I am not an academic scholar. I am just an ordinary writer from a poor country called Bangladesh. I studied medicine. Literature was not my subject in the universities. But I loved literature, and I was called a book worm when young.
I started writing poetry when I was 12 years old. While studying in a medical college, I edited a poetry magazine. While practicing medicine in the public hospitals, I began writing columns in some national newspapers. My columns were about the rights of women. My message was that of raising consciousness in a male-dominated patriarchal society where women are treated as sexual objects and slaves and child-bearing machines. Translation was not an issue for me until my books were published in Western languages.
In 1993, when a fatwa – which is a religious decree – was issued against me in my own country, I had to live under police protection. And when the government filed a case against me on the charge of blasphemy, I had to go into hiding. The news spread around the world. Western publishers immediately showed interest in publishing my book. Here was a writer who was facing a death threat – the Muslim fanatics were demanding her execution by hanging and had set a price on her head. Publishing my books meant instant business. The Western world thought it had found a female Salman Rushdie. But by no means should I be considered a female Rushdie. From the beginning, I have been a socially committed writer, one writing about a cause.
When the fatwa was issued, I was living in Bangladesh. Western journalists were keen to locate the book for which the fatwa had been issued. However, the fanatics had issued the fatwa not for any specific book of mine. Rather, I had incurred the wrath of the fundamentalists because of my ideas about women’s rights and my criticism of Islam. But inasmuch as the journalists had gathered information that one of my books was banned in Bangladesh by the government, right away they assumed the fatwa was issued for my having written Shame, the book that was banned in July, 1993.
Note that there was no connection between the banned book and the fatwa, which was issued later that year. The publishers wanted to publish one book – Shame, in which criticism of Islam ironically is not found – because they had read in newspapers that it was the book for which a fatwa had been issued against me. I told them repeatedly that Shame had been banned by the government but that the fatwa was not, repeat not, issued because of the book.
Shame was not about Islam or women’s rights. It was a documentary novel based on describing atrocities that were perpetrated by a government and Muslim fanatics on Hindu minorities. It was not the Muslim fanatics that shouted for banning Shame – it was the government. Its leaders were keen on banning the book because I had criticized the establishment for having failed to protect the religious minority community at a critical time when they needed it the most.
The book’s documentation was for the people of the Indian subcontinent or for the scholars who do research on atrocities committed by the hate-mongers in the name of religion. Shame was not particularly for Western readers, I told Western publishers. But they chose to publish it – they didn’t want to receive any advice from me on publishing my book. I even told them that they would find no criticism of Islam in Shame. I requested them to publish the books that Western readers would be interested to read and for which I was hated, attacked, and punished by the fanatics and misogynists.
I advised the publishers to publish my books on women’s freedom, but no publisher wanted to publish those books. I told the publishers that the government, as well as the fanatics, filed court cases against me on the charges of blasphemy for writing those books. Mullahs issued several fatwas for those books in which I declared that religious scriptures are out of time and out of place, where I said that we need a uniform civil code based on equality – we need no religious law. In those books, I pointed out that, like other religions, Islam is not compatible with human rights, women’s rights, democracy, and secularism. But the Western publishers did not trust me – they trusted the misinformation that journalists had published in the newspapers. They just wanted to publish my documentary novel Shame. And what happened afterwards? Shame was published in the West, but the readers were disappointed, because they could not relate to the contents of the book, and also the translation was not good. I was heavily misunderstood. Not many publishers thereafter took any interest in publishing my other books, and this can lead to destroying any writer’s life. Most of the publishers in the West published Shame but did not contact me afterwards. This is the fate I was awaiting and had warned the publishers about. I am an unfortunate writer who became not only the victim of religious fundamentalism but also a victim of misinformation by the media and by the commercial mindset of the publishers. Among the Western publishers, it was only a French publisher that was not afraid to publish books of mine other than Shame.
Most publishers show little interest in my creative writings. Just as language rules, the powerful media of the dominant languages also rule. You can be a popular writer overnight by the blessings of the media. And again, you can be thrown out of the publication scene if the media ignores you and spreads negative propaganda against you. Because of media reports, I was translated in the West. And because of a lack of good translators I was not properly read. Ultimately it is readers who decide. The problem I have had is to be able to reach my readers. If a translation is not good, it is the writer – not the translator – that is blamed.
