Interview: Translation is the Language of Democracy, says Arunava Sinha

Professor Arunava Sinha at Kunzum Book Cafe in Greater Kailash 2 for the signing of his book The Taliban and I. Photo by Bhavneet Singh Aurora

Academic and translator Professor Arunava Sinha was at Kunzum Book Cafe for a signing of his new book The Taliban and I. We spoke to him regarding his translations and the work that he’s doing in translating Bengali books to English and vice versa and bringing them to a larger audience.

BSA: My first question to you, sir, is when did you begin translating books? 

Arunava Sinha: It was a long time ago, I was fresh out of college and we had started a city magazine in Calcutta, where we used to translate one short story from Bangla into English for every issue. So that was how I started translating. 

And then the very first writer whose story we translated, Sankar, asked me if I’d like to translate his novel Chowringhee into English. So I did, I gave him the translation. Then I moved to Delhi, and I pretty much forgot about it. Fourteen years later, Penguin said they wanted to publish a translation of Chowringhee. And then Sankar told them there’s already a translation and he sent it to them and they got in touch with me and that is how the publishing story began.

BSA: You’ve already translated almost 80 books and eight more are coming out in a short while. Which books have you liked translating the best? 

AS: That’s an unfair question because you know, it’s hard to dislike a book when you’re translating it and you’re in a relationship with the book at the time that you’re translating it. At that point, it’s the only thing in your life, literally. But some of the books that I’m really very fond of, let’s say as a reader and as someone who may have had something to do with putting them into English, are Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, which was named Tithidorein Bangla and his My Kind of Girl which was named Moner Moto Meẏe. Chowringhee certainly, Dozakhnama, which was written by Rabisankar Bal, which is a remarkable dialogue between Manto and Ghalib from their respective graves well after their death. Khwabnama, by Akhtaruzzaman Elias, a Bangladeshi writer, an absolutely incredible novel. A slim novel named Pebblemonkey, Nuri Bandor in Bangla, written by a poet, Manindra Gupta, which is about a pebble in the upper Himalayas that turns into a monkey and then has a series of interactions with human beings. It’s an ecological novel, it is magical realism, myth, philosophy, and all of this in about 115 pages, which is quite remarkable. Then there’s a novel named The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, which I’m also particularly fond of. And there’s a novel coming out next year, Phantoms of August, by the Bangladeshi writer Mashrur Arefin, which is easily the most extraordinary novel I’ve ever translated, and remarkable prose. It is a sort of fever dream kind of narration by a man who is obsessed with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and wants to take revenge in some way. 

BSA: Amazing. So, which of these books that you’ve translated has been the most difficult to translate so far? 

AS: Well, none of these actually. I think the most difficult to translate was probably Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first novel, which came out as The Chieftain’s Daughter, Durgeshnandini in Bangla, because he used a highly Sanskritised version of Bangla which required many visits to the dictionary. 

BSA: During the course of your translations, how do you overcome the language barriers? You know, like you just spoke about the Sanskritised version of Bengali. How do you overcome all of those apart from referring to the dictionary?

AS: Well, when you’re translating, you’re not just translating for the meaning of the words or sentences. That’s actually the easiest thing. You’re translating for sound, rhythm, music, and you’re translating for what your imagination fills in. So, the things that are not actually said explicitly in the text, but which you see and hear, that’s the hallmark of great literature. So, you’re translating in a way that your translated version can also enable the reader to also see and hear those things without your being explicit about it. You can’t use more words, you can’t put in things that are not in the text, and yet you must create the same effect. So, these are the real challenges, especially because the languages I translate between, Bangla and English, in either direction, are very far removed from each other, and because languages come from different cultures, there are also certain things one language can do that another cannot, and vice versa. So, there are things that Bangla can do and English cannot, and things that English can do that Bangla cannot. So, it’s bridging these gaps that becomes the most challenging.

BSA: So, what is a typical day for you when you are not at the university teaching? 

AS: A typical day is mostly translating and some work for the Books and Ideas section of Scroll, and more translating and some university work because even if you’re not teaching, you have meetings or grading, answering e-mail, and yeah, but primarily it’s translating and reading. 

BSA: Do you have a particular spot where you sit and translate? 

AS: No, no, I can and do translate anywhere. Anywhere being if I’m at home, it can be on the sofa. It’s often on the bed, once in a while it’s at a desk, but I translate in my office at the university, when I’m travelling I translate in hotel rooms. If I’m on holiday, I translate in gardens. 

