Excerpts from the diaries of Somrita Ganguly, emerging Bengali-to-English literary translator, and Arunava Sinha, her mentor, written during the 2016-2017 Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme. First published in In Other Words: Issue 49.
We work differently, Arunava and I. In 2016 he translated five books, edited another five and curated five more. I’ve seen him at work: sitting in a café, sipping Red Bull, one eye on the book he’s translating, the other on the Mac, typing away furiously. He does this daily. That, I suppose, is what one would call a decade of experience.
Delhi’s translators use various epithets to describe Arunava Sinha’s expertise, mostly marvelling at the super-human, machine-like speed with which he produces his works. “Do you also think I am a machine churning out translations?”, Arunava asked me in our early days. Surely not. He has the vocabulary, he knows how to employ it, he makes the time for it and he is passionate about what he does: qualities that make him extraordinarily human, albeit insanely gifted.
I cannot actively translate every day. I wait for moments of motivation. There have been days when I have translated six poems in half an evening and then there have been weeks of drought, making it difficult to meet deadlines. Arunava is an expert, I am an enthusiast.
Day 1: Somrita announces blithely that she has second thoughts about the text she had pitched in her submission. I agree with her right away (this won’t be as easy ever again), and we start exploring alternatives. I trot out options, Somrita rejects them. We go on trying.
Arunava and I intuitively knew that we did not want to work on the text that I had initially identified when proposing myself for the Emerging Translator Mentorships programme, Moti Nandi’s Tulsi. We wanted to work on something more adult, for want of a better epithet. We spent weeks deliberating over potential texts until he suggested Purnendu Pattrea to me one day over lunch. I picked a poem arbitrarily and read it. By dinner we had zeroed in on Pattrea. There is something visceral about intuition. And that’s how we decided to translate Kawthopokawthon: intuitively. Almost. I say almost because even when I had read that first poem there were certain things about Pattrea that stayed with me: his metaphors, for instance. He does not trifle with metaphors. I realized that with Pattrea these were not only ornamentations decorating the black-and-white. They were real, tangible. I could feel the juice from the pomegranate that he had dug his nails into, moistening my lips, dirtying my clothes; metaphors that one could see physically unfurl, going beyond the limits of the written text.
Kawthopokawthon (‘Conversations’) is a series of verses in five volumes. The first volume, published in 1987, is an anthology of conversations between two lovers, Shubhankar and Nandini, conversations overheard and then recorded by the author. Pattrea had proposed to confine their story to 41 poems. He began another series of conversations in Volume 2, with a different set of characters. However, Shubhankar and Nandini had by then acquired a life of their own. Readers wanted to continue living their stories. The characters escaped from print and forced the author to resume creating their lives. Pattrea returned to their narrative, again, in Volume 3—extending it to another two volumes later on. In his preface to Volume 4 Pattrea wrote, “I was in Bangladesh in ’89. Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Cox Bazar—no matter where I went young men and women had a mad demand: we want Kawthopokawthon 4.” I remember telling Anita Agnihotri, a major Bengali writer, months later, that the publication history had been one of the primary reasons behind my selection of Kawthopokawthon for this project. Anita had laughed and confessed, “I must have been one of those frenzied readers wanting more of S and N.” I was also particularly moved by how this series does not really end with the last verse of Book 5. The conversations between Shubhankar and Nandini are left unconcluded, with no sense of closure, challenging the voyeuristic writer/reader: how long will you continue to eavesdrop on our lives?
 Translation mine
Day 3: We finally narrow down on the books we’ll work on. Somrita loves the text the first time she reads it, in the morning. By afternoon, she isn’t sure. By the evening, she loves it again. I am now sure the translation will go very well, because this love-hate relationship is exactly what I want to see. Faithful love doesn’t augur well for a translation. Sometimes you must detest the text.
