English is a lively, dynamic language. It lives; it breathes and recreates itself every moment. Similarly, it lives a vibrant life in the Bengali language too. This was the topic of discussion in the sixth session of day 1 at the Kolkata Literature Festival 2017.
The panel comprised novelist and critic Saikat Majumdar, translator and editor Arunava Sinha and novelist, acclaimed journalist and contributor at Huffington Post Sandip Roy who moderated the session.
The first question asked to Majumdar, the author of ‘Firebird’ (one of The Telegraph’s Best Books) was, “Is it a Bengali novel written in English?”
The author dismissed the assumption. He said, “As children, we usually cannot discern that stories are not reality. This failure to distinguish between art and life happens on a visceral stage in my story.”
Majumdar elaborated how the shadow of the vernacular should remain even after translation. “For instance,” he said, “The word para, for example, cannot be conveyed in the English counterpart of ‘neighbour’ Prejudices, similarly, are universal but their local manifestation is interesting. So, my novel is not a Bengali one written in English but a Bengali world-view presented in English.”
Arunava Sinha pointed out the dilemma of whether to preserve the vernacular expression or to just be strictly translating. “’Harbart’, for example, is one word I preferred to keep as it is and not change it to ‘Herbert’ while translating. This preserves the essence of the language.”
The moderator recalled in light of his novel, ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ that Bloomsbury publications did not change words such as footpath into sidewalk in the United States of America editions since the original version was published in the United Kingdom.
Majumdar made an interesting observation in the session. “The most deeply local is the most widely universal. We read literature for two reasons. Firstly, because we like to read about characters like us. Secondly, because we like the alien as well. Any form of art is a negotiation between these two.”
Translation has got a geo-political angle to it. Western publishers are far more open to the novel forms of usage of language than their counterparts closer home, remarked Arunava Sinha.
Majumdar read out an excerpt from his book Firebird. It was an enlightening example of how vernacular phrases such as dhur boka (“damn you, stupid” if vaguely translated from Bengali) become imperative in a narrative because of lack of a suitable translation.
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