Critically acclaimed in Bangladesh, late author Shahidul Zahir’s oeuvre imbues a polyphony of voices to register the syncretic yet conflicted history of the nation. His legacy is now inscribed in rich translations by V Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin, who have collated two of his novellas in Life and Political Reality. We had an insightful conversation with the translators about the process and joy of translating Zahir into English.

In the afterword to the book, you have written about how despite the many resonances with international writers of critical acclaim – like Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez, for example – the prose of Shahidul Zahir reflects the very particular sociopolitical reality of Bangladesh. With this masterful translation into a “global” language, even as Zahir’s ‘national fiction’ is now accessible to an international landscape, the crisis it documents is still very rooted in Bangladesh. Do you think translated authors who write f(r)ictional works about a local political reality find some difficulty in achieving global recognition of their literary merit? Can a “global” language like English homogenize the multitudinous layers of regional reality/context – and is that even desirable?
V Ramaswamy: For me, Shahidul Zahir’s prose reflects not merely the sociopolitical reality of Bangladesh and her difficult history. It is Bangladeshi in spirit and tone, language and imagination. The stories and characters are located in real places. The quirks and eccentricities of people and their pronouncements have a distinctly Bangladeshi mien. This is a question of a “sense”, like a smell.

Regarding global recognition, yes, overarching dominance and hegemony are at play in international publishing, with attendant double standards. When one reads a Bangladeshi writer, one needs to know something about Bangladesh. But, although it might be “far away”, it is very much connected to “one’s own” world.

For instance, the United States was on the side of West Pakistan when it conducted a genocide in East Pakistan in 1971. And the garments factory complex in Dhaka that collapsed in 2013, killing over 1,100 people, supplied garments to leading stores in the UK and Europe. So, it is a question of what one chooses to see and know – what one chooses to remember.

A writer has to write what s/he must, what s/he is driven to write. And translators like us curate literature for “others”, via the English language. If that is still difficult for people to read, then that is how it must be.

It simply mirrors the structure of power in the world, which is not going to change overnight. But we have also seen how major changes, in outlook and awareness, take place over time. Films and books that were criticised on their release and were then forgotten have subsequently become cult classics. And the reverse also occurs.

It is important that writers write. Yes, recognition is desirable, it is hoped for. But that could be like a lottery. So, it is best to simply write since one must. And independent translators can help to ferry the work across the boundaries of language. Global recognition may be difficult, but it is definitely possible, as people of the Global South know very well.

People in Bengal have perhaps been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for over a century, just like they read Márquez and Murakami today. And they learn as they read. After all, a serious reader of literature cannot be a frog in the well. But it is by reading that we begin to learn.

One may have known nothing about the history of Turkey, but reading Yaşar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk educates us about Turkey’s history in a way no history textbook can. The fact that profound political changes have taken place in the society in the course of the novel is conveyed simply through a young man reflecting in the end upon how someone who loomed large in his consciousness as an oppressive tyrant when he was a boy, is now a pathetic marginal figure.

The world has changed, and the protagonist’s world has changed, it has grown. The world is no longer the small place where the local strongman was God-like, the political and the personal mirror each other. Reading literature is a political choice and act, and the best of literature is a means of education and growth.

Homogenisation through English – well, that is the challenge of translation. While it may, for instance, “flatten” or homogenise language – personally speaking, I do not know how dialect speech can be meaningfully translated – nonetheless, the effort has to be towards enabling the perception and awareness of heterogeneity. Say, the question of idiomatic expressions, or proverbs. A proverb in Bangla would have its equivalent in English, but it is often constructed differently.

When I translate, I think about whether in that particular instance, I should simply use the well-known English equivalent – or enlighten the reader a little bit about the Bengali language-mind-mien by actually translating the words of the original Bangla proverb.

The translator must be embedded and alien at the same time, and thereby enable discernment and comprehension on the part of the “foreign” reader. That is how I see it. As it happens, I am such an insider-outsider, on account of being a Tamil in Bengal.

When it comes to Bangladesh, another dimension comes in, and as someone from West Bengal and India, everything seems new and different to my eyes and ears, which prompts thinking, and brings questions, conjecture and speculation to mind regarding “people”, “history” and “culture”. And the key thing about Bangladesh is its language. There are so many dialects, or local speeches, we should actually call them languages. Each language has its own sensibility, its own verve and pungency. Just like India is not one but multiple nations, Bengali in Bangladesh is not one but multiple languages. There is so much for writers to explore and experiment with, and likewise, so much for translators to do.

