Leading international independent publisher Seagull Books has entered into an agreement with Bengal Lights Books (BLB), an emerging Bangladeshi publishing house, to re-release the first four books in the Library of Bangladesh series worldwide. Launched jointly by BLB and Dhaka Translation Center of University of Liberal Arts in 2015, the Library of Bangladesh is a series of world-standard English translations of major works of Bangladeshi fiction. In this interview, Arunava Sinha, the series editor, talks about what still needs to be done to ensure presence of Bangladeshi fiction in the international arena.
This is the first time we're seeing an organised approach to marketing and distributing English translations of Bangladeshi fiction worldwide, thanks to collaboration between Bengal Lights Books and Seagull Books. Do you think this initiative will make an impact on readers of other cultures and regions?
That is certainly the idea. Translations from Bangladesh haven’t really been marketed abroad, so that almost all publishers of translations in the UK and the US, not to mention Europe and Asia, are unaware of this body of literature. Individual books do not always make a mark in a heavily competitive market. And yet there is a huge Bangladesh story waiting to be told to publishers and readers around the world. So this initiative, with as many as four titles being published in the UK, the US, and India, will certainly make an impact. The books will go out to reviewers, be entered for translation prizes, and find their way to well-known bookstores in these countries. The cumulative effect should be considerable. What Bengal Lights Books is doing here is truly fantastic. Add to that Seagull Books’ global reach and publishing aesthetics, and we will have one of the best series of translated books in contemporary times.
Will all translations under the Library series be released worldwide by Seagull Books? Who are the new authors to be translated next?
The first four books certainly will be. We’re hopeful that the arrangement will continue. The list is being finalised, but the next two are likely to be Imdadul Haq Milon (two novellas: Poradhinota and Parobaash) and Syed Manzoorul Islam (Ajgubi Raat).
When we talk about the boom in Latin American literature, we consider writers from different countries as a single entity or as belonging to the same tradition despite all of their differences in temper and content. We also find most of their works translated by famous publishers. Why do you think we failed to take Bengali literature to a stature similar to that?
Let’s not assume we have failed. The journey has begun, and there is time to present Bangla literature as a diverse and yet unified body of work, encompassing works from Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, and from diaspora writers. It needs one or two big writers to make a mark, as, for instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez did. He single-handedly generated enormous enthusiasm about Latin American literature. We’re waiting for our Garcia Marquez moment, and I am hopeful that we shall see it. Latin literature made its mark with its uniqueness, its difference from the Anglo-American canon. We need to highlight similar works, which can produce the same kind of “shock and awe”.
While selecting books and authors of Bengali fiction for translation, should we focus more on classics or on books by contemporary writers?
It needn’t be an either/or. Different publishers have different interests and market positions, and we can offer a flow of suitable works to all of them. However, modern and contemporary works are probably better starting points, since many more publishers work in that space, and reader interest is higher as well. These will create an interest for older works.
You are an accomplished translator and your contribution to introducing Bengali literature to an international readership is immense. Would you like to say a few words for young, aspiring translators?
Thank you for your kind words. I can only talk about what I do, which is to read a lot of Bangla literature, read a lot of English and translated-into-English literature, and translate a lot. It’s like singing or acting – the more you practise the art, the better you get at it. The best thing is that there is no writer’s block – your inspiration never dries up. I translate whenever I can, even in a 10-minute break between meetings. I translate like everyone scrolls down their Facebook feed – compulsively.
Arunava Sinha is a prolific translator of Bengali literature. His most notable translations include Buddhadeva Bose's When The Time Is Right (Tithidore), Rabisankar Bal's Dozakhnama, Samaresh Bose's Fever (Mahakaler Rather Ghora), and Sankar's Chowringhee.
Rifat Munin is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.