Bengali is the language that my parents speak. It should have been my mother tongue. However, growing up in an Anglo-Indian neighbourhood of Calcutta, studying in a Methodist school under always English-speaking, occasionally Bible-reading teachers, listening to “Michael Learns to Rock” on MTV or Glen Campbell on my mother’s stereo and reading Austens or stolen D.H.Lawrences under torchlight well past bedtime, I ended up choosing another language as my own. English is the language of my emotional and intellectual make-up. Hindi was my second language in school and I studied that literature for fourteen years. I enrolled myself for a crash-course in French at Alliance Francaise and, later yet, another crash-course in Dutch at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (JNU), where I am presently pursuing my PhD, with dubious success in both. It took me a while to discover the language that my parents dreamt in—Bengali. I chanced upon a few jaundiced books in my grandfather’s yellowing library at Ripon Street, Calcutta, one day: books, some of which had been brought to our young country from East Bengal during the Partition of 1947. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali was my first.
My relationship with the language has grown more intimate than ever before
The journey since then has been one of fascination and frustration. Bengali is the mother tongue that I arrived at later in life, instead of being born into it; as a child, I often faced segregation from Bengal’s cultural custodians because of this. This project of translating Purnendu Pattrea from Bengali to English, for me, has been a journey—my relationship with the language has grown more intimate than ever before. I have made wonderful little discoveries during the process. There were words that I used to take for granted, there were signifiers that I thought I completely understood. I have friends called Nikhil, Swrotosweni, Manisha, Tillottama, Bhashkar, Srijon—friends with essentially Bengali names. It never occurred to me before that each name is a word containing a world of meaning within those two or three syllables. Translating Pattrea, whose language is curiously everyday yet eclectic, whose vocabulary is an inviting treasure-trove, whose use of syntax is often eccentric and esoteric, has helped me discover how to deploy words and expressions that I had until now only assumed knowledge of. It is only when we start translating that we begin to fathom our yawning inadequacies in one or both languages.
I have pushed myself in linguistic directions that I had not charted before. There are words we know and then there are words that we remember and use consciously. Translation drove me to delve into chambers of my vocabulary that were turning rusty from disuse. However, I want to believe that translation is not merely about the knowledge of languages but also about an eye for literary style, an ear for art, a sense of texts and contexts. I write all the time, publish sometimes; but translating is especially exciting because it helps me inhabit a liminal space: between being a reader and being a writer. This is also why translating has been such a profoundly humbling, sobering, learning, growing-up experience for me. Arunava told me at the commencement of this project that translation is the most visceral way of reading a text. Translating Pattrea has been my most intense, most essential entry into not just Kawthopokawthon but also into the Bengali language.
My introduction to Arunava’s ideological approach to translation was at a talk he delivered at the Centre for English Studies at JNU. He said that when it comes to translating a text he does not believe in interpretation, although he highlighted repeatedly that this was one position and not the position. What about retranslations, I asked him? Retranslations take place due to changing times, Arunava had explained—people’s sensibilities change with changing circumstances and politics and therefore people choose to translate the same text differently in a different age. But isn’t each different translation merely a re-reading of the first? And don’t simultaneous retranslations of the same text take place in the same age?
Arunava: Somrita, line 7 needs a change.
Somrita: You change it.
Somrita (five seconds later): Sorry, I’ll change it.
Pattrea was a well-read writer, an active reader, conscious of his craft. He carefully chose every word, every punctuation mark that found place in his works. He braided together in Kawthopokawthon the lyricism of the Romantics and the intellectual conceits of the Metaphysicals. The verses are replete with intertextual references—Eliot, Shakespeare, Tagore, Blake, Virgil, Dante’s Beatrice, Baudelaire, Beethoven, Bach, JibanandaDas, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Bibhutibhushan, Bankimchandra, Michaelangelo’s Sistine, Miroslav Holub, Anton Chekhov, Begam Akhtar, Kanika Banerjee, Shubhalakshmi. Pattrea himself was not only a writer but also a filmmaker and illustrator. I remember feeling particularly stuck with a certain verse-paragraph. In this one Pattrea quotes from another Bengali poet—misquotes, in fact, which made it incredibly difficult for me to find out who he had originally alluded to. Arunava asked me why it was important for me to find out whom Pattrea had drawn his reference from. “Will you translate the same line differently, depending on who the original author was?” Yes. I would.
