The visible growth of quality translations of Bangladeshi fiction and poetry warrants a look at this list
Quality English translation is the vehicle by which the rich heritage of Bangladeshi literature can navigate the world. Literary translation of Bangladeshi fiction and poetry has grown slowly but steadily over the past two decades, despite many challenges. However, many commendable translations produced by our talented translators could not break into the Anglophone markets. Not quality but the lack of proper promotion is to be blamed for it. Arts & Letters with its commitment to promote Bangladeshi literature continues to endorse quality translations.
The list below is a selection of commendable translations of fictional and poetic texts from Bangladesh that deserve wide circulation. This is the second in a series, which aims to introduce Anglophone readers to the rich literary heritage of Bangladeshi literature.
In a world caught unawares by a global pandemic, when outdoor leisure activities are still widely discouraged and books remain our best companions, this list gives you some idea what to read next.
(The books in this list are presented in order of their publication date)
Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology, and Glossary
Translated by Fakrul Alam
Published by The University Press Ltd (1999)
Jibanananda Das (1899-1954) is perhaps the most influential poet in the history of modern Bengali poetry. Nevertheless, he remains a poet little known outside West Bengal and Bangladesh. This translation of his selected poems is designed to emphasize how Das's poems are great treasures of our literature. The first edition of Fakrul Alam's English translations was intended to mark the birth centenary celebrations of Jibanananda Das in 1999. In later editions, more translations were added to present readers with a broader range of Das's poetry. Lovers of poetry outside the Bengali-speaking world will get a sense of the richness of Das's poetry, his growth as a poet, and the extraordinary range of his work through these translations.
Tree Without Roots by Syed Waliullah
Transcreated by the author himself
Edited by Niaz Zaman
Published by The University Press Ltd (2005)
Tree Without Roots is the English translation of Syed Waliullah’s classic novel Lal Shalu. With no land or skills to support himself, Majeed preys upon the simple rural folk by exploiting religion, becoming the self-appointed guardian of a mazar, which he claims is that of a saint. Not satisfied with his first wife, he marries again, this time a woman who is not as amenable as his loving first wife. In the English version, now generally believed to be translated by Syed Waliullah himself, Majeed acquires a certain grandeur at the end, returning alone to the mazar defying raging flood waters. A picture of rural Bangladesh in the early forties, Tree Without Roots also provides a picture of eternal Bangladesh, subject to the ravages of nature, of storms and floods, of cyclones and dying rivers.
Though critical of the practice of using religion to exploit people, Syed Waliullah looks sympathetically at Majeed for whom religion means food and shelter. Told in Syed Waliullah’s simple, idiomatic and occasionally lyrical English, Tree Without Roots is imperative reading for anyone interested in knowing the Bengali mind and the impact of religion and superstition on the rural populace.
Galpa: Short Stories by Women from Bangladesh
Edited by Niaz Zaman and Firdous Azim
Published by Rachana Writers.ink (2005)
Beginning with Roquiah Sakhawat Husseins Sultana's Dream, the anthology spans a hundred years of women's writing from this region and is representative of the variety of issues that women from Bangladesh tackle in their writings. It includes stories about the War of Liberation, women’s honour, mother-daughter relationships, the vagaries of marriage and contemporary political corruption. Well-established and award-winning women writers such as Selina Hussain, Rabeya Khatoon, Nasreen Jahan, Purabi Basu, and Shaheen Akhtar along with emerging writers who are beginning to make their mark have been represented here, the better to evoke the broad range of women's literary voices. Galpa has been co-edited by Firdous Azim and Niaz Zaman, who have earlier collaborated on Infinite Variety, Bhinno Chokhe, and Different Perspectives.
Radha Will Not Cook Today and Other Stories by Purabi Basu
Translated by various translators
Edited by Niaz Zaman
Published by Writers.ink (2007)
Written over a span of thirty years, from the mid-seventies to the present, the stories in this anthology suggest the range of Purabi Basu's themes as well as the versatility of her craft. At the same time, whether writing about a mythic region as in "The Rage of Moonlight" or about contemporary America as in "Stairs," whether couched in the poetic lilt of "Radha Will Not Cook Today" or in the prosaic listing of scientific data of "Mother-Earth," the stories reveal the writer's feminist concerns as well as her deep humanistic sensibilities. Her variety of styles, structure and language is sure to appeal to a range of readers. Despite being translations, the stories in this volume, rendered into English by translators, many of whom are poets or short story writers, in Bangla or in English, literary editors and editors of literary magazines, will help convey to an audience not familiar with the original Bangla the richness of Purabi Basu's talent.
Ibrahim Buksh’s Circus and Other Stories by Shahaduz Zaman
Translated by Sonia Amin
Published by The University Press Limited (2008)
Shahaduz Zaman's content, style and form do not follow a set or conventional pattern. He combines the narrative style of folk tales with the most intricate and experimental elements of modern day storytelling, to create his own oeuvre. Prose, poetry, fantasy and reality break their own boundaries and blend in his work. He’s also published non-fiction books on film, travelogue, collection of interviews and essays on issues related to art and culture.
