Timeless Tales in Translation by Chaitali Sengupta

Book Review: Lopa Banerjee

Timeless Tales in Translation

Author: Chaitali Sengupta

Publisher:  Books
Year of Publication: 2022
ISBN-10: ‎ 1645603288
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1645603283


“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”

– Anthony Burgess


While embarking on a journey of both reading and internalizing classic texts in translation, which attempts to bridge the gap between languages, cultures, continents, I have been always intrigued to know the literary or metaphorical truths that an author intends to depict in his literary work. Can a translator really transcribe those truths while translating the aforesaid work from the source language has been a quest for me as a reader always. Also, while translating Indian literature into English, is it possible to recreate the particulars of the eastern/oriental culture and environment and portray those nuances in English?

As I started flipping through the pages of ‘Timeless Tales of Translation: A Representative Anthology of Bengali and Hindi Short Stories’ penned by prolific poet, author, translator Chaitali Sengupta from Netherlands, these questions kept brimming in my inquisitive mind. All the stories translated in the collection have been penned during the very critical chronological time-frame of the colonial regime (from the mid-nineteenth century till the mid 1950’s) of India. In the foreword to this meticulously presented collection of translated classic tales, quite aptly named ‘Timeless Tales in Translation’, Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, author, poet and renowned scholar points out very significantly:

“All the stories selected foreground certain timeless, universal emotions, feelings, sentiments, love…empathy and transcendence…Despite the problems that are embedded within translation practices, it is translation as cultural transfer that sensitizes the world about cultural diversity.”

While Sengupta, in her choice of translated stories in a chronological time-frame, presents a rich assortment of the most delectable short fiction by some of the stalwarts in Bengali, Hindi/Urdu literature, presented in her impeccable English translation, in each story, her effortless transcreation of the original author’s tale has brought me close to the truth that in literature, it is the transcribing of the emotions, the act of recreating truths, recreating human experiences that matter and make the difference. The choice of stories in the collection, ranging from the little boy’s revelation of the metaphorical realities of the natural world in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Bolai’ to the feisty teenager Ramlal’s juvenile world and his relationship with Narayani, his elder sister-in-law in Sarat Chandra’s ‘Ramlal’s Transformation’ to the vagaries of the strife-ridden postmodern world in Sadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Ten Rupees’, represent the translator’s intense penchant for the multi-layered human emotions and their depiction that transcend geographical and cultural barriers and come out, shining with universal resonance with her skillful use of language, idioms and metaphors.

Sengupta’s excellent craftsmanship in language includes this brilliant excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s story ‘Subha’ where she describes the inner world of sheer beauty of the mute girl Subha:

“On a deep full-moon night, she would open the doors of her bedroom, looking out with fearful eyes. Nature, bathed in full moon light, as lonely as Subha, sat awake, looking down at the sleepy earth below…The mute girl stood in silence at the fringes of Nature’s world and she felt troubled.”

The evolution of the existential crisis of human life that Sengupta unfolds dexterously through her choice of one story after the other comes to a full circle in her translation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s story ‘Ten Rupees’, where the murky urban world of prostitution defines the journey of the young female protagonist, Sarita, along with the ironic twist of a ten rupee note.

“She wondered what the man would be like and where he would take her, hoping that the car ride should not be too short that they reach the hotel sooner than imagined. Then, inside the room, the man would start drinking and she’d feel suffocated to be there. She hated to be inside closed hotel rooms, where in the twin iron beds, she was not free to court sleep.”

The most striking fact about this extremely relevant collection of translated stories is that in it, the dark, somber universal emotions like those depicted in ‘Ten Rupees’ are pitted against the use of light humor and wit in Rajshekhar Basu’s ‘Young Heart’s Club.’ Perhaps, through the juxtaposition of these various themes and styles used in the stories, the translator has intended to convey the truth that it is the diversity of the human psyche and its various manifestations that constitute the elements of great, timeless literature. Perhaps it is for the same reason that Nobel laureate of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore and his worthy successors of Bengal’s literary haven, including Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, Rajshekhar Basu and the esteemed Hindi fictionists Munshi Premchand and Jayshankar Prasad walk hand-in-hand in this representative anthology, together with celebrated, legendary Urdu/Hindi author Sadat Hassan Manto.

It is also noteworthy here that Sengupta has translated two stories each by both Rabindranath Tagore and his sister Swarna Kumari Devi in the same collection with remarkable elan. Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, in her foreword to the book, mentions this with her remarkable literary insight. “This positioning of Swarnakumari Devi as the first writer in this anthology is a game changer of sorts… Sengupta has turned the floodlights towards the first woman writer of fiction in Bengal.”

While many of us are acquainted with the legendary works of Tagore and his literary journey, it is the beautiful literary voice of his sister Swarna Kumari who worked her way to establishing herself as a celebrated fiction writer during the period of Bengal’s renaissance, which remains a reality not much discussed or touched upon today. The two stories originally penned by Swarnakumari Devi that Sengupta translates in the collection, titled ‘Prince Bhim Singha’ and ‘Why’, tentatively composed in the late 19th Century, touches upon two distinct themes. While the first story brings forth the theme of loyalty of blood ties and familial love, sacrifice and valor, in the second story, the protagonist is a wretched housewife who recounts her inner turmoil when her husband abandons her for another woman. In her lucid translation of ‘Why,’ the voice of the woman and the pathos embedded in her psyche lingered in my mind long after the story ended.

In the translator’s note at the beginning of the book, while categorically pointing out the need and relevance of Indian literature in fresh translation for today’s readers, Sengupta very aptly notes: “It is not only about translating a text in a different language, but it is more about retaining an emotion, delicate sensibilities, and culture, in the other language.” Her translated stories in the collection bear testimony to this rare and distinguished ability to retain a plethora of emotions and sensibilities with which she has translated the stories of these master craftsmen of Indian literature.

I hope and wish more of these translated classics are born from her pen in the days to come.


Reviewer Bio: Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, translator, editor with eight published books and six anthologies in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She has been a featured poet at Rice University, Houston in 2019 and her poems have been published in ‘Life in Quarantine’, the Digital Humanities Archive of Stanford University, USA. Her recent translation of celebrated novelist Ashapurna Debi’s novel ‘Bakul Katha’ has received Honorable Mention at London Book Festival 2022.


Translator Bio: Chaitali Sengupta writes and translates fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  A reviewer and a journalist, her debut collection of prose poem Cross-Stitched Words, received Honorable Mention at the New England Book Festival 2021. Recently, her collaborative translation Legends Speak: Bengali Women’s Narratives in Translation was launched. Her other two works of translation are Quiet whispers of our heart & A thousand words of heart. She received an award of recognition from the Foundation Literary International Hollande-Cuba for her works and poems. Her work ‘She Walks over the Flood’ is a part of a literary project done in collaboration with Environmental Humanities Center, Amsterdam. She has contributed to esteemed anthologies, online/print journals. Presently, she is working on a translation work featuring the Dutch author, Louis Couperus.

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