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‘Translation is the art of loss’

  • Published at 04:51 pm November 6th, 2018
Shabnam Nadiya
Photo: collected from Shabnam Nadiya's facebook page

Interview with Shabnam Nadiya

Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her translation of Moinul Ahsan Saber’s The Mercenary came out earlier this year from Seagull Books, and her works have previously appeared in anthologies such as Golpa: Short Stories by Bangladeshi Women and Lifelines. 

You have translated Shaheen Akhtar’s novel, Shokhi Rongomala (Beloved Rongomala), which will be launched at DLF this year. Tell us your experience about translation. Did you personally feel invested into the book?

It’s difficult for me to work on any translation unless I really feel invested—but this is especially true for Shaheen Akhtar’s work as it is intensely demanding. I’ve been translating her fiction for many years now, although this is the first novel of hers that I’ve attempted. Her prose is a delightful mixture of the colloquial and the poetic and it always draws me, as do her characters who are complex and real. These strengths of her writing find high expression in Shokhi Rongomala. How could I not fall for a low-caste royal mistress who writes love letters with lines like, “I sought and found that I had none/You, my moon, the only one”; or a young queen who’s a fanatic about birds and hides her muddy shoes in her philandering husband’s bed to punish him; or the young queen’s chief maid, who, despite her bitterness about being used and abused, doesn’t lose her capacity for love or to do what is right?

The moment I turned the last page of Shokhi Rongomala, I knew two things: I had to translate this book because it deserved a wider readership, and it was going to be the most difficult and intense translation project I’d ever undertaken. 

Tell us about your journey as a translator.

I think the first translation I ever did was as a young teen—I wanted to share a sci-fi story I loved with a friend and she refused to read the English version. But I didn’t think of that as a “translation”—it was just something I did for a friend. As a graduate student, I was invited by my professors, Dr. Niaz Zaman and Dr. Firdaus Azim, to translate a handful of stories for an anthology of women’s writing they were co-editing. That’s when I first realised that not only could I do this, I really loved doing this. I was blown away by the intense joy of finding the perfect equivalent or an exact turn of phrase. 

I’ve come a long way since then. My style has evolved, and I’ve moved away from trying to cling too close to the text, to trying to find the smoothest read in English while retaining as much as the original flavour as possible. Translation is the art of loss; the challenge is to focus on what you can hold on to. I’ve translated poetry and non-fiction as well as fiction, although fiction remains my primary genre, and each genre comes with its own unique challenges, as does each text.

Quite a good number of translated books have been launched at DLF over the last few years. How do you see the prospect of literary translation in Bangladesh?

I don’t know that I would say “quite a good number”—a handful of books have indeed been published. Given the breadth of Bangla literature, there is still so much to do in the realm of translation! What we should be focusing on more, however, is the quality of translations that are coming out. BLB’s Library of Bangladesh series has set a good example there, under Series Editor Arunava Sinha’s guidance. DLF is certainly playing a role in making the Bangladeshi translation scene more vibrant. 

I’m hoping that with the English writing scene expanding, there will be more of us with the requisite skill in both source and target languages who are interested in translation. People who grow up with some familiarity and love for Bangla books are more likely to invest their literary energies in translating. In the past, literary translation had seemed to be the domain of academics—done by them and meant for them. The readership I want to reach, with my own translations as well as with the work of newer translators, is the common reader. I want someone to pick up a copy of Shaheen’s Beloved Rongomala or Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice or Elias’ Khoabnama because the story and characters sound interesting and the cover draws the eye. 

What’s your next translation project? 

The next year is slotted for my own novel, which I'm working on right now. However, alongside that, I am in the process of finalising my translation of Leesa Gazi’s debut novel, Rourob (Hellfire), a narrative about a family of two sisters and their parents, where the mother is an abuser and the father an enabler. I find its depiction of familial dysfunction fascinating. I also enjoyed its frank and unapologetic depiction of women’s sexuality.

Other than that, writer and translator Mahmud Rahman and I have been discussing the possibility of undertaking a collaborative translation of Mahmudul Haque’s seminal novel Jibon Amar Bon (My Sister, Life).  The language of Jibon Amar Bon is lyrical, at odds with the political violence of its world, and dependent on the rhythm and sound of the sentences to achieve its effect. I know this is going to be another challenge, but this has been one of my favourites for such a long time, it would be an honour to be able to bring this novel to a wider world. 

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