Somrita is a professor, writer and translator from Hindi and Bangla to English. She teaches British Literature to undergraduate students and has acted as Poet in Residence at the Arcs-of-a-Circle Artists’ Residency in Bombay.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing life and the kinds of projects you are involved in?

I am a professor, translator, and writer, soon to complete my PhD from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. For my PhD thesis I’m working on the representation of female athletic bodies in sports literature from India and America.

I translate from Hindi and Bangla to English. I am presently translating a young adults’ novel on the Russian Revolution (from Bangla to English), the biography of a sitting Chief Minister of an Indian state (from Hindi to English), and an anthology of Bangla verses written by an armed-forces veteran.

I teach British Literature to undergraduate students, and I am editing my first anthology of poems at the moment, written during the week that I spent at Cove Park in October 2017. I was in Cove Park on a Translators’ Residency but my computer refused to wake up after I put it to sleep two nights into the residency, completely incapacitating me, and turning out to be a major setback for the translation work that I had hoped to finish while in Scotland. I told myself that the cosmos had planned on this: I had traveled to the banks of the Clyde from the shores old Calcutta to put my time to another kind of use – which is what I ended up doing. I allowed myself to get lost on hidden trails, drink in the overwhelming strength and character of the Loch Lomond (and some rich red wine), talk to fellow translators and poets, and read hungrily, sans any feverish purpose or goal, from the enviable library that Cove Park houses. Beauty of that brilliant, superlative kind has the potential to inspire poetry.

I was also invited as Poet in Residence at the Arcs-of-a-Circle Artists’ Residency in Bombay, organized by the US Consulate Mumbai, Akshara Centre and Rochelle Potkar. This residency gave me the opportunity to read my works, in those twelve days, at places like Kitaab Khana, G5A Black Box, Words Tell Stories, Canvas Laugh Club and Essar House, reach out to a wide readership, and spend time finetuning my spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected later in tranquillity! My anthology, tentatively titled The Architecture of Sleep, is proof of the translation deadlines that I accidentally missed and the poems that I serendipitously birthed by surrendering myself to the strange machinations of the universe and modern technology!

How have you worked with the National Centre for Writing in the past?

I was selected as an Emerging Translator by Writers’ Centre Norwich (now the National Centre for Writing) in September 2016 and paired to work with the award-winning translator, Arunava Sinha. My translation of Purnendu Pattrea’s Kawthopokawthon (Conversations), a five-volume novel-in-verse, was showcased at the London Book Fair in March 2017. I also spoke at a panel organized by the Writers’ Centre Norwich at the English Pen salon in the London Book Fair on ‘India at 70: Language Barriers, Language Dreams’. Later in 2017, I was invited to spend a week at Cove Park, Scotland, as part of the Writers’ Centre Norwich/Cove Park Translation Residencies. Excerpts, from the journal that I used to maintain with Arunava Sinha, on my experiences as a translator were published in the forty-ninth edition of In Other Words.

How has this supported your professional development?

Before the Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme I had translated woefully little – one short story by Rabindranath Tagore (Tagore because he still strangely continues to have complete sway over the collective Bengali gene pool), a few poems by the Indian prophet-poet Kabir Das, and some lyrics by the Bengali singer/ songwriter, Anjan Dutta, for a course by Prof GJV Prasad on Translation Studies, that I had credited during my Masters programme at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Besides, I had presented academic papers on translation theories at national and international conferences organized by the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS), International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies (IATIS), Jadavpur University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University among others.

The people at the National Centre for Writing are cheerleaders for good work, giving a facelift to art

I had applied for the Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme to be able to bridge the chasm between theory and praxis. One year since the programme, I have three full-length translation contracts (for a YA novel, a political biography, and a collection of poems) and have published with Asymptote, Words Without Borders, and Muse India, among others. What had started as a curious digression from everydayness has now turned into a calling, and I have to thank Arunava and the Writers’ Centre Norwich for helping me choose my vocation.

In a little over a year, I have known people through the National Centre for Writing who have helped me grow, professionally and personally. There has been a steady exchange of intense ideas (and intoxicants) with Deborah, Jason, Jon, Richard, Nurduran, and Yelena, and also Megan, Chris, Kate, Vicki, Kari, Anna, Annie, Atar, Barbara, Deirdre, Melissa, Rebecca, Ruth, and Sophie. When I had written an article for Scroll.in on International Translation Day 2016 I was hesitant to call myself a translator. Today, at readings or residencies when I am introduced as a translator, the epithet does not sound strange at all, because it indeed has become a part of my identity. That is the confidence that the National Centre for Writing has instilled in me.

There are enough naysayers in this world already. Artistes need cheerleaders. The people at the National Centre for Writing are cheerleaders for good work, giving a facelift to art, going out of their comfortable niche and supporting people from across the globe.

Any advice for aspiring translators?

  • A translation is never the same as the original. There are choices we make as translators, and our purpose is to achieve equivalence, not equality. Learn to defend your choices. Your translation is your reading of the text.
  • Translation is not merely about knowing languages. It is also about having an eye for creative, literary styles, a sense of texts and contexts, and a ear for art. A translator is not Google. A translator is human. A translator is an artiste. Accept this, embrace this.
  • The publishing industry, as I know it in India, has the potential to be extremely exclusive and self-congratulatory, gatekeepers of niche circles that deny access to many. It is tough to make a dent. Unless you have godfathers in the industry, the challenge is to take one long, hard look at yourself and up your game – give them something brilliant and make them that proverbial offer that they cannot refuse.
  • And, let NOBODY ever tell you that poetry is lost in translation. Poetry is not lost in translation, it is translation: of your emotions into thoughts, thoughts into words, and words into the written text. The world is always already translating.

Find out about the Emerging Translator Mentorships scheme >>