I have – and I am sure I share this misfortune with many – an uncontainable practical joker for a friend. A few years ago, he had a group of us worked up in quite a lather over the sort of book he had “caught” his teenage daughter reading. “She’s reading about some manic-depressive murderer!” he had said, to general expressions of shock. “Fellow has hallucinations, thinks he is talking to his dead father, goes on a serial killer rampage…I think there’s even a part where he tries to rape someone. And she’s trying to tell me that the book is in her school syllabus!”

We were all suitably horrified, and suggested ways to nip this delinquent taste in literature in the bud. It turned out, however, that the book was in the school’s syllabus. It was Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The prank served to underline an interesting cultural phenomenon for me. In many of our minds, the label “classic” seems to trigger a set of unconscious assumptions about a book, chief amongst them the certainty that it is bored-to-tears tedious (or “philosophically dense”, if one wishes to be kind). Some might even see virtue in such tedium. High art is serious business, after all, and must not be ruined by enjoyment. If one wishes to be entertained, these assumptions imply, then one should read products of that lowly stable, popular fiction.

And that is where this stereotype becomes baffling, for many of the literary classics of the western canon are, in fact, popular fictions. Granted, they are from an earlier era, and most old things acquire the patina of vintage in our eyes given adequate distance and nostalgia, but still. These are not just any genre fiction, after all, but highly dramatic tales of gods and monsters, torrid romances and murderous family feuds, interspersed liberally with ribaldry and tear-jerking tragedy. Very far, in short, from the slow-grind of stentorian monologuing that we imagine classics to be.

Writing, after all, has never been a very well-remunerated profession, and those wishing to make a living at it could not afford to write indulgent soporifica if they wished to escape penury. A “classic” is therefore, by definition, a very readable book.

Why the dreary reputation, then? Well, for one, we have accumulated and inherited these texts over multiple generations. In that time, both our languages and the world have changed so vastly and so often that entire scholarly careers have been built upon disputing the pronunciation of a single vowel. Had Shakespeare known how popular his Sonnet 18 would become amongst men courting women, he might have been rather surprised (and not a little amused). Similarly, twenty years from now, when summers in his homeland will regularly surpass 40 degrees Celsius, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” might invoke rather more acidity than it does affection.

The past is not just another country, as LP Hartley so poignantly wrote; it is often a completely different world, and with the passage of time we frequently lose the primer with which to decode these little embedded details. To take an example closer at hand, the word “pholar [pronounced phaw-lar]” is found frequently in Bengali literature of a certain period. It is a meal offered to Brahmin men and boys, and is ostensibly derived from “phawl (fruit)” and “aahar (meal)”. One would assume, therefore, pholar meant a meal of fruits.

But the descriptions of this meal belies its etymology. From numerous Bengali short stories and novels, we discover that “pholar” is a meal that is chiefly made up of milk or curd, a sweetener (usually jaggery or batasha), puffed rice (khoi or muri), and perhaps a banana. More elaborate versions may include mangoes, shondesh, kodma or moth, and murki. Most of these ingredients were considered incorruptible by cross-caste touching, and could thus be offered to a Brahmin without toppling the entire social order.

This spectrum of meaning would have instinctively read into a single word by contemporary readers of these texts. But with the passage of time, these specific meanings of things are lost, and sometimes replaced with entirely different ones. So to recall the appeal that a classic had in its own time, therefore, most modern readers (with the possible exception of the terrifyingly erudite) have to endure a certain amount of cultural and linguistic translation, even when reading in one’s mother tongue.

I have recently had the privilege of translating Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali to English, and have had to make my way through both these phenomena in the process.

The dissonance between a classic and its reputation was so sharp in its case that multiple acquaintances of mine – belonging to rather a discerning book-club, no less – asked me if the translation was “worth my time”, given the dreariness of the plot.

“It’s just going to depress you, so what’s the point?” they asked, not unkindly. Now, as someone who had read and adored the novel in her restless teens, I don’t mind admitting that I was rather shocked by this perception of Pather Panchali. After some gentle prodding, it came out that the book’s sombre cinematic treatment, coupled with the “classic” tag, had lent it a funerary air in their imagination, and none of them had actually read it.

This was very unfortunate, for in truth, Pather Panchali is very far from being the melancholic elegy that it is apparently perceived to be. It is a vibrant ballad written in the catchy colloquial of its time, that begins with joy and ends in determination. As in life, its tragedies are many, but they are handled with fortitude and grace – and never dwelt upon to solely elicit sympathy.

Indeed, the book brims with a sense of adventure and joyous sensuousness; the touch of summer rain on warm skin, the sweetness of stolen fruit, the serene beauty of benevolent woodlands, the smell of a river in the evening breeze. Quite far from mourning the things that it might lack, Pather Panchali chronicles the glories of everyday life that its characters can access – from birdsong at dawn to a full plate of rice at lunch.

