Indrani Majumdar on translating the final volume of Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku stories

Prof Shonku finds the AI machine in Tellus

Prof Shonku finds the AI machine in Tellus   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Indrani Majumdar was just 10 when she “experienced my first adventure with Shonku in the annual issue of Sandesh in 1961.” Even today, she feels “the same thrill of exploration and discovery as I read the stories,” says Indrani, who has translated the final set of Satyajit Ray’s stories as The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku (Puffin), released as an e-book on May 2 to commemorate the auteur’s 99th birth anniversary.

The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku; Satyajit Ray; translated by Satyajit Ray and Indrani Majumdar, Puffin e-book

The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku; Satyajit Ray; translated by Satyajit Ray and Indrani Majumdar, Puffin e-book   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The first story in this volume, ‘Tellus’, has been translated by Ray himself. Originally published in 1978, the story seems uncannily prescient in the times of Google. In the last story, Shonku comes up against the Nazis in Germany who are interested in his Miracurall pill. “Who knew science could be so adventurous — full of fun, travel tales, geography, glimpses of world history – all rolled into one?,” asks Indrani, referring to the globe-trotting professor’s penchant for quick word pictures of the various places and landmarks he visits. Like most 10 year olds, Indrani also found science daunting but Shonku’s “thrilling exploits opened up a new world to my imagination … and tore down the fearsome barrier between science and I.”

Commenting on the contrast between Ray’s serious image and the humour and whimsy in the stories, Indrani muses that the filmmaker and the writer are “perhaps two distinct personas.” She points up that Ray grew up reading authors like Jules Verne, HG Wells and Conan Doyle, and that Doyle inspired both his father, Sukumar Ray, and himself. “Ray described Shonku as a ‘mild- mannered Professor Challenger’,” she recalls and adds, “Though the portrait of Shonku began on a note of whimsy and quirkiness, over the years he turned into a no-nonsense scientist … eventually the character became more grounded in the real world. Yet a steady stream of humour ran through each story.”

Who knew science could be so adventurous, asks translator Indrani Majumdar

Who knew science could be so adventurous, asks translator Indrani Majumdar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A few favourites
  • Favourite books in translation: In A Land Far From Home (Deshe Bideshe) by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated by Nazes Afroz; Toray Bandha Ghorar Dim, collection of limericks and nonsense rhymes by Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc, translated by Satyajit Ray; Half A Tale (Ardhakathanaka), a study of a 17th century Jain merchant’s autobiography translated by Mukund Lath; The Art of Murder by José Carlos Somoza translated by Nick Caistor and Tintin and Asterix.
  • Books not yet translated that you would like to translate: From Bengali to English, Atmacharit, a Bengali memoir by ShibnathShastri; Gurudeb by Rani Chanda, a select memoir of Tagore; and Amar Balyakatha O Bombay Prabas by Satyendranath Tagore. From English to Bengali, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Stet: An Editor's Life by Diana Athill.
  • Favourite Authors: Arthur Conan Doyle; Lewis Carroll ; MFK Fisher; Satinath Bhaduri; Nabaneeta Deb Sen
  • Reading Wishlist: Books on music by Nevile Cardus; Books by Sue Roe; The Name Above the Title by Frank Capra; Delicious by Ruth Reichl and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The stories are in the format of a diary and so the reader has the comfort of knowing that the professor got through whatever adventure he went through. This, Indrani feels, makes it easier “to relate to the flow of the plot: date, time, place, and the incident mentioned in that day’s entry.”

Speaking of the actual translation, Dhritiman Chatterjee, who played the titular character in Sandip Ray’s 2019 film Prof Shonku O El Dorado, writes in the Introduction: “Ray’s Bangla writing, particularly for children, is not only lucid and descriptive, it is also very pictorial. You can see the events unfolding, as they say, in front of your eyes. At the same time, his style is not quite what we call chalti bhasha or colloquial language. It is literary.” As a translator, Indrani says her mission is “to capture the spirit of the original”. She does not try to translate the text word for word but tries to reflect the “basic essence of the narrative.” What about nuances in the original that may be lost in translation? Accepting that when it comes to puns or alliteration, “it often becomes an exercise in futility to try to translate such passages. Yet on some occasions one can re-create the nuances, which become a great stimulant for the translator. But, never can we compromise on authenticity or accuracy.”

In her translator’s note, Indrani wonders whether the film will lead to children forgetting to read the books. For those who cannot read the original, translations like these will help to keep readers hooked to “Ray’s magic with words”.

The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku is available on

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 10:04:43 PM |

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