“Continents of Communion”: Sanjukta Dasgupta on the Relevance, Theory and Craft of Translation Basudhara Roy*

Sanjukta Dasgupta

Sanjukta Dasgupta, Professor and Former Head, Dept of English and Former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University, has been the recipient of the Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship, the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence grant, the Australia-India Council fellowship, and the Gender Studies fellowship grant, University of British Columbia, among others. She was granted the Charles Wallace Trust UK Translator Fellowship to work on her project on Tagore’s Daughters at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. In 2018, she taught in Poland, as Visiting Professor, at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland. She received the IWSFF Women Achievers Award, Kolkata in 2019. Presently, she is the President, Executive Council, of the Indian Poetry and Performance Library, ICCR, Kolkata, the Convenor of the English Language Board and a member of the General Council of the Sahitya Akademi. Dasgupta is a poet, short story writer, critic and translator with numerous works to her credit. Her significant translations include Her Stories, Manimahesh, SWADES - Tagore’s Patriotic Songs, Golpo Sankalan: Translated Contemporary Bengali Short Stories, and her recent, In Memoriam : English Translations of Tagore’s Poems in Swaran and Palataka.

This interview shaped itself through e-mail exchanges in the months of

October-November 2020.

Basundhara Roy

BR: Translating and Translation have always been a very significant part of your life as an academic. What draws you to the act of translation? How do you, as a translator, conceptualize translation? What are the demands that the translation process makes on you? What, would you say, are the transactions involved?

SDG: My first brush with the craft of translation began around 1997, when the then Regional Secretary of Sahitya Akademi, Nirmal Bhattacharya, sent me a chapter fromthe much-acclaimed book Bigalito Karuna Jnahabi Jamuna by Shanku Maharaj. Nirmal da also gave me a challenging deadline for submission of my translation of the chapter. That was the initiation. That chapter was later published in the Sahitya Akademi journal Indian Literature. Thereafter my own first initiative was to translate a number of short stories by Bengali women writers. The book was titled HER STORIES and it was published in 2002. I am happy that HER STORIES is still around despite the ruthless competition of the publishing market.

The compelling reason for putting HER STORIES together occurred while I was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA, on a postdoctoral Fulbright fellowship. During formal and informal academic discussions I realized the great curiosity that students and faculty had about India, Indian literature and culture. They preferred to regard me not as a Hemingway scholar and researcher, but as a native informant with great versatility about Indian literature, culture and civilization! It was a sobering moment and the impact of this experience, diversified my areas of research interest. I realized how important it was to hone one’s skills in comparative studies and translation.

As a practising translator, I feel conceptualizing translation beyond the initiatory stages thrusts it into the academic ghetto. Translation is a hands-on craft and it has been around from the time the WORD was invented. Basically, linguistic translation is a communication tool that opens up the world and debunks ignorance and insularity. It opens up unknown areas of cultural discourse, leading to familiarization with diverse cultures and societies and all their corresponding intersections.

BR: As a translator who has handled both prose and poetry with remarkable skill and as an accomplished poet, how easy or difficult is it, in your estimate, to translate poetry? How far does the word-boundedness of translation affect the replication of the unsaid in poetry? How do you, in your personal practice of translating poetic texts, seek equivalence?

SDG: As you know, this is explained so well by Eugene Nida, that translation is no longer limited to linguistic substitution or mere code-switching but is regarded as a ‘cultural transfer’. Of course each genre-specific source text has an exclusive register, so translating creative prose, translating an essay; a play and translating poetry require different sets of application tools respectively. Among these, translating poetry is often more challenging than the other genres, as poetry is overtly and covertly metaphorical writing. The lines may be short, but the words used in a short line can be so deep and nuanced, that unless the translator is equally competent in handling both source and target texts, the end result can be dissatisfactory. The question is not about literal translation, or fidelity. The question lies in the translator’s immersion in the source text to such an extent that the translated lines almost resonate with the sense and rhythmic pattern of the original. This is easier said and done.

I am tempted to agree with the brilliant translator-poet Ketaki Kushari Dyson who had categorically stated that the poet-translator alone can be the best translator of poetry.

We are all aware that dynamic equivalence translation is the more preferred mode of translation, rather than formal equivalence translation, for the translation of literary texts. DET is primarily attentive to the transfer of message of the cultural text and context in the most natural mode possible. So DET underscores how well-fitted to the new culture or the receptor language is the translation from the source text. Fitness is also emphasized so that the natural rendering fits into the receptor language and culture as a whole. The context of the particular message in the source text needs to be conveyed too. This entails the awareness of the reader/audience of the receptor language. The translator’s responsibility would be to induce and seduce the reader to accept and respond to the alien culture through an unobtrusive embedding of recognizable and familiar cultural codes that do not compromise or distort the source but are simultaneously receptor language friendly.

