Although I had been exposed to fairy tales and folktales such as Thakurmar Jhuli as a child, it was in the latter half of my school life that I became addicted to reading stories. Full credit for this goes to a Bangladeshi publishing house that to this day produces paperbacks for children and young adults. During those early reading years of my life, my parents would often present me with poorly written biography anthologies i.e. Shoto Monisheer Kotha (Biographies of a Hundred Scholars); they'd pretend these were the kinds of book a child should read because one could learn valuable lessons from them. Having put them away, I busied myself devouring Sheba's compelling thrillers, gingerly though, because for me to do this meant tackling quite a few obstacles.
Seeing me flip through the pages of some kind of thin and at times thick paperbacks, my parents would keep a constant eye on me. Often glancing at me from the corner of their eyes, they'd monitor whether I was deceiving them by reading worthless stories when I should be poring over my drab secondary school textbooks. When they blurted it all out, eyes bloodshot in anger over the better grades attained by their colleagues' children, my spirits indeed flagged. Yet cheat I did, impeccably. But that harmless bluff opened up to me an exciting new world where, overcoming all physical limitations imposed by space and time and age, I could freely roam, letting my imagination run loose, taking it to the bowels of a thick forest where no man had ever dared to leave his footprints before. Putting the tiny paperbacks between the front and back covers of a larger textbook, I dived into the tiny Sheba paperbacks.
I, along with a bunch of friends, was obsessed with Sheba Prakashani and its translation wing, Prajapati. This publisher and its imprint, alongside their regular thriller series like Tin Goyenda, Masud Rana, Reza and Suja, Tarzan, Western Series etc. offered us a rich variety of translated books. None of them were complete translations. They were rather abridged, less than half the original in length. Despite such limitations, those translations were done so lucidly that our young, inquisitive minds found thoroughly engaging.
Henry Rider Haggard's She, The Return of She and King Solomon's Mines, translated by Neaz Morshed, are among the most memorable translations that took me to lands full of bright colors and palls of mystery at the same time. Critical perspectives were of no use then. Reading was all about pleasure and imagination. Maybe that explains why I liked Robert Louis Stevenson's Botol Shoitan (The Bottle Imp) more than George Eliot's Silas Marner, which was very realistic compared to the former. Translated by Kazi Shahnoor Hussain, they were bound together into a tiny Hardback by Prajapati.
Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (by Rakib Hasan, also the writer of Tin Goyenda series), The Black Arrow (by Neaz Morshed) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (by Asaduzzaman) were fascinating. I can still recollect how the suspenseful narrative presented Mr Hyde's sinister acts, including the murder of innocent men and women, so as to make my hair stand on end, until the mystery was solved. Sheba's truncated versions of Victor Hugo's Les Miserable by Iftekhar Amin and Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers by Kazi Shahnoor Hussain were also excellent. The first one is a tale of a poor man's misery, a kind of tale that I was not yet ready to enjoy. Yet I was caught up in its complicated and tragic plot. This is one of those books that had brought me closer to the pains and suffering of down-to-earth realities (I hadn't read Tagore's short stories or Bibhutibhushon's Pather Panchali yet). The second one by Dickens was a comic piece zinged with satirical undertones.
In fact, these are some of the samples every reader my age was familiar with. There were so many more that they can hardly be contained here, especially those from Prajapati's Kissore Classics (Juvenile Classics) series. The first writer that comes to my mind was Mark Twain. Then there were Alexandre Dumas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erich Maria Remarque and Jules Verne, among many others. Another writer was Jack London who overpowered my imagination for quite some time. I found his The Call of the Wild and The White Fang in our old and dusty Macpherson Library in Bagerhat. The translator was Khasru Chowdhury. These books feature a dog as a protagonist, a fully developed character who fights and struggles in order to survive against all sorts of adversaries. Then I bought his Sea Wolf by Neaz Morshed, which was about a man's struggle and determination against all odds.
It was not until the year of my SSC exams in 1998 that my interest declined in thriller series and juvenile classics. Since then, I was drawn more to Bangla classics. Side by side, my interest in translation changed its course from shortened to full-length works of what I began to think as serious literature, such as Belal Chowdhury's Mrittur Karanara, a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicles of a Death Foretold, which I finished during my HSC years.
It is well known that Latin American writers such as Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa and many others gained immense popularity in the 1990s among Bangladeshi readers. It resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of books translated into Bangla. The Latin American boom was joined by the success of post-colonial writers: Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri. Our publishing industry came forward almost with a desperation, churning out as many translations as possible of writers whose books had a demand in the market, following their international awards.
When one reads an average translation of any of these writers, s/he has to be utterly disappointed. Let's pick, for example, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. In one of its translations that I've read, one is faced with a skeleton of a story that in the original is fleshed out excellently in a figurative language that implies a lot more than it claims to say; for example, the repetitiveness of certain ideas and phrases (such as the repetitive occurrence of the phrase: "the god of small things") that helps to construct potential symbols in the novel. In the translation of The Interpreter of Maladies, one finds the language and tone very vague, which does not in any way go with the original, especially with the matter-of fact details of Lahiri's stories. I realized eventually that the publishing industry had to get them translated in the shortest time possible since the market had spoken positively of their demands, never mind the ensuing quality.
When I compare these “loyal translations” with Sheba's adaptations, I'm surprised to see the difference. No doubt that most of Sheba's translations were shortened, but they were crisp and more enjoyable. At least, they were not done in a hurried and shoddy manner.
Sheba had filled our childhood with a thousand colors. Memories of those early reading years still flow like an undercurrent which not only soothes but also guides our oft-lost souls in this surreal city where life and death run in parallel lanes every day.
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune. This article first appeared in The Daily Star’s Star Weekend Magazine in 2013.