Radha Chakravarty has, for many of us, been synonymous to translations that we read – excellent translations of Tagore, Bankim and Mahasweta Devi – major names from Bengal in Literature. A well-respected academic who specialises in translations, Tagore, Mahasweta Devi, Women’s Literature, South Asian Literature, Subaltern Writings and Comparative Literature, in this exclusive she talks to us of the multiple journeys in her development as a translator, critic and writer.
You are an eminent translator, editor, critic and writer. What started you out on this path?These are separate yet interlinked roles, different journeys yet part of the same narrative of my involvement with the world of words. I started writing when I was a child, but came to think of publishing my creative work many years later, when journal editors began to solicit my poetry for publication. My poems have now appeared in many books and journals, in India and internationally. It was a wonderful collaborative experience to contribute to Pandemic: A Worldwide Community Poem (Muse Pie Press, USA), nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020.
My work as a critic evolved through engagement with research. Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers (Routledge, 2008) for instance, emerged from my doctoral research, a cross cultural study of writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Anita Desai, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Buchi Emecheta. Novelist Tagore (Routledge, 2013) draws upon my research on gender and modernity in Tagore’s novels. My essays and reviews come from my areas of specialization, including Tagore Studies, women’s writing, South Asian Studies, Comparative Literature and Translation Studies.
As an editor, my work is inspired by the idea of sahitya, the Bengali word for “literature” that Tagore interprets as “being with” or “being together”. This idea of collaboration and dialogue across heterogeneities fascinates me. My edited volumes, such as Bodymaps (Zubaan, 2007), a collection of South Asian women’s stories on the body, Vermillion Clouds (Women Unlimited, 2010), an anthology showcasing a century of fiction by Bengali women and Writing Feminism (co-edited with Selina Hossain; UPL, 2010), containing selections of South Asian feminist writing, are inspired by this principle. My most exciting collaborative project as an editor, so far, was The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva-Bharati, 2011), where my co-editor Fakrul Alam and I worked with thirty reputed South Asian translators located in different countries, on the largest anthology of Tagore’s writings across ten genres. The volume, named the ‘Book of the Year’ 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, has since become a standard reference for Tagore scholars worldwide.
As for translation, I started dabbling in informal translations, across Bengali, English and Hindi, even as a child. My grandfather, who taught me advanced Bengali at home, often involved me in these linguistic experiments. My first published translation happened almost by accident, in the 1990s. A friend, an Israeli art historian, asked me to explain the lyrics of the Bollywood song daiya re daiya re charh gaye papi bichhwaa (the poisoned scorpion climbed on me), because she was researching the scorpion motif in the Khajuraho scultpures. I ended up translating the entire song into English, in verse! My friend was amazed. She included my translation of the song with due credit, in her essay on the scorpion, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of India. As for my early books in translation, I must thank my friends, the editors and publishers who urged me to take up those projects. They saw in me a potential I had not fully recognised myself. Later, the overwhelming recognition that these books received transformed my self-image. I began to think of myself as a translator, among many other things.
You started by translating Mahasweta Devi. When and why did you start translating Tagore? What moved you from Mahasweta Devi to Tagore?
At the turn of the century, I was immersed in the challenge of translating into English the heterogeneities of contemporary Bengali fiction. Crossings: Stories from Bangladesh and India (2003), my first published book of translations, included the stories of twenty living writers. Alongside, I was working on In the Name of the Mother, my translations of some powerful, unusual stories about motherhood by Mahasweta Devi. The volume appeared soon after Crossings.Meanwhile, I received a sudden call from Rani Ray—once my teacher, now a friend, mentor and figure of inspiration—urging me to translate Tagore’s Chokher Bali (A grain of Sand) an important but neglected text. I remember the shock and awe I felt at that moment. I protested that I was no Tagore expert, much as I loved and admired his work, but Rani di was adamant. “I think you are the right person to translate this novel,” she insisted. I found myself promising that I would try. And that was how my journey as a Tagore translator began. I read the novel, was struck by its boldness as a path-breaking modern text, and felt daunted but also tremendously excited at the challenge of trying to translate this hundred-year-old text that was at once so rooted in its context, and yet so far ahead of its time. Translating Chokher Bali was an immersive experience. It transformed me, drew me into a lifelong relationship with Tagore, and there has been no looking back.
Was translating Tagore different from translating Mahasweta Devi or Bankim? How was it similar/ different?
As I said, I first translated contemporary writing before turning my attention to Tagore. My translation of Bankim’s Kapalkundala came in 2005, after I had also translated Tagore’s Shesher Kabita as Farewell Song. So the transition from Mahasweta and other contemporary figures, to Tagore’s early twentieth century texts, and then to Bankim’s nineteenth century novel was like a journey back in time, delving further and further into the Bengali literary past. Of late, I have been translating parts of the Chandrabati Ramayana, a sixteenth century composition. Each step in this journey has been a process of exploration and rediscovery through translation, of familiar and much loved texts that I had read avidly in my early life, never dreaming that I might one day aspire to translate these literary jewels.