A few of my books were translated into English and French by Bengalis who knew English or French. But their translations are not good either, because their mother-tongues are neither English nor French. So, those books of mine were translated either into bad English or into bad French. Worse, most of my books have been translated, either by a Bengali man or by a Western man who happened to know Bengali. Knowing a language does not mean that he or she has a good writing skill. As a result, critics who read such translations deduce that I am not a good writer.
Even though the Western publishers were eager to publish my book, it was difficult for them to find a translator who could translate my book from Bengali into Western languages.
Bengali is a language of a poor country. Who in the West wants to learn a language of a country where 80% of the population is illiterate and more than half the population lives under the poverty line and natural disasters are the only news they read about concerning that country? It is not worth it to learn such a language.
This is not my language’s fault. My language is beautiful, and I love it. But my language is not one of the dominant languages. Languages in poor countries and of tribes in the world are rich and beautiful, but they remain in the back yard of contemporary history. They are dying. At least half of the world’s 6,800 languages, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, face a similar fate. Bengali could be dead some time from now. Maybe only a few languages eventually will be spoken and used on Earth. Maybe in the future there will be no problem of communicating with others or translating their thoughts. Maybe in the future nothing will be lost in translation. Would that be Utopia? I say no, it would be Dystopia.
Bengali, even though it is one of the sixth largest spoken languages in the world, is the language of a poor country. Bengali, however, has been the mother tongue of notables, for example Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, who in 1992 won an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cinematic Art. And it is spoken by Sitar player Ravi Shankar; by Amartya Sen, who got the Nobel in Economics in 1998; and by Mohammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2006.
I was in Iceland when my book came out there. How on Earth, I wondered, did they find an Icelander to translate the book? Was there anyone there to translate Bengali into Icelandic, and could I meet the person? No. The translation was from the Norwegian version. And the Norwegian book was translated from the Swedish. The Swedish version was translated from French and the French from English. Only the English version was from the original Bengali. Are Icelanders aware that they are not reading my book?
Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s well-known 1950 film, Rashomon, tells the story of an actual event witnessed by four, all of whom report widely different memories of what happened. Analogously, readers of my books have widely different understandings of what I wrote. I believe, admittedly without facts, that prose loses 50% and poetry loses its 80% of its essence/originality because of translation.
The Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson declared that “poetry by definition is untranslatable.” I don’t totally agree with him. If a translator himself or herself is a poet and makes the translated poetry sound like the original, there is nothing better.
The title of my first poetry book in French is ‘Une Autre Vie’. As I do not know French, I could not check whether the translation was OK. The poems were translated by a French women who was a professor of Bengali language at Le Sorbonne. I was happy to see that the book get translated. But when one of my friends translated one poem from that book into English to me, I was shocked. Two lines of my Bengali poem was, ‘tomake anchole git diye bhalo bedhechi, din din tobu tumi tumiheenotay kNedechi’. It means ‘I have tied you well with the cloths I am wearing, but I have cried for day and night for not having you with me.’ Sari is a htraditional Bengali dress for women. It is common in the Indian subcontinent to tie the sari-end or one corner of the cloths of both men and women during romantic love and marriage, so that they can be near each other all their life. I expressed that idea and tried to say that you are so near to me, actually you are not near to me. I cried being without you. Physically you can be beside me, but your heart is somewhere else – That was the poem. But the translator made a big mistake. She did not understand sari-end, the word in Bengali sounded similar to another word in Bengali, that is hair. She translated my Bengali into French as ‘I have tied you with my hair’. What is the translation of next line? Instead of ‘I have cried for day and night for not having you with me’ she wrote ‘You are so mean that I have cried for day and night.’ In Bengali, ‘tumiheen’ is ‘without you’ or ‘your absence’. But if you separate the two words, then it means ‘you are mean’. Even though I did not separate the words, she did not understand the meaning of two words when they got together and carried a different meaning. The translator did not ask me any question while she was translating my poem. I have noticed that the translators do not try to discuss with the authors when they do not understand the words and sentences the authors wrote. Probably they are afraid of asking, because it might show that they do not know Bengali well, or they think the author is too busy to co operate with them. The readers are still reading the poem in French that sounds nonsense. I was afraid to check other poems of mine that are translated in French, I am afraid I would find this kind of grave mistakes in many of my translated poems. I have a fear of translation.