BSA: Is there a particular environment that you like? I mean, is it that you’re always translating in your mind, something is always going on? 

AS: Something about translations is always going on in my mind, this is true. It’s not like I’m grappling with how to translate a specific sentence or words or something, but larger thoughts about translation are always churning, and very often I’m attacked by self-doubt. Are my translations any good? There are so many translators doing such fantastic work…is my work even worth reading after you’ve read theirs? Because I so admire the work that really great translators do, and they make me wonder, maybe my work is just not up to that level. 

BSA: After 88 books of having translated other people’s works is, are there any books of your own coming out? 

AS: No, no. I mean there are so many stories yet to be translated. 

BSA: Is there any particular book that you would one day want to come around to translating which you haven’t yet touched? 

AS: Several. I’ve got a full list of those books which I hope to be able to get down to translating at some point before I grow too old for it. 

BSA: We would love to see that list one day. 

AS: Yeah, sure. 

BSA: You are also teaching Creative writing at Ashoka University. Do you also talk about translations with your students? 

AS: I do actually teach two courses on translation as part of what I teach over there. So, yes, we work very closely with students. They have been producing translations which have been published and are going to be published, and these will be India’s youngest translators, they’re like 19, 20, 21. And we’ve also started… my colleague Professor Rita Kothari and I have started the Ashoka Centre for Translation, where we’re taking on larger translation projects. On the one hand we are trying to get books out and we are also working with publishers. And we are also working on the pedagogy of translation and on critical talks and seminars that involve translated literature. 

BSA: Is this only Bengali to English or all languages across India? 

AS: It’s all languages across India, yeah. 

BSA: And when we talk about translation, how do you look at translation as something that actually follows the narration of the original story? 

AS: Well, you are led by the text that exists, you’re not writing your own story or you’re not writing your own version of this story or your own interpretation of the story. You are doing your best to take the same story, which includes not just the text, but as I said, the images, the sounds, the music, the tone and voice. You know – is it funny? Is it sardonic? Is it grim? Is it dark? And you take that whole package across into a new language in a way where people read it and feel, yes, I’m reading the same book. Of course, they’re not comparing it, but they must be confident enough to know, like you are confident enough to know that when you read One Hundred Years of Solitude in English, you are reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though technically you’re not. You’re reading Gregory Rabassa. But Gregory Rabassa is Gabriel Garcia Marquez and he is Garcia Marquez by being Garcia Marquez in English, not by being Rabassa. Being led very closely by the text, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, but doing what the text is doing in Spanish, only he’s doing it in English. 

BSA: So which are the your favorite translators? 

AS: Too many to mention, but Gregory Rabassa certainly is one of them. I mean all his translations. Then there’s Anthea Bell, who translated, on the one hand, high literary works like WG Sebald’s books, she also translated the Asterix comics. Yeah, so she is certainly, anything she did is certainly one of my favorites, for sure. I really like Anton Hur’s work, he works from the Korean. And sometimes, you know, translators are great ways to decide what to read. Because sometimes you don’t even know about the original writers, but you know that XYZ has translated them and therefore you just go along and read them for that reason. So, Daniel Hahn, Jennifer Croft, and certainly Daisy Rockwell, Rita Kothari, and N Kalyan Raman. 

BSA: So is there a sort of guideline for translators to work with? 

AS: No, translators work out their own methods, but largely they end up converging in many ways, although we don’t actually sit with one another to formulate rules or principles or anything. It turns out that you all end up doing similar things. 

BSA: And what role do you think translation plays in bringing regional texts to other parts of India? 

AS: Well, I wouldn’t even call it regional texts because these are all self-contained areas with their own histories, geographies, culture and so on. They just happen to be called regions because they’re part of a single country. But actually, these are all unique spaces in their own right. So, without translation, where would we be? We would just be reading in one language. It is only thanks to, in India, for example, translation, and I’ve said this before, translation is the language of democracy because it is what really enables us to talk to one another. Otherwise we would be stuck in our own islands. We would never have a sense of being a country. 

BSA: So do you think translations have more of a unifying effect on the country? 

AS: I think they enable us to understand that the country is more than just each of us and more than just the familiar world around us, that there is so much diversity in our country and that it is this diversity that makes a country like ours what it is. So without translations we wouldn’t know it.

Walk into your nearest bookstore to read them or Whatsapp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

Leave a comment