Maithili Translation – Unheard Voices: Trishna Basak

Trishna Basak
To begin at the beginning


‘Indian language is one though written in many languages’ – the first part of this famous saying by Dr. Radhakrishnan is debatable but second part is a true fact. India really has many languages and to know each other we need translation.

But like everything, Indian translation practice is also different from west. Unlike the West, classical Indian translation is characterized by loose adaptation and creative re-telling rather than close translation. Translations of Sanskrit texts into vernaculars took the form of critical commentaries, summaries and partial translations (often called Bhashya or Tika). We may remember how Krittibas Ojha’s translation of Valmiki Ramayan became a different text from the original. Krittibas’s Ram became more Bengali than Indian both socially and culturally. As K. Satchidanandan observes, “India’s culture of translation dates back to pre-colonial times that had witnessed several kinds of literary translation, though our ancients may not claim to be doing so. This is perhaps natural to multilingual culture where poets easily moved from one language to another without even being aware of it and translators did not fear being executed for deviations as in the West. We do not even have a proper word for translation in the Indian languages, so we have, at different times, borrowed anuvad (‘speaking after’) from Sanskrit and tarjuma (explication or paraphrase) from Arabic…. Our predecessors used texts as take-off points and freely retold and resituated them, as was done in the case of many Ramayanas, Mahabharatas and Bhagavatas in different languages. … This tendency to transform texts from older languages like Prakrit, Pali, Sanskrit, Tamil or Persian continued almost to the end of the pre-colonial period…..” (Satchidanandan, The Hindu Literary Review).

In the colonial era, the contact with the West transformed the translation scene in India. English scholars like William Jones, MacDonnell, MaxMuller, H.H.Wilson, R.T.H.Griffith, G.A.Jacobs, as also French, German and Italian scholars made classic translations of Indian texts into English and other European languages. With regard to the translation of English or European texts into Indian languages, there were notable examples like Bharatendu’s Hindi translation of Shakespeare, Premchand’s Hindi translation of John Galsworthy’s plays, as also Hindi versions of Alexander Pope, Matthew Arnold and Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Translations amongst different Indian languages were a special feature of the Indian Renaissance and helped build the nation during the freedom struggle.

Bhartendu, Ramakrishna Varma, Gopal Ram Gehamari, Roop Narayan Pandey, Dwijendranath Roy and so many translated Bengali and other native language texts into Hindi. “These translations during the early years of independence and the late colonial period were not profit-oriented; dedicated translators came up in many languages making a Tagore, a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee or a Premchand household names across the country” (Satchidanandan The Hindu Literary Review). Translation of Tagore sometimes led to very queer incidents. Once, one Urdu translator translated Tagore’s poems also while translating his short stories and thus produced almost 30 volumes of short stories of Tagore in Urdu!

The word ‘translation’ consists of two Latin words – trans meaning ‘across’ and lation meaning ‘to take’ (derived from the Latin verb transfero, transfere, translatum). The ancient Greek word for translation was metaphrasis meaning ‘a speaking across’. To put it very simply, translation means transferring or taking across to or expressing in one language what has already been said in another language. Eugene Nida observes, “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style”.


The endless journey

It was the best of time. It was the worst of time. I left my job as an Engineer and decided to become a fulltime writer. It was not easy. People thought that I must be crazy. Who leaves a permanent government job for the sake of literature, moreover Bengali literature? But my decision was irrevocable. I even wanted to learn an Indian language. People ridiculed that also. everybody wants to learn a foreign language. It is glamorous to learn Spanish, German or French and translate from these languages. But I wanted to learn Asamese or Marathi. But a meeting with Dr Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay changed my decision. He insisted me to learn Maithili as there is almost no translator from Maithili to Bengali.

I remember a poem by Robert Frost-

I took the other path

And that made all the differnce.

As in creative writing, in traslation also I took the less travelled path and that made all the difference.

Nobody was willing to learn Maithili, very few even knew that there was a language called Maithili. Even if someone knows, he/she has hardly heard any name after Vidyapati. My case was no different. I have read some Vidyapati padabali and that was the limit of my Maithili knowledge.

When Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay insisted me to learn Maithili, I nodded vaguely. I had no idea where and how I can learn this language. Never in my life, I have come across this language, nor seen the script. But where angels dare, fools put their steps without hestitation. So I plunged into a deep sea of unknown without thinking for a second. When I was about to leave, it occurred to me that I should at least ask where I should go for learning Maithili? There must be a school where I can take admission and start learning Maithili. No school? Then there must be a 3 or 6 month crash course? nothing? I gradually learnt that there is no such school or course in Kolkata, not just for Maithili, but for any Indian language except Hindi. But there are schools for lerning German, French or Spanish.

