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‘Bangladesh has to transform the way the world sees it now’

  • Published at 04:51 pm December 5th, 2016
‘Bangladesh has to transform the way the world sees it now’

The November issue of Arts & Letters carried an interview with Vijay Seshadri, the 2014 Pulitzer winning American poet. So I was determined not to interview him again while the DLF was going on. After the inaugural, I saw him standing alone on the terrace in front of the Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharod auditorium. I thought I’d just have a little chat with the poet whose 3 Sections I really liked and then I’d go about my own business. But as the talk began (it went on for about half an hour), I was taken in and found myself pulling out my recorder. What followed turned out to be an American poet’s very interesting takes on DLF, Urdu poetry and translation of South Asian literatures.

Do you think this kind of literary festival has any true potential?

These festivals have a lot of potential, especially in Asia because they are sort of integrating these societies into a world order, and also because they are building a relationship between the global and the local, between Bangladeshi culture and literature, and world culture and literature. It also helps to bring about a change in the evolution of literature, so literature does not stay stagnant and takes on new reality, and that new reality is not in encountering another world but in synthesising new experience into the already existing imaginative world. I hope the DLF flourishes because I think Bangladesh is at a crossroads right now. There are things that are pulling it apart. It seems to me that Bangladesh is at the intersections of economic globalisation, climate change and Islamic fundamentalism, and all these come to rest here in a particularly dramatic way. Bangladesh, you know, is kind of unknown to the world and the world doesn’t realise how interesting Bangladesh is. The Americans associate Bangladesh with poverty, overpopulation, and a cyclone that killed a million people although it happened more than forty years ago. Bangladesh has to transform the way the world sees it now, I mean it is a functioning and vibrant country. Considering all these points, I can’t overestimate the importance of a festival like this.

While reading your poetry collection, 3 Sections, I found a few translations of Urdu poetry. I remember the one by Mirza Ghalib. What exactly drew you towards Urdu poetry?

You know my experience is very American, but when I came back in New York in my late 20s -- I got a grant at the University of Colombia -- I decided I’d find out about India. Then I took a Sanskrit course and learned Urdu and Hindi there and the people in those departments liked me very much and they asked me to do a PhD. They expected me to study Urdu literature but what I was really interested in was politics. Then I went to live in Pakistan and studied Urdu and Persian literature. Soon I found I was not really that interested in politics anymore and I want to go back to New York and be a poet. But in the process I managed to acquaint myself with a lot of Urdu poetry. I also spent two years doing course work and learning a lot about the history of Islam in India. So what happened is Urdu literature and culture became a part of my knowledge, and I thought why not try translating some Urdu poetry? Then I started translating and I found it really fun.

[caption id="attachment_38262" align="alignleft" width="306"]Photo: Rajib Dhar Vijay in a session on poetry with Kaiser Haq and Jeffrey Yang at the DLF 2016[/caption]

As a poet I don’t know if the Urdu tradition is congenial to me. I’m a different kind of poet, basically I’m an American poet, but I found the translating experience fascinating just as a linguistic experience, you know, to work out the puzzles and to make Khalid sound like Khalid. Let me tell you the translations of Urdu classical poetry are horrible, and that’s a real problem with the translation of all the South Asian languages into English. That is kind of a real impasse to the appreciation of these literatures into the English speaking world. Just think of the great Indian Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder. When she is translated, she’s translated too badly. People say that she should win the Nobel Prize. Her novels are about the Muslim culture as also about the history of pre-partitioned India. She is a very intelligent, interesting and radical kind of writer but she’s unknown in the west because of the poorness of the translations.

It’s very interesting to note that Bangla literature has suffered massively from the same problem.

Yes. So I think I’ll go back to translating more of Urdu poetry. You know why? Because they in the USA don’t know that Urdu has such a rich and lofty poetic tradition and it is so revered in South Asia. But they don’t know it at all.

There’s one problem that always comes up when UK and US publishers are approached for translated works of Bangla literature. In fact, it is common to Urdu and Hindi literatures too. They somehow make it clear that our fiction does not go with the European or American taste of modernity or post-modernity or post-coloniality. How do you think this can be addressed?

I think we should approach the university presses rather than the commercial presses. I think you could try persuading the commercial presses but the chances are very small that a translation of Bangla literature is going to make any impression on the marketplace there, but they can make a long-term impression on the university presses and the small presses and thus can affect the culture there. The small presses there have a very strong distribution chain. So you have to target those places where literary culture is valued, not commercial culture.