My second poetry book in French, Femmes, is the fruit of a literal translation. The translator is not a poet, she is not even a writer, she is French but knows English – no other criteria was considered by the publisher. She translated my poems from an English version of my Bengali poems into French. Several months ago when I read my poems for an hour in Maison de la Poesie, Theatre Moliere, in Paris, I read my poems in Bengali and a French actress standing beside me read the translation. The theater was full, and the audience was French who knew no Bengali. Surprisingly, I received the most applause after I read the poems in Bengali. The talented actress, however, did not get applause when she read the word-for-word translation which sounded, I imagine, unlistenable. Sometimes it is better to hear the sound of beautiful poems in a language that you do not know, rather than hear a bad translation in a language that you do know.
There are some particular problems in the translation process: problems of ambiguity, problems that originate from structural and lexical differences between languages and multi-word units such as idioms and collocations. Another problem is grammar, for there are several constructions of grammar poorly understood, in the sense that it isn’t clear how they should be represented, or what rules should describe them.
The words that are really hard to translate are frequently the small, common words, whose precise meaning depends heavily on context. Some words are untranslatable when one wishes to remain in the same grammatical category. The question of whether particular words are untranslatable is frequently debated.
For example, it isn’t easy to translate poetry because you need to analyze the words and meaning in the work’s flow and rhythm or rhyme. Most translations of poetry are bad. This is principally because the translator knows the foreign language too well and his or her native language too poorly. Some English poetry translations, particularly if they are robotic, do a great disservice to the originals.
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s poems were translated by W. B. Yeats, an eminent poet who understood another poet’s feelings. But knowing the language is not enough – one preferably needs to be a writer or a poet to translate a writer or a poet. In the past, writers translated the works of other writers. Nowadays, we hardly see this phenomenon. French poet Charles Baudelaire translated American writer Edgar Allen Poe, leading some bilinguals to prefer Baudelaire over Poe. Ezra Pound edited T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland, the work that got the American poet the 1948 Nobel Prize in literature. Edward FitzGerald, the English writer, translated the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), which achieved its Oriental flavor. Long before that, in the 14th century, the first fine translation of Italian into English was made by England’s great poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, who adapted from the Italian of Giovanni Boccaccio in his own works. Chaucer began a translation of the French-language Roman de la Rose, and he completed a translation of Boethius from the Latin. Chaucer founded an English poetic tradition on adaptations and translations from those earlier-established literary languages. Adaptation, which formerly was common, changed over the centuries, probably since the 19th century. Instead of adaptation, literal translation or word-for-word authentic translation became a norm.
Not everyone is a Gilbert Adair, George Perec’s translator into English of his 300-page French novel La disparition (1969), a work which Perec wrote as a lipogram (a lipogram, for example, is a work in which the author never uses the letter “e”). Adair translated Perec’s work without using an “e” in English and it remains as magical as the original. Same as in Swedish. Perec was a magical writer, and any translator needs extra-ordinary talents to avoid one of the most commonly used letters of the alphabet. This would preclude the use of words normally considered essential such as je (“I”) and le (masculine “the”) in French, and “me” and “the” in English. The Spanish version contains no “a,” which is the most commonly used letter in that language. His novella, Les revenentes (1972), is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter “e” is the only vowel used. This constraint affects even the title, which would conventionally be spelled Revenantes. An English translation by Ian Monk was published in 1996 as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex in the collection Three. Look at all the e’s he used!
It is my understanding that English has had three periods: Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. I have enough problems understanding contemporary English, of course. I realize I cannot understand Beowulf in the original, although the translations of stories about the 11th century epic warrior are of real interest. I cannot fully appreciate Chaucer’s Middle English, but I smile at his critique of life around the time that America was discovered, when priests sold bones of animals and pretended they were the bones of saints.