 

I feel confident about translating poetry when I feel completely confident that I have comprehended the source text, in this case specifically a Bengali poem, and I am also familiar with the poet’s poetic style and his other poetic texts. Unless one can be in complete union with the essence of the source poem, to transcreate satisfactorily in a target language will not be possible.

 

BR: The translated text, as the saying goes, reveals the translator as much as the original text. As a feminist academic who has worked extensively on Tagore and as a woman translating Tagore, do you visualize, in your practice, an intersection between Feminism and Translation? How would you elaborate that?

SDG: Feminizing translation has been a matter of debate and discussion for quite some time now. The canonical texts by male authors have received the attention of enthusiastic translators, but in most cases, translations of women authors’ writing have been far less in number. This is due to the stereotypical notion that the canonical literary writing by male authors is infinitely more superior in quality, and thereby can be a worthwhile venture for the translator. Feminist academics may well choose texts to translate, both by male and female authors, to underscore and showcase gendered themes and their variations.

In fact, my latest book of Tagore translations, In Memoriam: Tagore’s Smaran andPalataka has been translated for the first time, as far as I know. Though many of Tagore’s volumes of poems have been translated and re-translated numerous times, such as Gitanjali, Naibedya et al, unfortunately these beautiful short poems, in Smaran and Palataka, which are completely gendered, exploring personal relationships, between Tagore and his departed wife, and Tagore’s mourning the death of his daughter, Madhurilata, have been strangely ignored. Is this about irrelevance or is this about a systemic inertia that intimate, deeply personal gender-centric poems are not as significant as a poem like Tagore’s Africa or even the outstanding Karna Kunti Sangbad?

But times are changing. The ignored and invisible texts of Tagore are now demanding attention, and opening up new windows of perception about Tagore as text, not just Tagore’s texts.

BR: Posing the same question in a different light, how has your experience of being a woman participated in your translation of women writers like, say Ashapurna Debi? As a woman translating another woman, would you say the process of translation becomes any easier or more nuanced?

SDG: In other words, how gender-neutral is the craft of translation? I am not a professional translator. But in case, I am commissioned to translate a literary text, as when I translated Umaprasad Mukherjee’s Manimahesh for Sahitya Akademi, my being a woman was not relevant. However, when I choose a literary work to translate, my sense and sensibilities direct me to women’s writing, for I feel I can read between the lines of the ecriture feminine.

Translating Ashapurna Devi, or for that matter Suchitra Bhattacharya, Bani Basu, Joya Mitra among others, had made me feel as if these were my stories too, so the process of transcreation became seamless I think, bringing together the original writer, the translator and the transcreated text in a fusion of feminization. Therefore, the element of the feminine becomes crucial and motivating too.

BR: If we accept the premise that language is gendered, do you think that the process of translation is gendered in its own way? What would be your opinion on the subject?

SDG: Socio-linguistics has proved beyond doubt how strongly patriarchal and masculine the configurations of language are, emanating through its signifiers and the signified, gender discrimination and superiority of the male sex. The binaries of dominance and subordination are embedded in the layers of the languages we use. It is therefore obvious that in a phallocratic system, language and its uses will prioritise phallogocentrism. Once again, therefore, ecriture feminine can be translated with more enhanced sense and sensibility by female translators, a sort of gyno-translation, maybe.

BR: As a translator, academic, avid reader, and as a poet whose own poems have seen translations in several languages, what is your opinion of a good translation?

SDG: Translation is ‘good’, when it is easily readable in the target language. The purpose of translation is not a comparative close reading of what has been gained or lost in translation. The need for glossary often challenges the readers’ patience, as the fictional illusion receives a jolt, due to unintelligibility. Ethnic signifiers, culture specific terms need to be woven into the fabric of the translated text, so that the reader can engage with the text, without a feeling of being an outsider knocking on the gates of a mansion that remains firmly locked.

BR: Translation, for many, is a marginal act because of the subordinate status of the translator. In fact, it is this subjugation of the translator’s position that has made it theoretically possible to ally translation with feminism. How do you look at the role of translation in society?

SDG: The invisibility and subaltern status of the translator is a major issue globally and locally. Therefore, the clichéd adage about the dutiful and beautiful feminized impact of translation, are still cited, often out of context. But amends are being made in the present times. The translator’s fee per word which was an embarrassing pittance has now been revised by publishing houses. This monetary enhancement has led to the recognition that translation is a serious and arduous craft. In fact, prizes for translated creative literature are now shared equally between the original author and the translator. This is truly a paradigm shift and gives the long awaited recognition to the translator.

Translation is the way ahead according to many experts. My worry is, in the enthusiasm for translation into the dominant language, unequivocally, the global lingua franca English; will the thousands of minor languages just shrink and perish? Even major ethnic languages are feeling the shrinkage of interest in younger generations to acquire skills in the use of home languages, mother tongues, ethnic and regional languages. The list of endangered languages is growing every year, and though this is a matter of concern, right at the moment, a reversal of this trend cannot be envisaged.

