Taming 'Keibu Keioiba': Translation as Recovery

By Sumitra Thoidingjam *

Translation of folk literatures from one language to another encouters the usual difficulties of capturing the socio-cultural embededness of the words that are to be translated. However, translation remains a means of recovery. It is through translation that we rediscover myths - myths connected to the meaning of our existence.

The World of Folk Tales

The folktale and folklore has been defined in many ways by many scholars, or to be comprehensive, by different theoretical traditions. However, to come closer to a workable definition, it would be wise to concentrate on a few opinions. Just as all tales are narratives, the folktale is also a narrative mostly based on oral tradition. Many of these oral tales when transmitted over a period of time are eventually archived in societies with a written tradition. To elaborate further, one can say that folklore includes legends, superstitions, songs, tales, proverbs, riddles, spells, nursery rhymes, pseudo-scientific lore about the weather, plants and animals; customary activities and rituals at birth, marriages, death; and traditional dances and forms of drama.(1)

We also understand that a folktale exists on two levels: oral and auditory, thus implying that there is a teller and listener(s). However, one distinctive feature of the folktale has been the variation in the story every time it is retold. It has also been observed that most folktales accommodate changes in its narrative though the basic structure remains intact depending on who the 'teller' of the story is.

The best way to understand the folktale would be to literally understand the meaning of the word. From the very word 'folk', one can draw different kinds of inferences. 'Folk' refers to a group and not an individual. It is the collective memory of a certain community, tribe or clan. It is passed on from one generation to the next, with a natural editing process(2) according to the change in time and suitability of the new generation.

Challenge of Translation

Translating folktales is a big challenge(3) because, unlike other genres, it is localized in a given context. Therefore, while translating, one runs the danger of losing the basic essence of the folktale. It is important to see the occasions in which folktales are told. On one hand, it can be a daily affair where grandparents tell these stories to their grandchildren and, on the other, it becomes specialized when it forms the highlight of a special occasion. Folktales can be told and retold during peace and wars, death and birth and during different occasions of a community. The whole idea of a folktale changes when it comes in the written form. The very first precept of its being oral is lost and hence the 'openness'. As Roland Barthes puts it,(4) it is the writing of the folktale that transforms a 'text into a work'.

Of Fireside Tales

The folktale selected for translation is 'Keibu Keioiba',(5) a Manipuri folktale. In Manipuri, the funga means the fireplace in the vicinity of the kitchen. Within the domestic sphere it is a place where the whole family dines. It becomes a space where the family members share not only food but also other travails of everyday life, their joys, sorrows, fears etc. Hence, the name ' funga wari' (funga-wari - fireside tales). It is pertinent to note here that in the western context the 'fireside tales' becomes 'bed time stories'; it becomes, in a sense, a lullaby told to the children. Funga or fireplace in traditional Manipuri homes is a private and domestic space. Every evening the elders of the family, usually the grandparents, sit together with the grandchildren around the funga and narrate the tales. When this ritual practice of every Manipuri traditional family goes beyond the confines of the domestic sphere, it finally enters the public realm. This process of liberating a privately shared story is done by a member of the family narrating the same to members of his/her neighbourhood/locality and community. Thus what was 'domestic' becomes the public.

Keibu Keioiba, The Man-Tiger(6)

Long, long ago in a village lived Keibu Keioiba, a man-tiger. The tiger now known as Tarang Keijao is said to be in Kabow (a place which used to be part of Manipur but now is part of Myanmar). His body is very similar to a man's. His head is like that of a tiger. Like any other tiger, he walks on all fours. Other tigers have four claws and four paws. Keibu Keioiba, however, had five fingers and five toes like a human being. Since he was a man-turned-tiger, he was unlike any other tiger. He was clever.

'Keibu Keioiba', before he turned into a tiger, was a man very well-versed in black magic and the art of 'communion with the spirits'. One night he wanted to show off his skills to his wife.

'My dear, today I will show you how good I am in my art. I will turn into a tiger. If you want me to become human again, hit me with the khudei—loin cloth—I am wearing.'

