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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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Cover Story

Reading in

A Journey Through History

Mustafa Zaman

When does the essence get lost in translation? When does a translation fail to whip up the same enthusiasm as does an original? These key questions may jostle the mind of every disenchanted reader. The answers lie only in the fact that like an original, any translation too, either simply works or does not.
There is no easy solution to the problem of rewriting a novel, a poem or an epic, or even scientific work in another language. As with the original, the translation too needs a talented writer to make the pen cough up the information, the wisdom, the turn of events and the artistic energy almost in the vein of the original. However, as many of the translations fail to emulate the essence, there are works that even supersede the original. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said about the English translation of his masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude", of having far more lucid a language than what he wrote in Spanish.
The history of Bangla language too is replete with examples of translations that in essence stand on their own as they often surpass the feat of the original work. But, there is a whole gamut of literary exploitation that simply fails to bring the real brew to the people of this riverine flatland. In the context of the history of the Bangla Language SWM tries to measure the volume and value of works that sprang from other languages.

The history of Bangla literature is capacious. It has been the ground that was tilled in many different ways at various points of time to make many different harvests. "It was the military feudalism during the rule of Allauddin Hussain Shah (1494-1590) that Mahabharata and Ramayana were first translated in Bangla. The state language was Farsi (Parsian), and Sanskrit was the language of the Hindu pundits; it was in this backdrop that the Hindu epics were first translated in the popular language that was Bangla," points out Salimullah Khan, a linguist with a strong penchant for historicity, one who is also a writer who translated a number of philosophical works. He pin points the rise of Chaitanya Dev, the Vaishnav avatar, as being the Renaissance of Bengal.

"Sixteenth century is the time of Chaitanya Dev, and it is the beginning of Modernism in Bengal. The concept of 'humanity' that came into fruition is contemporaneous with that of Europe," notes Khan. He believes that all hopes of progressing on that humanistic line were dashed when the British came and forced all things Bangla into a "subordinate position".

Back in the 16th century, the Vaishnav movement led by Chaitanya had various social, political and literary implications. Most importantly Vaishnavism forced to bring the language of the masses to the fore. "The discourse of knowledge was Sanskrit at that time. It was Chaitanya who emerged from Sylhet and settled in Orissa to spread his humanistic ideas that spurred a process of interaction between the elite and the subaltern," Khan points out.

Chaitanya led a revolt against the Sanskrit-speaking pundits of his time. The Sri Krishna Kirttan, a series of story-telling lyric poems, is a major work in Bangla of his time. "It is the tale of Uttar Pradesh retold in Bangla," says Khan. "The Radha-Krishna tale of north Indian origin assumed Bangali characteristics in Sri Krishna Kirttan," continues Khan. He terms the Bengal Vaishnavism that contributed in bringing Bangla into use by superseding Sanskrit in the "phase one" of the history of Bangla literature.

Khan is unequivocal about the fact that "the history of Bangla literature is the history of translation". It was in the first phase that Mahabharata and Ramayana were translated, the former by poets like Kavindra Parameshavra and Shrikara Nandi, two major poets during the rule of Hussain Shah. It was also the era when through the Bangali brand of Vaishnavism the poems of Radha-Krishna was adapted into Bangla.

The second phase of the history of Bangla too is a time when a lot got translated. New poets emerged, who are now popularly known as "medieval poets", were the major exponents of the Arakan court. Alaol (1607-1680), Daulat Kazi (1600-1638), Muhammad Khan, Daulat Ujir Bahram Khan and the likes steered Bangla literature on a relatively newer course. Outside the Arakan court there was Shah Abdul Hakim.

Alaol's most celebrated work titled Padmavati was based on the Hindi original named Padmavat by Malik Mohammed Joyasi. Even his major works like Saptapaykar and Sikandernama were of (Farsi) Persian origin. Heavily influenced by his two predecessors Kanshi Ram Das and Krittee bash, Alaol was the most prolific poet of 17th century Bengal. Both Kanshi Das and Kritti bash had translated the Ramayana in the previous era.

Daulat Kazi based his major work on Ramayana and Mahabharata, the epics by Jaydev and Kalidas. A Sufi by faith, he espoused a liberal view. His work, like many other poets of his time, doted on all kinds of literary sources, be they Hindu, Vaishnav or Islamic in origin. Baharam Khan's Laily Majnu and Imam Bijoy were also translated from original Arabic literature. The former work got eternally tied up with the folklore of Bengal.