My mentor seemed unhappy. I had two choices: I could either just translate the (mis)quoted line, which is what Arunava said he would have done, or I could do something different with it. I figured that by simply translating the line I stood the risk of losing some of its essence, if not the meaning. With prose passages, I reckon this is less of a problem, but with verse one has to at least try to capture some of its flavour, if not the entire original metrical and rhyme schemes. So I decided to be experimental. I decided to find out who the original poet was, seek a corresponding English writer from the same age, writing in a similar form and style, and then deliberately misquote one of their lines—something close in sense and sensibility to what Pattrea had used. I homed in on Eliot as the corresponding English poet—a modern, an avant-gardist. I felt confident enough to do this because Pattrea had already demonstrated to his readers his wide reading, he was familiar with the works of Eliot, and by drawing his frame of reference into this particular verse-paragraph I thought I would be able to seamlessly transfer an idea from one language system and one particular socio-cultural context to another. Arunava did not approve of the idea, though he suggested that I try it anyway because he was curious to see the outcome. I have not, yet. I need to work out the whys and the wherefores in my head still. In my imagination translation is an elaborate literary game—however, I want to play it responsibly and I am still only learning.
Arunava has been the kind of mentor that I needed because he understands my ideology and defends my choices
There is a tendency, while translating, to homogenize a text. In India, English has been the language that has helped to unite a nation speaking in over 26 different tongues. However, it is also the language at the altar of which local, rooted realities are often sacrificed. There lies an unbridgeable gap between a humble meal of moongdaal and chapatis, for example, and the anglicized green lentil stew and flat bread. Philosophically, I do not support such reductive, universalizing tendencies. Arunava has been the kind of mentor that I needed because he understands my ideology and defends my choices. Pattrea was a Bengali writer. Kawthopokawthon was written between 1987and 1992 in Calcutta. I want to bring him and his context to an English reader, without turning him English. Having led a multilingual life in different parts of India myself, I know today that just as there are several Indias, there are also many Englishes. Translation is a process through which we can arrive at, accommodate and acknowledge these different Englishes.
Day 21: Somrita wants to know how much she can change or add. Nothing, I tell her. She’s not happy. Fortunately, I never have to guess whether she is happy or not. I tell her I wouldn’t do it, but she can try, and we will look at the result to decide if it works.
What I like about Arunava’s style of mentorship is that he has given me complete freedom. He does not interfere with my translations, does not send me samples that I need to strictly follow, only sets deadlines, which are reasonably flexible. This essentially means that my work is entirely my own. That kind of freedom is overwhelming because it comes with responsibilities, and the pressure of measuring up to the confidence that he has shown in my ability to work independently. This also means that the wait for his feedback on my submissions turns out to be uncomfortably nail-biting moments of uncertainty. What if he thinks I have failed? He had told me at one point in time, before I started translating, that as a translator I would need to be faithful to three things: the meaning of the text, the idea of the characters and their characterization, and the flavour of the text. Translators succeed in some things, fail in others, this award-winning translator acknowledged. Having finished two-and-a-half volumes of the three that I had set out to translate, I now wait with apprehension to find out where my mentor thinks I’ve succeeded and where I am yet to succeed.
