A Woman in Translation: Paromita Sengupta

Paromita Sengupta
Translation. I think I have been doing it and also been subjected to it from a very young age. Being brought up in a socio-historical context where my mother tongue Bangla was not just in a marginalized position, but also the specific target of militant aggressive groups who wanted to evict Bangla speakers from the geopolitical boundary of Meghalaya - my life was a constant act of translation. English, was the bridge. The savior. No wonder it has remained a friend, this English.1 

I remember asking my friends in school to teach me a word or two of Khasi. ‘No’, they were unapologetically clear and emphatic. They didn’t want to allow any intruders, not risk any translation I guess. Culturally translated, economically threatened with losing jobs to ‘outsiders’, linguistically they certainly wanted to hold guard. 

But my own status as an ‘outsider’ was dual. I remained, as a child, an outsider not only in the place I was growing up (the beautiful city of Shillong with all its natural bounty) but also in the dialectically opposite, grimy Kolkata where I was often jibed at as the anglicized, the Ingreji speaking Bangali’r bachcha (‘the English-speaking Bengali kid’ - is that a right translation?). My peculiar circumstances as a Bangali’r bachcha growing up in an almost all English environment in Shillong, was terribly tested on our annual visits to Kolkata. I can never forget the reprimand from a cousin for being unable to translate Phantom as Aranyadeb. Needless to say, mother tongue Bangla, with all its cultural load, was foreign and fearful to me (life’s little ironies!) and I remained content with my friendly neighborhood English. 

My father’s transfer to Kolkata, when I was 12, was a turning point in numerous ways. The new Kolkata English Medium school had ‘third-language Bengali’ as a compulsory subject and I was left literally trembling with fear. Soon however, in a year or so, my father was asking me to read the mandatory Bangla texts every Bangali worth her salt has to read- the Tarashankars and the Bankims and the Bibhuti Bhushans. I did that- I was an obedient child - but love for a language cannot be ordered or obeyed. English remained my personal language. My own. Everything I read in Bangla I inevitably and unconsciously translated it into English in my mind. 

1I prefer to use Bangla and Bangali instead of Bengali (the language) and Bengali (the person speaking the language) 

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But why am I deliberating on matters from such long ago? Is it nostalgia? Yes a tad perhaps, but it’s not all just for nostalgia- I am trying to frame myself in a historical and psycho-social context. For, all my life, upto this point, has remained an act of translation. We started reading translated literature as early as high school. The first of these were the Russian authors such as Tosltoy and Doestoevsky and Gorky. In those days the Calcutta Book Fair would have these stalls of Russian Books where stuff was available at rather low prices and people queued up to stockpile on the Tolstoys and Gorkys for their own kids and for sensible, intellectual and reasonably priced gifts to kids of others. I'm sure many adolescents used to be disappointed at being handed yet another Crime and Punishment for a birthday or a bhai phonta. Now bhai phonta, literally translated, is ‘brother-dot’ - and that is nothing short of a sacrilege! Bhai phonta - is a mix of pure Bangali emotion, love of adda and food and to try to do justice to this Bangali cultural phenomenon I must have an end-note, although the end-note will be nothing but a clumsy explanation that will but challenge you-who-are-not-Bangalis with a whole lot more Bangla words and hold up the untranslatability of culture.2 

Let me jump a little ahead of the timewarp I seem to find myself caught in. Let me fast forward to my stint in the United States - where I discovered the existence of a different English. Yes, I had known it, learnt it, heard it in Hollywood movies, even been theoretically aware of it - but to experience this phenomenon first hand- it was a different matter. Simple phrases like ‘You’re good’ took me time and experience to understand and follow with the expected action. I realised that I had to constantly translate American English to my personal English if I had to make any sense of it. And then the translation of names! Working with people from multiple nationalities, my husband’s very Bangali name ‘Abhinaba’ found unwanted and unwarranted multiple translations that ranged from the simple and easy ‘Abi’ to the outright preposterous ‘Abhinina’. Some would call them distortions, I don’t. I stand with Rushdie on this- we are translated men, and not just in our names and dresses and the food we eat. We are men and women whose ethos and ethics, whose politics and personas are translated as and when necessary, by the self and by the other. The reverse also is true. We are almost always engaged in translating the other. 

2 Bhai phonta - The annual ritual, on the second and/or third day after the amavasya in the month of Kartik in which the sister performs rituals seeking the long life of her brother(s). The rituals are fairly simple- a tilak (the phonta) is put on the brothers forehead, blessings are sought and given and all of this is usually followed by exchange of gifts and sumptuous feasting. In the modern feminist consciousness, the gendered nature of the ritual has been questioned, leading to either doing away with it altogether, or appropriating it by making it gender-mutual. 

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Fast forward again to 2019. I find myself in a city in the west of Ireland. In my college graduation days, studying English Honours, we learnt of the poetic English spoken by the Irish (courtesy Riders to the Sea). That was more than a century ago I should have remembered. For what I find here now is that the everyday, the spoken English on the street is liberally, unapologetically sprinkled with ubiquitous F words. Americanization? I wondered! But paying careful attention I came to realize that this word had a really important function- it was a filler and made conversation possible whenever and wherever there was a semantic or linguistic gap. I remember a twenty year old boy telling me that they spoke English the way they spoke because they wanted to ‘make fun’ of the English language- the grudge against the British for the 800 year domination was very strong and this manner of speaking English was but a kind postcolonial resistance, thought my theory-oriented brain. But what about the Irish language? Is it in a thriving state? Do most of the Irish people speak Irish amongst themselves or at home? My common knowledge says otherwise. English, for all its distortions and translations, and resistances to it, is a very resilient language. It has a million lives. And while we translate our thoughts to English and translate English into our thoughts, English itself continues to thrive as a bridge language that connects not just people of various countries, it also continues to connect the people and the literature of India and the world. Which then brings me to the second section of this essay: my experience of formal, literary translation. 

