Friendly quicksand and tightrope walking – with Arunava Sinha

Leading Bengali translator Arunava Sinha talks to Welsh poet Natalie Ann Holborow about his ‘many voices’, translation as tightrope walking, and his plans to re-navigate Western gatekeeping.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction, non-fiction and poetry from India and Bangladesh into English. Winner of the Crossword translation award, for both Sankar’s Chowringhee and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen, over fifty of his translations have been published so far. Modern Bengali Poetry: Desire for Fire was published by Parthian in 2020.

Natalie Ann Holborow is an award-winning writer whose debut collection, And Suddenly You Find Yourself was launched at the International Kolkata Literary Festival. She is co-editor of the Cheval anthology and is also a curator for Taz Rahman’s Just Another Poet project, a virtual poetry exchange showcasing work from Wales and across different cultures worldwide. Her most recent collection, Small, was published in 2020.

You noted in Desire for Fire that a translator ‘must be capable of having as many voices as the number of writers whose works they translate’. With over fifty poets in the book, how do you overcome the challenge of adapting to these different voices?

I think that whatever success I’ve had with this venture has been because many of these translations have actually been done over a period of years. I worked on at least half of the poems for about four or five years – just casually, not with any intention of putting them into an anthology. I would usually choose a poem and translate it when I felt in the mood for it and the words were flowing during different points in time, different periods of my life and possibly different states of mind.

Yet even with these poems, I still felt sometimes that it wasn’t working and that I’d have to return to it. You know how it is when it’s poetry – it’s very hard to do it mechanically. You have to be in the zone. Then you have to get out of that zone and into another one for another poem.

It was tougher when the idea for the book came up because it meant I had to finish enough of the poems for an anthology and in a much shorter period, and so I worked poet by poet. I’d work on each of the poems one after the other so I could be sure that each poem by a given poet all had that same voice. For the rest of it, I just tried to listen to the poems in my head. So much of it had to do with listening and thinking about how they made me feel when I listened. Then, when I worked on them in English, I would try and arrive at that same effect to try and create a divergence in the voices.

All translators have different metaphors for what they do. For me, you have to walk a tightrope and you can’t step off it. And while it’s a pretty thin rope, you can try a few tricks to balance yourself to make sure you don’t fall off.

The translator Kate Briggs wrote in her book This Little Art that the work of a translator is to ‘write a translation’. As a Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is translation closely linked with the process of creative writing for you or is it something else entirely?

Most of the courses at the university which I teach are to do with translation, so I don’t really write anything of my own. I used to play down the aspect of creativity in translation, thinking people were making too big a deal out of it, or trying to turn it into a creative art. It’s not – it’s a very different kind of thing.

All translators have different metaphors for what they do. For me, you have to walk a tightrope and you can’t step off it. And while it’s a pretty thin rope, you can try a few tricks to balance yourself to make sure you don’t fall off.

However, as I’ve gone on I’ve found that there is some sort of ‘creativity’ for lack of a better word, but along different dimensions – not where you’re groping for the material or trying to figure out how the words will come, but more to do with working in a very confined space. You can’t go beyond those very tight boundaries that the work has set for itself.

Working within those constraints brings its own kind of creativity. English is a more ‘wordy’ language than Bengali because it needs verbs and it needs articles, whereas Bengali doesn’t. Even the subject in Bengali does not need an ‘I’ as the verb ending will tell you that it’s first-person. So, sticking to those specific dimensions needs its own kind of lateral thinking.

What’s interesting about this is if you translate and then go back and write something that you’re conjuring out of your own head, it sometimes gets incredibly difficult. You start thinking about what’s in your head as a text and start translating it into the language in which you’re writing. I then find that the familiarity with the rules and requirements work really well in producing very tight, terse writing. This is especially great when writing in English, because we Indians tend to be much more florid in our use of the language, whereas English doesn’t naturally accommodate that.

I think, for that reason, translation has taught me to write more elegantly in English – whatever writing I do.

What, or who, inspired you to become a translator?

You know, I don’t actually have the answer to this. I read literature in college after a failed dalliance with electrical engineering. I realised in the space of about six weeks that this would be no way to spend what would be some of the best years of my life and switched over to literature the next year. Gabriel García Márquez had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and on reading his books – and One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular – I really woke up to the fact that they were translations. It didn’t originally register with me with other translations that they were not originally written in English, but for some reason – maybe because of the press around it – I woke up to the fact that this was not originally written in English and that these were somebody else’s words and language.

