How do you define translation?
Translation is a creative process where the translator tries to strike a balance between what the author wants to say and how best to articulate it in the language she chooses to translate into. Every committed translator tries to reach out to the reader in a way that she can relate to the original work without much effort. Ultimately, a translator has to make the decision about how best to present a story. Liberty can be taken only when the translator is faithful to the context.
How do you look back at the history of translation?
From the Middle Ages to this day, the translation of literature has impacted scholarship, the development of vernacular languages, even the national identities around these languages. In India too, translation has played an important role in sustaining linguistic and literary richness. A new discipline, Translation Studies, emerged in the second half of the 20th century; the term was coined by poet and translator, James S Holmes. In India, this creative genre got a boost in the mid-1950s when the Sahitya Akademi launched its programme to bring bhasha literature to readers through translations. Today, many prominent publishing houses in India have consciously taken up projects to bring regional literature to a wider readership. As a result, translators are getting more visibility, and their names even appear on book covers, when they were earlier relegated to the inside pages. There are also literary prizes for translated works as a separate entity. All this augurs well for this creative field.
In 2017, you won the Sahitya Akademi Award for you earlier translation, Written in Tears by Arupa Patangia Kalita. Your latest work, The Loneliness of Hira Barua is also a collection of Kalita’s short stories. What draws you back to her writing?
I was introduced to Arupa Patangia Kalita’s stories in the 1980s through Assamese magazines and soon realized she was emerging as one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Assamese literature. Recently, she said in an interview that a story I had translated (Grandma’s Fairy Tale) for The Telegraph’s 1997 Bihu Special issue (I didn’t know her personally at that time) was the first of her works to be translated into English (I didn’t know that either). Later, I translated her powerful novel Ayananta (Dawn, Zubaan, 2004), which was later translated into Hindi too. A strong voice against oppression permeates Kalita’s work. Many of her protagonists are women; she talks with empathy about their place in a patriarchal society, their pain, their inner turmoil. At the same time, they are also courageous figures and deal with challenges drawing on their own strength. As a journalist, I have been writing on women and gender issues for a long time and these stories attracted me immediately. Another aspect that draws me is the way she expresses the nuances of feelings with symbols drawn from the flora and fauna of Assam. You never feel cut off from the earthy smell of the land and its people when you read her stories.
You have an unconventional approach towards translation. You stayed at the author Arupa Patangia Kalita’s home. Does such close proximity to an author cut into your own objectivity?
When I was translating Ayananta, I had already shifted to Kolkata and it was not possible to be in constant touch with the author. Tangla, where Kalita taught English at a college, is a remote place in the foothills of Bhutan. The phone lines were sketchy, the mobile phone was a long way off, and so interaction was difficult. Hence, when I next visited Assam, I decided to stay with her for a couple of days to iron out wrinkles. I personally feel an ongoing dialogue with the author helps to go deeper into a story and also to avoid misinterpretations. As to objectivity, a translator is not a critic. The translator has to respect and try to reflect the author’s style and vocabulary; that doesn’t mean following everything to the letter, of course. The important thing is to capture the spirit of the narrative.
Who are the other good translators of Assamese literature.
Pradip Acharya is equally good at prose and poetry translation. Aruni Kashyap has done some good work. Dhiren Nath Bezboruah has done some excellent short story translations. There is Hiren Gohain, whose mastery over both Assamese and English is well known. Amit Baishya is another very good translator of Assamese literature.
Which is your favourite short story in the present collection?
All the stories are good but some like The Auspicious Day about a rag picker on a Delhi platform tug at the heart.Then there is Scream, which portrays a society going downhill, and the titular story about a lonely woman in a remote place who learns to live life again.
Why do you want to translate regional Assamese literature into English?
Assamese literature has very rich tradition going back to the Middle Ages. Assamese modern literature, especially short fiction, is arguably one of the best in India’s bhasha literature. However, there are not enough translations, many more deserve exposure beyond the borders. Personally, besides the love of my own language, a desire to reach out to a wider readership and introduce them to these undiscovered works stokes me to go on.
How did translation enter your life?
My introduction to world literature as well as vernacular languages from other regions in India was through translations. I learnt to appreciate good translations and recognized the bad ones as a reader. These were learning steps. To me, translation has been like the exploration of a land where I constantly look at my own language — the changes it has absorbed gradually, and the diversity of themes that has seeped into Assamese contemporary literature since I started in the field more than two decades ago. I have been enriched in the process.
Shoma A Chatterjee is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.