Mr Mukhopadhyay, may be touched by my pathetic look, suddenly scribblrd something on a small piece of paper and handed over to me. I found address of some Gauri Sen written on it. Who is this Gauri Sen? I did not dare to ask him in apprehension of a disapponting answer. I saw her phone number written there. I decided to call her in appropriate time and get an appointment.

Back to home, I repented everything. Why should I at all learn Maithili? Why not Marathi or Malayalam if I have to learn a Indian lanugage? At least people know these names. No, I will not call Gauri Sen. What use in learning a language, whose name is not known to people? I did not call Gauri Sen. But after a week, I felt very restless. As if someone is calling me and I was trying not to hear.

So, one rainy noon, I found myself seated in a dimly lit drawing room at Ramlal bazar and waiting for Smt Gauri Sen. She was then the only Maithili translator in Kolkata.

After a few months, I went to Darbhanga, Madhubani and Patna. Darbhanga is a city in the northern part of Bihar, India. A part of Gangetic plains of the north India, Darbhanga is located just around 50 km from Nepal. The city is known for its association with Darbhanga Royal family – one of the richest landowners of the country during British Raj. The city and places around are very active culturally and politically but one of the poorest in India based on almost all social indicators. Darbhanga is considered as the cultural capital of Bihar with its rich musical, folk-art and literary traditions continuing from centuries. Songs written by famous Maithili poet Vidyapati are still sung in Maithili household like Tagore song in Bengal.

Maithili is the language spoken in this part of the world and it’s a member of Indo-European family. Maithili is one of the 22 official national languages of the country and spoken by around 32 million people in Bihar and the Terai region of Nepal. My first encounter with Mithilabhumi was disappointing.Totally misguided, I boarded in a shabby hotel and my heart sank. Rooms were dirty and dark. It was sultry summer of Bihar and to add to the fury, the electricity was rarely available and the hotel authority was not willing to run the generator. It was a boon actually, because I decided to spend most of the time outside the hotel and thus I came closer to Maithili literary circle. In the afternoon, I knocked at the door of Aditya Bhaban. It was the house of famous Maithili poet and fictionist Chandrakant Sing Amar. Amarji welcomed me heartily. There were other luminaries also. It was really a literary meet. We read poems and exchanged our thoughts. I noticed an interctive style of Maithili poetry reading where the audience joins the poet to utter the last line of every stanza. It radiated warmth of the poet-reader bondage which is somehow missing in most of the poetry reading session in Bengal. When I read poems, the senior Maithili writers could understand clearly. They have a long history of reading from Original Bengali, which I came to know later. But young Maithili writers cannot read Bengali as they are reading Maithili in Devnagri script.


The lost script

Actually Maithili was written in Tirhutia or Tirhut lipi. Tirhutia is derived from Tirbhukti, which means a certain riverside which has been purified by sacrifice thrice. The name was first found in the currency of Bashad near Vaishali in the fourth century B.C. In the fourth and fifth centuries it was called Mithila or Tirbhukti. This is the mithila where Gargi, a woman scholar asked Jaggavalkya, “Who is controlling the stars?”. Unable to answer her question, Jaggavalkya forgot all the courtesy of a debate and said, “Don’t ask questions Gargi, your head will fall down”

Then there was Sita, the daughter of the soil, who did not compromise with a marriage dishonorable for her. In sathpath Brahman (1000-600) the boundary of Mithila was marked by River Sadanira (other names of which are the Gondak Rapti, Kartaya) which separated Bideha from Koshol . In Vishnupurana, The boundary is defined by Kaushiki in the east, the Gondki in the west, the Ganges in the south and the Himalayas in the north. Not only land, but also language has its own geography, and it has been set by Sir George A. Grierson. In the nineteenth century, He did a tremendous work on Maithili language.

Now, about 30 million people in 26 districts of north-eastern Bihar speak The Maithili language. And 12 percent of the people of neighbouring Nepal. When we remember the language martyrs of East Bengal and Shilchar on Language Day, how many remember Ranju Jha, nepali actress and social activist, who gave her life for the rights of the Mathili language? When Maithili was written in Tihutia script in the past, the Bengali and Mathili languages were very close because of the wonderful similarity of the two scripts. The first literary work in the Mathili language is the ‘Barnaratnakar’ by Jyotiriswar Thakur (1324 AD). After that, it was the poet Vidyapati Thakur (1360-1450 AD). Most of the Bengalis think that Vidyapati is a bengali poet. It is a pity that even though Bengalis are obsessed with Vidyapati, they have almost no idea about the Maithili literary works written after Vidyapati. As far as I know, there are only three books of Maithili poems in bengali translation.