Then he took out all his clothes, gave them to the wife and went outside the gate. After a while, the husband came back, now turned into a huge Keibu Keioiba with the help of 'spirits'. He leaped and played in front of his wife. The wife got scared. In her fright she forgot the tiger was none other than her own husband. The husband sensing his wife's fear teased her further. He turned to her and let out a loud roar. The wife ran inside the house and locked herself in. Keibu Keioiba pleaded with her to open the door but she refused out of fright. Dawn broke in and the morning sun rose; the husband remained as Keibu Keioiba. Since he could not transform himself back into his human self, he was compelled to leave the village and live in the forest. Months later, his wife died.

Everyday Keibu Keioiba went in search of food. He had to eat them raw, as there was no one to cook for him. Unlike other tigers, however, he did not relish raw meat and fish. He yearned for cooked food; he was obsessed with thoughts of how to taste once again the delectable food cooked by humans. One fine day he decided to find himself a wife. So one very dark and quiet night, he came to a village. He went to an old widow who lived alone.

'Give me human flesh, I smell human, open the door,' said he and banged on her door. The frightened old woman replied from inside: 'Ha Keibu Keioiba, I am old and wrinkled. I won't taste good anymore. In the big house on my south lives a beautiful young maid, Leima Thabaton, the only sister of seven brothers. Go and eat her. She is the right prey for you. Her seven elder brothers have gone to the hills, so she will be alone now.'

On hearing the words of the old woman, Keibu Keioiba's mind was set on possessing Leima Thabaton. The old woman also told him the way to capture Thabaton. So off he went to Thabaton's doorsteps. He mimicked the voice of her brother and said, 'Dearest Thabaton, your seven brothers are back from the hills. Take out the seven porons (bolt bars). Open the door.'

But Thabaton replied from inside, 'You don't sound like my brothers. I shall not open the door.' Keibu Keioiba then went back to the old woman and sought her help. 'I will make her open the door.' said the old woman and accompanied Keibu Keioiba to Thabaton's house. The old widow had raised Thabaton's youngest brother as his mother died when he was still very small. So the woman knew the voice of the youngest brother. She called out in the voice of the youngest brother.

'My dearest Thabaton, your seven brothers are back from the hills. Take out the seven porons. Open the door.'

Thabaton, thinking it was her brother, opened the door and rushed out to wel-come her brothers. She then saw Keibu Keioiba and ran back inside the house. But Keibu Keioiba was faster; he grabbed her and carried her away to his abode. Thabaton could not free herself from his grasp, try as she might. Keibu Keioiba dragged her while she cried and called out her seven brother's names.

After some time, the seven brothers came back from the hills. They unloaded their seven baskets. They entered the threshold and saw the door wide open. Worried, they entered the house but could not find their dearest sister, Leima Thabaton. On questioning the old woman, they came to know that Keibu Keioiba had captured her. They were filled with anger and anxiety. Arming themselves with whatever weapons available in the house, they started searching for Thabaton in seven different directions.

Keibu Keioiba took shortcuts through forest and hills and reached his abode. He made Thabaton his wife. Everyday Keibu Keioiba would go in search of food and give them to Thabaton. She would cook food and they ate it together. Days and then months passed and finally a year passed. Keibu Keioiba became a father. Meanwhile the seven bothers were still searching for their sister. One day when Keibu Keioiba was out, Thabaton pounded rice and sang a sad song.

'Among seven brothers, I, Thabaton the only blossoming flower, have been imprisoned by Keibu Keioiba for one year now.'

The youngest brother heard the sweet sad song of his sister. He cut down trees and bushes and finally, reached his sister. They planned to run away when Keibu Keioiba was still away. But at that very moment Keibu Keioiba returned. The brother climbed up a tree and hid himself. Thabaton took the rice and vegetables Keibu Keioiba brought. She then, told him to fetch water so that she can start cooking and gave him an utong (a hollow bamboo stick). The moment Keibu Keioiba left, the brother came down from the tree. They locked the son in the house and set it on fire. Thabaton ran away with her brother.