"It was the time when a new set of writers started translating from Awadhi, the language of Lukhnow, which was the classical Hindu land of Ayodhya. Awadhi itself was an amalgam of Hindi, Urdu and Farsi. Most of the translations of this period are from Hindi and Farsi," Khan says.

“Numerous works were translated from Arabic to Bangla in the second phase. And the third phase saw a flurry of translations from English to Bangla," says Khan, who also points out that it was in the 19th century, 70 years after the conquest of India by the East India Company in the 1760 that "the creative spurt first became visible".

"It was in 1830 onwards that two kinds of forces came into play -- one of secular enlightenment and the other of missionary aspirations," Khan adds. "Thousands of books were translated into Bangla for the first time in history. There were books on geography, medicine and other science subjects. And the missionaries translated a lot of religious texts," he reveals.

According to Khan, the great hey-day of translation ended in 1857 when Kolkata University came into existence and English was imposed as the medium of learning. "The time between 1820 and 1860 was the most fertile. It was the time of Rammohon. Thousands of books that were translated then are now lost forever," says Khan. He pins down the fact that the School Text Book Society and the School Society that were established in 1820, had opened up the floodgate for learners in Bangla. "The periodical like Tottobodhini (1840s) and Bibidartho Shogroho (1850s) regularly printed scientific texts in translation," Khan testifies. Radhanath Sikder, who surveyed the height of the Himalayas, used to translate scientific discourses for the latter journal. It was McCall's policy of education that made English the only medium of learning, putting an end to the need for works in translation.

The era of learning in Bangla was followed by a barren time in the field of translation. English became the Lingua Franca of that time, as Sanskrit used to be in the olden times. Like the Buddhist scholars of the 15th century who shunned the language of the masses and opted for Tibetan, the intelligentsia groomed in English too, avoided Bangla altogether. It was the 19th century, and English as a language ruled Bengal.

"It was during the political upheaval of the 1930s that Bangla was again sought by both Muslim League and the Congress leadership to be able to relate to the masses. The Congress even proposed to make it the medium of education," says Khan. And he sees the era of so-called "renaissance of Bengal" when the intelligentsia absorbed all things English as a "dark age" while "living on borrowed ideas".

“You need translations to be on a level with the world, we lagged behind in this as we were ruled by the British. The translated works say how much of the ideas of the world is being read in your own language," observes Khan.

Thousands of works have been translated into Bangla over the last 600 years. Yet the field of philosophy remains a vacant slot. "You wouldn't find a dependable edition of Karl Marx in Bangla. The Moscow-based Progress Publisher put out the third to the fourth edition, but they are no good," says Khan.

The Cold War era is the fourth phase that has seen a spell of works in translation. As the two superpowers were locked in a tug of war in the information arena, it soon turned into a race between "exporting" knowledge to supersede the "other". The Russians translated and published on their own by employing people like Noni Bhoumik, Dijen Sharma, Arun Shome and Hayat Mamud in Moscow and then they exported the books to the receiving countries to be sold at very low prices.

"The Americans had a better policy. They paid a section of Bangali intellectuals in the 1960s to translate anti-communist literature. Then they paid the local publishers hefty amounts to print and distribute the books in the local market," Khan harks back to the Cold War days. "The Franklin Book Project in Dhaka was busy doling out money to translate and publish. Most of these translations were bad. And the books too are not in demand. The translations done in Moscow were third rate, with a few exceptions. Somor Sen did some excellent translations," Khan continues.

The Cold War did produce a few sparkling moments. Syed Shamsul Haq translated Saul Bellow's Henderson--The Rain King, and Monir Chowdhury showed his acumen as a translator of several American masterpieces.

Moshiul Alam, a writer and an Assistant Editor of Prothom Alo, says that several of the later period translations from the Progress Publisher were good. "Arun Shome who translated Tolstoy's Crime and Punishment and Resurrection from the originals were really good," says Alam.

