The Library of Bangladesh is a literary project to boost quality English translation of Bangladeshi fiction. Initiated by Bengal Lights Books, a wing of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, the series aims to promote Bangladesh’s unique literary heritage to the world. Its latest publications, The Mercernary
by Moinul Ahsan Saber and Letters of Blood
by Rizia Rahman, stay true to the promise of raising the bar high for literary translation in Bangladesh.
, translated by Shabnam Nadiya, offers a unique perspective on Bangladesh’s Liberation War. The point of view is that of the Razakars, people who stood against Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and collaborated with the Pakistani army. The approach is innovative, no doubt, but there are risks involved. Saber, however, deals with the risks with aplomb.
In her translation, Nadiya has aptly captured the novel’s tone of voice and figurative aspects of Saber’s language
The protagonist is a man named Kobej who starts out as the “handyman” for the village chieftain, Akmal Pradhan, who believes that supporting Pakistan is synonymous with supporting Islam. An eloquent man, Pradhan is able to hold a tight grip over the villagers as an advisor and being wealthy also helps. It is to be noted that his support for Pakistan derives primarily from power politics: Pradhan wishes to silence opposition village leader, Ramjan Sheikh. He uses Kobej to inflict violence on those who oppose Pradhan, to the point of killing. But he is disillusioned when the Pakistani army comes to the village; his view dramatically changes.
In her translation, Nadiya has aptly captured the novel’s tone of voice and figurative aspects of Saber’s language. Saber’s use of simple questions which people always avoid answering to, is nicely retained in the translation. So is the character of Kobej, a “simpleton” who hates talking and thinking too much. Though Kobej asks most of the novel’s fundamental, existential questions, he believes that being human is more important than loosely labelling people as Hindus or Muslims. The story extends to the post-independence Bangladesh. Kobej initially finds meaning in being Pradhan’s “handyman” but after that, he reneges and finds meaning as a Freedom Fighter. All the high ideals shatter due to corruption and irregularities that consume all strata of social and political life.
Rahman’s Letters of Blood
puts the warped lives of sex workers on the table. She brings out the humanity of sex workers, both as victims and survivors. There are a lot of existential discussions within Rahman’s novel that are beautifully brought to life by Arunava Sinha’s translation. Sinha preserves the metaphors and pays attention to other linguistic traits.
Rahman’s novel is polyphonic with an excess of characters whose lives are strangely intertwined with one another. She works out the process of how a woman is “unwomanned” by words like “whore.” It is a word to belittle even the basic tenets of human experience, making women feel desperate, vulnerable and helpless. They are emotionally, physically and sexually abused. A cruel method of objectification erupts in the novel’s pages tearing it with a profusion of blood.
But from another angle, that of sending them abroad, getting them translated into a lingua franca, discussion on their translation should top the priority list. Bangladesh is never short of stories. It’s just that readers of many Asian and European countries do not know how to get to them
The diversity of the women -- their habits and idiosyncrasies -- is Rahman’s way of questioning the meaning ascribed to the word “whore.” There is the enlightened Yasmin, the prima donna Jahanara, the reluctant Parul, the over-eager Piru and the wannabe actress Mamata. There is the former sex worker, Golapjaan, who is treated with respect. Only a writer with strong empathy for sex workers could actually write this kind of a novel as collecting material for this, Rahman shares in her foreword, was something of a challenge due to the stigma attached to them.
Discussion on the two novels is important, considering their relevance to current social and political context of our country. But from another angle, that of sending them abroad, getting them translated into a lingua franca, discussion on their translation should top the priority list. Bangladesh is never short of stories. It’s just that readers of many Asian and European countries do not know how to get to them.
We are hopeful that more of such commendable translations will follow, covering more and more of powerful Bangladeshi authors.
Zarin Rafiuddin is reviews books for Arts & Letters.