Case study: Somrita Urni Ganguly
From Emerging Translator Mentorships to a busy career in literary translation

Somrita is a professor, writer and literary translator. She is currently affiliated with Brown University, Rhode Island, as a Fulbright Doctoral Research Fellow. She has taught British Literature to undergraduate students in Kolkata and Delhi, and was the 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?

Currently, I am at Brown University, as a Fulbright doctoral research scholar, working on my PhD thesis in which I am exploring the representation of female athletic bodies in sports fiction from India and America.

I translate from Hindi and Bangla into English, and am presently translating a young adults’ novel on the Russian Revolution written in Bangla, to be published later in 2018 by BEE Books. The last year has been remarkably busy (and blessed). Besides translating shorter works for Asymptote and Words Without Borders, I translated two books for Juggernaut: a contemporary political biography and a modern re-telling of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, both originally written in Hindi.

I was also invited as Poet-in-Residence at the Arcs-of-a-Circle Artists’ Residency, organized by the US Consulate in Mumbai, in December 2017. In those twelve days I got to read my works to eclectic crowds, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to collaborate with other artistes while in Bombay, which helped me finetune the spontaneous overflow of my powerful feelings recollected later in proverbial Wordsworthian 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 of modern technology!

Artistes, very often, are hermits. I, however, consciously seek out people. I draw my strength from the idea of solidarity. And that is how I now have two more collaborations in the pipeline: an anthology of verses with a Ghanaian writer and another with a Jordanian journalist, both consequences of trusting our impulses, as was the case with the anthology on food writings.

And, of course, there is the PhD to finish!

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

I was selected as an Emerging Translator by the National Centre for Writing (at the time, Writers’ Centre Norwich) in September 2016 and paired to work with the award-winning translator, Arunava Sinha. The National Centre for Writing later helped to showcase excerpts from my translation of Purnendu Pattrea’s Kawthopokawthon (Conversations), a five-volume novel-in-verse, at the 2017 London Book Fair. Excerpts from the journal that Arunava and I maintained when working together for the National Centre for Writing were published in the 49th edition of In Other Words. I was invited to speak at a panel organized by the National Centre for Writing at the English Pen salon in the 2017 London Book Fair on ‘India at 70: Language Barriers, Language Dreams’, moderated by Jonathan Morley. Later that year, I spent a week in Scotland as part of the National Centre for Writing/Cove Park Translation Residencies, led by Kari Dickson. I have also written for their  forthcoming anthology of works on Calcutta: some of the experiences that I talk about in that write-up are, indeed, consequences of flânuering in and around Kolkata/Calcutta under the whiskey-warm winter sun with Kate Griffin and her team from the National Centre for Writing, working on the ‘Mapping Stories’ project. I have seen the Writers’ Centre Norwich grow into the National Centre for Writing and I am absolutely thrilled to have been a little part of their overwhelming, inspirational journey.

I was invited to be a Translator-in-Residence at Cove Park in October 2017, but two nights into the residency my computer refused to wake up after I put it to sleep, completely incapacitating me and turning out to be a major setback for the translation work that I had hoped to finish while at Cove Park. I told myself that the cosmos had planned on it: I had travelled to the banks of the Clyde from the shores old Calcutta to put my time to another kind of use. I allowed myself to seek out hidden trails and hike paths, drink in the strength and character of the Loch Lomond (and some red wine), talk to fellow translators and poets, and read hungrily, sans any particular purpose or goal, borrowing books from the enviable library that Cove Park houses. Beauty of that superlative kind has the potential to inspire poetry: which is, indeed, how I started creating some of my own.

How has this supported your professional development?

Before the Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme, I had translated woefully little – a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, a couple of poems by the Indian prophet-poet Kabir Das, some lyrics by the Bengali singer/songwriter Anjan Dutta and some Gulzar, an Urdu poet and lyricist. On the other hand, I had studied translation theory for a semester with Prof GJV Prasad during my Masters programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, as a consequence of which I had presented academic papers on translation studies at several national and international conferences. When I applied for the Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme, I wanted to be able to bridge the chasm between theory and praxis. Two years since the programme, I have four book-length translation contracts and a portfolio of shorter translated works. What had started as a curious digression from everydayness has now turned into a calling. I shall always remain indebted to Arunava and the National Centre for Writing for helping me find my words.

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

I have known people through the National Centre for Writing who have helped me evolve, professionally and personally. Colleagues have become friends. When I had written an article for on International Translation Day 2016, I was hesitant to call myself a translator. Today, at readings or residencies, literary festivals or conferences, when I am introduced as a translator, the epithet does not sound strange at all, because it, indeed, is 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. We need more cheerleaders. The people at the National Centre for Writing are cheerleaders for good work, giving a facelift to art and supporting artistes from across the globe.

Any advice for aspiring translators?

  • A translation will never be the same as the original. There are choices we make as translators. Our purpose is to achieve equivalence, not equality. We need to defend our choices. Your translation is your reading of the text.
  • Translation is not merely about the knowledge of languages. There are enough dictionaries in the world – and, if I may add, Google – serving that purpose. As literary translators, we not only translate languages but also cultures. So, a good translator surely needs an eye for creativity, a sense of texts and contexts, and an ear for art, besides fluency in the language-pair that she is working from/into…
  • The publishing industry has the potential to be extremely exclusive and self-congratulatory, gatekeepers of niche circles that deny access to many. Please, do not give up, no matter how frustrating it can get sometimes. Emily Dickinson, for instance, saw only 11 of her 1,775 poems published during her lifetime.
  • And, to conclude, I’ll borrow a thought from Charles Bukowski: “If you’re doing it for money or fame, don’t do it.” There’s very little of both in literary translation. I am in this for the love, the frenzy, and the madness of it, I know no other way. The world exists in translation.

Find out about the Emerging Translator Mentorships scheme >>

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