In the meantime, Arunava has encouraged me to submit some of my works to Asymptote for their January 2017 edition, which has a special focus on Indian writers. I set out to translate, from Hindustani to English, Vidrohi (b. Ramashankar Yadav), a wandering minstrel, a mad poet who lived and composed at JNU. Arunava, despite his dizzying schedule, volunteered to go through my translations. The very few edits that he sent back to me were indeed suggestions, not binding revisions. It is this sense of quiet consideration and respect for others’ artistry that I so admire in my mentor. Asymptote decided to publish the translations. That’s when I dared to ask Arunava a question that had been pricking me for a while. My mentor unabashedly owns up to his limitations in the Hindi language despite having lived in the Hindi-speaking capital of our country for about a couple of decades now. I was most curious to figure out how he had worked his way around my translations of Vidrohi then. He said that he can tell a good translation from a bad one—there will be edginess in the language and the flow, and that this is easy to decipher even without knowing the source language. The Truth—straight from a translator with ten years’ experience in the field!
Day 30: There has been a long hiatus. No translated texts lying in my inbox. Is everything well, Somrita? Somrita has broken up temporarily with her work. She knows the relationship will be resumed, but for now she is revelling in her independence. Flirting with other translations.
From my rather limited knowledge of how this field functions, I do not think we have too many vocational translators of literature in my country. Academics, writers, critics translate occasionally but there are no translators’ guilds or fixed working rates. Translation is the cool, indie thing to do these days, and in India, where one is constantly—whether consciously or not—translating, one would imagine literary translation to have become a career option by now. However, Arunava is the only person I know, at least in Bengali-to-English, who can call translation his profession. For the rest of us it is an avocation. Through my submission to Asymptote I realized that between translating and exposing this translation to an audience, there falls the proverbial shadow: in the form of acquiring copyrights, pitching texts and authors, understanding editorial demands, publishing policies—structural restraints that complicate naïve ambitions. So far the mentorship has been vastly rewarding for me in terms of understanding the hows of translation, but I have yet to grasp the hows of the publishing industry.
Day 42: Somrita quotes John Donne in her translation of a line. I’m not sure whether the original intended to quote Donne. Somrita patiently explains to me that the writer was steeped in world literature, often referring to and quoting both local and international works. The discussion boils down to whether it’s legitimate to quote Donne to reflect this erudition even if the original text did not explicitly do it. I am charmed and energised by the possibilities that translation throws up. The final choice seems far less important than the process of thinking up these possibilities and exploring them passionately.
I am charmed and energised by the possibilities that translation throws up
Arunava, in the first month of the mentorship, gave me a book by Gregory Rabassa, If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents, in which the man instrumental in bringing Gabriel García Márquez to a non-Spanish, English-speaking readership rejects the old Italian cliché “traduttore, tradittore” and opines that a translator is no traitor, but that languages themselves are arbitrary, relational and treacherous and, if anything, translation helps to recreate the original Tower of Babel as it was built before our tongues split. In a country like India, where all of us are at least bi-lingual, we always already exist in translation. Also, in this nation, translation has played (and can play) a major role in uniting marginal voices from across the country and has helped (and can help) people realize that they are not isolated in their class, caste, ethnic or gender struggles, in their demands for dignity. This mentorship has initiated me into the process of translating fiction but in the future I would like my work to be a part of this larger process of translation as politics, translation as social activism.
Day 75: The translation is drawing to a close. Somrita has found the voice she needed for the translations. She is full of quiet confidence, even if she doesn’t realise it herself. She has worked on this text in intense bursts rather than negotiating her way through it systematically. Somrita works quickly when she’s in the flow, the inevitable fallout of which is long periods of disengagement with the translation. But when she’s on it, she doesn’t let go. I admire her talent and tenacity, the latter an especially difficult quality for someone whose interests are as wide-ranging as hers.
*Title of blog piece is a quote by Peter Cole
Main image: Arunava Sinh leading a session at the BCLT International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School (c) Anita Staff
Applications for the National Centre for Writing Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme 2018-19 are now open! You can click here to find out which languages are on offer, as well as how to apply. Applications close 9am BST, 3 September 2018.