Meet Arunava Sinha, likely India’s most prolific translator

“I translate compulsively, it’s a drug,” he says

October 14, 2022 07:40 am | Updated October 15, 2022 12:08 pm IST

Arunava Sinha

Arunava Sinha | Photo Credit: R.Rajesh

He translates on buses, trains and planes. While eating his meals, in the loo and on holidays. “I translate compulsively, it’s a drug,” says Arunava Sinha, who is likely India’s most prolific translator. “If I have even 10 minutes to spare I translate one paragraph.” He has even translated while walking. Apparently that is a good time to translate poetry as the structure of the poem first takes shape in his head.

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Sinha, 60, who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in Delhi, once told Outlook magazine that translation is the “language of democracy”. “It is one way in which everyone can have a voice,” he tells me. “We are locked into our own languages, not able to talk to others nor are they able to hear what we are saying.” If India has to hold together, Sinha believes, then we have to talk to and understand each other. He dreams of a time when we will voraciously translate regional writing not just into English or Hindi, but into each other’s languages.

Sinha, consulting editor for news website Scroll and an associate professor at Ashoka University, has won several awards for his 70 or so published translations of Bengali fiction and non-fiction to English. In the earlier years, they were mostly the works of the Indian equivalent of Dead White Men, he says, but these days there is great reader and publisher interest in previously sidelined voices. “Now there’s a chance to get voices out from the margins of a particular language.”

In recent years, he has translated authors such as Manoranjan Byapari, whose novel Imaan, released last year, is about those who live along the railway line and are invisible to the middle-class though they play a key role in the lives of this group. Such authors “are writing as insiders not as saviours who say I will document your lives as a way of bringing it to everyone’s notice”.

Averting a midlife crisis

His lifelong affair with translation began in 1989 when he worked for a city magazine in Kolkata. The editor asked the famous Bengali writer Sankar if they could translate and publish one of his short stories. Years later, Sankar asked Sinha to help when a French publisher wanted an English copy of Chowringhee. Sinha used his office computer and dot matrix printer after hours to bang out a translation and received a princely sum of ₹6,000 from the author, double his then salary. Luckily he put his name on it.

In 2006, an editor from Penguin saw his name on the manuscript, and called to ask if she could publish the translation. It was the start of a passion that, he says, also averted a midlife crisis. “It gave me some purpose and meaning to existence.”

He usually translates books he likes, discovering them in Kolkata’s bookstores, or via reviews in literary magazines. Sinha follows a rule to separate the wheat from the chaff. “If it is a no, you know in the first 20 pages,” he says.

He translates several books at a time. These days, he is working on an anthology of Bengali short stories for Penguin UK. Three books are scheduled to be published next year — essays by Sankar; a novella by a Bangladeshi writer on living with psychosis; and a book by Mahasweta Devi. He is also translating a story about a Bengali woman’s encounters with the Taliban; a book that moves between Gandhi’s Salt March and a similar, modern-day movement; and historical fiction set in 17th century Bengal.

As co-director of Ashoka University’s Centre of Translation, he is helping build the next generation of translators, encouraging women to translate women and helping teenagers publish their first translations.

The reading habit

His relationship with reading is even more enduring. In college, he read “old farts” such as Kafka and Camus who wrote in German and French respectively. “Lines such as ‘My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’ [Camus in The Stranger] are immortalised in English and you don’t realise they were not written in that language,” he says. The power of translation only really hit him when he read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Other favourite translated authors include Mario Vargas Llosa, Elena Ferrante, Alessandro Baricco, Han Kang, Sayaka Murata, Hiromi Kawakami and Karl Ove Knausgård.

Closer home, he dreams of translating the short stories of Ashapurna Devi, a housewife with no formal education who wrote long hand every afternoon on her bed with her pillow tucked under her chest. “Like Manto she writes of violence but while Manto places his stories in the Partition, she writes of the violence within the confines of the middle-class Bengali home,” he says. “Of the nastiness and anger and violence of ‘normal lives’.”

“I don’t go out, I don’t watch TV shows,” Sinha says. Like with translating, he has the ability to read everywhere. En route to the university by metro and shuttle bus, late at night or even while watching sports. “I read graphic novels while watching F1,” he says. “The commentary alerts you if something happens.”

Priya Ramani is a journalist on the editorial board of Article 14. She is the co-founder of India Love Project.

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