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Translating Elias

  • Published at 05:59 pm February 16th, 2017
  • Last updated at 03:02 pm March 18th, 2017
Translating Elias
After my mentor gave me the go-ahead for taking up a translation project, I determined on an English collection of Elias’s short stories. So I picked up his story collection, Khonari. I had read it about a decade ago and couldn't remember much. Reading it now, I was impressed as much by the language he used as by the characters he built, with their respective voices undiminished. While his treatment of different characters inspired me, his language presented me with a challenge that I have yet to figure out how to overcome. A writer's choices are limited in writing short stories. Unlike novels where one can introduce many characters and bring in multiple voices in the telling of a story, in the short form of fiction stories are usually told from the point of view of one character while the others, being filtered through his/her eyes, cannot grow independently. In this mode of narration, termed “monologic” by literary theorists, characters often appear in black and white terms, either as good or bad, depending on how they are viewed by the central character. In the world that Elias portrays in his stories, things are never that simple. Consider “Asukh-bishuk” (Disease) in which the story revolves around Atmonnesa, an old mother who lives with her son, daughter-in-law and a grandson. A good part of the narrative is dedicated to catching the psychological world of Atmonnesa – how she delves into imagining many diseases for herself, but characters of her son and son-in-law, and daughter and daughter-in-law do not depend on Atmonnesa for their growth. All four/five characters fight and challenge one another but grow independently. This dialogic consciousness, which is very subtle and yet conspicuous enough, came as a huge inspiration as it went perfectly with my taste. But as I went deeper into his language, I was a bit alarmed. The sole purpose of my second reading was to be better equipped for starting off the translation. As I was reading more of his stories, I was becoming aware that it was impossible to translate Elias into English. The problem I'm going to point out is not unique to Elias and is common to many, i.e. Hasan Azizul Haq, Shawkat Ali, Mahasweta Devi, but in Elias's case it seems to turn more complicated. Elias's characters are raw and authentic, except the ones coming from the middle class. His stories, albeit narrated in standard Bangla, make enormous use of dialects. Not only dialogues are rendered in pure dialects of one form or another, but when the voice of the narrator seeks to assume that of a character’s, colloquial words, expressions and idioms are inserted into narration. This happens quite frequently. The narratorial voice keeps shifting between different characters and refuses to go by the dictates of standard language. In Elias's stories, it is impossible to deny the vividness of different language forms which are present with their contesting realities. Stories of this kind distinguish themselves from those with one unitary model of the standard form. There comes the inevitable question: Is it possible to retain in translation as many linguistic dimensions as are present in the original? The translated story should give readers a clear idea of how the original story utilises the tension stemming from different, sometimes conflicting language forms. But a translator has his/ her limitations. To work out as many different forms of language in the target language as used in the original is humanly impossible. Even if it is done by assumption, their co-existence can never take as real a shape.
The narratorial voice keeps shifting between different characters and refuses to go by the dictates of standard language. In Elias's stories, it is impossible to deny the vividness of different language forms which are present with their contesting realities. Stories of this kind distinguish themselves from those with one unitary model of the standard form.
Consider another work, Huckleberry Finner Duhshahoshik Auvijan, a Bengali translation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Hosain Ridwan Ali Khan (Prachya Bidya Prakashani, 1998). The translator has tried to do justice to Huck Finn's dialects. He has even tried to work out the difference of accents existing between characters coming from the black communities. That's why he uses more than one form of dialects. In the original, the act of narration has been done by Huck Finn in an American dialect associated mostly with the black community in the US. In the translation on the other hand, the narration is done in standard Bangla though colloquial phrases and words are used at times. Strangely enough, the dialogues are rendered completely in the dialects of Barisal and Faridpur. The translator writes in his introduction, “Barring a few exceptions, dialect has been used throughout in the original ... In this translation, the language Huck Finn has been attributed with is not far from standard Bangla in terms of the verb form, but a great deal of local phrases and expressions are added to it. Dialects of Barisal and Faridpur have been extensively used. The spoken language of Black characters has been turned into the dialects of those two localities. But different black characters speak out in different accents, and so do the white characters. That is why I've used other dialects too, like the one of Old Dhaka." (my translation) Although he fails to maintain the exact equivalence, the translator's awareness of Twain's mastery in using dialects, both through narration and dialogues, is astute. Yet what we find is not satisfactory at all. Most of my friends have refused to finish the book. The translator modifies almost the whole of Huck Finn's colloquial narrative and its tones into standard Bangla. The turning of an American dialect into standard Bangla makes those occasional Barisali phrases and dialogues utterly awkward and inconsistent. The effect of a Barisali dialect was so very different from that of the original that I found it impossible to accept a Huck Finn who speaks in a Barisali dialect. With this experiment the translator has basically transformed an exotic tale into a local one whereas I expected it to be full of fantasies, of events unpredictable, of lands uninhabited like the settings of Jules Verne's science fiction novels, or Bibhutibhushon Bandyopadhyay's Chander Pahar. If rendered in standard language, originality is at stake. If rendered in dialects to get closer to the original, it reads either odd or imposed. Should I then abandon my project since so much is lost in translation? Or, should I accept that the act of translation entails certain limitations that one cannot possibly overcome, and having accepted them, I should take up my pen and paper to work relentlessly to make the translation as close as possible to the original?
Rifat Munim is editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.