Shahroza Nahrin: Your question invites a host of related questions in my mind: what does a book from the global periphery need to gain universal visibility? Must it meet some criteria to ensure international repute? Are there fictional works that are translatable while others are not? Who sets the standard? Is this book exotic enough to stand as an antithesis of life in the Western metropolises? Does it engage in what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls “preying” on the proverbs and particulars of a cultural experience – in our case, the Bangladeshi experience? Is it written with a self-Orientalising zeal?

I do not have an answer for all of them. These are the concerns I grapple with as a young translator and graduate student.

As for the issue of exoticisation of space and its inhabitants, I believe that Life and Political Reality does the contrary. It accentuates the social, the experiential, over the architectural landmarks of Puran Dhaka. It does not harken back to the area’s Nawabi past but emphasises the magic in the mundane, the everyday interactions among its people, their language, their livelihoods. So, you can imagine how this translation project opened another avenue for research for me at the academic level.

Yes, in the foreground, it is regional. It talks about “a local political reality”. But, in the background, it is rather global. The presence of global politics in the 1971 war is implicit in the text. Just as the validation of the imperial project, Edward Said argues, is implicated in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Here I return to V Ramaswamy’s example of the US backing West Pakistan in the 1971 war. I look back on the Concert for Bangladesh. The mass migration to India.

And not just the events occurring behind the curtain, the internal crisis of a man in Abu Ibrahim’s Death coming to terms with his weakness in the face of a larger political game is globally recognisable. The gendered experience is global. The assertion of masculine pride on a woman who stands against tyranny is universal. The fragmented form of the novel and the elements of the fantastic that seeped into the narrative resonate with global literary practices. The global reader is familiar with all these motifs.

My invocation of this universal human experience is by no means driven by a monocultural and homogenising aesthetic impulse. On the one hand, as translators, we maintained as much semantic and syntactic correspondence between the original and the target text as possible. On the other, keeping the dialogue and dialect in transliteration is our way of resisting the authority of the “global language”.

It can be called what Chinua Achebe calls burdening the global language with our peculiar experiences. It is a way of impregnating the English language with our “foreign splendours”, as Goethe calls it. So, homogenisation is challenged when we insinuated Bangla words (in the Puran Dhaka dialect) into the English text. It also subverts the authority of standard Bangla and in turn, acknowledges the voice, language and idiosyncrasies of the general people.

Author Shahidul Zahir.

We are bound together culturally in many ways that often escape our own recognition. Reading Márquez in India, for example, has a special recognition attached to the process – a recognition that happens despite the many geopolitical differences otherwise. Translations open a wide range of possibilities for readers – not only is there an opportunity to discover new cultures, there is also the realisation that despite the differences, there are intrinsic similarities across borders as well. What has your experience with Zahir been in terms of this ability of translation to cross borders, or the ability that permits border crossing?
Shahroza Nahrin: Whether we gain (whose gain?) or lose something in translation, it surely democratizes literature. I am eager to observe the trajectory of the works of an author who is now transcending national borders and yet almost absent in the mainstream Bangladeshi literary consciousness.

Despite the geopolitical and cultural differences, is it not fascinating to immerse in the aesthetic sensibilities of another time, space and place? Life and Political Reality is punctuated with Bangla words in transliteration followed by their translation. I believe that this encourages active participation from the global reader and challenges them to pick up new expressions intrinsic to another place. After all, if I borrow Fredric Jameson’s words from a 1982 interview with Diacritics, “I hope we are not too alienated or instrumentalized to reserve some small place for” literature from another place.

I welcome the readers of world literature to look for what Rabindranath Tagore calls “universal humanity in universal literature”.

V Ramaswamy: Reading is not an inert, passive act. Reading also requires prior preparation. There is the learned reader. And yet literature must be able to transcend boundaries of both class and privilege, as well as language and culture. Because after all, it is the same universal human being, of senses and sensations, pains and pleasures, griefs and joys, who is everywhere.

I recall that I shared our translation of the novella, Life and Political Reality, with two friends: one an Irishman living in London, a professor of history, and the other a Malayali English-medium Indian living in Mumbai, a journalist and writer (and Márquez fan). Both of them liked the novella very much. In my Afterword, I have reproduced the Irishman Chris Moffat’s response. For me as a translator, such a reception is richly satisfying.

I am sure our translation will also be read by several Bengali readers who love Zahir’s writing. I hope it will have a positive effect by way of prompting Bangladeshis to take up the translation of the literary treasures of their country.

What was your experience of working on translating a late author’s oeuvre? You have extensively worked with Zahir’s short- and long-form narratives, can we expect more Zahir translations in the future?
V Ramaswamy: It was entirely providential that I learnt the name of Shahidul Zahir in 2019 and received his works. I was entranced by his prose from the moment I started reading it. I could not stop myself from translating some of his stories almost at once.

