When I was presented with a copy of On My Birthday And Other Poems In Translation, a collection of 25 Bengali poems translated into English, I felt a twinge of nostalgia.
The book was a slim but sleek paperback; it was as exquisite as it could be, every poem embellished to the colourful accompaniment of an illustration. The poems inside -- I was no stranger to them, but bound together within the vibrant front and back covers, they looked too neat, too beautiful for me to put off the act of leafing through them. Yes, indeed, I was drawn to them like a nostalgic is to a memento from the past.
If you were a reader of Star Literature back in the day, that one-page broadsheet weekly out in print on Saturdays (it still comes out on the same day in the same format), you might as well feel just like me. There was not much you could do in just one page, yet if there was one day that we the class-bunking bunch looked up to was the day when the SL would be out. On some days there were essays and reviews while there were poems, short fictions and Bengali fictions in translation on some other days.
It was through reading this page that I became a fan of Kaiser Haq's poetry, Wasi Ahmed's fiction, Afsan Chowdhury's research and Khademul Islam's acerbic reviews. But what I used to look for first was a small slot for Bengali poetry in translation. In most cases, there would be just one poem. That small slot, which always had an illustration reflecting the theme of the poem, never failed to impress me because the contribution it made to the whole page was immense. Not that the designs and illustrations in the fiction and essay sections were not commendable, but there was something about the poetry slot that always stood out like a placid lake would in a deep forest.
Not that the designs and illustrations in the fiction and essay sections were not commendable, but there was something about the poetry slot that always stood out like a placid lake would in a deep forest.
The writer whose translations would appear most frequently in that slot was Khademul Islam who was also the editor of the page. But back in those days, no one could have known that Islam was actually the translator since the translations were published under pseudonyms. This bit of news does come as a pleasant surprise. Islam is the country's first editor who has given a literature page its aesthetic place in the English language. He is one of our best fiction and non-fiction writers, too. Now one might wonder what caused him to venture into translating poetry while editing the page. In his Translator's Note, Islam himself comes up with an explanation.
“I quickly found out, however, that good translators were scarce in Dhaka. The few that were, naturally enough, worked at their own pace, and not at the inflexible dictates of newspaper deadlines. Since I had no such luxury, I bit the bullet and decided to do the translation myself.”
The poems and illustrations this book compiles are taken from that slot. But when they are put together in the form of this book, they have taken on the shape of a composite artwork made up of several individual parts.
I started with the translation of Mohammad Rafique's “1390”. When I had first read this poem in SL, I was already familiar with the Bengali poet and his poetry. He is not a popular poet. Far from that, his is a distinct poetic consciousness feeding constantly and consistently on indigenous mythic and cultural elements. Unlike many modern poets of his time, his prosodic structure is always sophisticated, albeit never rhyming. So, my understanding of Rafique's poetry was that it was untranslatable in the sense Tagore, too, is. Because if you compromised the prosody, or some other literary device rooted, say, in the seasonal cycle of Bengal, you risked leaving more than half of its beauty untouched. These difficulties, however, should not deter a good translator from taking up the pen. After all, everything depends on the translator's skills and choices.
So I assigned myself to an exercise that is characteristic of literary nerds like me. I sat down with Rafique's poetry collections and found out the original poem and gave it a thorough reading. It celebrates the arrival of Baishakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar, but it does that through a different lens that looks first at starved kids with distended bellies, squalid rows of stinking huts, sick women vomiting and poverty-stricken, famished people dotting villages.
Then I shifted to the translation and read it at one go. The stanzas were not changed and although it is impossible to translate the metre and rhythm, I felt exactly the same thrill by reading Islam's translation that I had by reading the original. I was stunned to see the effect a good translation could have on you.
The same goes for all the translations collected in the book. Budhhadev Bose's “A Rainy Day”, Samar Sen's “On my birthday”, Ruby Rahman's “Quarrelling”, Sunil Gangopadhyay's “Better than writing poetry”, among others, are equally successful examples of formidable translation.
There are 25 poems and Islam admits in his Note that there's actually nothing that unifies them.
“The poems in this book, rooted in idiosyncratic taste, therefore have no overall specific unity of theme or design.” But he does not forget to add, “However, reading them again after all this time, it seems to me that they do cohere on their own fragile terms. I was drawn to poems whose moods and rhythms I intuited – poetry, after all, arguably represents one of the higher rites of intuition – would translate best into English, would yield something of their inner lives in a foreign language.”
The other poets whose works have been translated include Shakti Chattopadhyay, Rafique Azad, Asad Chowdhury, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Taslima Nasreen, and Shaheed Quadri.
This is a collectible book, not only for academics and translators but also for those who read Bengali poetry just for the love of it.
Rifat Munim is Editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.