Interview: V Ramaswamy - “I want to rock the system”
On being a Tamilian who translates Bengali novels into English, his activist background, his quest for significant voices, and on translating Manoranjan Byapari
What are the most fulfilling and frustrating aspects of being a translator?
For me, the most frustrating thing is the inability to convey or render into English something originally in Bangla. The original may be like a rosogolla, with the translation appearing like a raisin in comparison! More than frustrating, it is saddening, but also enlightening. One realises that understanding the meaning and significance of some things requires one to be deeply embedded in a language and culture. That could be dialect speech – actually, these are full-fledged languages – or it could be something so deeply embedded in Bengali society, culture, or literature that it would require copious notes of explanation.
But one must simply move on, addressing whatever is do-able.
Regarding fulfilment – one might translate something; one might occasionally translate something; or one might have a mission to translate, which becomes a full-time vocation. I belong to the last category. The whole journey since I first began translating has been a rich and fulfilling one. It has been something like a Zen experience. But besides that, there is satisfaction in doing this labour and thus being able to broadcast the work and voice of important writers, and produce a body of work which breaks the silence, and brings to light writing that was largely unknown and unconsidered but is powerfully relevant to our times. While it is pleasing to read appreciative mention of my translation, I know my own limits so I must keep growing; and my work now is taking me to challenging texts. Every work involves a challenge, in the sense of rendering the original well and conveying the voice, tone, spirit and verve of the original.
You have translated Manoranjan Byapari, Subimal Misra, Shahidul Zahir and Adhir Biswas. What creative and political reasons guide your choice of writers and texts?
I began translating by accident in 2005, thanks to my friend Dr Mrinal Bose’s prodding, and I began with Subimal Misra. In the little magazine world of Bengal, Misra’s name is emblematic of everything anti-establishment. But I didn’t know that. In hindsight, it all seems fated! I began with Misra, and then embarked on a long-term, multi-volume project of translating his short fiction. As I was in the final phase of the Misra project – this was in 2015 – I began thinking about the next writer to translate. I now saw myself as a translator of voices from the margins.
I learnt about Manoranjan Byapari and his autobiography, Itibritte Chandal Jibon, via Facebook. I was able to contact him, and he informed me that his autobiography was already being translated by Sipra Mukherjee. He then gave me his long novel Chandal Jibon to translate. That had appeared in two parts in a Bengali magazine. With his consent, I applied for the Literature Across Frontiers fellowship in 2016 to take this up, and I was selected. I spent three months in Wales and completed a substantial part of the novel. And after I completed the first round of translation in 2017, Byapari informed me that there was more to the novel. Eventually this became the Chandal Jibon trilogy of novels. The first volume, The Runaway Boy, was published in 2020, and the second, titled The Nemesis, will be out soon.
But in 2016, even before meeting Byapari, Adhir Biswas had given me his refugee memoirs, with a request to translate them, and I eventually began working on this in 2018 after a recommendation from the same friend I mentioned earlier, Mrinal. Four books of Biswas’s refugee memoirs in my translation were published in a single volume titled Memories of Arrival: A Voice From the Margins early this year.
And I learnt the name of the Bangladeshi writer, Shahidul Zahir, from a literary friend in 2019, who urged me to translate him. I was entranced from the very first sentence I read, and that prompted me to immerse myself in reading Zahir. I committed myself to translating three books in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, as a means to acclaim this unique and brilliant writer rooted in the Bangla soil. The first Zahir book, Life and Political Reality, also involved a collaboration with Shahroza Nahrin, which was a very positive and educative experience, and it has motivated me to work in collaboration as much as possible.
