meaning only within its own system of signs.
Konkani is linguistically classified as a Subject Object Verb (SOV) language as opposed to English which is a SVO language. Besides, its Sanskrit-like word formations, its phonetics, its profusion of dialects and its fund of idioms, proverbs and metaphors, can affect the ways in which meaning is signified, and attempting to mimic a Konkani form in English can result in clumsy writing (from the perspective of an experienced reader of English).
Also in Konkani, the sentences often tend to be very short and elliptical, and meaning often depends on how words are inflected and what tone one uses. Conjunctions don’t appear so frequently as in English, and the language has a predilection for tense forms which on their own are pleasant enough to listen to; but if transported verbatim into a Germanic language like English result in breathless, staccato writing. To provide an extreme instance: this is the start of a Konkani story translated by Vidya Pai: ‘Remed! Fula Mestre’s son! He’s flying to Kuwait tonight! He must be at Bombay airport right now! The flight takes off at one thirty, just a short while from now…’ ‘They say the company sent him the plane ticket. They will take care of his needs and pay him a good salary every month. Plus overtime. When he returns after two years he will bring back lakhs of rupees! Any parent would be proud of such a son.’ Such monotonous writing may likely annoy a reader whose aesthetic is formed by the canon of world literatures, and although arguably it could be claimed that the writing was aimed at recreating an Indian sensibility in English, I somehow think this issue has not been thought through by translators, busy as they are in the act of translation. I think that if Pai, Cota and other translators were more aware of the notion of ‘dynamic equivalence’ propounded by the great Bible translation-scholar, Eugene Nida, their translations may arguably be made to read better. And although Nida is criticized for promoting a translation praxis whose ‘domesticating’ effect serves a missionary ideology, there is little doubt that his practice leads to more readable translations if executed well. Rather than belabouring readers with theories which although suggestive, have never really matched up to the complexities of practical translation (not to mention that some theories claim that translation is simply impossible!), it may be more interesting to look at these questions in the light of actual translations—in this case of the iconic Mauzo story ‘Teresa’s Man’.
‘Teresa’s Man’ has a long translation history and has been translated at least thrice. As it so happens I had translated it for the first time in 1989 as ‘Theresa’s Man’—in the Goan monthly Goa Today, the first time a Mauzo story appeared in English translation. This was subsequently republished in Imaging the Other, Katha, 1999. It was retranslated by Sacheen Pai Raikar as ‘Theresa’s Man’ in Ferry Crossing: Short Stories from Goa, ed. Manohar Shetty, Penguin, 1998. And the third version is the title story of the book under review (where ‘Theresa’ has been transliterated as ‘Teresa’). In examining these three works, I must hasten to say that while I believe that both the other translations are perfectly legitimate and satisfactory works which others may possibly prefer, I am biased towards my own version, and this bias may likely show through in what follows. None of the titles of these translations follow the Konkani ‘Teresalo Ghov’ which literally means ‘Teresa’s Husband’. When I had translated it, I felt that ‘Teresa’ would be better spelt as ‘Theresa’ as it represented better the modern, educated woman central to the story and it contrasted well with her husband who is usually called the rustic sounding ‘Pedru’, instead of the more westernized ‘Peter’ which he himself prefers.
Secondly using ‘Man’ rather than ‘Husband’ highlighted the ‘manhood’ or otherwise of the semi-literate Peter, husband of Theresa. Here I had sensed that Bhai would have preferred an approximation of the Hindi word ‘Mard’ but there isn’t such a word in Konkani.
Sacheen Pai followed my example. However Cota wanted to use the Konkani starttext and translate the title as ‘Teresa’s Husband’, but Bhai told me that although he accepted Cota’s rendering of ‘Teresa’ he preferred to retain ‘Man’.
