Maria Helena Barrera-Agarwal is an Ecuadorian writer, essayist, researcher and translator based in New York. She grew up reading Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and prose translated into Spanish. She has translated into Spanish Nazrul Islam‘s poetry and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Unfinished Memoir, and most recently, a collection of Razu Alauddin’s poetry. In this interview she talks about different aspects of her experience as a translator, her ongoing projects and future plans.
A century after Tagore had been translated into Spanish, you introduced Nazrul to the Spanish readers in your translated collection of his poems and essays. How do you think Bangla poetry has been appreciated there?
We need to remember that the emergence of modern Bangla poetry in the literary consciousness of Latin America is embodied by the saga of Rabindranath Tagore becoming a household name in Spanish-speaking countries. Something in Tagore’s works spoke very eloquently to our ethos, so much that—against common assumption—the first translation of Tagore into Spanish was prepared by a Cuban poet before the Nobel Prize award. Despite such affinity, Tagore was considered a singularity. His immense success was not followed by the translation of other Bengali writers into Spanish. The dialogue between the Latin American and Bengali cultures stalled because it was not a direct contact. European colonial powers were not interested in providing international exposure for intellectuals such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay or Jibanananda Das.
In 1971, when Chilean poet Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize, interest in literature written in Spanish intensified in South Asia. A tangible effect emerged in 1980, when Subhash Mukhopadhyay published a landmark book, his selection of Neruda’s work, Pābalo Nerudāra āro kabitā. The tide of translations from Spanish into Bengali has since taken a powerful and widely encompassing impulse. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the flow in the opposite direction. The Latin American reader is still unable to access so many wonderful works originally written in Bengali. Something had to be done about this. My translation of Kazi Nazrul Islam, and the publication generously sponsored by the Nazrul Institute, attempted to make the first step that I hope will be potentiated by further initiatives.
What were the challenges that you faced while retaining the nuances of one language into another?
Translation is such an interesting and indispensable discipline. Our culture rests upon it, for without transfer of works from one language into another, intellectual progress would be impossible. Each individual translation process, however, is fraught with difficulties. The easier and less satisfactory one is to engage in a literal translation, with little regard for true meaning. Meaning and form should go together to attain a balanced result.
Meaning in poetry, of course, is such a complex issue. Even reading poetry in our own language can be arduous, for meaning is not something that is immediately or totally apparent. Spanish readers can read Octavio Paz in the original and yet they might not be fully aware of the many layers of meaning his poems contain.
For a translator, approaching a poet from a different geographical and cultural space is daunting. It requires substantial research and the will to know more, not only about the writer, but also about his time and his country. When Kazi Nazrul Islam writes about rebellion, the context in which he conceives of such rebellion is essential to determine the best Spanish wording. To ignore the context would perhaps create a readable version, but not a proper version. It is a process that can be achieved with time and commitment. A labor of love, in most cases.
Tell us your experience of translating Razu Alauddin’s poetry into Spanish?
I have admired Razu’s poetry for many years. He is also a magnificent translator, who speaks Spanish and has a broad knowledge of Spanish culture, made deeper by the fact that he has translated Latin American poets and writers into Bangla. These facts made for a quite interesting translation process: Razu’s poems are so very in tune with Bengali tradition, but they also have a flavor that can be ascribed to his wide literary interest and his experiences in Latin America. The language he uses is very precise and highly symbolic. His compositions are personal and introspective, universal in their perceptions. A number of drafts were needed for each poem to carefully calibrate all these factors in versions that could be fitting to the poet’s intent. It was truly a very special task and a privilege for me.
How do you think Spanish readers will appreciate Razu's poetry?
I am sure that Razu’s work will resonate with Spanish readers. While I worked on the translation, I was reminded of the affinity between our cultures, and the common appreciation we hold for a lyrical and intense view of the world. There is a very definite connection that has not been fully explored. A number of the poems in Akangkhar Manchitra Gopaney Enkechhi dwell in the possibilities of cultural interaction. In Spanish, these poems brim with subtleties. Razu’s other compositions have a very distinctive emotional signature that makes them at once accessible and intriguing. They call for the reader to get involved, to get invested in the feeling the poet creates.
Do you have plans to translate more from Bangla to Spanish?
I do have a number of projects, probably too many. For a few years I have been engaged in the translation of a selection of works written by poet Mohammad Nurul Huda. To render his work in the target language requires labor and patience. I’d also like to translate one of the novels written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, as his prose fiction complements his poetic and political vision. Another project that I hold dear is the preparation and translation of an anthology of contemporary Bangla poetry. I hope these plans come to fruition.
Do you think good translations are capable of creating an appeal for Bangla poetry among the Spanish readers?
Good translations are imperative, of course. Imperfect renderings can create many obstacles for the continued flow of works from one language into another. However, I would say that proper translations are only the first step. What is required is more contact between literary circles that are active in both cultures. Contact that should not rely on an intermediary—no more recourse to the blessings of the Anglo-European establishment. Forging direct links is the task that would make a true impact on this field. All of us can be involved. I believe the time has come to create more bridges.