I would also like to mention the names of two more authors. I attended the People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata in 2018, where Ansar Uddin was a speaker in one of the sessions. He is a marginal farmer and a writer. What he said gave me the idea that his writing was like an ethnographic account of rural Muslim life and milieu in West Bengal. Something mostly absent in the literature of West Bengal. That was something I at once wanted to translate. Labani Jangi and I have translated his book The Song of the Faraway Village, and it is now with the publisher. And in late 2021, a friend shared an article by a mutual friend, a survey of significant people in West Bengal that he had recently met. There was mention of Ismail Darbesh, whose novel Talashnama has been making waves. I picked up that cue at once, I am translating the novel now, and it will be published next year. It is about the politics centring around the mosque in a Muslim village in West Bengal.
So while it is chance, or circumstances that have determined the writers I have translated, there is something underlying, a perspective or outlook, a particular eye, and a quest for significant voices and works. So at particular moments, things come together, like two hands clapping! It is a literary eye, but also a social and political eye. I do not want to translate pleasing stories that rock you to a reverie! I want to rock the system!
I have become a full-time, independent translator of fiction, non-fiction and significant texts in Bengali. That is deeply satisfying. Also, when one translates a writer, and especially the kind of writers I chose to translate, a close tie is created with the author. That is special. Again, the nature of the tie with each writer is different. For instance, in the case of Zahir, the author is deceased; but he comes alive for me when I translate him, and I imagine I am in dialogue with him.
You came to translation via activism rather than an MFA programme, which is the route that is now available to younger translators. How did you learn to translate? Were there mentors or peers that you got feedback from?
When you say that I came to translation via activism that seems to connect the two, although that need not be the case! I was in activism for many years. And then all of a sudden as it were, I began translating. But yes, the activist background definitely shaped and prepared me to take up translating Subimal Misra, perhaps that was my only real qualification in that respect. Although born in a Tamil speaking household, I entered the “English-medium” world at the age of two. You could call me a bastard son of Lord Macaulay! I had learnt Bengali only in elementary school, and had never read any Bengali literature. But before I began translating, through my activist engagement with Calcutta, I had a two-decade long interaction, principally via the Bengali language, with the people of the city.
I did not learn to translate. I simply began translating, without any sense of doubt or hesitation. I did have a small circle of friends with whom I shared my early work. Their feedback was positive. And I requested a friend to evaluate my initial work against the original, and he commented that it was good. That was it. I just kept on after that. In the process I grew beyond the person who began the work! I was fortunate to find a good publisher for my first book, which gave me the confidence to move ahead.
But perhaps most significantly, after I sent some of my Subimal Misra story translations to my late poet aunt, Revathy Gopal, she sent me the essay My Life with Rothman, by Michael Hofmann, the translator of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth. Reading the essay planted the seeds in my mind of a long-term Misra translation project.
But there is also something else. For about a decade from around the mid-1990s, I had read sacred texts. That was also a kind of conditioning. One silenced one’s mind and concentrated on the audition. And when I began translating, I needed to “understand” everything I read. Once again that meant concentrating on audition. Because I had actually learnt Bengali by ear.
I have been a lifelong reader and lover of literature – in the English language. So when I translate Bengali literary fiction into English, I suppose that must somehow influence how I translate. But in my case, ‘literature’ is only something implicit and subsumed in what I write, while my engagement with the original text is actually in terms of ‘language’. Through my journey in search of ‘marginal’ voices, I now naturally encounter dialects and speeches which I have never ‘heard’ before. But I must understand, and so I must get through to people who can educate me. I began an engagement with Bangladesh in 2019, and have made several visits since then. Thus I have the two Bengals as the field from which I gather texts, and from which I can gather people who educate me, so that marginal voices can be heard. That is also why I seek collaboration, and especially with young translators, who could also be groomed in the process to emerge as independent translators themselves.
The Runaway Boy, your translation of Manoranjan Byapari’s book Ghar Palano Chhele, won him the 2022 Shakti Bhatt Prize. You have translated two more books written by Byapari, due to release in 2023. What do you find most compelling and powerful in his writing? What can readers expect in the upcoming books?
