Interview with Jaya Choudhury: Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

Jaya Choudhury a translator, poet and novelist, was born in Calcutta, India in 1971. She translates novels, poems, dramas, and short stories into Bengali from Spanish. So far, she has published 13 books, including originals and translations of novels, poems and prose of the Chilean Nobel Laureate poet, Gabriela Mistral, She has translated more than 100 Spanish poems. She writes poems and essays in Spanish and Bengali for many blogs, periodicals and magazines of India, Argentina, and Paraguay. She was awarded the prestigious Bangla Academi Lila Roy Award for contribution to Bengali translation literature, and a few other awards. Her passion is playing Sitar. Currently she teaches Spanish language in the Ramakrishna Mission School of Language, Golpark, and in the Sister Nivedita University, West Bengal.

Jaya Choudhury
KM: I find it unique and distinctive that you translate from Spanish into Bengali. Tell us a bit about what motivated you to undertake this kind of translation?

JC: From a very tender age, and like the generation of my contemporaries, I used to read Bengali literature voraciously. You might even call me ‘omnivorous,’ while describing my reading habit. Starting from The Materia Medica (a homeopathy medicine repertoire), taken from my father’s bookshelf, or travelogues by Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, taken from my uncle’s library to detective stories of Swapan Kumar from the school library or the Illustrated Weekly, Ekkhan and other magazines from my cousin’s home, I used to be a bookworm, and practically read anything and everything within my reach. When I was in the second standard, I wrote a 4-liner for our school magazine, ‘AKASHE AJ KALO KALO/ MEGH KORECHE/ PAKHIRA SOB DOLE DOLE / BASAY FIRECHE’. (There is cloud on the horizon, birds are coming home in flocks).

My older sister helped me to correct those lines. A dream of becoming a writer began brewing. Then from standard Seven, I started writing short stories which I continued up to standard Nine. However one day I decided to stop writing, as in my opinion, I felt that I was not creating anything worthwhile. I clearly remember during my Spanish learning days, my habit was to practice translations. For that, I frequently visited The Indo-Hispanic Library in Calcutta. There, I discovered many original works by literati like García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Camilo Jose Cela or Miguel Cervantes, and others which I had never read before. And now my dream of becoming a writer took on a different shape. I started dreaming of being a translator, to bring the treasures of the Hispanic world to my native readers, and do justice to my mother tongue.


KM: When did you first learn Spanish and what inspired you to learn the language? What techniques do you use for verbal communication in Spanish in Kolkata? What other languages do you know? French or Italian, perhaps? Do you undertake translation work in those languages?

JC: After sixteen years of a disturbed marriage my inner self was desperately searching for an opportunity to learn a foreign language, and the choice was between French, Portuguese and Spanish. I chose the last one.

I am from the country of “Unity in diversity” where more than 19500 languages or dialects are spoken as mother tongues. Being from a country, where Spanish is not officially spoken, you may agree that learning this as a foreign language, was a challenging decision. I didn’t have any job at that point, and moreover due to a disturbed marriage, I didn’t have required money either, for learning the language. Nevertheless, I enrolled for the Spanish course in the School of Languages of the esteemed Ramakrishna Mission Golpark, Kolkata. The institution is mainly a charitable institute, and considered to be one of the best institutes for learning languages in Calcutta with nominal course fees. With a curious mind, I grabbed every opportunity to learn the language, be it from some teacher’s personal free coaching classes on ‘Preterite Indefinido,’ or ‘Preterite Imperfecto,’ or at home from my favourite teacher to clarify doubts on ‘Imperfecto de subjuntivo’, or from any invitation of Spanish-related programmes organised in Calcutta on a regular basis. One of my teachers used to arrange frequent programmes from embassies, consulates, on various competitions and photo exhibitions. I always tried to participate in them as and when given the opportunity. During this journey, I got the opportunity to act in five Spanish plays as the protagonist, under a few directors from Spain as well. I worked very hard and diligently, used every moment in the day, until I went to bed at night. In the initial days, I still recall that I used to practise conversation in front of the mirror, and later I used to go to a famous cafe at Sudder Street, Calcutta which foreigners frequent (mostly people from Hispanic countries). I would meet with them, and try to converse with them in broken Spanish. In this way, my journey began advancing step by step.