Caged in Paradise and Other Stories by Rizia Rahman
Edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasnat Islam
Published by The University Press Ltd (2010)
The stories in this anthology have been selected from four decades of Rizia Rahman’s literary career, from the seventies to the present. The stories have been arranged fairly chronologically to suggest the development of the writer over the years. The stories cover a wide range of themes- from the rural to the urban, from historical events to contemporary situations, from feminist to humanist issues, from familiar to social concerns, from demographic to ecological changes.
The stories focus on the disparities and conflicts in both private and public arenas, on the socio-economic injustices that destroy human values and intrinsic rights, and on the personal weaknesses that distort human relationships.
Most of the stories are rooted in Bangladesh; some stories however bear references to international personalities and events that reveal a global consciousness. The stories not only introduce readers to a major Bangladeshi writer, but also make rewarding reading for anyone interested in serious literature.
The Perfect Model and Other Stories by Anis Choudhury
Translated by Kaiser Haq
Published by Writers.ink (2010)
Anis Choudhury (1929-1990) made his literary debut in the 1940s, a decade that witnessed the beginnings of a modern movement in art and literature in Bengal. He soon came to be counted among the handful of writers who excelled in more than one genre. As a creative writer he has won a lasting place in the literary history of Bangladesh. As a short story writer, novelist and playwright he has given expression to varied aspects of Bangladeshi life. He is equally sensitive to the texture of Bangladeshi society, the historical contradictions Bangladesh has gone through, and the tensions and violent upheaval in politics.
The Woman Who Flew by Nasreen Jahan
Translated by Kaiser Haq
Published by Penguin (2012)
The Woman Who Flew (Urukkoo) tells the story of Nina, a young woman who moves from small-town Bangladesh to the megacity of Dhaka, where she soon finds herself divorced, bereaved of her newborn and trapped in a mundane existence. Hungry for fresh air, Nina strikes up a friendship with her mother’s handsome ex-lover, Irfan, who encourages her to paint again. But as Nina tugs at her chains, her sexually confused ex-husband, Rezaul, insinuates himself back into her life, leaving her pregnant.
Intense, edgy and tinged with rage, The Woman Who Flew lays bare the inner world of a woman beating her wings against a hostile, conservative landscape.
Freedom's mother by Anisul Hoque
Translated by Falguni Ray
Published by Palimpsest Publishing House (2012)
Freedom's Mother traces the invisible link between a gutsy woman's rebellion and a people's fight for independence. Long before women's rights became a fashionable term, Safia Begum protected her dignity as a wife and turned her back on the security of a lavish home. It was only natural that the rough and raw of war would enter her distressed household. Her only child joined the guerrilla campaign and she did not hold him back. Her home doubled up as a guerrilla base. After Azad was captured by the army, Safia Begum met him in the lockup. “Baba, I hope you have not given away your friends in the face of torture,” she told him, blowing away the last chance to save him.
In the backdrop of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Freedom's Mother is an epic tale of a woman's heroism that captures the pulse of an extraordinary time.
The Merman’s Prayer and Other Stories by Syed Manzoorul Islam
Translated by the author himself
Published by Daily Star Books (2013)
The stories compiled in this collection constitute a very small part of Syed Manzoorul Islam’s creative writing. Put together, they nonetheless show all the traits unique to his storytelling. His narrator is continuously talking to readers, preparing them for the twists and turns the stories take. When the stories begin, readers are invited to become the narrator’s co-travellers as he promises to take them through a world where the boundaries between dream and reality blur every so often. The stories are told with poise and humour in the great Bengali oral tradition. His characters come from the fringes of society as well as from the urban middle class, and are drawn with compassion, understanding and power. Their desires and deprivations, their ecstasies and frustrations are all presented in a narrative which is magical and lucid at the same time.
On My Birthday and Other Poems in Translation
Selection of Poems from Bangladesh and West Bengal in Translation
Translated by Khademul Islam
Published by Bengal Lights Books (2016)
This book is a striking collection of translated poems from Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. They demonstrate the astonishing diversity and range of Bengali poets, as well as the enduring affinities, across a political and geographical divide, inherent in a common mother tongue and cultural heritage. The inclusion of the artwork that accompanied their original publication makes for a vivid and unique reading experience of the poems. The poets featured in the book include Buddhadev Bose, Samar Sen, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Mohammad Rafiq, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Mallika Sengupta, Asad Chowdhury, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Rafiq Azad, Ruby Rahman, Belal Chowdhury, Rafiq Azad, Taslima Nasreen and Rashida Sultana.