I spent about two weeks dwelling on his writing. After that, I decided to translate (and eventually get published) the novella Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota (Life and Political Reality), ten short stories and the novel, Mukher Dike Dekhi (I Look at the Face). I was fortunate to get the consent of the late author’s estate soon after.

It was only after I read Zahir that I began becoming aware of his standing and following in Bangladesh. So, the fact that I was going to translate Zahir earned me a lot of goodwill.

I ‘met’ Shahroza Nahrin on Facebook, and when she said she was keen to work on translation(s), I asked her whether she would like to join me in translating Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota. She agreed, and I made a trip to Bangladesh soon after to complete the first round of translations with her. There was a long pause after that, with the pandemic and so on, and then we resumed work, this time through the newly accessed online means. We worked patiently, diligently and exactingly, since the novella demanded that. I am fortunate that the collaboration, the first time for me, was truly a magnificent and rich one.

This first book composed of Zahir’s two novellas will be followed by a short stories collection, and then the novel, Mukher Dike Dekhi. I hope the response to the Zahir translations into English is good, so that his other novel, Shey Raate Purnima Chhilo (It Was Full Moon That Night) can also then be published. Shahroza will be the lead co-translator on that, and she will also be translating a few other short stories of Zahir on her own.

Shahroza Nahrin: I remember that I wanted to translate Zahir the moment I read him. I also remember that I felt a pang of guilt for being oblivious to his works for too long. I became acquainted with Zahir through Syed Jamil Ahmed’s stage rendition of Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota in 2019. The fact that Zahir is only known to a closed literary circle in Bangladesh and West Bengal indicates the politics and problems of (under-)representation.

My engagement with Zahir is a serious commitment. A spontaneous preoccupation. Working with V. Ramaswamy is a turning point in my development as a translator. During this project, I learned and unlearned many things that I deemed the sine qua nons of translation. I reconciled with my bias towards sense-for-sense rendition and sought to become more syntactically and stylistically faithful without compromising the meaning or disrupting the natural flow of the story.

I learned to exercise my freedom when required, yet did not allow myself to be carried away by that impulse. Otherwise, we will only be “substituting” our work for Zahir’s, as Voltaire warns us. (I quote this Voltairean view from Razu Alauddin’s essay on the problematics of canonisation. I am currently translating Alauddin.)

But is it possible to render the original exactly as it is in the target text? I would say that the co-translated texts carry a part of us as much as they carry the words of Zahir. V Ramaswamy and I hope to venture into another collaborative project. We will co-translate Shey Raate Purnima Chhilo this year. I am grateful to V Ramaswamy for his mentorship.

While reading Abu Ibrahim’s Death, I was constantly thinking of another incredible novella that foretold death in its title – Márquez’s Chronicle of Death Foretold. Naturally, it was delightful to encounter that parallel in the afterword to the book as well, wherein you have quoted Dr Sarker Hasan Al Zayed’s review of Zahir.

Both the books relay a chronicle whose conclusion is foretold, and yet ingeniously hold the readers’ attention. Were there any challenges while translating the text, to retain that “hypnotic effect” as you have called it, in a new language?

Shahroza Nahrin: With its Kafkaesque bureaucratic complexities, Abu Ibrahim’s Death documents the period in which Bangladesh was under the dictatorship of Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1983-1990). In that sense, Abu Ibrahim’s Death is the perfect companion novella to Life and Political Reality. It shows the new “political realities” more than a decade after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. It is also interesting to note that Life and Political Reality begins (or ends) in 1985 and then it travels back and forth in time.

When I was working on Abu Ibrahim’s Death, its evocative prose transported me to a different Dhaka in the 1980s. So, for me, its “hypnotic effect” hinges on how the story is told, rather than what it reveals (the plot twists) at the end (or, in this case, at the beginning). As translators, we aimed at attaining a close formal and semantic correspondence in our translation. The challenges came in the form of reproducing in the target text the wordplays, the zeugma, or the convoluted thoughts and epiphanies of the protagonist.

In many ways, Abu Ibrahim’s Death also resembles another short story by Zahir, Agargaon Colony-te Noyontara Phul Keno Nei (translated as “Why There Aren’t Any Noyontara Flowers in the Agargaon Housing Estate” by V Ramaswamy). Both are set in a government housing estate, both centre around the lifeworld of a government employee.

