‘Bubble Said the (Melting) Pot’: a commission by Shagufta Sharmeen Tania
On the process of self-translation and connecting with fellow translators

Writer and translator Shagufta Sharmeen Tania has written a piece on the process of self-translation during her virtual Visible Communities residency. 

Here, Shagufta walks us through self-translating a series of retold fairy tales with reference to the works of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumder, a nineteenth-century curator of Bengali fairy tales. Shagufta unravels the intricacies of bringing across terms of cultural significance from one language to another. She considers the challenges of wanting to make the piece seamlessly fluent and accessible for Anglophone readers, while not wanting to divorce the writing from its original resonance and rhythm.

This commission takes us through her thought process while translating and connecting with fellow translators on her Visible Communities virtual residency. Our Visible Communities programme aims to diversify access routes to literary translation, strengthen links between the literary translation community and diaspora communities in the UK and contribute to the debate around decolonising literary translation. You can read more about this programme here, or learn about our residencies here.

‘Bubble Said the (Melting) Pot’

Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

I begin this piece with the memory of chatting with the virtual residency writers from Singapore with NCW this year. We were talking about the exchanges that happen between languages and before we knew it we had started discussing smells. Culture-specific smells. Memory-evoking smells. I recollected the metaphors of smells that I once read about,

  • The smell of a woman from the tribes of wandering snake charmers, undressing slowly, mentioned in Al Mahmud’s Jol-beshya (The Water-prostitute) – as the smell of freshly felled Malabar plum wood.
  • The smell of a widow, mentioned by Abul Bashar as the thick smell of Elephant apples, sour and somewhat repulsive to some, but immensely provocative to those who had acquired a taste for it in the past.

When a writer mentions a Malabar plum or an Elephant apple, those who have tasted them would be readily transported to their smells. The context and the indication are clear, and evidently irreplaceable. But how do we translate both without a long florid explanation? Assuming I want to keep it in the translated text? There comes the question of how much of a source language can be decanted and poured into another, with all its glory, power and uniqueness? I remember Kareem James Abu-Zeid claiming once that “We translate image, tone, register, musicality, ambiguity, clarity, concision, flow, rhythm, naturalness and strangeness…”. To what extent can culture-specific smells and tastes be registered and conveyed through translation without betraying the original? Should it be given such importance? We went on and on.

Decolonising sounds very good, like ‘declutter’, however impossible it can be in individual cases. When we talk about decolonising, we refer to the almost impossible symbiosis between former colonisers and the colonised native speakers, to the retrieval of of the dark and impenetrable world of oral literature and folklore that existed in colonies before the arrival of the colonisers, despite the silent war between second/third languages and mother tongue. One must bear in mind that the immediate impulse to kill an unknown unseen animal stems from an ignorance of the benefits it fosters in our biomes, our ecosystem. Colonies derived from that immediate impulse of the colonisers—kill first – thence the importance of ‘visibility’. The cultural melting pot that bubbles in modern and mighty metropolises, wants us to be ‘visible’, to be known and heard, despite the bitter  collective memories of our colonial past; so that the boundaries of cultural ghettos will not give rise to more hatred and enmity.

As part of the virtual residency, I self-translated a series of retold fairy tales with reference to the works of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumder, a nineteenth century curator and collector of Bengali fairy tales, forgotten and overlooked by the Bengali literary world for the last thirty years or more. During our childhood, Dakshinaranjan’s fairy tales made excellent birthday presents and holiday reading, tales packed with divine interventions, poetic justice, ghostly occurrences, collisions between the demons and humans. When the compilation came out more than a century ago, in a time when ‘Manchester-made’ things eclipsed the native culture of Bengal, it was deemed a very worthy substitute for English fairy tales, and a protest against the British. My stories had similar settings and language as Dakshinaranjan’s, but very different endings to his. He didn’t allow his heroines to triumph, whereas mine celebrated the journey of the heroines, who evolved and challenged the patriarchal archetypes.

How significant is my language in the political and socio economic hierarchy?

At first my mind was shrouded with questions. Who was I translating those for, who was my audience? Language is very political, and there exists very complex power-dynamics between languages. Literary translation is very connected to the cultures and conflicts which surround both the source language and the target language. How significant is my language in the political and socio economic hierarchy? Who is interested in tales of Bangladesh (world famous pop stars like George Harrison mentioned the country in 1971, but that was more than fifty years ago), let alone of its bygone era? Then I reminded myself that these were the stories of women— cornered, manipulated and condemned for the slightest waver in their loyalty, tales of sexual violence and violence among castes, things that have existed through time and throughout the world.

The stories were originally written in Bangla Shadhubhasha (meaning the language of the polite, the courteous, and the accomplished), an Old format of Bengali only used for prose, meaning nobody ever spoke that language aloud. In 1800 this format was concocted by the British in Fort William College, an institution that commissioned translations of thousands of books and manuscripts from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian Bengali, and Urdu. The indigenous community of Bengal could not comprehend it properly, as only the highest of the castes were allowed the opportunity of learning. As the language itself somewhat reflected the divides present in Bengal society, it often sounded very prejudiced. Its punctuations, and its grammatical reformation were mostly led by the British coloniser. What was the intention of the coloniser? Maybe to decipher a language and thereby infiltrate the communities whose recognition and obedience it required, in order to rule. Like every language, Bangla Shadhubhasha hoarded a richness specific to it, and carried a wealth of symbols and compelling tales. The terse puns, witty idioms and stigmatised phrases were unique to Shadhubhasha, and the gait of the language was slow, ornate and comprehensive. When I wrote the fairy tales in Bangla, there was no replacement in my mind for the resourceful Shadhubhasha, after all, one needs cotton fibres of watercolour papers to paint in watercolour.