Lack of diversity in languages used by people in diverse geographies will inevitably lead to cultural homogenization, thereby destroying the myriad themes and variations of human society and culture, leading to an appalling bankruptcy in the arena of creativity and enrichment of culture.

BR: How do you look at the gender bias in the translation scenario today? While it is obvious that the works of more men than women are being translated worldwide, it has also been documented that most of the translators are women. What, in your opinion, accounts for this gap? Also, since translation is a choice, who do you think the responsibility for bringing more women into translation lies with? Readers, translators or publishers?

SDG: The list of canonical texts and grand narratives prove beyond doubt that male writers dominate the list in terms of numerical advantage. If in case translators of the canon are mostly female translators, the question arises, what attracts women to translation?

Sometimes translation is regarded as a pastime that keeps an educated woman busy and enhances her public visibility as she sees her name on the cover page of a translated classic. Instead of knitting, stitching or cooking an educated woman of the 21st century takes up translation as a non-threatening occupation, that keeps the family members happy and the translator occupied. The need of the hour is the emergence of trained and skilled professional translators, who can be retained by publishing houses offering them a significant pay-scale. If translation is a choice and is a preoccupation for fun, the success and failure of the translated product become erratic and often unpredictable. Also, if the translator is not trained in literature and language studies, or has limited exposure to reading diverse texts, the end product may suffer from very standardized use of vocabulary. Readers, translators and publishers cannot be regarded as exclusive categories, it is the interlink that binds and bonds them, and so as reader response is crucial, similarly the translator’s engagement and the publisher’s commercial interests all bond together in a successful translation project.

BR: How do you, as a translator, view the politics of language and hegemony in translation, particularly with respect to India?

SDG: I think I have addressed this query in an earlier response. The hegemony of the dominant language, in this case English is so overwhelming, that no alternatives can be cited which can compete with the expansionist role of English, or should we say linguistic imperialism?

In India, Sahitya Akademi is investing significantly in translations both in English, and translation from one regional language into another. Some commercial publishing houses too are encouraging translations but these are mostly genre-specific, and translations of poetry seem to be at the bottom of priority lists.

BR: Tell us about your ongoing and planned translation projects. As an academic, how important do you feel it is to include translations in the syllabi of universities across India? Also, how do you feel translation and translating can contribute to a more plural worldview?

SDG: I have identified a few volumes of Tagore’s poetry that I am planning to translate, but have not yet got down to the rigorous business of doing so.

I think a common lacunae in translated texts, is the absence of a detailed introduction that focusses on the context, text, and sub-text, along with a close-reading of the translated work. It is mostly in published PhD dissertations that we can find this holistic approach. Translated texts must be included in the syllabi of universities, but in that case, these should be both teacher-friendly and student-friendly. Translation in major and minor languages can enable building bridges of cultural understanding between all educated people of the world.

Here is my poem on Translation that will probably define how translation can create a transnational bonding between cultures, so that the world can regard itself as a large family celebrating unity in diversity, vasudhaivakutumbakum.

 

TRANSLATION

Lost in translation?

When we met

Our mutual words transcended

Transformed in translation

We strung words like pearls

Mother tongue and Other tongue

A new poem born out of the womb

Of a well known old poem

The original home-grown poem

Became a global sapling

Rooted, uprooted, re-rooted

Unique avatar

 

Linguistic transfer

Cultural code switching

Those are puzzles for sages

And heat oppressed brains

Ethnic poems in global syntax

Global poems in ethnic inscription

Smiled in the new dawn

Reaching hearts and minds

Liberated from the intense entrapment

In either/or- singular tongues

 

Our willing translations

Our mutual spinning of words

In an Other tongue, in our mother tongue

To fill the gaps others hadn’t bridged

Insularity and isolation were erased

A rainbow of words

Not a chaotic Babel

Brought us together

Isolated islands of words

Converged into continents of communion

 

We never regretted any loss in translation

We were incorrigible dreamers, for us

Territories and borders were life- threatening

We dreamt about bringing together

A fractured world with our healing words-

VasudhaivaKutumbakum

Our world as a single family

 

In translation

We gained an inclusive world

We mingled diversity and difference

In our several tongues and daring dreams

We translated uninhibited

For us, to be transfixed and immobile

Was surrender and suicide

We translated and translated and translated

And our mutual words

Became universal symbols, signs and signposts

Our adhesive translations made the Other our own

Fused into a holistic dream come true

 

Translated, we became indivisible

Not you and me, but us.

 

SanjuktaDasgupta

June 13, 2011

 

BR: Thank you very much for this special interview that allowed us to communicate with the translator in you!

SDG: Thank you for this opportunity Basudhara. Much appreciated!
***

Bionote: Basudhara Roy is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. Sheis the author of two books, Migrations of Hope (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). Her second poetry collection, Stitching a Home, is forthcoming in 2021.


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