After working with living writers, the transition to Tagore was not easy. When translating Chokher Bali, I felt the need to evoke the flavour of a bygone age, even in a contemporary translation for the twenty-first century reader. This involved complex creative experiments with style and vocabulary that stretched my abilities as a translator. One felt the importance of bringing to life the cultural ethos of Bengal in the late nineteenth century, a world in many ways unfamiliar to readers of our time. Simultaneously, I recognized the modernity of Tagore’s novel, the new element of interiority that transformed the Bengali novel at his magic touch. That needed to be brought to life too.
Moving from Tagore to Bankim offered a fresh set of challenges. The lyrical, Sanskritised cadences of Kapalkundala are far removed from the more modern idiom of Tagore’s novels. Bankim’s text is set in the Mughal period. Hence the translator must actually negotiate the past at a double level, to bring to the modern reader the late medieval ethos as represented through Bankim’s nineteenth century sensibility. Crossing these temporal and cultural divides demanded daring experiments with language, as well as considerable research to contextualize the source text. It was a learning process for me.
Working with the Chandrabati Ramayana is a different experience altogether. A radical text for its times, and one that challenges the mainstream literary tradition, it remains a text worth returning to in our own context, because it destabilizes monolithic conceptions of our premodern religious and social traditions. Finding in English an idiom that will capture the poetry as well as the content is a hard task though.
These adventures in translation have compelled me to read the Bengali literary tradition from a different angle, from a writerly perspective, as it were. I have realized that translation involves a creative element, but also works as a form of interpretation. It has become clear to me why translation can be described as the most intimate act of reading.
In the Jaipur Literary Festival (2017), you made a very interesting observation that if one does not get into the skin of a writer, one cannot capture the essence of the writer in entirety. Are all good translations more of transcreations that literal translations?
Translation often appears to me a form of ventriloquism, the translator’s voice making itself heard through the voice of the source text. It produces a double-voiced text. My endeavour, when translating, is to bring to life the spirit rather than the literal vocabulary of the source text. One struggles to apprehend, interpret, and then, through one’s own creative ability in the target language, to approximate the impulse behind the original. A doubleness comes into play here, due to the gap in time, location, language, culture and context that separates the translation from the source text. In this tension resides the dynamic potential of translation to simultaneously recognize and displace the original. The success of a translation often depends on the translator’s creativity, as well as the author’s.
What is your opinion of Tagore’s own translation of his works? Can you expand on that?
Tagore’s English translations of his own work shot him to international fame and led to the Nobel Prize. Yet he was diffident about his own command of English, and unsure about the quality of his translations. Some of these translations resorted to archaisms and a rather stilted style that did not weather the test of time very well. They were partly responsible, I feel, for the fluctuations in Tagore’s international reputation after the initial flush of success. Certainly, they are not close copies of the original Bengali texts; rather, they are re-creations in a different language, for a different readership. While some readers may cavil at the gap between the source texts and their English versions, these translations, in my opinion, remain important instances of the ways in which translation can connect different cultures through dynamic border crossings. The Kabir translations for instance, drawing upon the work of Kshitimohan Sen, and produced by Tagore in collaboration with Evelyn Underhill, provide a fascinating instance of the translingual and transcultural border-crossings that were involved in this process.
Sometimes Tagore adopted unorthodox collaborative measures when working with translations.
We know about the English translations of course, but it is worth remembering that Tagore also translated numerous premodern poets into Bengali and English, from a range of different languages, often drawing upon eclectic sources and relying on the assistance of others more knowledgeable about the languages and literary cultures of the source texts. I have recently published an essay on Tagore’s translations of medieval poetry, where I argue that these should be read, not as literal, faithful renderings that seek to cling close to the source texts, but rather, as transcreations that resituate these early texts in new, unfamiliar contexts. What takes place in his translations of Bhakti poetry, for instance, is also a meeting of different faiths, across diverse histories and geographies.
Can a translation be done from a translated piece into the same language? Would such a revision be of value?
Intralingual translations can be found in many literary cultures. Sometimes, texts in formal or classical versions of a language get translated into a modern, colloquial idiom, to reach a wider audience in a different time period. Often, these can be read as democratizing moves, arising from dynamic historical shifts that bring about an interrogation of social and linguistic hierarchies. The bridging of gaps between “high” and “popular” cultures can be attempted through such processes. These translations imagine into being new readerships for older texts, giving them a new and altered “afterlife”. The market also dertermines some of these things, especially when it comes to promoting modern versions of enduring texts that are regarded as classics. Intralingual translation can blur the borderline between translation and adaptation.
Can a translation to another language be done from a translation say in English, and still have the authenticity of the original writer?
It is currently a widely prevalent practice to use English translations as source texts for re-translation of texts into other languages. English as the language of global currency provides a useful medium for such translingual, often transnational interchanges. In India, despite our multilingual culture, there is dearth of translators who can work across Indian languages without taking recourse to English as a via media. This is part of the colonial legacy, which transformed our premodern polyglot culture through the compartmentalization and codification of the “modern Indian languages”. Today, bilingual and multilingual Indian scholars and translators are scarce. Hence, traffic across Indian languages tends to take place via English. The need of the hour is to regenerate a culture where the true potential of our multilingualism can be acknowledged, through a revaluation of polyglot scholarship.