V Ramaswamy: I did not originally intend to translate Abu Ibrahim’s Death. I had not read it either. So it was, once again, providential that I learnt about and communicated with Sarker Hasan Al Zayed, and that he agreed to write an essay on Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota for the Bangladeshi edition of Life and Political Reality, which in turn had a brief but weighty mention of Abu Ibrahim’s Death. After I read that, I quickly read the novella and decided to translate it, as a companion piece to Life and Political Reality. Dr Sarker’s words acted like a “mantra”, or a command, which provided a key, and I immediately devoted myself to grasping and rendering everything in the text in that light.

When it comes to translation, actually I simply “hear” the Bangla sentences and try to render exactly that as accurately as possible in English, conforming broadly to correct English usage while taking liberties as far as possible, for instance with syntax. But this is a process requiring time. It cannot be done in a hurry.

Zahir is not just any writer. His writing is highly crafted and evolved. In that sense, the original text is sacrosanct. I guess as a translator one has to get inside and become one with the “voice” in the writing. There are affects and effects in the original, and the translator cannot be just a reader or any reader. He or she must be like a digital scanner, with multi-sensory, polychromatic antennae, so that these affects and effects can be sensed and then conveyed in the translation. I mentioned the insider-outsider matter earlier.

It should be axiomatic that translation has to be collaborative – so that there is a better chance that the translation is a competent one. With two people reading and re-reading the work time and again, sharing the labour and the scrutiny, small things that were paid scant attention to – a word, or an expression, or sentence – subsequently loom large, in terms of the need for penetration of what is opaque towards comprehension and clarity.

In my Afterword, I mention a passage in Jibon O Rajnoitik Bastobota that defied comprehension. And then in a “eureka” moment, I got it. Shahroza and I had a similar experience with Abu Ibrahim’s Death as well. There was more than one sentence in the novella that was similarly opaque.

Here is one example: “Thus did Khaled Jamil utter his final sentence, without much caution and care, and as a result, even as Abu Ibrahim sat in this office that lacked natural light and ventilation, he simultaneously visualized Khaled Jamil and himself standing in an altered frame, and in reversed roles.” It is just one sentence. The reader reads it and moves on. But a translator is unlike any reader. He or she enables the reader in English to read and move on, rather than falter and fall.

Life and Political Reality reads a lot more like a historical document than fiction, and despite its incredibly serious project of cataloguing a genocide, it has its moments of humour, scathing wit and insightful imagery. Most of the text is in indirect speech, yet it retains a very authentic connection with the source text and cultural setting of the book. A lot of Bengali dialogue has also been retained in the English script. What are the challenges of translating a text that incorporates so many different registers – and how does one translate “authentically”?
V Ramaswamy: I am neither a scholar of literature nor a scholar of translation studies. I am just a reader of literature, and when it comes to translation, it is “language” that I engage with, not “literature”.

I mean I try to “understand” transparently, what something means, what it is that is being said, while also observing “how” it is said. What kind of word is being used, what kind of speech is employed. What, for instance, is the sociological dimension.

Photo credit: HarperCollins India

As I mentioned earlier, dialect or “local speech” is something I am completely at a loss with, when it comes to translation. There is a flattening in the English translation. The only solution that I could think of was reproducing dialect, by transliterating it into Roman. Since Life and Political Reality has – conveniently – very little direct speech, and in those bits, the Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka) dialect is used, I thought to include all the bits. For a reader who knows Bangla, that would be interesting, educative and satisfying, and I hope it adds some “flavour” for other readers as well.

I have no rigid rules as such on how to deal with this or that in translation. I encounter something and respond spontaneously in the manner I think appropriate at that moment. Like what ought to be translated, and when one should use the Bangla word itself, say kantha, or ghomta. Or the spelling – I recall, in Life and Political Reality, the “policy” was to spell names and place names according to the Bengali pronunciation, except where there were official spellings in currency.

In the course of subsequent reading and re-reading, the translation is corrected, improved and polished. Decisions are made and altered regarding how to deal with, how to treat, various things, an ongoing style register.

The challenge boils down to developing a multi-sensory, polychromatic set of antennae through which the Bangla text is received, and being able to render into English all that the author conveys in Bangla.

I do not know if I ever engaged with the question of “authenticity” in my translation work. I seek accuracy and an excellent presentation of a “quality” that the original text possesses.
Shahroza Nahrin: To add a few words to V Ramaswamy’s point, for me, the challenge was to represent a dialect I was inadequately familiar with.

Hailing from Kushtia, I was an outsider to Puran Dhaka. My fate however is intertwined with the area in the sense that my soon-to-be in-laws’ house is just a few blocks away from where Shahidul Zahir used to live in the Bhojo Hori Shaha Street, aka Bhooter Goli, Narinda. I have frequented the neighbourhoods of Puran Dhaka for the past nine years.