Meanwhile, Keibu Keioiba had a hard time trying to fill the utong with water. The moment he pulled out the utong from the river it was empty. A crow saw his futile labour and cried out again and again,

'Ha Keibu Keioiba! The top is hollow, so is the bottom. The wife has fled and the big house gone.'

When Keibu Keioiba heard this, he lifted the utong and saw that it was hollow. He threw it away in anger and ran back home. He saw that his wife was gone, the house burnt to cinders and his son dead. He could not catch up with Thabaton and her brother. Neither could he capture her again as she was protected by seven strong and brave brothers. As for Thabaton she lived happily ever after with every wish and whim of hers fulfilled by her loving brothers.

Re-reading the Text of the Tale

The tradition of folktales in Manipur is a rich one. The folk tale 'Keibu Keioiba' is one of the most popular and widely told. It is surprising to see the same folk tale represented in different ways in their written form, even while retaining its folk-identity. Before describing the myths and motifs evident in the story, let us first examine the problem one faces in translating folk literature.


The first problem of translating a folk tale is that the tale is deeply rooted in the language used. Folk tales are not just colloquial but are also highly localized and language-oriented. Thus, one faces the problem of reconciling the variations in the language and versions according to different geographical locales within Manipur.

The second problem is the ornate quality of the archaic Manipuri language. For instance there are phrases like 'Ha pema...', 'Ha Thabaton...' , and 'Poron taret shatuna thongji natei kanglo.' The translation used herein are 'My Dear.....', 'Dearest Thabaton.....' (translating this particular sentence was rather tricky as it could be both 'My dearest....' and 'Our dearest...'), and 'Take out the seven bolts and open the door' respectively. This is literal translation which captures the bare meaning. The real beauty of the original is however lost, as one cannot find any equivalent of them in the English language.

Annotation is another problem one has to confront while translating. For example, in the Manipuri Language one does not have to specify whether the seven brothers were older than Leima Thabaton or younger then her. It becomes ambiguous in English when one writes: 'The only sister of the seven brothers....' So, 'elder' has been used to make it accurate. In Manipuri, the word mabung (term for elder brother when addressed by a sister) is self-explanatory.


Because it is oral in nature, the folk tale has a certain speech quality. It lends itself to the eloquence of speakers and dialects. For example, folk tales may use various kinds of speech forms ranging from regional idioms, a poem, a folk song, etc. Retaining the poetic form of the original in the translation is well-nigh impossible. As Mohit K. Ray says, 'While the semantic content of a poem can be translated into another language, the sonic content of it can never be translated.... Even if one tries to replace one sound pattern by a closely similar or parallel sound pattern in the Target Language, it would be, in the words of Croce, faithless beauty.'(7)

Certain part of folk tales read like a poem or at least has a poetic quality in it. Such quality is often lost in translation. For example, while the meaning of the song may be carried across in translation, the sonic content is lost.

Cultural Equivalence

It is possible that a small sentence in a folk tale might contain a story in itself. For, an entire baggage of cultural connotations may be attached to a single line which cannot be felt in the translated version. Even conversations reflect the culture. When one reads the original Manipuri folk tale, one gets a feel of the element of fantasy embedded in the folk tale. One also feels the typical ancient Manipuri locale and traditions. For instance, 'the seven brothers going to the hills to collect and gather firewood' carries with it a lot of cultural connotations. It was a part of daily chores and it still is in the Manipuri tradition.

Another instance worth mentioning is translating 'satchabi'. In Manipuri, a maiden is called 'leishabi' which literally means a blossoming flower. Satchabi and leishabi, though not strictly identical, are closely related in terms of meaning, both socially and metaphorically. So in the translation the 'blossoming flower' has been used for both terms to retain the original meaning.