At that point, I thought, ‘Wow, can translation really do this?’ From there, I started reading translations and translating literature more and more. Pretty soon I was marvelling at phrases and sentence constructions that I had not encountered in works originally written in English. I did a few papers in college on translating poems across the ages and thought about doing it myself.

That was how it began, but I had no notion at that point that it would actually become something that I would be doing in a sustained way later on in life. I joined a magazine shortly after college and would translate one short story in Bengali every month. That was what started my practice as a translator, but my first big break came when the author of one of the stories I’d translated asked me if I would translate his novel, which was a very well-known novel among Bengali-speaking people called Chowringee.

As a translator, you’re the first and the closest reader of a text. You’re probably reading it even more closely than the author themselves

You were twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011) and winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, as well as being shortlisted and longlisted for many others. With 56 published translations so far, you’ve accomplished an impressive amount. What’s been your proudest achievement?

That’s probably a book that’s coming out later this year. It was the most incredibly complex book called Khwabnama, The Book of Dreams. It’s by a writer in Bangladesh whose entire reputation is based on just two novels that he wrote – including this one. I hesitate to use the word ‘challenging’ because it’s so overused with translators, but it genuinely was like doing one of those ultramarathons except that it wasn’t a marathon but a constant obstacle course. I was constantly jumping over, under, around and in between things with the language. In cases like this, you’re always unsure whether you’re successful in getting some of it into the new language but it was incredible working on it. Whether it’s been done well or not, I can’t tell just yet, but it was so absorbing. I was so immersed in it that I think I forgot about the existence of the entire world during that four-month period in which I completed the first draft of around 190,000 words. I went into it in May and emerged in August – and I have no idea what happened to the world in between those times.

As a translator, you’re the first and the closest reader of a text. You’re probably reading it even more closely than the author themselves and it draws you in multiple ways. As a reader you notice its content, form, rhythm and sound. However, as a translator you’re also thinking about how to take all those things across to a new language. You’re more keenly aware of all the elements.

If there exists a ‘friendly’ version of quicksand, then that’s what it was – the kind of quicksand that will suck you in but won’t kill you. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I think translators get their greatest joy not from the fact that people know their names, but that people read their books

Do you feel the work of translators is acknowledged enough?

In India, oddly enough, I feel it is. Here, there is great awareness of translators and the work that they do. We even get our names on book covers without asking, so that’s quite remarkable – in fact, sometimes I think it’s overdone in the sense that there’s too much attention drawn to the words of the translator. Sometimes that distracts a bit from the value of the work. 

The rest of the world? I’m not sure. In translation circles that I’ve been in, there is of course great acknowledgement, but beyond that I think translators should also not expect more than their fair share, which may not be as much as many of us think it is. We wouldn’t be here had the original work not been there in the first place.

However, I think translators get their greatest joy not from the fact that people know their names, but that people read their books – especially as people read their books as though written by the writer themselves. Imagine the joy that Gregory Rabassa would have had knowing that more people would have read One Hundred Years of Solitude in his words than in Gabriel García Márquez’s.

For a translator, that’s the greatest acknowledgement.

I keep going through my own translation list and shaking my head because so many of them are dominated by men – and by privileged men at that…

Finally, what’s next for you? Any goals or ambitions you are working towards at the moment?  

I’m currently working on a couple of things that go beyond my own work as a translator. One is that we are trying to build a Centre of Translation at Ashoka University, where I teach, to create a locus for translation practice – and theory, although my focus is on the practice – in South Asia and then perhaps for the rest of Asia as well.  This is so that translation into English and other languages of South Asia can gather some momentum and attract people who want to work in translation. People will be able to work on both short-term and long-term projects and form a community.

The other thing I will be doing is finding an alternative model to get translations from South Asia to be read by people around the world. The gatekeepers of publishing in the West have a certain set of requirements of their own, and perhaps South Asian literature doesn’t quite fit into those requirements right now. However, given that we live in a world that’s so connected in so many other lateral ways, maybe going through those gateways of formal translation is no longer the only option. I’m hoping, with the help of many other people, that I’ll be able to work on something along those lines.

As for my own translation, I want to be able to translate many more works by women. I keep going through my own translation list and shaking my head because so many of them are dominated by men – and by privileged men at that – so I’m looking to expand the pool of people I translate to include people who have not got as much of a voice. I also hope to be able to build a small pool of translators from within these communities to translate their work. They do not need people like me to take over and say: ‘Now I have access to it, I am going to do you the favour of translating your work so that lots of people can read it.’

I think it’s more important to be able to enable people to have access to translators and this is something that I’m hoping to do over the next few years.

You can find out more about Arunava Sinha and his work here, and check out Modern Bengali Poetry: Desire for Fire here.