Selected Poems: Shamsur Rahman
Translated by Kaiser Haq
Second Edition Published by Pathak Samabesh (2016)
Shamsur Rahman was described as “the greatest Bengali poet of his generation” in a Guardian (London) obituary penned by William Radice. It is a view widely shared by Bengali readers in both Bangladesh and India. Rahman’s poetry ranges from the personal to the political, the lyrical to the meditative, the modernist to the nationalist. In this selection the complete range of his poetic achievement is presented to the Anglophone reader.
Deep Within the Heart by Syed Shamsul Haq
Translated by Sonia Amin
Published by Bengal Publications (2016)
Written in a dialect, Deep Within the Heart holds a unique place in modern Bengali poetry. It’s a collection of 33 sonnets marked with numbers, rather than titles. Taking inspiration from folk forms and rural lives, Syed Shamsul Haq explores the intricacies and intimacies of romantic relationship, the eternal interplay between a man and a woman. There are allusions to legends, myths, magical beliefs or practices of rural Bengal here. The rich, sensuous texture of the poems portrays the universal sense of loss, powerlessness and longing. It’s a timeless magical creation of Syed Shamsul Haq.
Rasha: Little Girl, Big Heart by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal
Translated by Arunava Sinha
Published by Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd (2016)
The breathtaking story of a feisty young girl Fifteen-year-old Rasha is abandoned by her mother in a village with her aged and probably mad-grandmother. Uprooted from her school and her friends back in cosmopolitan Dhaka, a disgruntled Rasha has to start life afresh in a faraway place with no electricity, incessant rains, nosy neighbours and a primitive school. Refusing to resign to the circumstances, Rasha rises against them and turns indomitable. Exposing a bullying teacher, nipping a child marriage in the bud, learning to take a boat to school and teaching her classmates how to use computers-these are only a few of this young girl s incredible exploits! But just as Rasha settles into her new life, new friends in tow, she is confronted by a nightmarish past that once ravaged her family. Will Rasha survive this daunting, and astounding, adventure?
Selected Poems of Kamal Chowdhury
Translated by fellows of Dhaka Translation Center
Published by Bengal Lights Books (2017)
With his unique style and prolific output addressing a diverse range of topics, Kamal Chowdhury enjoys a special place in the world of contemporary Bengali poetry. Over the past four decades, the poet has published sixteen volumes wherein he has skilfully explored poetry in all its forms. This collection presents an exclusive selection of his work, 125 poems taken from ten of his collections and translated into English by fellows of the Dhaka Translation Centre at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. The poems within are a discovery of the self and an exploration of joy and agony, fears and compulsions, life and death, man and nature. They will take readers on a journey encompassing the present as well as the past, across Bangladesh—its ordinary homes, paddy fields and riverbanks, cities and towns—and beyond, to the deserts of Egypt, the Kenyan savannah or some corner of Europe or North America.
This Path: Selected Poems of Mohammad Rafiq
Translated by Carolyn B. Brown
Published by Bengal Lights Books (2018)
This Path gathers poems by Mohammad Rafiq written over the course of more than forty years. During this time, Bengali readers have witnessed not only the evolution of a poet’s distinctive personal vision and voice but also a reflection of the changing fortunes of his homeland. Myths, folklore, and recent history are interwoven with timeless images of water and sky, sun and rain, clouds and dust. Now readers of English will have the opportunity to enter a poetic world populated by villagers, farmers, and boatmen, freedom fighters and autocrats, prostitutes and queens, where the wind carries the “burnt smell of sandalwood and sorrow” and hands are “spilling over with mud-spattered flowers.” The poet’s capacious imagination is reflected in striking juxtapositions: the river Styx flows beside the Padma and Jamuna; Adam and Eve coexist with Kuber and Kapila; and Cinderella’s face is a step away from Behula’s bridal chamber.
This Path includes notes from the author and translator and a foreword from Clinton B. Seely, University of Chicago professor emeritus, scholar of Bengali language and literature.
The Ballad of Ayesha by Anisul Hoque
Translated by Inam Ahmed
Published by HarperPerennial (2018)
Dhaka. 2 October 1977. A military coup is thwarted, but the exact sequence of events is shrouded in mystery. Soon after, Ayesha Begum, recovering from the birth of her second child, receives a letter from the air force stating that her husband Joynal Abedin has been sentenced to death, convicted of insurgency. But has the verdict been carried out? If it was, when and where was he executed? If he was indeed hanged, what has happened to his body? Trying to find answers to these questions, Ayesha embarks on a long and arduous quest to search for her husband, reminiscent of Behula's epic journey in her effort to resurrect her dead husband Lakhinder in the Bengali folktale Manashamangal. Set against the backdrop of a raging famine, political assassinations and coups that took Bangladesh by storm right after its independence in 1971, Anisul Hoque's The Ballad of Ayesha is as much a story of the newly created nation as it is the story of its people.
Rifat Anjum Pia is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.