But translating it, or rather self-translating it was a very different game. Repurposing dialects of Shadhubhasha into English was very difficult, the language bore every mark and bias of the Hindu Brahminical Supremacy. How could I make sure the translation was seamlessly accessible and fluent? With or without all those necessary glossaries and mythical anecdotes? What shall I do with rhymed verses? Of course we have our version of ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman’, it is ‘Hau mau khau, manusher gondho pau’ (‘I want to eat, as I smell human flesh’). Each of the stories in the series had one line that mentioned something like a plastic box, or a modern playback singer – something queer (quirky) to make it contemporary in a funny way; this came across easily in Bengali text, but would it work the same way in English? As Bangla Shadhubhasha is riddled with Tatsama (Sanskrit loanwords) should I crowd the translated pieces with English words derived from Latin, to connote the jingling Shadhubhasha? Of course not, I want Bangla to be ‘visible’, don’t I?

Before my residencies with NCW, I was generally inclined to rough-hew the translations for the English-speaking world, but not anymore.

So I sometimes translated idioms in a literal way, and smugly thought of it as an osmosis of new expressions into English. What about Shutashangkha snake, a snake that never existed in Bangladesh or India other than in many of Dakshinaranjan’s stories (a snake fine as a thread that can pass through a conch shell, which hisses with a seashell like resonance)? The very name in Bangla implies all this, but how do I use the name in English in a way that conveys it all? Tapobon and Kheernodi (a river of ambrosia/kheer, the water possibly frothy and sweet!) remained so in the translated work, just the way names of Wee Willie Winkie or Little Bo-Peep appeared unexplained in our nursery rhymes. Names did not only tell stories of origin and practice, they were emblems of indigenous sovereignty.

Before my residencies with NCW, I was generally inclined to rough-hew the translations for the English-speaking world, but not anymore. I kept Iccha-thakrun, the Goddess of desire and destiny, as Iccha-thakrun in my translation. Iccha does not only mean desire, it means whim as well. Thakrun does not only mean deity, it means madam. In the Bengali translation of Pavel Bazhov’s ‘The Malachite Casket’ and in Tagore’s short story, I noticed the use of Thakrun, a feisty substitute for Devi (deity). A word like khopa (hair bun, as YouTube is full of these hairdos) was kept as it was, but when hairdo was indicative of something (a single braid meant a woman’s partner was absent or banished from the kingdom), I needed to clarify. Keeping Gajmoti in the text needed explanation too. Gajmoti or Gaja Mani was a rare pearl forming near the ivory within an elephant’s head which – when worn by kings – was believed to be highly sanctifying.

How do I decide which elements bits to keep, which to remove and which to change? There are certain practices, like phalahar (fruit diet on specific days), shakahar (veg diet all the year round) which is a part of Sattvic lifestyle (I am expecting that the readers at this juncture might google the term ‘Sattvic’ and discover there are three lifestyles—Sattvic, Rajashik and Tamashik), but how much should I make the reader work to discern the meanings? What to do with words like abhisar, leela or abhiman which do not really exist in English? What to do with a word like ‘Sarbajan vunjyate’ (devoured or savoured by all, in a sexual sense) which I made up from Sanskrit myself!

The line between culturally unique and culturally sensitive often became blurred. When a woman is described as well-mountable (boraroha), how do I censor it, or do I self-censor it at all for the sake of my newer, broader audience? Those were the types of adjectives used to portray coveted women in royal courts, in Svayamvara, in elegies, in ardent serenades by their lovers, husbands, even in-laws in ancient times. Why, then should I feel the need to recalibrate my contents to fall in line with modern sensibilities, thereby stripping it off its character?

During the regular sessions of the residency, we often felt it was a return of power into our hands, as translators from former colonies.

When I mention siren, or Baba Yaga, almost everyone knows who are being referred to and what they do. These characters were introduced in the past, so should we now introduce the saga of Dainees or Shakchunnis, the supernatural creatures from old Bengali literature.  There should be an end to the need for other languages to bend before that of the colonisers. When I see a word from my language spoken or written in another language, it transcends into a particle of joy, it feels like a recognition, like an empowerment. During the regular sessions of the residency, we often felt it was a return of power into our hands, as translators from former colonies.  Personally, I became much more courageous and confident in migrating ideas and terms from my native language into English, it felt like joining the mass of the bringers and initiators of a new cultural assimilation in English.


Born in Bangladesh, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania initially trained as an architect. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in both Bangladesh and India. To date she has authored nine books and translated Susan Fletcher’s Eve Green and Antonio Skarmeta’s Burning Patience, from English to Bengali. Her work has appeared in Wasafiri, Asia Literary Review, City Press and a Speaking Volumes Anthology. She has recently finished working on a Bengali-English translation of her short story collection (for which she received an Arts Council Grant.) Currently, she is working on a fictionalized biography of a celebrated musicologist, a nonfiction based on the changes in cityscapes. Shagufta was the youngest recipient of Bangla Academy Syed Waliullah Award (2018) for outstanding contribution in Bangla literature, and her short story Sincerely Yours was long listed for the BBC Short Story Award 2021. About three years ago she wrote a series of retold fairy tales based on Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumder’s (like the Grimm Brothers, he was a collector of ancient fairytales of Bengal) collected works, which she self-translated during her virtual residency.

We would like to thank Arts Council England for supporting the Visible Communities programme, the British Centre for Literary Translation for collaboration on the BCLT Summer School, the Stephen Spender Trust for Multilingual Creators, the Francis W Reckitt Arts Trust for supporting residencies at Dragon Hall, and the Jan Michalski Foundation for their support for the Tilted Axis Press anthology and our virtual residencies.

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