Two decades of “Bengalification” and a long engagement with the Bengali language

I started translating by accident in 2005, with the anti-establishment Bengali, experimental and maverick Small Magazine the writer Subimal Misra. It was like being accidentally thrown into the bottom of the pool. Either I drowned or I learned to swim and survive. I had grown up in a Tamil-speaking family in Calcutta, and when I joined college and then university in the late 1970s, I entered the ‘Bengali’ world around me. I embraced public activism in 1984, joining the city’s squatter movement, protesting evictions and demolitions and demanding resettlement. I got married the following year to Rajashi, a Bengali. Thus, I had gone through two decades of “Bengalification”, and also a militant, anti-establishment and grassroots engagement in my city when I started translating. It started a new journey, an engagement with the Bengali language itself and a process of learning about the ‘main stream’ and the ‘parallel’ in Bengali literature, the publishing world and the literary establishment.

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I never studied literature, but I have always been a lover and an avid reader of literature in and through English. I could read Bengali from primary school; but now, in translating, it was my ability to understand Bengali that was at stake, imbued with my life in Bengal and my participation in its social, cultural and political life. I was lucky enough to be introduced by a friend to VK Karthika and then to HarperCollins India who agreed to publish my work.

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After the publication of Misra’s The golden statue of Gandhi of America in 2010, I wanted to continue, and I took upon myself a long-term project of translating the short fiction of this unique and powerful writer, whose work I thought was important to bring to the wider world of literature. In this project, I was not only a translator, but also a barefoot researcher and anthologist. A second collection of stories from Misra, Wild animals prohibited, was published in 2015; by then I had completed my manuscript for a third volume and had also begun work on the fourth. But now, translation had become the means by which I dealt with life-threatening depression, following the death of my son Rituraj in 2013.

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As I was in the final phase of my Misra project, I started thinking of other writers to translate; I now saw myself as a curator and translator of ‘voices from the margins’. I contacted Manoranjan Byapari, the famous Dalit writer, and in early 2016 he offered me his two-part novel, Chandal Jibon, translate. I started it shortly after and finished it in two years. It was a new experience for me, that of translation as hard work. I think any serious translator should go through such a step. And carried by this momentum, I then resumed and completed the novel, The seaby my friend Swati Guha, and a four-part refugee memoir by Adhir Biswas.

The Accidental Translator

In early 2019, a literary friend in Canada wrote to me about fellow Bangladeshi, the late writer Shahidul Zahir, and urged me to translate it. So I started reading Zahir and fell in love with his magical prose from the first sentence. Zahir was the first Bengali writer I read in Bengali just for the sake of reading, and I decided to translate his work, and also to start a personal engagement with Bangladesh – because they are the people of Bangladesh who is the guardian of the Bengali language. I made my first visit in 2019. That same year, I started translating a personal memoir by Ansaruddin, whom I had met at the People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata the year before. Hearing him talk about his writing, to my ears, it was like an ethnographic account of rural Muslim life and background in West Bengal. I wanted to translate it. I have also translated some stories by Nabarun Bhattacharya for an academic volume on this iconic writer, and I hope to make a volume of his stories.

The Accidental Translator

I returned to Dhaka in February 2020 to work with Shahroza Nahrin, whom I had invited as co-translator, on the translation of Zahir’s short story, Life and political reality, arguably the most significant literary work of 1971. Thus began another new experience for me, that of collaborative translation. It was a happy experience and I realized that if you translate an important text and commit to quality, then two is better than one. Additionally, Bengali needs an army of translators, so by working with young translators, perhaps they can be mentored to become confident translators. And following the pandemic that started shortly after, I started working online, and so I resumed collaborative work.

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At the end of 2020, I learned the name of the famous Bangladeshi writer, Shawkat Ali, and his novels, Narai (The struggle), and Prodoshe Prakrito Jon (The Plebeians at Dusk). The first is the story of a poor widow who joined the Tebhaga movement in East Pakistan in the early 1950s. The second novel is set a thousand years ago and examines the plight of ordinary people at the dawn of the end of the Hindu Sena dynasty and the early Muslim Khilji dynasty. I decided to translate these novels and received the consent of the late author’s son shortly thereafter. I have also translated short stories by two other Bangladeshi writers, Shahaduzzaman and Audity Falguni, and intend to add to their story collections.

Subimal Misra Writers Club photographed by the author at a book fair in Calcutta.
writers club Subimal Misra photographed by the author at a book fair in Calcutta. Courtesy of V Ramaswamy

Also, at the end of 2020, I learned from Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen about the Bengali text translation initiative of Columbia University Press, and I started to communicate with Professor Gayatri Spivak to get involved in the same thing. My proposal to translate Kshiti Mohan Sen’s monograph, Bharote Hindu Musholmaner Jukto Sadhona (Hindu and Muslim in United Endeavour) received the approval of Professor Spivak. In July 2021, I came across the name of Ismail Darbesh and his first novel, Talashnama, in a magazine article in Bengali by a friend. The novelist is an ostagar, or garment maker, from a village in Howrah, West Bengal. The novel presents an intimate and interior view of rural Muslim life. I just started translating this.

Following the announcement of the New India Foundation translation grant last August, I started thinking and looking for a suitable text to propose. Finally, thanks to the contributions of Shafiqul Alam, an experienced journalist in Bangladesh, I opted for the diaries of 1946 and 1947 of Nirmal Kumar Bose, the famous anthropologist who was Mahatma Gandhi’s interpreter and personal secretary during this period. I submitted the proposal with Amlan Biswas, who had already started independently translating the 1947 newspaper, and we were selected. We will start work in July.

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In the twenty-two months from July 2020 to May 2022, I completed and submitted the manuscripts of eleven works: the novels, The boy on the run and The Nemesis by Byapari; the novel The sea, by Guha; the book, Arrival memories, by Adhir Biswas; Zahir’s novels, Life and political reality and that of Abu Ibrahim Death; the fourth volume of the anti-stories of Subimal Misra; the new, Pakistan, by Mashiul Alam, a friend from Bangladesh; a collection of ten short stories, and the novel, I see the face, by Zahir; and the book, The song from the distant village, by Ansaruddin, which I translated with Labani Jangi. And I also made two other visits to Bangladesh.

The Accidental Translator

I would say that the first axiom of translation is that translation is impossible. But the second axiom is that translation is necessary. I never learned translation, I just started doing it. I try to enter the spirit and the being of the writer through his words. I smile and laugh, smoke and
sob with text. Many problems and challenges arise, and I approach them as I see fit at the time. Translation can be very difficult. Motivation and patient and persistent work are necessary. And I continue to learn and grow.

The Accidental Translator

As some people are driven to write, some people are driven to translate. Out of a desire to share something of literary value. I was lucky to find publishers for my work. Two of my Misra books, Wild animals prohibited and It could have become the tale of Ramayan Chamar: two anti-novels, were released in the United States and were well received. A collection of Misra’s stories that I have translated has also been published in French. Misra had dedicated the collection to Jean-Luc Godard – “who taught me the language” – and the publisher sent the French translation to Godard himself, who acknowledged the same. I had undertaken to transmit the name and the work of Misra to the world of literature, and I succeeded somewhat in this enterprise. It is a question of satisfaction.

(This appeared in the print edition as “The Accidental Translator”)

(The opinions expressed are personal)


V Ramaswamy is a literary and non-fiction translator