Interview: Arunava Sinha, Translator, winner of the 6th Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award 2022 – “I’m very hopeful for the future of translations”
On translating from Bangla into English and vice versa, and on choosing to translate writers who are closer to the margins than to the mainstream
What drew you to translation in the first place?
I did my first book-length translation in 1992 at the request of the writer Shankar when I translated his novel Chowringhee from Bangla to English. This was after I had translated some short stories from Bangla for a city magazine that some of us used to bring out in Calcutta. That translation was not meant for publication at that point. It was meant for, I believe, a French publisher to read and decide whether to publish Chowringhee in French or not.
14 years later, when India actually had a trade publishing industry in English, Diya Kar – who was an editor with Penguin at that time – wanted to publish an English translation of the novel. Diya got in touch with Shankar, and he told her that an English translation had been done but he had forgotten the name of the translator. Diya got hold of that manuscript, and it had my name on it. She called up to check whether I was indeed the translator. Of course, I was. It was fantastic!
My first book was thanks to happenstance. It came at the right time. I was at the age where I was heading towards a full-blown mid-life crisis of questioning everything that I had done until then. The translation project gave me an opportunity to do something else that I enjoyed and would be meaningful in some way. It has been 15 years since that first translation of mine was published.
Did you undergo any specialised training to become a translator?
No, almost nobody does! Now, of course, we offer courses in translation at our university (He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana, and also a Co-Director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.) but most people who translate just plunge in like I did. It’s a familiar template. When you start out as a translator, you don’t know enough so you tend to be a little arrogant, and that helps because then you have the courage to go through with it – even the tough parts. If you start out knowing what you will know 10 years later, you might be so scared that you’d never do it.
What made you feel confident that you were equally proficient in English and Bangla, and that you could translate? Was there someone who mentored you?
When I began translating, I had read and written in English all through my life, school and college and afterwards as a journalist. Bangla is my mother tongue. At that point, I had not written much in Bangla beyond school but I always read in Bangla so I was conversant with the literature. It was not as though I was coming to the language or the literature after a long gap.
As for whether I was proficient, well, you do not know till you try, right? Even now I see translations that are so brilliant that sometimes I despair of ever reaching those standards.
What did you study in college?
I studied English literature at Jadavpur University. I actually started out studying electrical engineering, but at the end of the first semester, I realised that it was not my cup of tea. And I didn’t really want to waste three or four fantastic years of my life studying something that I hated, so I just gave that up and started all over again the following year with English literature.
You have translated over 70 books. How did you end up doing so much?
I would say a great interest in translation, and a deep love for what I’m doing. I translate a new book every three or four months, and I enjoy that very much. What’s there to complain? In fact, there are about another five or six translations lying with various publishers at the moment.
How many drafts do you typically work on for each book that you translate?
Usually two! I begin with a full first draft, which is fairly thorough. I try to get as close to the end result as possible, and then I do a full second draft where I’m reviewing what I’ve written closely and making changes and fixing some things. And a third draft? Not really, except when it comes back from the editor, and then that automatically becomes a third draft.
Of all the translations that you have done so far, which ones are you really proud of, and which ones make you think that you could have done a slightly better job?
Well, I’m very pleased that I managed to translate Khwabnama written by Bangladeshi novelist Akhtaruzzaman Elias, which is a huge challenge both linguistically and culturally, and in terms of the kind of depth it reaches. Because when you’re translating, you may be aware of all those depths, but you cannot do anything specifically to get there. You just have to follow the text and let your translated version get there without you doing anything extra to the text. If I looked at the translations that I did in the first five or six years, I would probably go and rework them to some extent now. I was still learning. I am still learning. But I can clearly see how I would have done things differently had I done those translations now instead of then.
What criteria do you use to accept or reject a translation project that comes your way?
Most of the translation projects originate with me. Very few have originated with a writer or a publisher. When that happens, I ask myself, “Do I really love the book?” Even if I love the book, I ask myself, “Is it for me to translate?” Some texts might need a different translator. Sometimes, I am not able to pinpoint specific reasons as to why I feel that I might not be able to do justice to a text that I love reading but feel ill-equipped to translate. Increasingly, I’m also looking at whether the writer in question is from the mainstream or from the margins. If it’s a toss-up, I choose the writer who is closer to the margins rather than the mainstream.
Why is this choice important to you?
The mainstream writers are already being read and heard. It’s the relatively more marginal writers who lack an audience. While they wait for a readership in their own language, it may help if they can leapfrog and go straight into finding readerships in other languages.
You translate books from Bangla into English, and from English into Bangla. How different are these two processes, creatively speaking, and in terms of remuneration?
I’ll talk about remuneration first. Not that Bangla to English is fantastic, but it’s certainly better than English to Bangla. I don’t write in Bangla, so it is more challenging for me to translate into Bangla. Instead of writing out the translation to begin with, I often say it out and record it and then make a transcript of what I have said. I do that because I’m more used to speaking Bangla than writing it. It is my mother tongue. My vocabulary and sentence structure work better when I’m speaking. I think that language flows from a different part of the brain when you’re speaking than when you’re writing. In any case, for me, all translation and all literature are in my head, something that I’m hearing rather than something that I’m reading with my eyes. To speak it out is much closer to the way in which I hear it. That becomes a sort of first draft, from which when I’m doing the transcript, it turns into a second draft. It’s a slow process.
When the author of a book that you are translating is alive, do you ask for feedback? Is it easy for authors to entrust their work to translators? What kind of control do they exercise?
Well, I send them the translation. Sometimes they come back with some specifics. Mostly, they don’t. As far as control goes, no, they don’t try to exercise any. I’ve exchanged notes with my fellow translators, and all of them say pretty much the same thing, which is that authors don’t really try to in any way control the process of translation. They are available for advice and suggestions.