Shakespeare is the one in the 17th century who helped straighten out English from that previously spoken and now spoken differently by Angles, Saxons, Normans, and Celts. His sonnets about love I need more time to understand: in English, not in someone’s translation of what he wrote. When I was much younger, I read Shakespeare translated into Bengali. The translation into Bengali by a non-poet was really not readable. Buddhadev Basu, a fine 20th century Bengali poet, translated poems of Charles Baudelaire and, after reading those poems in Bengali, I developed not only an interest in reading more Baudelaire but also I became desperate to read more French literature. A good translator has the capacity to create a hunger among readers. But it is not always the same. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, translated many of his own poems into English. They were not, of course, up to the mark. But when William Butler Yeats translated these works, he drew Westerners’ attention and helped Tagore to get the Nobel Prize. Tagore failed to create a great literature in his second language.
Many famous Bengali poets have translated English, French, German, and Spanish poets’ work. However, it is extremely rare that English or French poets translate works by famous Bengali poets. It is not that they are not good writers or not good poets, but the Western publishers are not interested in their work until they start writing in a language of one of the major powers.
I depend on translation. I do not have enough knowledge to write in any other language than Bengali, my mother tongue. We know that many talented writers wrote their books in their second language. They did not need any translator to make them understood to the readers. Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s best-known novels are the series of three novels written in French. He translated his own novels into English. Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote in French, his second language. Joseph Conrad, a Polish man, wrote his novels in English – Conrad was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote his famous book, Lolita, first in English and then he translated Lolita into Russian. Nabokov, even though he wrote excellent English once said and I quote, “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.”
Although Nabokov was dismissive of his second language, he is regarded as perhaps the stylist of the century. John Updike commented that “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.”
If I could write English like Nabokov, I would never complain about my English. But writers are never satisfied with their writings. Satisfaction is like poison – it indicates that death lies ahead. As long you remain unsatisfied with your work, you will continue to improve.
Would we wish that translations of works not be necessary, that we all could understand each other’s language? Would it be better if everyone on Earth spoke the same language? I can’t possibly think of that horrible situation. I can’t deny that many languages and cultures make the earth beautiful. Communication might be a problem now, but not having diversity would lead only to the sound of monotony.
As for meta-phrase, or literal word-for-word translation, I don’t give it a good mark. I am an unfortunate writer, most of whose works have been word-for-word translations. But this does not take into account context, grammar, conventions, and idioms. Sometimes there are no problems with grammar as such; all the difficulties are with the choice of words or the use of words.
Language is not a mere collection of words and grammar rules – it is the expression of a culture. It embodies the efforts of a language community to conceptualize and interpret the world, as well as human experience and relations. As a result, language reflects the complex “personality” of such a community. Therefore, language can only be interpreted and learned with reference to a specific cultural context.
When I was growing up, I read translations of Russian literature. Then I read translations of French and German literature. I enriched myself with a knowledge of different cultures. Also, of course, I read Bengali literature as well as Bengali translations. Some of my friends didn’t like to read translations at all, but I did. I wanted to read books in their original language – French, Italian, German, Russian, and others. But I found life is too short to learn so many languages in order to read so many literary works. I did not wait to learn the Russian language to read Russian literature. The translation may have been perfect or not, but it touched my heart. I even cried when I read the translation of Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I don’t remember how the Bengali translation of those classics was. I knew I was reading a foreign classic, so I accepted that the behavior of the foreign characters would look strange to me, their way of life being different from my way of life, their way of saying things entirely different. But that was not at all a problem for me. I learned the differences. But I felt so emotionally involved with the characters.
The most important book that I read in translation, the one that changed my life the most, is the Koran. Had I not read it, I would not have become the person I now am. Like Muslims in the non-Arab world, I do not know Arabic. Like them when growing up, I read Koranic verses as if I was a parrot, repeating the sounds but not knowing what they meant. Once I read a translation of what I was parroting, I became an atheist, for I found that Islam is not a religion of peace and that it discriminates against women. I didn’t find that God was kind and merciful, and I saw no reason to be fooled. In fact, it was clear that the words had been written by a man or a group of men for their own social and political interest.
Thousands of writers who write in regional languages remain unknown. Writers who came from the Indian subcontinent and write in English – like Salman Rushdie, Amitava Ghosh, Arundhuti Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri – are praised by Western readers. Do they write better than other writers in the subcontinent? I do not think so. It is the language that makes them understood and praised by the readers. You can be a famous writer all over the world if only you write in a dominant language. You can be an excellent writer, but if you use a little-used language you likely will not become well-known. No Booker Prize, no Pulitzer, and no Nobel will come your way.