Bengali Literature in the International Arena

Rifat Munim

A little more than two months back, one of my colleagues had asked me about the biggest achievement Bangladesh had made since independence. Instantly I replied, “Literature.” She was working on a special supplement marking the completion of 40 years of our independence. Everyone around her was coming up with fresh ideas, pointing out many remarkable feats that Bangladesh has achieved in the past forty years. Right then, upon hearing me speak so confidently about literature, she wanted to be enlightened. I just said, “Literature is the only field where we have not failed.”

Our politicians have failed us. Our economy reels from inflation and is saddled with foreign loan. Corruption has insidiously seeped into all public sectors, making way for miscalculated or faulty infrastructure and turning the service sectors as erratic as ever. Education has become a commodity. Getting one's children enrolled at a primary school has become the worst nightmare for parents. In the midst of this apparently endless list of dismal sectors, only our writers have not failed us; they have done everything that there is and can be done in literature. If anything, it is our literature that makes me proud of my identity as a Bangladeshi.

Of course, our literature has had bad times and shown tendencies which are symptomatic of our overall political culture. It has been marked by wholesale politicisation of writers; emergence of a vitriolic atmosphere wherein one group crucifies another; authors' deprivation of their royalties; publishers' aversion to featuring fresh new voices; and last but not least, lack of space for female authors in a male-dominated society.

While everyone wants to get literature cleared of all these dark spots, these symptoms are common in all literary cultures across the globe and most predictably, will continue to remain so.

In spite of all these unpleasant truths, our writers have never stopped producing works which as well as excelling in exquisiteness of artistic craftsmanship, capture the entire life of a nation, of its history and society along with all the dimensions existing between conflicting classes, genders and races. Our literature has gone through many remarkable changes. We have unusually powerful literature of protests; literature focused on the liberation war; literature rooted in socio-political problems and upheavals; literature exalting love; literature steeped in purely aesthetic value; and so on. But most of all, we've always had a breed of writers who has been true to their experience; who have written what they have seen. Our history books have at times told us lies, a fact which becomes obvious with the change of government. But our literature does not lie and has till this day preserved the veracity of our social history along with its most glorious and horrendous moments. And this they have done without compromising artistic experimentations. Bengali literature is replete with instances of this particular trait which has made our literature unique and self-contained.

True, Bengali literature has always been receptive to foreign influences such as Russian realism, European modernism, Marxist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis and many more. But all these influences have been absorbed in such a way that they have added new dimensions to our literature but have never stood in the way of its speciality.

Briefly speaking, when taken together, our literature shows a distinction being rooted in the extra-ordinary as well as the mundane experiences of our people. This distinction or some may want to call it Bengaliness, is what makes our literature so special. Seen from this angle, one cannot but wonder why Bengali literature has yet to secure a permanent place in world literature; why Rabindranath Tagore is the only writer who has been properly introduced to foreign readers, although belatedly; why Akhtaruzzaman Elias for his novels, Hasan Azizul Haque for his stories and Al Mahmud for his poems won't be internationally acclaimed when Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia, Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina and Octavio Paz from Mexico have attained an unreachable stature internationally for their novels, stories and poems respectively. All that a nation's literature requires to emerge in international literary circles is a palpable distinction which would readily identify it as different from other literatures. Latin American writers wouldn't ever be enjoying its present international status if it were not for its obvious difference from European or Japanese literature. One of course would add to it the aspect of literary perfection. Now, if we employ all these standards to weigh the works of Elias and Hasan, our writers will rather shine more vibrantly than their Latin American counterparts. Their works show both distinction and literary perfection. Then why aren't they making their marks in the international arena?

The reason cannot be simpler. Today we know so much about Russian and Latin American literature because almost all important writers of these languages have been properly and sufficiently translated in several languages including Bengali and English. The same is true about African, Arabic, Japanese, German and French literature as well. Otherwise, how else would we have ever known about Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata's creation: his manipulation of symbolism and mysticism? Or about Mahmood Darwish's unique poetry of protest which is less impulsive and more calculative than Nazim Hikmat's and yet in an emotionally imbued language, which seeks to liberate his country Palestine from Israeli occupation?

The only Bengali writer who has received considerable attention from other parts of the world is Rabindranath Tagore. But is that attention without its perils? Tagore afforded access to the Western world by means of translation. But unfortunately he was the first translator of his own work and his translation utterly failed to retain the tremendous potential that his original works are endowed with. William Radice, one of the most famous Tagore translators, has stressed on several occasions that Tagore's translations did serious injustice to his original work. Ketaki Kushari Dyson, another Tagore translator of international renown, has echoed Radice in several of her essays. After his poor translation won him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, the publishing house MacMillan, in collaboration with him, churned out many translations of his poems and prose fiction which in quality were as poor. As a result, Tagore was misrepresented to the international readership as merely a mystic. Thanks to poor translation, the sheer diversity of an unparallel genius was thus reduced to one single characteristic which only constitutes a very small part of his voluminous oeuvre. The picture however began to change only towards the end of the previous century when the aforementioned translators teamed up with many more including Kaiser Haq, Fakrul Alam, Radha Chakravorty and Amit Choudhuri. After all these years of misrepresentation, Tagore is finally in the process of being adequately presented to the world.