The Bangla Academy that came into being in 1955, to this day, remains a hub of the translators. Most of its significant translations were done in its early days, as it now focuses more on textbooks to generate income. "Their translations are not enough; the translators too are paid inadequately. But the programme they have is invaluable. This is the one that put out El Beruni's work in translation. No other private publisher could accomplish this," Khan emphasises.

"There was a separate translation cell in Bangla Academy in the 1960s. And they had their own translators; Sardar Fazlul Karim was one such translator. It was in the 1960s that Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, and even Crime and Punishment were published," Moshiul Alam reveals.

The Islamic Academy, founded during the Ayub rule, later became the Islamic Foundation in the liberated Bangladesh. It contributed to a lot of translation from Arabic and Farsi. However, even before the existence of any institution, Bhai Girish Chandra Sen translated the Quran in the 1880s.

The post-liberation scenario could have been a time of reawakening to the world of knowledge, but it was not. "Even Bangla Academy's efforts fizzled out after liberation. We soon began to see that it is the willingness on the part of certain individuals that made translations possible. Nowadays, it is the writer who takes a fancy to a work of literature and then takes steps to translate it," Alam observes.

The post-independence phase has little to crow about. There has been a slide in translations from the originals. There has been intermittent flickers of light that are solely the contribution of a handful of talented writers. "Abu Mohammad Habibullah did some work in the 70s that are from the original, for example the Bharat-Totto of El Beruni. Al Mukaddima, Ibne Khaldun was also translated from the original language by Golam Samdany Koraishi," observes Zamil bin Siddique, a senior sub-editor of the Daily Prothom Alo. Zamil also praises the pre-independence efforts of Monir Chowdhury in translating Shakespeare.

And after 1971, it was Zafar Alam who single-handedly translated the works of Krishan Chandr, Ismat Chugtai and Prem Chand from Urdu. Abdus Sattar remained the only exponent of Arabic translation, he worked on Nagib Mehfuz and Taufique al Hakim.

It was the theatre movements of the 1970s and the 1980s that spurred many writers to pick up the pen to translate some major works. "Syed Haq translated Macbeth and Tempest as well as Julius Caesar, which was adapted in Bangla and was called Gono Nayok," recalls Zamil.

Zamil also believes that Sheba Prokashoni, with their concise versions and lucid language, has been able to capture the imagination of the younger readers. He extols their effort in bringing out concise versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana. But, Alam disagrees. According to him, most of what this popular publisher churned out in the last three or so decades are "efforts to mimic the story lines of the original works, they seldom take into account the artistic verve that a good piece of literature expresses".

In the 1990s, there has been a steady rise in the number of translation of books that had fetched international awards. And they lack all that is essential to call a translation a work of literature. From Arundhati Roy to Salman Rushdie, most awarded writers have enjoyed getting translated in Bangla. These works severely lack artistic merit.

It is Khaliquzzaman Illias, who wrote Myth-er Shokti from Joseph Cambel's The Power of Myth, and Gulliver's Travels in Bangla, upon whom the hope of getting a good translation could be rested. He also translated Sholokov that came out from Mukta Dhara, a publishing house that used to concentrate on cheap production. Roshomon is another of his much-talked about translations.

However, Illius and a few like Shibobroto Bormon and GH Habib are the ones who often resort to the English versions of the original work. Habib translated the much celebrated One Hundred Years' of Solitude and Italo Calvino's Invisible City and Bormon did an excellent job with VS Naipaul's Miguel Street, and Sayed Wahliullah's French writings like How to Cook Beans and Ugly Asian; they subsequently came out in the special supplements of Prothom Alo.

Though good translators are quite a few, there are some who bring a breath of fresh air to the literary scene as well as the world of knowledge. One such translator is Salimullah Khan, who translated Orientalism by Edward Said. Now, one of his series of Plato's writings from Greek are to hit the market this month. "It is coming out under the rubric of Plato's Collected Works containing three Socratic dialogues," says the translator. Khan also did the translation of Dorethy Soelle from the German original back in 1998. As for Plato, it was Rajani Kanto Guho who first translated four dialogues from the Greek original; that too was in 1922.

Though a lot of literary works has seen its publication in Bangla, philosophy and science remain almost a closed chapter as there are a few writers capable of translating them. Though Bangla as a language still lacks a grammar of its own, it has proved its significance as an incredible vehicle of expression, both in original writing and in translation. But how the Bangla-speaking people will shape their future alongside that of the language, depends a lot on what they are capable of interiorising using the mother tongue.

