This interview, retrieved from the Dhaka Tribune archive, is reprinted in tribute to Bangladesh’s greatest folklorist
Shamsuzzaman Khan was perhaps the most acclaimed folklorist and a prominent scholar in Bangladesh. He was a former Director General of Bangla Academy. He authored many books on descriptive and theoretical issues in folklore studies, including Folklore in Bangladesh, Festivals in Bangladesh, Sampratik Folklore Bhabna, and a series called Bangla Academy Folklore Songrohomala. During his tenure as DG of the Academy, he actively promoted the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with Dhaka Tribune, first published in the November 2017 issue of Arts & Letters, he expressed his warmth for the festival and talked about why translation of Bengali fiction and poetry was essential to promoting Bengali literature internationally.
Bangla Academy hosts the Dhaka Lit Fest at its historical premises. How did your involvement with the festival evolve over the years?
We have always been putting in our best effort to promote Bengali literature and culture to the world. Dhaka Lit Fest started its journey to step up this effort. It was then known as Hay Festival and Bangla Academy hosted it for three years till 2014. From the very beginning, however, I wanted the festival title to be renamed so that it showed our distinctiveness. We know that these kinds of festivals are named after cities where they take place. The directors of the DLF were also thinking in a similar vein. Tariq Ali, a British Pakistani writer and journalist, joined the Hay Festival, perhaps in its second or third year. I had a long conversation with him at my office, and he also suggested that we rename the festival after a distinct aspect of Bangladesh. I felt reassured that what I felt was echoed in others as well. I discussed these issues with the directors of the lit fest and they were convinced. The festival has since been renamed after Dhaka which has always been famous for muslin, mosque and relics of Mughal Empire. I think this is a significant achievement for our country. The festival has passed a significant phase over the years. I hope the festival continues to grow under the deft leadership of the festival directors – Kazi Anis Ahmed, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz. Now the world learns about our culture through this festival.
The DLF was limited in space and scope. Gradually it is increasing and being more inclusive. How do you see its expansion over the years?
The DLF brings a host of internationally eminent writers and poets in our country. The line-up includes local artists and writers as well. For our readers and literature lovers, it’s a rare opportunity to see such big names speak in front of them or to pass them by, or to hear them talk about their own works. Earlier they could see them only in photos or films, but now they watch them participate in panel discussion and also get the opportunity to talk and shake hands with them.
With a translation division set in 1961, Bangla Academy is playing a big role in translating Bengali works into other languages and fostering our literary development. Why this emphasis on translation?
We have realised that the promotion of our literature could not be done without the help of a lingua franca such as English or French or Spanish. In our country opportunities are limited for learning French and Spanish. However, we have been practising and using English since the British rule. So, this language is now playing this intermediary role to promote our culture and literature around the world. The objective is to train our students in English so that they can make the best use of this foreign language. Our effort is to improve this overall infrastructure of linguistic training so that the quality of our translation improves significantly. We sent out many translations to foreign publishers but only the ones done by Prof Fakrul Alam and Prof Kaiser Haq were accepted. The translations done by these two excel both in terms of quality and fluency, and also have greater international acceptability. I think the Dhaka Lit Fest also helps improve this linguistic infrastructure and creates a strong pathway to produce works of quality translation. Just imagine how powerful the poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das is, or the novels by Manik Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushon Majumdar or Syed Waliullah. Just because they remain very poorly translated, the world barely knows about their works. Haven’t they produced works of timeless stories, now regarded as classics, that deserve to be parts of what many call ‘world literature’?
Are you conducting any folklore research at the moment?
I am working on some advanced research. Earlier I focused on details and information so that our readers could understand them easily. One of my mentors, Hermann Bausinger, wrote a book, Folk Culture in a World of Technology. He explores in it how the scope of folklore is widening in our urban lifestyle, culture and technology, with new phenomena like web and social media. The traditional discussion of folklore is changing in our urban setting. He says that folklore is never dying, rather it’s taking on newer dimensions. My current work of research has a similar framework that is truly broad in its scope.