On the whole, the translation of folk tales seems different from other kinds of translation. In fact, one cannot translate a folk tale; it has to be re-created. Since a folk tale is orally transmitted from one generation to the next, the story changes every time it is retold. For example, the story of Keibu Keioiba that a Manipuri has heard can be different from the story written by Sarangthem Bormani Singh. I have retold the story in a manner that conforms to the written form but still is different from it. The translator's choice is more important in transcreation. As Susan Basnett says, 'Translators sometimes consciously and often unconsciously mould their versions to the aesthetic and moral taste of their age and therein lies the “creativity of the translators.”'(8) This translation can be called transcreation, as there have been deliberate and non-deliberate modifications. In the translated form, one realizes that the folk tale has taken the form of a short story. And, like any short story, it has its own mechanism and act both ways—on the level of a folk tale as well as that of a short story.

On one level, a folk tale follows a simple structure while, on the other, its openness imposes a challenge to us. The structure is made in such a way that when passed from one speaker to the other it has the ability to re-invent itself in a different style. And like other folk tales, it follows a linear structure which is followed in the translation but technically could not be exactly equivalent to it. For instance, structuring the whole story into different sentences is different from the original written form. Unlike folk tales which have a certain quality of innocence, the translated version is more analytical. The usage of words, diction, structure, etc. makes it more modern or rather contemporary, thereby making it a transcreation.

This process of transcreation is also accompanied by multiple mutations in the representation of the imagery. For example, the Keibu Keioiba undergoes an image make-over depending on the narrative of 'the giver and the receiver'.

Translation as Recovery

Folk tales celebrate not just festivities but they also serve as a lesson for a given community. The lessons can be didactic, moral, political, social and even personal in nature. It is so ingrained in one's culture that, in order to preach or make a point across, one takes the help of folk tales.

The process of recovery begins with the present, and not the past. In this way, the process also serves as a link, a sort of 'connection to the deeper meaning of our existence'. It is through such translations that we not only recover myths but also take a cultural stand, which may enhance our understanding of ourselves. The process of translation allows one's self to get deeper into it and find out various multiple meanings attached to it. It is this multiplicity that makes it work in a text. In other words one can call it 'the raw ingredients' which need to be cooked. One can find various myths and motifs which are attached to a certain culture and community. Certain subtle nuances of the Manipuri culture and its interpretations can be derived from a close reading of the present subject of study 'Keibu Keioiba'.

The whole idea of a 'man-tiger' is not very remote. In order to understand this better, one can look at other narratives where the 'man-tiger' emerges as a motif, irrespective of genre and age. The stories from the Puranas also have a similar character. Lord Vishnu took the form of man-tiger (Narasimha) in order to help his devotee, Pralada, end the hardships inflicted by his father Hiranyakashipu. It was the Narasimha who killed Hiranyakashipu and made Pralada the King. However, in the story of Keibu Keioiba, the man-tiger takes a malevolent form and sometimes becomes a subject of ridicule. He does not have a purpose in becoming a man-tiger and becomes an outcast. On another level, in many of the Indian folk stories the man-tiger appears as a demon. The best example would be the story of the Werewolf, where man takes the form of a tiger or wolf (especially in the Western context) and harm people. It is important to note that, while making an attempt to understand folk tales/lores/myths and rituals of a community, it would be worthwhile to recall Levi-Strauss's concept of 'the raw and the cooked'.(9) However, in the Manipuri context, it is even more sensible to grasp the conventional notions of 'the wild and the tamed'.

The Wild and the Tamed
Levi-Strauss's concept of 'the raw and the cooked' has long been associated with the dichotomy between the natural world and the world of human culture. Lévi-Strauss is of the opinion that the raw/cooked axis marks human culture. The elements of the 'raw' are of 'natural' origin, and the 'cooked' that of culture, i.e. products of human creation. Symbolically, cooking marks the transition from nature to culture, by means of which the human state can be defined in accordance with all its attributes. A parallel can be drawn between the binary oppositions of 'the raw and the cooked,' and 'the wild and the tamed'. The man-tiger form can also be seen as the cultural intervention set into motion to link world of animal kingdom with that of human society.