What was the reason that I decided to translate this collection of short stories, this reimagining of some of the characters and events of the Ramayana - this book Vimuktha by celebrated, award winning Telugu writer Lalitha Poppuri (pen name Volga) into Bangla Bimukta? The immediate reason, as I have explained in more detail my foreword to the translation, was triggered by meeting the author herself at an international conference in 2018 - ‘Indian Literature as World Literature: Past, Present, Future’, organized by English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad. She had been invited to speak on translations and towards the end of her speech she bemoaned the fact that there existed no single translation of any Telugu text into Bangla. She mentioned the proliferation of Bangla texts in Telugu- how she had herself grown up reading Bankim and Saratchandra, and she was raether pained and vexed that Bangla never felt the need of knowing and reading Telugu authors. She even suggested that one didn’t have to really learn Telugu for translation purposes, one could use the English language as a bridge! I felt her genuine pain and angst. I couldn’t help walking up to her after she came down from the 

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podium. No matter my own marginal position in the realms of Bangla literature, I was still a Bangali alright! I had to apologize. But I ended up doing more than that- I found myself promising to Volga that I would translate her latest collection of short stories from its English rendering to Bangla. I was surprised at my own audacity I admit. Bangla with its loyal ‘purists’ keeping strict vigil on its frontiers had always seemed uninviting to me. I had never, before that moment, imagined that I would someday formally, academically, literally, write in Bangla! Yet, I must admit, I was honestly keen. And I was hugely inspired by the thought that this was going to be my tribute to my mother tongue, in my own way. 

The precarity of my condition was, however, further problematized by the fact that the text that I was going to translate, The Liberation of Sita, had been translated a couple of times already. The original was in Telugu. It had been translated into Malayalam and then from Malayalam into English. And I was to translate from English to Bengali! A tad confounding isn’t it! How much of the ‘original’ text remains you might ask. And in all fairness. For that is the question I asked myself too! Does this text, with multiple inter-translations, run the chance of being disembodied? But much of my doubts were laid to rest as I read the text, for I could totally visualise and feel as it were, the essence- the story, the characters, and, most importantly, the essential philosophical questions that were posed and attempted to be answered. And suddenly, much of the questions around authenticity seemed rather inconsequential. I realised that what I had taken on in hand was the task of representing women from The Ramayana - women who had been reimagined in Volga’s worldview. Volga had rendered these women, she had interpreted them from a feminist standpoint. She was here foregrounding the concepts of liberty and equality, she was recasting Ramayana women Sita, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila in feminist avatars. She had translated passive and/or marginalised women into empowered women with agency. These women drew their strength and their freedom from their personal life experiences and nothing else. They were truly liberated. 

I was, therefore, translating a regendered, reengineered, rendering of the classical Ramayana and the process of translating it involved a great deal of experiential angst and ecstasy- there were numerous moments when it was difficult to separate the text from the personal, because of its relatable themes; and yet it were the experiential elements which gave this translation a strength and a vigour and an immediacy - at least that's what I would like to believe. 

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Currently, I am translating well-known Dalit writer Sharankumar Limbale’s Marathi novel Sanatan from its Hindi rendering to English. At the outset, this certainly promises to be a little less daunting task for me than the previous task of translating to Bangla. But it is only when the task is done that I shall be able to look back and reflect on the differences and similarities between the two experiences. 

Translation has generated a whole spectrum of theorisation and debate- and I seem to find myself caught somewhere in between Umberto Eco’s extreme statement that translation is an art of failure, to Gunter Grass saying that translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes. While I cannot claim to have transformed everything so well that nothing changed, neither would I be ever giving up on translation and translating, ascribing it as an act of failure. Translation, to me, is a continuous process, more than simply a literary activity, and I would end by saying that we are participating in translations all the time, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or otherwise. 

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Bionote: Paromita Sengupta, PhD, is an academic, author, translator and independent filmmaker. Her doctoral thesis, Writing India, Writing Self, studied the emergence of English writing in Bengal (India) as a site of anticolonial resistance in the Nineteenth Century British ruled India. Paromita has taught at graduate and postgraduate levels in the University of Calcutta, India, since 2002. She was Awarded the prestigious Govt. of Ireland International Education Scholarship in 2020 for pursuing Media Studies in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland. In 2018 she brought out an edition of The Persecuted, the first drama to be written in the English language by an Indian, (originally written in 1835, and almost on the brink of oblivion) Revd. K. M. Banerjea. This was an edition with a long critical introduction, situating the text in it’s socio-political context and also outlining its relevance in the contemporary global scenario. Paromita is currently working on her book Other Mothers: Re-visiting the Constructions of Motherhood. Paromita has translated The Liberation of Sita, a Sahitya Akademi Award winning collection of short stories by Volga- from English to Bengali - Bimukta. Bimukta was published by Eka, Westland Amazon in March 2020. She is currently translating well known Marathi Dalit writer Sharan Kumar Limbale’s novel Sanatan, from its Hindi version to English. Paromita is also an Independent Filmmaker. Her short documentary The Unknown Spring - set in Limerick, Ireland and Kolkata, India has been selected in Film Festivals in Germany and UK. Some of her other films her: Once Upon a Time - a musical fable, Aamphun - Nature’s Tandava, Ami kemon achi? (How ami I?), Migration and Memories.


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