Collaborative translation also holds immense possibilities for South Asian cultures, where diverse forms of linguistic and literary expertise can be harnessed, to work directly across our many languages, without always using English as a crutch. We already possess a rich history of collaborative translations in our literary past. This can inspire us to develop models for translation that involve mutual relationships between translators working in different languages.
How do you deal with translating multiple languages used by a writer into English? How would you indicate the presence of dialects or another language in the text you are translating from Bengali to English?
This question is particularly pertinent to the writings of Mahasweta Devi, where we find extraordinary instances of heteroglossia and multilingualism, in ostensibly monolingual texts. In a single story, such as “Draupadi”, we find chaste and colloquial Bengali, Santhal song, Hindi words and phrases, and English expressions, as well as quotations from various sources. Such texts challenge the monolingual paradigm to indicate that our cultural ethos, and also our sensibility, is always already multilingual. The idea of “pure” language is destabilized, to dramatize, in the words of the text, the dynamic interaction of various languages and linguistic registers. The social and political hierarchies that underlie this interplay of languages come to the fore through the rhetoric of the text. In such instances, the translator faces a tremendous challenge, especially with English as a target language so far removed from South Asian linguistic cultures. This tests the translator’s imagination and creativity, and demands the ability to summon up suitable strategies to deal with the challenges posed by the source text.
In my own translations, I prefer to highlight the forms of otherness operational in the source text, instead of erasing these markers of difference in order to create a smooth and easy style that would comfort a reader unfamiliar with written Bengali or South Asian cultures. To a great extent, I try to retain “untranslatable” cultural elements such as kinship terms, or names of trees, flowers, food and clothing. The use of italics also needs to be rationalised, depending on the demands of the source text, as well as the context, purpose and target audience for the translation. I prefer to keep notes and glossaries to a minimum, wanting instead that the reader engage actively in making meaning of the translation. In other words, I like to foreground the “translatedness” of the translation, as a text from elsewhere. At the same time, though, I don’t carry the process of defamiliarization so far as to completely destroy the readability of the target text. After all, I translate in order to be read. And I translate for the general reader, because I want my translations to have as wide and eclectic a readership as possible. It is my mission to bring writers from our own culture to the rest of the world, not just for a select coterie of erudite scholars.
Has translating all these writers impacted your own writing and thought processes as a critic? How?
As a critic, one reads a book from the outside, as it were. It is the analytical faculty that comes to the fore, even in close reading. When translating, something different happens. Translation, like literary criticism, involves close reading, interpretation and contextualization. But the actual process of translating also involves other faculties beyond the rational and intellectual. A feel for language is required, an element of emotion, and a creative ability to find strategies that will make the text viable in a new language for a new audience. One gets drawn into the source text through the process of rewriting or reinventing it, instead of striving for critical distance. Elements of affect, and the pleasure of the text, bring the process of translation alive. Criticism treats the text as a stable entity to be interpreted and analysed, while translation destabilizes the fixity of the “original” and makes us aware of its potential mutability. As a practising translator, I think I have become more sensitive to the “writerly” aspect of the texts that I read as a critic. I have also become more sharply aware of the way canons are formed, and the ways in which translation can trigger transformations in prevalent literary and linguistic hierarchies.
How do you find the time to juggle between academics, translations and writing?
It can be a tightrope walk. But if something matters enough, one tries to make time for it. Always, one is up against the feeling of racing against time. So much to do, and so little time. A lifetime is too short.
What are your future plans? Do we have anything new in the offing?
I find myself immersed in many different adventures with words. Currently, I am working on The Tagore Phenomenon (Allen Lane, forthcoming), a giant anthology that showcases Tagore’s works as a polymath whose oeuvre covers an extraordinary range of subjects, including nationalism, internationalism, education, social issues, nature and environment, spritituality, science, literature and the arts, rural reconstruction, religion, philosophy and humanism, to name a few. A new translation of Char Adhyay (Four Quartets), Tagore’s last novel, is on the way.
Our Santiniketan, to be soon published by Seagull, is my English translation of Mahasweta Devi’s recollections of her days in Santiniketan as a little schoolgirl. An entire ethos, a bygone era, comes to life in these memoirs, invoking the world of Santiniketan in the living presence of Rabindranath Tagore, during the 1930s. Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Visionary, an edited volume, will bring together scholarly essays and translations showcasing the writer’s life, work and critical reception across cultures. I am also translating selected essays by Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose prose deserves far more attention than it has so far received.
Alongside, my poetry continues to appear in print, in diverse forums. Translations of my poems have also been published. Drawing my poems together in a collected volume is a long overdue project, waiting to happen …
Thank you for giving us your time Professor Radha Chakravarty.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal. The interview was published in the Borderless Journal on July 14, 2021)