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The daunting task of translating Frazer

  • Published at 03:34 am June 10th, 2017
The daunting task of translating Frazer
“When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood,” wrote James George Frazer about his book that shaped the study of modern anthropology. Widely regarded as one of the most important early texts in the fields of psychology and anthropology, The Golden Bough was first published in two volumes in 1890; in three volumes in 1900; and in 12 volumes in the third edition, published in 1906–15. It has also been published in several different one volume abridgments. The monumental work is historic enough to warrant a translation and that is what Khaliquzzaman Elias must have felt when he started the daunting task in the 1990s. Daunting, because of the sheer volume: Elias's translation from an abridged edition has filled up over 750 pages. 51SqEePAHhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Published in February 2017 from bdnews24 Publishing Ltd, the work of Khaliquzzaman Elias is the product of much deliberation, as the writer relates in the preface. The translation work is also ambitious in nature, given not only the enormous size of the work, but also the uncharted territory of translating the earliest language and jargon of anthropology. Elias overcomes the challenge with ease. He has been particularly careful in retaining Frazer's storytelling, thus making the Bengali translation an engaging read. As a student of English Literature, Elias knows that a translator often has to shoulder the burden of deconstructing the sentences before putting them back together in the target language. If the resultant structure carries the original meaning in its entire depth and hue, then the effort will be worth the struggle. One can tell that the translation has tried to stay very faithful to the original in terms of tone, which in Frazer's original work is flowing but not light. However, Elias is noticeably more fluid in translating the verses in the form of many folk songs and poems throughout the book. Witty couplets from the island of Bibili in New Guinea, Estonian lullaby -- all came to life in Elias's expert interpretation. Take for example this simple verses sang in Serbia as part of the ritual to call for rain: "আমরা চলি গায়ের পথে ঊর্ধ্বে মেঘের দল আমরা ছুটি চলার স্রোতে কিন্তু মেঘও ছুটছে সবল আমাদের তো ছাড়িয়েই যায় তবে শস্য, আঙ্গুর সব ভিজে জবজবে।" Or we get a glimpse of how a Bengali poet might have described the swift and vigorous wind on the planes of Finland: "ক্রুশের হাওয়া! চপল ও বেগবান বড়ই কঠিন তোমার ডানার ঝাপটা চড় চাপড় দুঃখজরার বিলাপকারী বুনো পবনরাজ ঝড়ের সওয়ার ফিনল্যান্ডের বেবাক জাদুকর।" The recurring and overarching theme in The Golden Bough is the circle of life and the inevitability of death and how the contemplation of this permeates through time and across cultures. In between the two great events -- life and death -- living occurs in all its colours and with all its darkness.
Kudos to the translator for finishing such a mammoth task of translation and that too, with such ease and fine prose
The translation is based on the 6th edition of an abridged version of the book published by Macmillan Publishers in 1972. The translation was first published serially in Uttaradhikar, a periodical by the Bangla Academy. Elias found translating the evolution of magic and its relation to religion difficult while, he writes in his preface, the storytelling portions of the book were gratifying to translate. Kudos to the translator for finishing such a mammoth task of translation and that too, with such ease and fine prose.
Saqib Sarker is sub-editor, features team, Dhaka Tribune.