The process of taming the wild is a practice which enables us to perceive nature according to our vision. This process serves as the mediation between what we call 'being' and 'essence'. Man becoming a tiger is an aberration from reality. However, Keibu Keioiba can also be metaphorically interpreted as the 'wild' side of every human being. It can be interpreted in the context of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The irrational Dionysian disorder taking over the ordered and rational Apollonian side, thereby the human becomes a wild being. The balance between the wild and the tamed is precarious. There seems to be constant struggle between 'the wild and the tamed'. The social environment of man links him to his 'wild side'. He has to stay in constant touch with nature. For example, the seven brothers in the story going to the jungle to gather firewood unmistakably imply the dependence of man on nature. Thereby, man is irreparably linked to the wild. This concept of 'the wild and the tamed' is something every man can relate to. In many cultures across the world we come across creatures like the man-tiger - for example, the Centaur in Roman culture, the Sphinx in Egypt,(11) etc. It can be inferred that struggle between the Dionysian and Apollonian forces is something which is valorised in every culture.

A lot of Western stories, folk as well as modern narratives, come to mind while reading the present tale. One that comes very close to it is Frantz Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'. A man turning into a bug parallels a man turning into a tiger. Though the contexts of the two stories are different, the alienation suffered by the bug and the man-tiger is almost the same. It shows us how incongruity affects us and results in punishment. Very clearly the folk tale teaches us to stick to a community and, therefore, a strict code of conduct. Keibu Keioiba cannot fit into either the human world or the animal world. He does not belong anywhere. Therefore, the man-tiger had to recluse himself in the jungle and live in isolation. In spite of his human wife and a son, the man-tiger Keibu Keioiba is still not accepted. And this seems to be the basic lesson of the story. One also needs to notice the way the story progresses. It also has a comic element to let the story going and to sustain the interest of the audience. Just to show off his dexterity in black magic a man takes a big risk and repents his entire life.

This is how from one story we discover many other stories interlinked with it. And one becomes aware of such 'links' through translations. Translations of folk literature, hence, become a vehicle of rediscovery of the very roots of life. We find a link to other cultures also.

It has also been said by critics that if one records folklore, it deteriorates. The magic and tradition is lost. This cannot be denied. However, there is a need to record folklore and study it, too. Oral narration of folk tales and the tradition of 'passing it to the next generation' has almost been discontinued. In fact, caught in the web of our modern life, we do not even bother. So, the very 'magic and tradition' would be lost forever if we do not record them now. However, the act of recording should preserve the very essence of the folk lore, which has an umbilical relation with the community and its past.


1. M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7, (Singapore: HardCourt), 1933, p. 101.
2. Folk tales oral in nature were never written and, therefore, have huge capacity to change their forms, structure, essence, etc. as they move from one person's mouth to the other without compromising the flow of the story.
3. One can say that translations are not just translating the text from one language to another. The challenge lies in translating the content along with its cultural, social and phonological aspects with the maintenance of readability. Therefore translation becomes like a dance on a rope by an acrobat. If one is very original then one might lose readability and vice-versa.
4.Roland Barthes in his essay 'Work to Text', says that a text is open-ended and has multiplicity of meanings but a work is close ended. When the oral folktale is produced in written form it loses its flexibility in terms of modifications by the narrator, thereby it becomes a work. Roland Barthes, 'From Work to Text', Image Music, trans. Stephen Heath, (London: Fontana), 1977, p. 155 - 64.
5. It has already been written and published in the Manipuri language by Sarangthem Bormani Singh in Ching-Tamgi Funga Wari (Folktales of the Hills and the Valley). See, Sarangthem Bormani Singh, Ching-Tamgi Funga Wari, (Imphal: Soul Press), 1998.
6. Keibu Keioiba is also pronounced as Kabow Keioiba or Kabui Keioiba. It has also been speculatedthat the man-tiger is called Kabow Keioiba because he inhabits the Kabow Valley. Again, Kabui refers to one of the forest dwelling tribes.
7. K. MohitRay, 'Translation as Interpretation', in Anisur Rehman (ed.), Translation - Poetics and Practice, (New Delhi: Creative Books), 2002, pp. 80 - 90.
8. Susan Basnett, Comparative Literature, (Oxford: Blackwell), 1993, p. 140.
9. C. Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, (New York: Harper & Row), 1969
10. Even the known Roman, Greek and Indian classical epics resort to folk elements while constructing the narrative. For instance, in the Indian epic the Ramayana we come across the man-monkey relation. The whole monkey-man kingdom of Bali and Sugriva breach the gap. In fact, it can be said that folktales are one of the basic foundations on which the classical epics are built up.

