Nivedita Sen on the challenges of translating Syed Mustafa Siraj’s nuanced works for an urban English readership
Like many book-reading Bengalis, Nivedita Sen is not unfamiliar with Syed Mustafa Siraj. The Delhi University professor has long revelled in the literary sphere of the Contemporary Bangla Literature luminary, not knowing though that one day she would bring his nuanced critique of the man-made world — often pitted against that of nature — to a segment of booklovers who are traditionally not Siraj readers.
In 2004, Sen translated into English a clutch of his detective stories for children that featured the popular character Colonel Niladri Sarkar. And now, she has come out with “Die, Said the Tree and Other Stories” (Katha), a pack of the Sahitya Akademi awardee’s feted short stories in Bangla, in English. A chat with her though makes it obvious that translating Siraj’s adult stories was easier said than done. “In Siraj’s adult stories, the characters, the ambience, the dialogues have an incompatibly disparate colour and flavour. Though in his children’s stories, these are stereotypical, hence easier to communicate the types in a different language once one gets a hang of it,” explains the professor of English at Hansraj Collge. She adds though, “It was far more taxing to render faithfully all the alliterations, anagrams, palindromes, puns, quibbling and other equivocation in words in his children’s stories, particularly because most of them have to be done verbatim as they help the colonel to solve a mystery.”
In her latest translations, “Siraj’s writings”, she notes, “were as difficult and challenging as any such translatory endeavour that is not just across languages but cultures.” Having grown up with Queen’s English in the 60s and the 70s, she admits being “unduly attentive initially to the syntax of the target language which is too rigidly ingrained” within the mindset of the pedagogue and practitioner of English that she is.
“These were sometimes ruthlessly altered, honed and improved upon by my editor at Katha, Moyna Mazumdar, in accordance with the requirements of particular stories,” she candidly admits. So sentences without verbs that are commonly used in spoken Bengali underwent some grammatical overhauling in her initial translatory effort, but were altered back to their verb-less form to retain their essence. “I had to drop articles in specific contexts where the sentence demanded it by convincing myself that Bangla or other Indian languages have no articles anyway. Terms of address like “moshai” and “agye” were retained without distorting them into “mister” or “yes, sir” that are indicative of a disparate culture, and without italicising to retain their essence,” she states. About selection of stories, she says Siraj wanted only those with rural settings to be included to allow English readers a peek into rural Bengal.
But she wove into the compilation “a few that were set in urban and semi-urban areas, thinking of the readership of these stories.”
Her reason being “metropolitan readers comfortably literate only in English may not be able to empathise with characters and situations that render a worldview typical of rural Bengal.”