I do not know any other foreign languages. I started learning Spanish at a late age and immediately fell in love with this language. I was fascinated and mesmerized from the very first day, and the fascination still continues to this day. I am able to understand a certain level of Italian or Portuguese since they are very similar to Spanish.

Sometimes, I also translate from English. Recently, I translated a Maldivian story from English to Bengali which is published in an important E-Magazine.


KM: Do you have a particular philosophy of translation and what are some of the challenges you face while translating writing from Spanish into Bengali?

JC: Well, I have a simple philosophy while translating. Frankly speaking, if the source touches my heart and brain, I decide to translate that content. I always try to view my translation from the readers’ angle or point of view only. Having said that, I must share with you that many challenges still exist. I think, to translate a literature, you must know the culture of the particular country and its people. Language automatically evolves from one’s culture.

I would like to share one of my experiences here. Once, I was translating Rosario Barahona Michel’s (Bolivian) novel, where I found many Christian religious connotations. Here in this part of India (Calcutta or West Bengal), readers are mostly aware of Hindu or Muslim connotations, and not much of other religions. So I studied to know them in detail, tried to imbibe the spirit, and brought them as smoothly as possible for Bengali readers.


KM: What kind of writing is the most difficult to translate from Spanish to Bengali? What kind of material do you most enjoy translating?

JC: My observation in this is that new age writers use metaphors and allusions, very frequently, from the myths, legends or animals of their country, especially references to the aboriginal people. We have seen Nauhatl influence in Carlos Fuentes’ literature or Guarani or Aymara influence in Miguel Angel Astutias’ literature. Now, my challenge comes when I want to make my readers comfortable in their understanding. At the last Calcutta Book fair, I translated Gladys Mercedes Acevedo’s Argentinian novel ‘Las Tres Muertes de Camilla,’ which had numerous Guarani myths. By the way, I keep on taking help from the writer while translating just to ensure the comfort and understanding for the reader to comprehend fully the writer’s meaning, after my translation.

All the sources are not universal urban writings from writers like Roberto Boleño or Javier Cercas or Mario Vargas Llosa, although I do enjoy translating this type of writing very much. And of course, poetry. In fact, poems came to me first when I began translating. Till date, I have translated more than 100 poems of poets from various countries of the Hispanic world, and three collections of Nicanor Parra (Chile), Gabriela Mistral (Chile) and Carla Fabri (Paraguay).


KM: What kind of projects are you currently working on?

JC: Recently I have completed translating a novel by a Uruguayan writer, and currently I am translating an anthology of contemporary stories of revolts of various Latin American countries, and two collections by poets from two different countries (Honduras and Colombia). I do have a few other projects currently running in tandem.


KM: I understand you have written poems in Spanish. What kind of poetry do you write? Any specific themes?

JC: I write in Bengali, and so far, I have written one novel and one and half books of poetry in Bengali. These poems are included in a printed collection of poems entitled “PRAKRITA SARASI”, along with four other women poets. I have sixteen poems in that collection, and one solo E-Book. Anyway, I have also written a few poems in Spanish, some of which will be published within a couple of months in a Cuban blog, and translated into Portuguese in a magazine from Portugal. The central theme of my poems is mainly love. However, I prefer more of a philosophical approach to this theme.


KM: Please add any other comments to your responses.

JC: I was really taken aback, and amused too, when Nabanita informed that you are interested to conduct an interview with me. I was not aware about you, but who doesn’t know the greatest post-colonial English language Indian poet, Nissim Ezekiel? You are his daughter! Then I plunged into your work and also found that the magazine Setu was started solely to promote literature. I felt extremely happy to learn about your poetry, and the magazine too. I do hope that we will work together in future for the prosperity of translation literature.

Thank you, and I pray to the Almighty for your good health, peace and tranquility of the world which is affected severely by COVID pandemic.


Kavita and Jaya are jointly translating Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry into Spanish.

Bionote: Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in a Jewish family in Mumbai. She was educated in Mumbai, with Masters’ Degrees in English and Education, from India and the U.K. Her career spanned over four decades, teaching English, French and Spanish. Her first book, Family Sunday and Other Poems was published in 1989. Her poems have appeared in various publications. Kavita is the daughter of the late poet, Nissim Ezekiel.


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