* Sumitra Thoidingjam teaches English Literature at the Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at thoidingjam(at)gmail(dot)com. The same paper was earlier published in Eastern Quarterly, Volume 4, Issue 1, April-June 2007.
You can read other papers and articles of the Eastern Quarterly at:
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  • Anti-CAB stand: Interesting take from PRISM
  • AFSPA on Congress Manifesto
  • Bamboo Cooking Competition #1 : Gallery
  • April Calendar for Year 2019 :: Tools
  • Yaoshang Sports @Keishampat #2 : Gallery
  • First Wave Feminism
  • JRF wanted at NERIST, Arunachal [Upd]
  • Cheiraoba Thabal 2019 at Bangalore
  • NPF to support Congress on issue based
  • Jyotishmita to represent Assam in Miss India
  • Paothang : Newsletter from Pune
  • Eyeing votes with promise on AFSPA
  • Together let's save the future
  • Shirarakhong Village, Ukhrul :: 360 View
  • Journey into Nature of Human Culture #4
  • Candidate accommodation at Aligarh
  • The globe is in your fist
  • Heartless :: Poem
  • Condemn Killing of Manjur Ahmed
  • Indifference bordering on arrogance
  • Modi's visit: Will it restored BJP image?
  • Yaoshang Halankar #1 : Gallery
  • No Budget at International Mime Festival
  • In defence of the "Meira Paibis"
  • Post-Doctoral fellow @ NEIST, Jorhat
  • Attributes for vibrant career #2
  • Against Custodian Killing of Manjur Ahmed
  • Revamp Sajiwa Jail : The great JN escape
  • LS Poll : CAB factor and Manipur
  • Dont trust anyone: Pune police to NE
  • Muhammad Abdur Rahman Khutheibam
  • Yaoshang Fancy Dress : Gallery
  • Urmila Chanam on menstruation myths
  • Meetei Tribe Bears More Tribal Characters
  • Dear Happiness :: Poem
  • MP election issues & non-issues
  • Augment credit flow to farm sector
  • Fresh approach of Sangma
  • Phayeng Koubru Haraoba #3: Gallery
  • TabLlE :: Seireng
  • The Naliya Queen
  • Distress Relief at various districts
  • Bedtime Blues :: Poem
  • Babies who are born deaf
  • The approaching day of redemption
  • Yaoshang Marathon Race: Gallery
  • Abok :: Artwork & an Essay
  • Eyek Tamba :: Learn Manipuri script
  • Yaoshang Pichakari #2: Gallery
  • Utlou incident & of Nupi Khongoinaba
  • Understanding failure & how to face it
  • Responsibilities of voters : 5 years stake
  • Nando escaped from custody is a threat..
  • A New Dawn Awaits Tusom & Somra
  • Yaoshang Cooking competition: Gallery
  • MSAC Literary Meet @Chandigarh : Gallery
  • Lamtagee Thabal @ Pune : Gallery
  • Yaoshang Sports @Keishampat #1 : Gallery
  • Abdur Rahaman : Gopal Sharma Award
  • Thokchom Sanatombi : Sangeetratna
  • AEgi puNsi :: Seireng
  • Nipalsuba Mapok : Shumang Leela
  • Mukna Kangjei #2 : Gallery
  • Sory Wahengbam : eRang Actress Profile
  • Saroi Khangba @Imphal : Gallery
  • Featured Front Page Photo 2019 #1: Gallery
  • Maharaj Kumar Priyabarta Singh : Profile
  • Manipuri Calendar for 2019 : Download
  • List of Restricted Holidays for 2019
  • List of Public Holidays for 2019
  • List of General Holidays for 2019