Humble attempt

Maithili Sabdokosh and grammar by Dr Govind Jha, two or three sitting with Gouridi and a deep interest to know Maithili Literature, and I was ready to translate from Maithili. I started with Ajit Ajad, a rebel poet, almost my age, whom I met in Patna. I also translated Sahitya Academi winning Usha Kiran Khan’s stories whom I met at Vidyapati Bhaban, Patna. Then I translated Anmol Jha, Chandan Jha and many other writers. And in this 12 years journey (which is called a Yug) I have evolved as a translator, as a writer and also as a person. I have made some findings in this journey.

1 Selection of the author

When one translates from one Indian language to another, just knowing the language is not enough. He or she must know the history of the source language and must be aware of the position and contribution of the author whose works are being translated. Hence the selection of the writer in the source language is very critical in translation.

1.    Cultural position of target language

When translating Ajit Ajad’s poems, I found that Bengali readers could not digest some strong words used by Ajit. In a poem on taboos related to menstruation, Ajit wrote “Champa, defecate and piss on the rituals’ Many Benglai readers, some of them even poets could not accept these lines and asked me to use milder alternatives. But I stuck to my translation.


2.    Relevance of the text- Before translating a text we must see if its relevant in target language. The cultural base may be different in the source and target language. Specially, women emancipation, treatment of the underprivileged, caste system are different in different parts of India. A translator has to be aware of all these cultural contexts. Just learning a different language is not enough.


I think separate translation theory should be developed for regional languages.


Women in translation


In Mithila, we have Bhamti who explained Shankaraya’s Bhasya differently and her contribution is acknowledged by naming a part of the puthi as Bhamti Tika. When speaking about the translators from Maithili to Bengali, one can find just two names, both women, late Gauri Sen and me. In other Indian languages also there are a very good number of able women translators- Sarojini Kamtanurkar, Nita Sen Samarth, Bandana Alase Hazra, Madhuchanda Mitra Ghosh (Marathi), Nilina Abraham, Malina Roy, Debirani Ghosh (Malayalam), Pushpa Misra, Kanika Basu, Ishani Hajra, Amiya Rao (Kannad), Sukhalata Rao, Maitri Shukla,Ratna saha, Manjusri Roy, Manjula Chakraborty, Bharati Nandi (Odia), Sandhya Chowdhury, Rama Verma, Susmita Dutta, Maya Gupta, Lipika Saha, Arpita Poddar (Hindi), Mousumi Basu, Pampa Pal (Indian English), Amita Chakraborty, Sukumari Bhattacharyya, Gouri Chattopadhyay (Sanskrit), Shyamali Devi (Manipuri), Bina Misra (Assamese), Sumita Bandopadhyay (Telugu), Jaya Mitra (Rajasthani and Punjabi), Aruna Mukhopadhyay, Sanchari Sen (Urdu), Sebanti Ghosh (Nepali) to name a few. An interesting fact is found about these women translators that most of them have turned into translators after marrying into a family speaking different language. Situation makes them learn a different language and the outcome is beneficial for Indian translation field. In Bengali to English, we have legendary translator like Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak who has translated Mahasweta Devi. It is also found that Women translating women, perhaps can do more justice to the original.

Famous Bengali writer and translator Jaya Mitra once said that essential attributes of a translator are- politeness, flexibility and respect. And all these make a woman suitable for translation. Because the essence of translation is to adapt to a new culture, which women keep on doing all through their life.


  • Ajad Ajit Kumar. Yuddhk birodh me Buddhak Pratihinsa. Shekhar Prakashan, Patna
  • Jha, Govind. Kalyani Kosh (A Maithili-English dictionary), Maharajadhiraj Kameswar Sing Kalyani Foundation
  • Khan Ushakiran. Bhamti. Shekhar Prakashan, Patna
  • Rositta Valiyamattam “Translating Indian Literatures into English: Theory and Praxis” · Sahita Akademi catalogue

Bionote:  Trishna Basak did her B. E. and M. Tech. from Jadavpur University and worked in a Government Press as Manager. She taught at Jadavpur University as visiting faculty and later joined Sahitya Akademi. She left her lucrative career for the passion of writing. She has several books of poetry, short stories, novel and essays to her credit. She regularly writes science fiction for children and translates from original Hindi and Maithili. She has also edited anthology of stories of Indian literature. 
Recipient of several prestigious awards, like Ila Chanda Smriti Puraskar from Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, she has recently received from Paschimbanga Bangla Academy, Government of West Bengal 'Somen Chanda Smarak Samman ' as an young writer for her overall contribution to Bengali Literature. 
She also received Karigar Kriti Sahitya Samman. 2019.

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