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From the Translator: On Translating Bangla Literature

By Shabnam Nadiya

I translated my first story when I was thirteen. It was done for purely altruistic reasons: I’d read a fabulous sci-fi story by Robert Sheckley called The Odor of Thought and wanted my best friend to read it, too. Her English was shaky and she declined. The only way for her to read it, I figured, was to turn it into Bangla. I didn’t connect what I was doing to the word “translation,” and I must have made all kinds of mistakes, but I finished the story, she read it and thought it was great, and that was that.

Apart from a brief (and instructive but failed) attempt at translating Gloria Steinem’s essay If Men Could Menstruate into Bangla, I didn’t venture into translation waters for another decade or so. There were reasons for abandoning Steinem: how was I to explain American football to a Bengali readership or Joe Namath’s iconic status without diluting the satirical bite of “Joe Namath Jock Shields” (the brand name sanitary supplies that would have been developed for ‘those light bachelor days’ if men actually menstruated)? And while my readership might know Paul Newman, how was I to explain tampons?  

While the idea of footnotes or a glossary seems common-sense for nonfiction, for fiction it seems an extra, further break between the delicate continuity that is forged between reader and story. Yet without that rather blunt intervention, how can a Western reader, probably unfamiliar with the political history of the present-day Indian subcontinent, or the power relations between Bangladesh and its powerful neighbor, appreciate the complexity portrayed in Mashiul Alam’s short story An Indian Citizen in Our Town? How to explain that Ashalota is just a name, but that it also means vine of hope in Shaheen Akhtar’s short story Snakes, Husbands, Ashalota, and Us, or how Phuli, in Anwara Syed Haq’s story Hands, is a perfect name for a little girl but also has its roots in the Bangla word for flower?

A myriad of choices wait to be made when translating a story—which means a myriad of moments of loss also await, especially when coupled with the need to adhere to magazine word limits. Hands needed to be cut by almost a third. Details that went on the chopping block include a mention of shah-nazr, the moment during a wedding when the bride and groom see each other for the “first” time as they gaze together into a mirror, and the flowing description of a ganj, a town built as a trade center. I delighted in the writer’s usage of poraner bhai—literally “brother of my life.”Poran was something more than mere life, though, and I was further delighted when “brother of my soul” seemingly succeeded in capturing that something more.

In Mashiul Alam’s story, the greatest challenge was trying to convey the balance of power between countries, religious communities, and political parties—so implicit in the Bangla text—through word choice and sentence structure. Much hung in the balance of “not many [people] from the neighboring country” versus the distance and mistrust conveyed in “not many [people] from that country” or “nothing about an Indian citizen visiting our town gave rise to curiosity or surprise” versus “nothing about an Indian citizen visiting our town should give rise to curiosity or surprise,” indicating that despite the familiarity, curiosity and surprise were alive and well.  

Every choice needed to be scrutinized closely. Words needed to be balanced against sentences, sentences against paragraphs, paragraphs against a larger whole—was the translation being true to the emotion of the story?

It also meant looking up words and usages I thought I already knew, and tracking down that smidgen more of information, which sometimes added nothing to the translation but was fascinating nevertheless. For instance, the custom of shah-nazr is why a bride’s trousseau invariably includes a handheld mirror. Some details of this tradition I knew from growing up in Bangladesh, but some I didn’t: in some parts of the country the bride and groom have a gauzy veil thrown over them while they exchange the “royal glance” and the groom is required to say “the moon” when asked what he just saw. The couple feed each other sweets, share a specially prepared sweet drink, the groom’s shoes are “stolen” and he has to pay to get them back—all accompanied by merciless ribbing from the bride’s friends and cousins. According to some sources, the mirror is unnecessary and elderly relatives should facilitate the shah-nazr and related activities so there’s not too much tomfoolery. According to others, this is the fun part of the ceremony where elders should stand back and let friends and cousins of the bride take over. I also learnt that people felt very strongly about whatever position they held on wedding traditions and I should not argue about any of it. Especially about the fact that some dismissed the shah-nazr as a Hindu practice and detested being reminded that both the words shah and nazr were Persian and seemed to be at odds with their Hindu-tradition theory.

The day and a half I spent talking to friends and family and googling various wedding traditions taught me how easy it was to disappear down the rabbit-hole of curiosity—for in the story Hands, the shah-nazr was a detail that was minor to begin with, which eventually had to be cut from the translation. As far as the translation itself was concerned, my research was not a gainful use of time. It was, however, deeply satisfying. And if I’m to be really honest about it, I’m not convinced that the satisfying of curiosity should always take second place to focusing on the work at hand.  


Published Jan 30, 2013   Copyright 2013 Shabnam Nadiya

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