Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Translated Work, “The Princess and the Political Agent” is a Pale Shadow of the Original “Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi”

Published by: Penguin Random House India

Fiction, Romance, Translation

Book summary

The Manipuri writer Binodini’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning historical novel The Princess and the Political Agent tells the love story of her aunt Princess Sanatombi and Lt. Col. Henry P. Maxwell, the British representative in the subjugated Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Manipur. A poignant story of love and fealty, treachery and valour, it is set in the midst of the imperialist intrigues of the British Raj, the glory of kings, warring princes, clever queens and loyal retainers. Reviving front-page global headlines of the day, Binodini’s perspective is from the vanquished by love and war, and the humbling of a proud kingdom. Its sorrows and empathy sparkle with wit and beauty, as it deftly dissects the build-up and aftermath of the perfidy of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. Binodini is the supreme stylist of contemporary Manipuri literature and an icon of Manipuri modernism, and her tale of a forbidden love and ostracism vividly brings to life the court and manners of a little-known Asian kingdom. In doing so, she recovers its little-known history, its untold relations with India and Great Britain, and a forgotten chapter of the British Raj.

My Review

The English translation of MK Binodini’s novel ‘Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi’ christened as ‘The Princess and the Political Agent’ comes across as a careless attempt at repackaging a romantic historical fiction into a representation of Manipur’s past glory. Readers of the original book would know that it is set in the years preceding the Anglo Manipur War and a few years afterwards, an era that was marked by the strong winds of Hinduism that affected the socio cultural norms and practices then. But surely, Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi captures only a miniscule part of Manipur’s long history considering it looks at only a small slice with its attention firmly set on the schemes happening within the royal family on one hand and a short lived romance on the other?

Before looking into the translation by L Somi Roy, it is critical to look at the manner in which the translator has positioned the original novel to readers who are unfamiliar with Manipur’s present, much less a part of its past. The translator is not just the focal person between the original text and a new audience of readers waiting to read it but the person who publishers will rely on to tell them what about the book, its plot, its themes and it characters is unique that it needs to be translated. In his translator’s note, Somi perhaps in a bid to portray the relationship between Sanatombi and Maxwell as different from the ones that existed between British Raj officials and elite or upper class women in other parts of India says that the two main protagonists were indeed given recognition as a married couple. He writes, ‘Women are allowed to remarry through a ritual of social recognition called loukhatpa that did not involve a formal marriage. Women in relations with married British men, who often left their wives and families back in Britain as Maxwell did, were called native wives during the Raj. But in Manipur, and in accordance with local custom, women in loukhatpa relations are recognized simply and fully as wives. Hence, Binodini’s reference to Sanatombi as Maxwell’s wife in the Manipuri tittle of her novel.’

Nothing could be more wrong and problematic than the four sentences cited above. Loukhatpa  as practiced by some communities in Manipur, including the Meiteis is NOT specific to remarriage of women. It is a valedictory function that the bride’s family members and elders hosts for a married couple in case a marriage ceremony has not been solemnized at the house of the bride earlier. As for the matter of remarriage of women being allowed, while there is no diktat against the practice, there is no support for it either. In fact, the book itself cites ‘ a woman cannot have two cremation spots’ referring to how a woman cannot marry twice. As for ‘Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi’, it is not only a book title that MK Binodini accorded but also the term that Sanatombi was referred to by the public, ‘Sanatombi who married the Bor Saheb’. There is a fine line here: if the public then saw Sanatombi as Maxwell’s wife, she would have been called, ‘Bor Saheb ki Nupi’.

The translator’s note also leaves out the important note that the social censure and ostracization of Sanatombi was not because she married an outsider or the enemy but because the socio cultural firmament then was strongly rooted in Hinduism which meant that the British were looked upon as impure and whoever was associated with them was in turn defiled and not to be accepted into society. Manipur’s subjugation by the British was not the first in its history with memories of the Seven Year of Devastation (1819-1826) still fresh.

The translation falls all over the place, with too many words either being literally translated or just left hanging around in italics with no glossary to help non Manipuri readers. The literal translations make you squirm: ‘Phanek mayek Naiba’ and ‘Khudei’ are ‘embroidered sarong’ and ‘sarong’ respectively while ‘potloi’ is a dancing dress! So yes, according to this translation, men and women both wear sarongs in Manipur. Ahem! This effort at anglicization takes goes on to more ludicrous turns: Yubi Laakpi is referred as coconut rugby and Kwaak taanba is the Procession of crows! There are too many instances in the book to list them all here. Interestingly, the original writer accorded green eyes to Maxwell but the translator turns them into blue!


On translation, Vladimir Nobokov who wrote in both English and Russian said: “There are three grades of translation evils: errors, slips and willful reshaping.” Unfortunately, Somi Roy’s translation seems more in the third category where the original work has been positioned in a manner that is radically different from what MK Binodini was doing when she wrote the original: telling a fictional story around real people and some real events.

Somi’s translation comes across as pandering to what other readers outside Manipur and its culture and history might like to discover about us. The translation of certain words like ‘Chanu’, a suffix that denotes that one is talking of a woman becomes ‘Lady’ with a capital letter word ‘L’ while referring to the royal ladies, making it look like western royalty even as ‘Chanu’ is used by any woman. ‘yaoshang huraanba chatpa’ is translated as ‘pranking together’ a nod to the Halloween activity of children going for tricks and treats.

That a major publisher has taken interest in Manipuri writings is welcome news but this translation of Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi is a travesty and a huge opportunity lost.

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