There is the mother tongue. There is the other tongue. And there is that bridge that takes each important story ever told from one to the other, journeying it beyond geography, culture and time—the bridge that is the translator.
Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator of over 40 Bengali titles—classic, modern, and contemporary fiction and nonfiction—into English across Europe, US and Asia. He has won the Crossword and Muse India translation awards among others, and teaches creative writing at the Ashoka University.
Arunava takes me back to a time when translation was a non-existent profession, forget being a decently paid or popular one!
How did you begin your journey in translation?
My first memory is probably not of the first time I translated, but my first memory really is giving a talk on translation in college. There’s a strange story…when you’re 16, everyone reads Ayn Rand. And you’re in its thrall for exactly a year or so and then you realise what a load of tripe it is. What happened was that I was fascinated by architecture in reading The Fountainhead and then I discovered that architecture was this blend of science and art, much like music. You need all the precision of science but you also need the creativity of the art.
“Shankar made me sign on a piece of a paper and later it turned out that I was signing over my copyright to him; I had no idea about these things back then.”
And that was where it struck me a little later than translation was exactly the same thing when it came to literature. That there is a science and there is an art. Precision is part of the outcome but you need the art as well. That is how I got intellectually seduced by the idea of translation. I had started reading in Bangla from the age of 4 and till about the age of 8 I read almost exclusively in Bangla, and then I switched overnight to English. Bangla was a familiar world and English brought a familiar world in. In college I wrote about translations at an undergraduate level and that was when I also started translating short stories.
A little later, some of us started a city magazine in Calcutta called The Skyline. Till that time I had mostly set myself on the academic track…do a BA, MA, get a PHD, go on to teach etc. But we started the city magazine and I kind of got hooked on to that. And I dropped out of my MA class. One of the things we did at the magazine was to translate one Bangla short story every month at the issue. I was 21 or 22 then. The very first story that I translated was one of Shankar’s. Then, a few years later, Shankar got in touch with me and said that a French publisher was interested in publishing Chowringhee in French and wants to read it in English first. Here was a well-known writer asking you to translate his novel which was very well known, so I translated it. This was in 1992. Shankar made me sign on a piece of a paper and later it turned out that I was signing over my copyright to him; I had no idea about these things back then.
Cut to 2006, 14 years later. I get a call from Diya Kar Hazra saying they are planning to publish Chowringhee in English and that they got in touch with the author and he had forgotten the name of its original translator! But he gave her the printout on which I had been smart enough to put my name on. So that is how the ball rolled on.
“Ideally you try to keep a translator’s voice down to a bare minimum, and preferably invisible.”
How do you make sure that a story is not lost but found in translation?
Ideally you try to keep a translator’s voice down to a bare minimum, and preferably invisible. I started very organically and I continue to work organically. But it is to my mind important to be invisible, as invisible as you possibly can be, and also to not interpret. It is important that you let the ambiguities and the richness of the original allusions and meanings to pass on into the new language so that it is the reader who interprets rather than the translator who interprets. The other point is that you are translating not just what you are reading but also the silences. And the way to do that, I’ve discovered, is to be led by the text. By not adding anything, by not taking away anything. To me the phrase ‘Lost in Translation’ only refers to the work that has not been translated and is therefore lost.
Your views on a translator’s relationship with the author.
That’s not relevant at all. In fact I prefer not to discuss anything with the author when I’m translating. If the author is alive and if the author is interested then sometimes I make a list of areas where I am finding difficulties and then I consult with them to figure out not the meaning but what was going on in their mind when they were saying that, and that’s not easy either, because sometimes the author has written a book twenty years ago and may not remember. So I ideally don’t like to have a living relationship with my author, I ideally like it when the authors I’m translating are dead. Because it creates dialogue that can actually distract from the work of translation. You may have a lovely relationship with the writer but when it comes to discussing the translation it is a different story altogether. And it’s completely understandable because it is like they are giving away their baby to someone else to bring up.
“Because well-written text translates itself. It’s like a hot knife through butter.”
What is the biggest challenge of the craft?
The biggest challenge is when the original text is sometimes clumsy and badly written. Because well-written text translates itself. It’s like a hot knife through butter.
Is there a need for translations to be constantly reinvented?
The more translations there are the better. Here’s the thing. All books are written in the contemporary language of their time. Now if I stick to a 1901 translation of Tolstoy then I am reading a dated version of Tolstoy whereas if I read a 2018 version of Tolstoy I would read a modern contemporary version of Tolstoy. I would definitely like the reader to read in today’s language. I don’t mean jargon or the trending language but it should certainly have the sensibility and relationship with a language that a reader today has. So every generation should get a new version of a book.
With 20 years in the craft, what is keeping you inspired and busy these days?
Given our current political situation and over the past few years I’ve become very interested in the minority voice. And I feel translators have a great opportunity to bring minority voices to the attention of a wide body of readers. So I’m very interested in working on Dalit writers, on women who have not had the kind of exposure and leadership that men did at that time. That to me is the Holy Grail.
Text Soumya Mukerji