World Literature in Bangla

Shamim Ahsan

The history of translating literary works of other languages into Bangla goes back a long way. In the 19 century, the work of translating took a new turn. The missionaries in the then Indian subcontinent believed that they must have a good grip on Bangla to deepen their roots here and perpetuate the colonial rule. They were thus very eager to learn Bangla. But the Bangla that was spoken was poles apart from the Bangla that was used in literature. Bangla literature at that time basically meant Bangla poetry. Bangla prose as we know it today was nonexistent. This endeavour was centred on the Fort William College. A group of pundits led by Mrittunjoy Torkalanker and Ram Ram Basu and others were given the responsibility of writing Bangla prose. It was decided that works of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic literature would be translated into Bangla. That was the time when the colonial rulers had taken up steps to translate works of other languages into Bangla.

Some of the giant literary figures of the nineteenth century translated from works of Sanskrit literature. Ishwarchandra Bidyasagar translated Kalidas' Shakuntala, Rajshekhar Basu translated Valmiki's Ramayan and Kashiram Das did Byadbesh's Mahabharata. But as far as translating western literature is concerned the most significant name is certainly Micheal Modhusudan Dutta, says litterateur and critic Abdul Mannan Syed. Modhusudan is the first major Bangali poet who was very well versed in world literature. He knew fourteen languages including Greek, French, Italian not to mention Sanskrit and Persian. He translated from both Homer and Dante.

According to Syed, another major Bangali poet of the nineteenth century who has great contribution to Bangla translation literature is Sattyendranath Dutta, whose mastery over rhyme earned him the title of "Chander Jadukar" (the magician of rhyme).

He had a three-book series of translated works from literary troves of such languages as varied as English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. "His translation of Baudleaire and Heinrich Heine's works are great treasures of Bangla literature. He also translated the Hadith," Syed reveals.

Rabindranath also did some translations. He admired the English Romantic poets and translated quite a few poems of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron. He also translated the most influential English poet of his era (of the first half of the twentieth century) Eliot's poems. Besides the compendium of English writers, Tagore has translated Victor Hugo and Hafiz' s works.

Kazi Nazrul Islam knew Persian very well and his most favourite poet was Hafiz. His translation of Hafiz and Omar Khaiyam's works are remarkable. His great authority of Persian and Arabic literature has inspired him to import many Persian and Arabic words into his writing, which has greatly enriched Bangla vocabulary. His hamd and nath displays how a great poet absorbs and makes foreign words, phraseology and syntax the property of his own native language.

The poets of the thirties, particularly Buddhadev Basu, Sudhin Dutta and Bishnu Dey have had their share of contributions to Bangla translation literature. Buddhadev Basu's translation of Baudleaire's poems is considered a milestone in the whole range of translation literature while Sudhin Dutta, who was very well-versed in French and German, had translated a good number of poems from both the languages.

When it comes to institutional efforts, Bangla Academy has done a fairly large volume of translations works. Litterateur and academicians Professor Kabir Chowdhury who has some 50 books of translation to his credit, though acknowledges Bangla Academy's endeavour in this respect, is not exactly full of praise as far as quality is concerned. The Academy has sponsored translation of Arabic masterpieces and got quite a sizable volume of works of Sadi, Rumi and Iqbal translated into Bangla. Chowdhury believes that quality-wise many of them are rather poorly done. Especially with poetry, the translators had the right techniques or skills but often lacked poetic capability, which often render the translated versions lifeless.

Chowdhury is of the same opinion as far as translation of western literature is concerned. The academy has translated works of Tolstoy (Anna Kareninna), Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Rolla and many others, but the quality remains suspect. One reason for that is, as Chowdhury thinks, translation of non-English literary works are not done directly from the original text, but often from the English translation. So, it becomes a re-translation of a translated work and most often much of the greatness of the original work is lost in the process," he explains.

Chowdhury greatly appreciates the effort of Biswa Shahittya Kendra in this regard, which he believes has got quite a good number of translation works to its credit. He himself has translated Greek playwright Aristophanes' "Bird" and "Frogs" for the Kendra. He also talks of some publishing houses like Oitijya and Samoy among others who have done some commendable work.

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