Translation of Literature

My book of Tagore translation “The Eclipsed Sun” was published in January 2002 and its Internet edition was released from Jakarta on 15th April 2011. Both in the pre and post publication stages of TES quite a few highly eminent persons around the world generously lauded my work which are found in the ‘Compliments’ chapter of the Internet edition of TES. One such eminent person was Mr. Ajit Mitra, transcription of whose letter is produced below. Mr. Mitra was an engineer by profession and spent several years in Europe on professional assignment. I came in his touch in the seventies of the last centaury and after a hiatus of nearly two decades again towards its end. I reproduce his letter below addressed to me, believing the readers will highly enjoy it. - Rajat Das Gupta

100 Raja Basanta Roy Road
Calcutta  700 029
11 March 2K

Dear Mr.Das Gupta,

First let me thank you for honouring me (which I least deserve) by sending me some of your translations of Tagore’s poems. Also, for the three act play - Computer Rigmarole – which must be a unique thing of its kind in the field of cybernetics. The letter of appreciation from Mr. Sachdeva is very apt. He has nicely expressed his sensitive understanding of your English renderings of the nuances of Bengali expressions. This speaks a lot in favour of your literary talent in this field.

In the early twentieth century there was a saying in the literary world of Paris – which subsequently gained wide circulation all over the world – about one’s living with translations and remaining contended with it. It went on as : Living with translation is like living with a mistress. If she is beautiful, she is not faithful. If she is faithful, she is not beautiful. Pretty tongue-in-cheek though, but not entirely devoid of substance.

One may assume that the above is a way of looking down upon the translators as a genre, who happen to have the thankless tasks of presenting authors of one language into another. The reader of the translated version is in most cases ignorant of the beauty and splendour  of the first language, and thus has to be contented with its substitute. If the first one is taken as ‘ideal’ the second, third and others cannot be equal to the ‘ideal’. This was Plato’s way of looking at things. However, like any other creation the interaction between the two – here between the author and the translator – creates its product. And translation is taken by many as act of creation also.

I also believe that translation is not cloning. Cloning in  animal world has been possible only after man’s acquisition of accumulated knowledge in the field of genetics and its related sciences spread over a period of couple of millenniums or more. It may not be an idle thought that one day translation may turn out to be an act of intellectual cloning also. It will be possible only when linguistics will reach such height that at least a large body of men, or the elite among them, will have so much mastery of several languages that they won’t find any barrier in freely expressing the nuances of one language into another. To my mind that day is still far far off.

Meanwhile we shall have to live with translations. Man will continue to remain busy with transforming the gems of one language into another for many more years, if not centuries, to come. We, the readers, will derive pleasure from the world of thoughts and expressions which would otherwise remain unknown to us. 

The foregoing is in my defence of translations. But, if you ask me whether I am happy with a translated work my answer will be: Yes, so long I don’t know the original – and such instances are the rule and not exceptions. For example, I don’t know classical Greek but I enter into a world of sublime thought and feelings when I read Sophocles or Aeschylus in English because

a) English in this case is the ‘original’ to me
b)  my first acquaintance with their drama has been through English.
But if the same English text is re-translated into Bengali I am sure I may not like it unless the re-translated version exceeds the beauty of the original. If it does, it no longer can be taken as ‘translation’, but a work of art by its own merit. It is then like that mistress who being beautiful turns into an unfaithful wench.

After writing the above paragraph I was wondering how a Bengali translator would convey the beauty of words and cadence of the first few lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III :

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by the sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

I get from the writings of English scholars in Russian that Boris Pasternak has almost done this magic, and that his lines are comparable in beauty and grace to Shakespeare’s. Pasternak was a poet of great stature, and, I am told, Russian language is very flexible and rich. Even then I hesitate to buy it. I have read Sudhindranath Datta’s translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets; they are exceedingly good. Had I not known English I would have remained very much contended with them as I do with Roy Campbell’s translations of Baudelaire. To establish my point further, I enclose Xerox copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 19 and Datta’s translation of it for your perusal. My knowledge of English mars my full appreciation of Datta’s works. 

So much about translations in general. With regard to your translations of Rabindranath’s poems I have nothing but praise for you. I always thought that translation of Bengali lyrical poems into English or any other language would be painfully difficult; the Bengali would lose all its beauty in the process (may be possible in Sanskrit, I don’t know). But you have maintained the spirit of the poem (Bandi Bir). Your translation evokes the kind of emotions as the original does. Your Biswashok is equally successful, if not more. Unfortunately, Tagore’s own translations of some of his poems do not evoke similar emotions in me as their originals do.

I must stop here as the letter has already become too long. But before I finish may I suggest you translate some modern poets like Buddhadeb Bose, Bishnu Dey, Samar Sen, Jibananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Sankho Ghose etc.? You are equally strong in English prose, unlike lyrical poems modern Bengali verses may be handled without the nagging fear of achieving any sort of rhythmical verisimilitude with the original.

Hope this letter will find you in good health and spirit. I am keeping reasonably well. However, Time, like subtle thief, is catching up when

Yellow leaves, or more, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.


With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,

Sd/- Ajit Mitra    

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