Yet I was an outsider. And so, V Ramaswamy and I regularly checked with our friends from Puran Dhaka to ensure the accuracy of dialect in transliteration.

Zahir too is not Dhakaiya, but he lived in that area for a long time. Perhaps because of that, a Dhakaiya may squint in confusion when he finds a lack of uniformity in the speech of the general people in the novella. For example, consistency is compromised in the use of “kyan koilo (why did he say that?) after the use of “ayalay (today/now): “Ei dyasher mainshere ayalay bodu moulanar polay koy, bhaichhab. So, Moulana Bodu’s son now addresses the people of this country as ‘Brothers’.” The common expressions in this regard would be “eida koilo kyalaor “kyala koilo (why did he say that?) instead of “kyan koilo. However, I admit that dialects are oral and so, ever-changing.

Authenticity is a tricky word here. What we sought to ensure were: accuracy and faithfulness.

What advice would you have for young translators working on regional translations that might help them learn from your experience(s)?
V Ramaswamy: The whole world is made up of regions. Each region has its language, or languages, and its literature. The point is that the genius of some languages and nations is under-represented in world literature. So, it is imperative that translation is undertaken.

It is an urgent need. We need independent translators, who take up works that they consider to be important and powerful. We need people who look beyond the mainstream and discover writers who give voice to the genius of the people. Like a writer, a translator may not immediately (or ever) be able to derive his or her livelihood from translation. So, commitment and passion are called for. An independent translator is an activist, a political activist, like an independent writer is.

Translation involves great labour. It calls for patience, diligence and unstinting effort. It requires an innate sense of “quality” and “excellence” in the translator. An aesthetic sense. One must have a masterly command over the two (or more) languages one is working with, while also recognising one’s limitations and inhabiting the spirit of being ever-learning.

Speaking for myself, I cannot see how someone can translate significant works of any language without being, or having been, embedded in the life, society and world of the people, in their land. Literature is not merely words whose meaning one can search for in a dictionary.

A translator must faithfully convey the literary work. Is it possible to really grasp a work of literature, let alone render it in another language, with a merely rudimentary or functional command over the language? There can be functional translation, but when it comes to important works of literature, translation needs to be of an inspired quality: something that celebrates the genius of a people’s language.

If one is serious about independent translation and continues doing it over the years, that is a journey by itself – of learning, growing and being able to go deeper. The stage of onerous labour that one must necessarily undertake passes, a station is reached where translation becomes delightful, fun – it becomes a very creatively rich activity. And each book is like a bullet or a seed.

Everything has to begin somewhere, so my advice to someone thinking of taking up translation is – just do it! And the rest follows.

Give a little time to translation every day.

Speaking about Bangladesh, the collaboration between people well-versed in the different regions and languages of the country, and serious Bangla-to-English translators, would enable rich output.

Shahroza Nahrin: As a young translator myself, I want to reiterate the importance of collaboration and mentorship in translation. Just as art apprentices were guided by their mentors during the Renaissance, emerging translators in dialogue and collaboration with established translators may prove fruitful for both participants.

It is incumbent on the “master” translators to offer guidance, to create a space like Purushottama Lal’s 1958 Writers Workshop that brought contemporary creative minds together to shape and develop Indian English Poetry.

To supplement V Ramaswamy’s point about linguistic proficiency, translation further requires a willingness to do additional research to learn about the community portrayed in the source text, to tune in on the musicality of the soil, and to bring out the essence in the target text.

And reading – reading the new (and old) titles in the literary world inspires new ideas and approaches to translation. While co-translating Life and Political Reality, Ramaswamy and I decided to enclose the dialogues with single quotation marks to demarcate them from the narrative.

The direct speech in the original appears without the aid of punctuation marks, a common practice in Bangla literature. A few days ago, when I was reading The Promise by Damon Galgut, I noticed that his dialogues were also enmeshed in the narrative without the signpost of any speech marks, yet they were easily distinguishable as spoken words.

Even Zahir avoided punctuation marks in his own translation of his short story Amader Kutir Shilper Itihash (“History of Our Cottage Industry”). This is a technique we can consider in our next collaborative or individual ventures into Zahir’s literary universe (V Ramaswamy has already done so in his translation of The Woodcutter and the Raven by Shahidul Zahir).

Even as the two novellas in Life and Political Reality remind readers of writers like Grass and Márquez, the rich literary merit of Zahir simultaneously acquaints the readers with the spectacular scope and spectrum of South Asian literature. Order your own copy of the book here, and experience the hypnotic effect of Shahidul Zahir’s prose.

This article first appeared on HarperCollins Publishers India’s website.