Besides Tagore, both Radice and Clinton B Seely have translated Madhusudan Dutt's epic Meghnadbodh Kabya. Seely has also translated Jibanananda Das while Dyson has done the rendition of Buddhadev Bose. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has translated one of Mahasweta Devi's short story collections. All of these translations have attracted considerable international readership not only because of their good quality but also because they were published by famous houses which can ensure very good circulation worldwide.

Looking at these commendable works of translation, one can hardly find any prose writer other than Tagore. As much as Mahasweta is a powerful writer, she has been chosen by Spivak more for her theoretical interest than for the necessity of presenting the development and changes in Bengali fiction in a chronological order. The rest are poems which well capture the beginning and growth of Bengali poetry but stop abruptly after the two modern poets. Although poetry fares a little better, both genres present us with an inadequate picture especially when considered in relation to the vast landscape of Bengali literature.

Apart from these works, we have also heard that some works by Manik Bandyopadhyay, Sunil Ganguly and Annadashangkar Roy, among others; and some by Syed Waliullah and Alaudin Al-Azad were translated. But as it turned out, their circulation was limited and impact was short-lived.

In Bangladesh, there have been several attempts at translating our leading authors. In this case, too, the only positive result has been found in poetry. Kaiser Haq has done a tremendous job by translating Shamsur Rahman, Rafique Azad and Shahid Quadri. The first was published by Pathak Samabesh and the rest by Foundation of Saarc Writers. Fakrul Alam's rendition of Jibanananda Das, published by University Press Limited (UPL), has received critical acclaim. Zakeria Siraji, among others, has done the rendition of Al Mahmud which also has been applauded. There may well have been more works of translation but all of them, including the above mentioned ones, are published mostly by local houses which is why their circulation among and communication with international readership has been very poor. In spite of this, one has to praise the selection which begins from the leading poets of Bangladesh and thus paves the way for the present generation to take it ahead.

The picture is much worse in prose fiction. UPL and have translated most of the leading and promising fiction writers' short stories but in the anthologies they have published, there have only been one or two stories by each author. Not only are many of their translations quite below the standard, but also is their selection in terms of hierarchy and space questionable. Above all, one or two stories by each author do not represent the main strain of a literature or its changing trends.

In novels, there have been three instances so far. Kaiser Haq has translated Nasrin Jahan's "Urhukku" (Penguin India), Mahmudur Rahman has translated Mahmudul Haques's "Kalo Borof" (Harper Collins); Ella Dutta has translated Shaheen Akhtar's "Talash" (Zuban, India). Recently, Anisul Haque's 'Ma' was translated and launched in India. Kaiser Haq's reputation as a poet and translator has crossed borders. Mahmudur Rahman also is a published author from Penguin. So, all of these works will predictably cater to a much wider audience. But one cannot help questioning the selections. Only Rahman's selection seems to have a logical base since Mahmudul Haque is undoubtedly one of the leading fiction writers of our country, if not the best. Dutta's choice of Akhtar's novel is most possibly predicated upon an objective of featuring South Asian women's writings. But the selection of Nasrin Jahan and Anisul Haq is preposterous. Both of them are good writers and certainly have a place in Bengali prose. But in any case, they cannot come before Abu Ishak, Hasan Azizul Haque, Razia Khan Amin, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Shawkat Ali, Rizia Rahman, Selina Hossain, Haripad Dutta, Manzu Sarkar and many more- who are undoubtedly more prominent. It appears that the translations in prose were guided by subjective considerations rather than objective analysis.

To sum it all up, we cannot say that nothing has been done in translating our literature but we can definitely say that the achievements, excepting Tagore, are not remarkable. The beginning is very apt in poetry where the next thing to do is to find the right publishers who will be able to ensure international circulation. In prose, however, first we need to be very objective instead of relying on personal choices. For a starter, we should decide on who our leading prose writers are. Then there are two ways of engaging our capable translators. One is private and the other governmental. Whatever way we follow, we should not randomly pick up a contemporary young or established author leaving the trailblazers behind. Such an approach wrongly introduces our literature to the world. Finally, when it comes to publication, we should go for famous international publishers that can ensure circulation to a wider readership. Although private initiatives can be encouraged, the government should take it upon its shoulder the responsibility of introducing our literature to the world.

(The writer is Senior Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star.)