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Challenges of the ‘treacherous’ translator

  • Published at 11:11 am November 9th, 2018
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Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu

Four of Bangladesh’s most revered translators: Alam Khorshed, Alim Azij, Mojaffor Hossain, and Rafique-Um-Munir Chowdhury, who moderated the session, graced the panel to provide  a closer look at the process of translation

Should a translator be a slave to the original text, or should he transform the text into something new? The question of whether a translator should or should not stay absolutely loyal to the original is an age-old debate that was addressed head on at a panel titled, “Onubad: Mulanug naki rupantor” on the opening day of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. Four of Bangladesh’s most revered translators: Alam Khorshed, Alim Azij, Mojaffor Hossain, and Rafique-Um-Munir Chowdhury, who moderated the session, graced the panel to provide  a closer look at the process of translation. 

Rafique-Um-Munir ’s story of a young Brazilian boy, Macunaima, helped the audience ease into a session of intense discussion on the translator’s craft. He argued that a good translation should not centre on the end product; rather, discussions on the craft should be more process-oriented. One must be concerned about how translation happens rather than how it should be done, taking an approach that is more descriptive than prescriptive. 

All panelists agreed that translating line by line from the main text  is an outmoded, fascist line of thought. Alam Khorshed elaborated on the idea, saying that even though the goal of translation is to stay closest to the original, a translator has ample room to show his creative flair. He also strongly believed that a translator of poetry, for example, should be a poet himself, and that this helps in creating a balancing act. However, Mojaffor Hossain begged to differ, citing the famous author-translator relationship of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gregory Rabassa. The latter was not necessarily a fiction writer like Marquez, yet the author spoke highly of this translator’s take on his work. When the issue of footnotes arose in the panel, the experts were divided, some  focusing on their importance for inclusion and others endorsing their omission. However, the panelists all agreed that in this postcolonial era of code switching, root words such as “biri” and "shidur" must be kept intact, with or without footnotes. 

In jest, Alim Azij described translation as “dirty work.”  “A translator’s job is often treachery,” he said,  “Whatever is lost in translation is often the essence of a work.” However, he told the audience that he took on the craft because he wished to spread the joy of reading among those who did not speak the source language., Alam Khorshed, building on the challenges of translation, mentioned his experience of translating the colloquial phrase, “he kicked the bucket” where a literal translation of such a phrase would strip it of its genuine meaning and become nonsensical. 

The panelists stressed “responsible reading,” i.e., reading between the lines and capturing the essence of the main text. Mojaffar Hossain presented this point through the analogy of sending mangoes from Chapainawabganj to Russia. If the mangoes are the “essence,” then the packaging must be such that suits the long haul flight and the weather conditions of the target country so that the mangoes don’t putrefy. Therefore, the nuances of the target language, rather than the source language, should be of more importance.