I don’t know if it’s true for the majority, but a large number of writers feel that they cannot really comment beyond a point on an English translation. Many of them don’t even try. Those who are genuinely bilingual are also gracious enough to say, “You are doing the translation and I’m not, so I am largely going to leave it to you because this is how you are reading this text, and this is what you make of it. So that’s fine!” On the whole, it’s a very pleasing experience for me and for my fellow translators.
When you are translating a book by someone who is dead, what sort of difficulties do you run into? Have you ever felt stuck because you struggled to understand the author’s intent?
You don’t get stuck, but you get a little confounded, and then you try to figure out what you can do about it. It certainly happens, most definitely. Well, it happened in one or two places with Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, who wrote a fairly complicated form of Bangla. Sometimes, I was genuinely stuck. I had to consult people who know Sanskrit and get their advice on what certain lines might mean because it was highly Sanskritised Bangla. I even consulted earlier translations of the same book to see how earlier translators had interpreted it to see if I was missing something altogether.
The modern Bangla that is written today is not significantly different from the language that was used even 100 years ago. In the 1920s and 30s, many writers were writing a similar kind of Bangla. Even if the authors are dead, the texts are not so far back in time that they become excruciatingly difficult to understand. Other than that, when it’s a matter of nuance, as a translator, you just have to trust your reading and hope that you have got the essence of it.
Most of the books that you have translated are novels, but you’ve also translated some non-fiction. How different are these experiences, in terms of the skills required, and the effort that you have to put in to understand the time period, the culture, the politics?
The effort is pretty much the same. When you talk about the background, time, politics, society, everything, it’s all very much present in fiction as well. It’s not as though your research has to be any different for a book because it’s non-fiction. Yes, sometimes you need to do a little more fact checking with non-fiction. Other than that, I just picked fiction because that is what I have grown up reading. I have not read too much non-fiction in Bangla, to be honest, so I just started with familiar territory. Even now, I don’t think I’ve read a great deal of non-fiction in Bangla, so it is only the rare book that is not fiction that I tend to translate.
The latest work of non-fiction that you have translated is a book on Mamata Banerjee by Jayanta Ghosal – Mamata Beyond 2021. How was that experience for you? Did you choose it because of your politics?
No, I didn’t choose it because of my politics, but I chose it because I wanted to try and translate a book that had politics in it. I would not, of course, translate something whose politics was completely different from mine. To that extent, yes. But it’s not as though I’m a great believer or supporter of the Trinamool Congress either. I was interested in translating this book because I knew it would be a very different translation experience where the focus is not quite as much on the language as it is in the case of other books as it is on the content itself. The challenge was to make highly localised content understandable to a less localised readership.
When there is a book about a regional political leader, then obviously not everybody else, even in India, will know quite as much. Many references that can be very crisp in the original text, have to be teased out a little more for providing context. That was an interesting challenge, as was the play of language, because it is written by a journalist. In the case of this translation, I worked with the author to ensure that the English version was something that he would say.
Let’s talk about your work at the Ashoka Centre for Translation, which you co-direct with Rita Kothari at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana. What is the kind of training and mentoring that you currently provide students who want to be translators?
It is not just for students. It is centred in the university but not limited to the university. We are trying to unlock texts in various Indian languages and find translators to translate them into other languages of India, including English. The idea is to translate fiction and non-fiction, including history, philosophy, science, and also texts that do not exist as books, for example, speeches or individual essays. We hope that pretty soon translators will be coming to us with their own projects. We will find funding or try to find funding for the projects, and then mentor them through the process, hold workshops, and guide them up to a point where we have publishing-ready manuscripts. After that, publishers can pick up those manuscripts or we will put them up on an open translation portal for anybody to read and use in any manner whatsoever. This is meant for the world, not just for the academic community. At the same time, we are also mentoring Ashoka students who are translators. Two books of translation have been published already, and two more are coming up for publication in the course of this year or the next.
You cannot really mentor translators by sitting in like schoolteachers. One aspect is the purely intangible, which is to really teach people to love translating. I don’t know if ‘teach’ is the right word, but you try to find ways in which people end up loving the act of translation. The other thing is that what you try to get people to develop are the skills, the questions that they must ask, the approach that they must bring to it.
Rita and I certainly don’t see ourselves as sitting on every translated text and seeing how good it is or not. That’s not the point. Then you can never achieve scale. We really want to create a culture of translation. One of our projects at the centre is about translating some of Periyar’s essays into multiple Indian languages. Another project is translating Kabir into many Indian languages. The third project involves translating some evergreen Bollywood songs into multiple Indian languages in a way that they can be sung and performed in all of those languages.
Is the financial situation changing for translators in India, especially younger people who want to take it up seriously? Is it possible to make a living from translation?
Unfortunately, no. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. I think, because the financial structure isn’t of a kind that enables a translator to do enough work in a year to make enough money to support themselves, although it does get better if your translations are picked up abroad because the payment is better. But that’s still not a guarantee. Not too many South Asian books in translation have been published yet in other English-language speaking countries. So maybe that will pick up.
What is important is that young people are getting into translation, and therefore there will be much more energy and enthusiasm. And the quality of translation will get even better as we go along because when you start young, you’re obviously going to be at it and you will have plenty of time to hone your skills. Further, I think great literature will be discovered through translation.
If publishers step up and are ready to publish all that is being produced, it will be fantastic. Otherwise, I also foresee that smaller publishing initiatives will spring up; all this wealth of work cannot lie in a vault. We will find ways to get translations out to readers. Digital technologies now allow low-cost publishing as well, so I’m very hopeful for the future of translations.
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.