The Saga of an [Un] translator

Sikandar Ali

20 August, 2020 12:00 AM printer

When I joined a government college nearly two decades ago qualifying in BCS (Education), I devoted part of my time to translating Bengali poems into English. As a translator the challenge you confront first is making a judicious selection of poems. Quite in keeping with a free-lance work, I did not target work of a particular author or fix the poems belonging to a specific category but randomly picked up the ones that came my way and took my fancy. The poems included ode, sonnet, elegy, rhymed verse, free verse etc. The poets were a motley crew -- some eminent, some under-eminent and a good many of them totally obscure. The number of translated poems, as it stood then, was well over half a hundred.

Frankly, when I took to translating, I had no particular audience in mind. But certainly Bengalee readers did not figure as my target audience. None but a fool will turn to translation when the original is available at hand, unless one is curious more about the quality of translation than the piece of literature itself. On the other hand, never for a moment had I nurtured the delusion that my translation would capture the interest of readers outside the country whose mother tongue was not Bangla. Pulling an international audience through a work of translation is something of a rarity, to say the least. Were it, for instance, a piece of classic turned out in splendid translation by a formidable translator, it could possibly win a section of readers across the border or in regions having some cultural features in common. But chances of success are even slimmer in Europe and America. The question, then, pertinently arises is: who is supposed to be the target audience for a Bangla to English translator?

In my opinion, those who set to translate literary works into English cannot but be constantly dogged by a sense of purposelessness- there are, of course, a few honorable exceptions- unless one is a bit too carried away by romantic speculation of acquiring enduring fame through it. What, then, is the driving force behind voluntarily undertaking a painstaking task such as the one I did and many fresh English graduates are prone to do when they are well aware that the whole effort could turn out to be an exercise in futility? To some it could be fun, to some fashion, to others, a pastime or a way of brushing up their English knowledge. But most of them, I suspect - may God forgive me if my suspicion is wrong - are motivated by a vague aspiration of being recognised as a ‘translator’. In all fairness, whatever be the motive, when one is prepared to spend a significant portion of his/her time on translation out of love, you cannot simply dismiss it as something of a gimmick, if you really care for this discipline to grow. There might be some genuinely talented people whose service could be put to good use. Here the publishers have a crucial role to play.

While my translation was in progress, I never seriously contemplated bringing it out in book form. Just a couple of them were published in English periodicals. Then, one afternoon, having spent about two years on my work, I approached a friend, albeit half-heartedly, at his bookshop in Dhaka, who had by then acquired the reputation as a first-rate publisher. When I took up the matter with him over a mug of coffee, he bit his lips and looked out of the window indifferently, trying as hard as he could to hide his feelings, nonetheless betraying all indications that the idea was repugnant to him. In course of our discussion, with a scornful contortion on his face he pointed to a couple of translation works of similar nature which, in his words, merely adorned the shelf and, as a whole, proved a miserable commercial failure. Clearly he was not inclined to add one more to that.  He didn’t fail to point out that investing hundreds of hours on my work was not enough; it also involved spending thousands. In his infinite wisdom he further went on to tell that I should use my time and energy more cautiously and in more productive areas. I listened to his friendly advice with a smile on lips but pain at heart.

 Not that I could not afford to pay to have my work published but it was my sense of pride that was hurt the most. Frankly, the cobweb of fantasy that I had woven around my work was ripped apart and my frail hope of graduating to a recognised ‘translator’ gradually faded away.

Like the proverbial Ancient Mariner who turned a sadder and a wiser man, I have at last learnt the trick of the trade and a publisher is ready to bring it out. But meanwhile my priorities have changed. I’ve far outgrown the romantic child that defined my being nearly two decades ago. My judgment of good translation has also changed comprehensively. Now my draft needs extensive revision. With great difficulty I have been able to persuade myself to undertake the revision and spend dozens more unwilling hours on it. At any rate, it gladdens my heart to think that my love’s labour is not going to be lost at last.   


The writer teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet. He can be reached at: [email protected]