Since both Pai Raikar’s and Cota’s translations substantially come from the same template, I’ll only compare Xavier’s work with mine to save space. The next example is the first sentence of the story. ‘Sleep had fled Peter’s eyes long ago but the lethargy in his body did not permit him to even turn on his side. The early morning cold makes him shiver but he is too lazy to pull up the sheet.’ (Xavier Cota) ‘He wasn’t sleepy anymore, but his sluggish body refused to recognize this. He shivered in the cool morning air and dug himself deeper into the comfortable quilt.’ (Augusto Pinto)
In his version Cota tries to imitate the sentence structure of the Konkani start-text to achieve a formal equivalence, while I’ve preferred to recreate the effects that Bhai had achieved in Konkani, in natural English sentences. The next example is even more pointed: Teresa enters the bedroom. Peter looks at her through sleepy eyes. Teresa is in a camisole which sticks to the wet parts of her body. Taking a long wooden rod, she reaches for a towel from the clothesline, strung up high. As she stretches her arms, the petticoat armholes open to reveal…! Peter shuts his eyes. He looks again. With the upward movement of her arms, her slip has ridden up her legs, exposing a generous portion of her thighs. Like the tender white inner trunks of banana suckers, Peter thinks, gaping. He is aroused and wide awake. (Xavier Cota)
‘Having washed her face, Theresa came into the bedroom. Peter watched her through half-closed eyes. Theresa’s wet petticoat clung in some intimate places. On her toes now, she stretched for a towel hanging on the clothesline. Peter’s eyes snapped open when he saw her bare armpits. He shut them, then peered again. She was still on her toes, and her petticoat had ridden up her thighs, her youthful, soft, golden thighs. Taking in this marvelous sight, he shut his eyes again. If he hadn’t been awake earlier, he certainly was now. Pulling the towel down, Theresa wiped her face, then her neck, then below that. Her fair, fresh skin flushed from the rubdown.’ (Augusto Pinto)
Cota again imitates the Konkani starttext by rendering the passage in English in the simple present tense, a choice that makes it read like the stage directions of a playscript. The editing of this passage is also worth examining. The word ’camisole’ which exists in the Konkani version is retained in Cota’s translation. However ‘camisole’ in Konkani derives from the Portuguese ‘camisola’ meaning a petticoat or a nightie. In English however, this usage has been long obsolete, and a camisole usually refers to a woman’s sleeveless top undergarment or vest top which is why I preferred ‘petticoat’.
I also omitted the simile of the ‘banana trunks’ (‘the tender white inner trunks of banana suckers’) Frankly I thought that Bhai needed an editor here, as even in Konkani this allusion does not appear to have any particular symbolic or aesthetic significance. And the action happening at this moment is: Theresa’s husband Peter is getting an erection looking at her, and in fact Cota explicitly mentions this—by inserting the word ‘aroused’ which isn’t there in the Konkani start-text. But even assuming that the Konkani is erotic, in English it’s rather difficult to imagine anyone getting aroused by the sight of ‘banana suckers’ and to a reader, this biological terminology is pretty off-putting and ardour-dampening.
Having cited Nida on the need to ‘domesticate’ a text, this is not a rigid rule: one needs to judge when it would be better to ‘foreignize’ it. An example of this is given below. Here Peter is being given a dressingdown by a neighbour who has just returned home from abroad, and learns that Peter does not work and depends on his wife’s earnings: ‘What? You remain idle and send your wife to work? Very bad! What sort of a man are you?’ he exclaims. ‘Never do that, my boy’, he adds paternally, ‘or she’ll get too big for her boots. Women should be shown their place. A man should…’ He stops as Guilherme’s mother comes in. (Xavier Cota)
‘“What! You send your wife to work? That’s bad! Very bad!! What sort of a man are you? You must never allow a woman to be free. She’ll sit on your head, mark my words! A man is—” At this point Guilhermo’s mother appeared on the scene and one could almost hear the screech as the father jammed the brakes down on his tongue’ (Augusto Pinto).
Both these versions would be recognized as competent translations by Konkani readers, but while an attempt is made by me to draw rustic Konkani metaphors like ‘sit on your head’ and ‘jamming the brakes down on his tongue’—into English, Cota’s choices—‘get too big for her boots’ and omitting the cycle metaphor, uses language familiar to an English readership. However, the Konkani colour is lost, while the ‘boots’ metaphor is an unlikely one in the Goan context of the early 70s when the story is set (as many Indian readers would recognize, although English or American ones would not).
To conclude, I’d like to emphasize that Xavier Cota’s translations and indeed the other translators mentioned here are competently and adequately executed, and a reader who is not familiar with the original will be able to enjoy the stories of Damodar Mauzo through them.
However, this critique is aimed at pointing out that there is perhaps need to think through the problems of translation into English more thoroughly and imaginatively in order to get them read and published and enjoyed by larger audiences, especially since English is often the filter language for further translations. In my opinion the Konkani translator should be the author’s missionary, aiming to convert an audience which does not know his or her language into loyal readers.
Augusto Pinto born in 1961 in Nairobi, is Associate Professor in the Dept of English at SS Dempo College of Commerce & Economics, Panjim, Goa. He is an essayist, satirist, book reviewer, translator from Konkani to English, and Moderator of the online Goa Book Club.