Actually the Bengali title Ghar Palano Chhele is taken from the title I gave to the first novel of the Chandal Jibon trilogy. The original novel was first published in 2008 in the Bengali magazine Hatey Bajarey, and then as a book titled Chandal Jibon. Besides translating, I also edited and structured the original text, breaking up the mostly undifferentiated mass of text into paragraphs, sections, and chapters and books with names. That was also the case with the second part of the trilogy, The Nemesis, which is due to come out in early 2023. The newly published Bengali versions of these two books follow the structure of my English translation. I am yet to translate the third and final part of the Chandal Jibon trilogy.
Soon after I began translating the first novel, I remembered my own experience of reading some acclaimed works of literature, where the story acquires a level of transcendence, something written on an epic canvas, something that belongs to the world of literature. I don’t know to what extent my translation has been successful in enabling such a reader experience.
Those who read The Runaway Boy would have invested and engaged a significant part of themselves in that reading experience. Given the kind of granular tour through oppression, indignity and violence that Byapari provides in this work, it has necessarily to be a long work, and hence it is a trilogy of novels. I expect that all those who read and liked The Runaway Boy would read the second and third parts as well. The later works may also find new readers who then look for the earlier books. Chandal Jibon begins with the birth of the Dalit boy Jibon in East Pakistan, and ends in Calcutta with the protagonist Jibon reaching the terminal point of the life trajectory that his birth and his personal choices resulted in. The trilogy is about the pre-life of the autodidact author Manoranjan Byapari, before he learnt to read and write, and thus eventually becomes a celebrated author and public figure.
When you feel stuck with a word, sentence or paragraph that seems difficult to translate, how do you resolve the issue? Do you get in touch with Byapari, and ask him to help you out?
With Subimal Misra and Manoranjan Byapari, there was no consultation. Shahidul Zahir is not alive. But I have sat with Adhir Biswas, as I have with Ansar Uddin, and will do so with Ismail Darbesh.
Translation is not a one-off, momentary thing. Translating any work, whether a short story or a long novel, is a process involving several rounds. Every word and sentence goes through multiple rounds of scrutiny. If I encounter a word that I am unable to translate at the moment of first encounter, I either look up the meaning right then, or leave blank parentheses there for subsequent completion. For me, it is not just words or sentences or paragraphs as such that challenge. It is the “sense” of what has been written. An incident in early 2020 comes to mind. I was translating a long sentence from Shahidul Zahir’s novella, Life and Political Reality. A friend read out the Bengali text and I rendered that into English. But we just could not figure out one particular sentence. After a while, I left it and lay down to rest. Shortly thereafter, it came to me, and like in a eureka moment, I jumped out of bed and shouted out to my friend that I had got it, and went and wrote it down.
I am also reminded of Subimal Misra in this context. His texts are enigmatic. In my fourth Subimal Misra book (which is due to come out next year), there is an ‘anti-story’ whose original title was Svaramelakalanidhi. I had translated that as The Treasured Art of Vocal Harmony, and submitted my manuscript of the anti-stories collection to the publisher. Several months later, I attended a lecture on Hampi in Bangalore by a French Indologist, in which he mentioned Svaramelakalanidhi. I picked that up at once, and thus learnt that it is the title of a celebrated sixteenth century musicological treatise.
My work takes me far outside the Kolkata – and bhadralok-centred writing, to the districts of both Bengals. So the kinds of texts I am now translating are so embedded in the local, which includes language, words, ideas, concepts, customs etc, for which I need assistance.
Do you see your practice as a translator aligned with the larger goal of dismantling the caste system?
It would be extremely immodest on my part, and meaningless as well, to profess that. Personally speaking, it was only in 2016 that Annihilation of Caste entered my life and consciousness. The Rohith Vemula tragedy had taken place; I took up, on behalf of a friend the task of releasing the book, Hatred in the Belly, in Kolkata; and a fellow-activist friend and I undertook a study of urban sanitation in Tamil Nadu, in which we decided to focus on manual scavenging. It was in the midst of these engagements that I read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste for the first time. Although I encountered it rather late in life, it has become something foundational for me in an existential sense, it was like being born again, intellectually and spiritually.