This cadence of the everyday permeates all Bibhutibhushan’s works, and preserving it in translation has been a complex exercise, for multiple reasons.

For one, Pather Panchali is rich in rural turns of speech, detailed illustrations of the natural environment, and passing references to festivals and rituals that once populated the agrarian calendar of southern riverine Bengal. That world that is now largely lost to us, both physically and culturally. Time has transformed its wood-ringed, moor-bordered landscape into a series of bustling townships, moving further and further away from the old agrarian economy as the industrial and service-oriented one makes inroads into the land.

Koluichondi, the delightful ritual of woodland picnicking for women and children, is no longer prescriptive for mothers in rural southern Bengal. The harvest celebrations of Poush and Choitro shonkranti barely retain their sumptuous glory. Digging a punyipukur is impossible on cemented land or in blocks of flats, and bright lights have killed the thrill of “corpse-raising” at Chorok.

A literal translation of the text might have conveyed the general flow of the story, but it would not have conveyed why being kuleen meant that a man only met his wife once every few months, or why a single drop of misplaced water spelt starvation for a village housewife. Multiple institutions and social phenomenon in Pather Panchali simply have no cultural equivalent that one can refer the reader to for immediate clarity.

To fully tell the tale as Bibhutibhushan had intended it, little cultural bridges had to be crafted into the narrative at these junctures, carrying the reader over potential – and crucial – gaps in cultural knowledge.

Even if the world hadn’t changed so drastically, it would have been impossible to map the various dialects and speech-patterns into standardised English – or even modern standardised Bengali, for that matter. No received standard anywhere allows for class/caste and location-based variations in speech. Its very function is to iron out such diversity.

As for the idioms and aphorisms, as a bilingual admirer of language it would have been a wildly joyful exercise for me to have translated them literally, and let the story glow with their vibrancy and quirk. But it would have been a self-indulgent disservice to both the reader and the text, for a literal translation of a word is not always the accurate contextual translation of a situation.

The word “Mawron!”, for example, is a frequently-used exclamation in colloquial Bengali of a particular kind. Literally, it means “death”. Yet “mawron” never implies a final termination in everyday use. Instead, depending upon context, its can range from an exasperated “To hell with this!” to a playful “Oh, go on with you!” Similarly, even readers who speak Bengali might find the phrase “my gold and gemstones” a rather awkward translation of “amar shona manik”, an ubiquitous expression of affection for a child. “My precious boy” would be a much smoother translation, though it has zero literal overlaps with the original.

Finally, there is the regret of the untranslatable. Every translator has some regrets, for it is impossible to completely recreate an entire culture, place, and time in a different language. My regret, happily, is a small one. As a postcolonial child who grew up on reams of popular English literature from the turn of the last century, I have always been charmed by the fascinatingly descriptive names that places seem to have in the United Kingdom.

With the blindness that comes of familiarity, I had thought this a phenomenon an exclusively British one, or at any rate one that was not prevalent in India. Upon re-reading Pather Panchali, however, I realised that almost every place in the novel had just such a whimsical or meaningful name; constant use had simply inured us to the meaning. Of these, I have translated “Nishchindipur” to the Abode of Contentment, for it is a particularly significant choice on Bibhutibhushan’s part.

A handful of other names have also found their way to their English counterparts, for when one discovers a pond called the Pond of the Sisters-in-law, one has an irrepressible urge to share that discovery far and wide. In other instances, however, I have limited myself to the original names, for fear of burdening the text with a little too much of the local colour.

“Prawn Belly” would have been rather a whimsically charming name for Ichamoti, for instance, for “icha” is prawn in the local parlance and the river was a famous hub for the prawn trade. On the other hand, knowing that Holudbere technically means Yellow Pickets and Chuadanga indicates a local trade in perfumes, was unlikely to affect a reader’s overall appreciation of the story.

After this chronicle of difference between Bibhutibhushan’s times and our own, it is ironic to acknowledge that the times have made Pather Panchali so relevant to the twenty-first century. Like the displaced protagonist Opu, we too are facing a near-irreversible destruction of our own homelands, and with it the cultures and ways of life that have sustained our joys and sorrows for centuries. The destruction of the natural environment is a catastrophe that requires no translation.

In the ballad of Opu’s travel through life – from an idyllic hamlet to the smoke-filled sunlessness of the city – we find the roots of our forced displacements: seasonal, regional, and emotional. In Opu’s desperate yearning for his lost homeland, we find the echoes of our own anxiety and despair for our threatened lands. And in the God of the Travelled Road’s exhortation to always move forward, we can but hope that we shall find the will to find a way. Charaiveti, charaiveti.

Pather Panchali

Rimi is the translator of Pather Panchali, a classic Indian bildungsroman in Bengali. This piece is an adaption of her “Translator’s Note”.