I suppose this has conditioned me, giving me clarity and purpose, making me sensitive and alive to the words, the mind, the pain and anger expressed in a dalit or marginal author’s writing. I try to get into the author’s soul.
With one book, then another, and on and on, I am trying to put out multiple voices. I would like to think that the presence of such a body of purposefully curated work is something important in the present juncture.
You recently got selected for a PEN Presents grant and a New India Foundation translation fellowship. What projects are you working on with the support that you have been provided?
The PEN Presents award was for a sample translation from a proposed work. I had proposed a book that brings together three volumes of childhood memoirs by Adhir Biswas, bearing the title of the first book, Last Boy: An Untouchable Boy’s Classroom. I have already translated the first book, and hope to translate the other two and have a manuscript ready by the end of 2023. PEN England will be pitching the sample to publishers in the UK. Meanwhile, an Indian publisher has already agreed to bring out the book.
The New India Foundation fellowship was also for a text one had to propose. I chose the 1946 and 1947 diaries of Nirmal Kumar Bose, the eminent anthropologist who was also Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary and interpreter during the peace mission in Noakhali. This was a project undertaken together with Amlan Biswas, a statistician, and it is close to completion. The diaries were published in Bangla thanks to the painstaking efforts of the editor, Abhik Dey. We saw ourselves performing the final addendum to his labour of love by translating this into English, so that it is accessible to the outside world. This is a work for the archive, for scholars and researchers. A publisher has been found for this book as well.
I always have a long and ever growing list in front of me of the books I wish to translate. So I just have to keep on working. I will resume work on Talashnama, which I mentioned earlier, and then take up the final book of Byapari’s Chandal Jibon trilogy. There are also two more books that I want to complete in 2023. Narai (The Struggle) by the Bangladeshi writer Showkat Ali is a novel about a poor woman who becomes involved in the Tebhaga movement in the early-1950s. And Shoishob (Childhood) is a novella by Raghab Bandopadhyay about a sensitive and curious boy growing up with his widowed mother and sister in a refugee colony in the fringes of Calcutta under the shadow of calamitous events like the Second World War, the Bengal famine, communal riots and the partition of the country. Narai and Shoishob are extremely challenging projects, but I have found co-translators to join me, and so I am looking forward to that.
What kind of encouragement or push back have you encountered from the Bengali literary establishment given your interest in working mainly with voices from the margins?
In a word, I am non-existent, as far as any “establishment” is concerned! To be honest, I too prefer anonymity. In general, the response and goodwill is greater in Bangladesh. But my publishers have accepted my work, so I am fortunate that I can continue my translation practice. The role of my editors in sculpting the final text is also valuable. And my translation has been enabled by residencies and fellowships, without which I would simply not have been able to advance. I have received encouragement from a small circle of friends and well-wishers. But perhaps most of all, there are the readers, who in turn have spread the news by word of mouth. All in all, I have no complaints.
Are there any women writers or LGBTQ writers that you would like to translate from Bengali to English, if given an opportunity?
I have translated The Sea, a novel by Swati Guha, about a single woman’s inner world. But that is yet to find a publisher. Early in my translation foray, I had translated an exquisite short story by Samran Huda, which was published in an American literary journal. Three years ago, I translated a powerful story by Audity Falguni, and recently my co-translator Shahroza Nahrin and I translated an outstanding story by Jharna Rahaman. One of the books I discovered while thinking about the text to propose to the New India Foundation was Jailer Bhetor Jail (Prison Within Prison) by Minakshi Sen. It is about prison life and the fellow-prisoners the author encountered while she was a political prisoner in Calcutta in the 1970s. I would like to translate that.
So yes, I am always keen to translate critical writing by women. Coming to LGBTQ, my own disposition is to try to understand people, to be in their shoes, as it were. So translating significant LGBTQ voices is something I would naturally gravitate towards. Perhaps the connection is waiting to be made!
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.