I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue.

— “An Introduction”, Kamala Das

A noted translator was scheduled to deliver a talk at the Centre for English Studies (CES), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) recently. I invited a couple of friends, doing their research in ancient and medieval history, and avid consumers of fiction, for the lecture, cheekily titled, “Can the Subaltern Speak – in English?” K apologised profusely for not having heard of this gentleman and his translations earlier and then quickly added, “But, obviously, there was no need for me to know him because I read everything in Bangla, unlike you.”

It is the obviousness of such a presumption that I wish to contextualise. I understand about six and a quarter languages, speak four, read and write in three, think in two, dream in one and I claim the language that I dream in as my own. My student had once qualified this assertion further by referring to an essay by Chinua Achebe in class, adding that, “the language you orgasm in becomes your own.”

English is the language of my emotional make-up. I was born and bred in an “Anglo-Indian” locality of Calcutta – Ripon Street. When we relocated to the infamous North Calcutta, of narrow by-lanes and narrower lanes, hand-drawn rickshaws, treacherous trams and bonedi Bangalis, later in life, I got branded as “too Anglicised” by the custodians of Bengali cultural. English was my first language in school, a Methodist school run by an Irish principal and always-English-speaking, occasionally-Bible-reading teachers.

It was the language of communication at home and the tyash society of Saturday Club, Oxford Cha Bar and Peter Cat. It was the language in which I wrote my first love-letter (still unsent), composed my first verse (still unpublished) and dreamt my first dream (still unrealised).

My parents, anticipating as early as 1996 in some visionary way my eventual relocation to the Hindi-speaking capital of our country, had decided to opt for Hindi as my second language in school. For a six-year-old, language was of importance to the extent that it could be used as a vehicle to express wants and crib complaints – “I want a chocolate pastry”; or “woh mera seb kha gayi.

French has been an adult obsession for me – sometimes intense, sometimes neglected. In my head there are compartments for certain languages: Urdu is the language of courtship, French of love, Spanish of sex. I started learning French at Alliance Francaise to be able to pronounce the names of swank French dishes in suave French restaurants correctly, so as to avoid the smirks and stares of the trained servers. Regret never stays far behind me. Given that my ambitions in French were so humble to begin with, my knowledge today remains limited to vous vous appelez comment.

We cannot designate what is good for other people

My engagement with Bangla has been fairly recent, for which I have been shamed on several occasions. For a Bengali (who is a Bengali, by the way?), reading Tagore in translation is a crime, or so I have been told. Repeatedly. This crime has led to rabid cultural segregation. Repeatedly. To the extent that today I do not unquestioningly buy the benign rhetoric (almost a kind of default position since Independence) of preserving one’s vernaculars and promoting it, or of having the best interests of a particular cultural group in mind. We cannot be designating what is good for other people. No such right has been sanctioned to us.

I have always been wary of the politics of assigning a language as someone’s “mother tongue”. The word has a fairly straightforward definition – it is the language native to your mother. But the truth is hardly so simple. My mother is from East Bengal, my father from West. They both speak in Bangla, but very different Banglas. Which is the kosher version, which the dialect? And what is my mother tongue? Bangla or Bangaal? What if a child is brought up by her father whose native tongue is not the same as her mother’s, and the child embraces the father’s language? What if the family has lived away from their native land and the child adopts the language of the new clime?

As bi/multi-lingual speakers in India, as postcolonial subjects of the imagined, exotic Orient, we already exist in translation, all the time. Translation is not merely the mechanical act of transferring meaning from one language system to another. It is fraught with political implications and the bigger pressure of translating cultures. The cultural chauvinism implicit in regarding translations as already inferior to the original is an attitude we need to be wary of.

Putting a culture up on a pedestal and denying the autonomy of an individual, seeing cultures as monoliths instead of embracing variety is precisely the kind of skewed, separatist, ethnocentric logic that resulted in the Holocaust. In these circumstances, the individual becomes a site of cultural oppression and social regulations, creating what Sharon L Snyder and David Mitchell term a “lethal social atmosphere”. Satya P Mohanty astutely points out that in India cultural chauvinism might have started as a defence mechanism against the colonisers and was in several ways a mimicry of the European sense of superiority.

Such an act of abrogation (I reject all that is yours and go back to my own native, primitive roots) was not the best defence against our colonisers even then (did the British not introduce one good thing in India? Not one?) and it simultaneously led to blatant discrimination within India (my Sanskrit is superior to your Braj/ Avadhi/ Maithili, for instance). Translation as a practice has the potential to challenge such tyrannies of representation.

Minimising the unbridgeable gap

The act of translation can attempt to set right the imbalance initiated by cultural chauvinists who tend to hierarchise languages and cultures systems. The subaltern needs to speak, the empire needs to write back: what should be the language of their protest, what the idiom of expression of their shared communal and individual suffering?

In his talk at JNU, the translator had asked, “Can the subaltern speak – in English?” Can the subaltern speak, without English? Translators can consciously calibrate their translations to achieve effects that can penetrate the reified worldviews of the custodians of “culture” to make a positive intervention in the discourse on marginalities: cultural, linguistic, physical, sexual, racial, ethnic and social.

I discovered some Bankim Chandra and Rabindranath Tagore (in the original) in my grandfather’s jaundiced library one day, late in my life. I fit into this language system and this literature as a fairy fits into a tale – immediately and effortlessly. However, I have not been able to overcome what Tejaswini Niranjana calls the “subjectification” that I underwent in my formative years for not knowing my assigned mother-tongue well enough. And till date, when I read in Bangla my brain always already starts translating the text to English.

You could call this my parents’ postcolonial hangover (why else would English be The Chosen language?). Or you could attribute it the neocolonial tendencies threatening to make a local colony of this large global landscape. However, it is time we acknowledged that English is no longer an alien tongue in India, the benevolent empire’s gift to the poor fakir. For a bourgeoning class of people in this country it is increasingly becoming a first language, an everyday negotiation.

Translation is not always already an exercise in failure and futility. Yes, it often tends to eschew differences, homogenising rooted, cultural realities and pluralities for the sake of wider accessibility of the narratives (are you telling me Sanskrit or khadi boli did not once upon a time attempt to standardise the various North Indian tongues by classicising them?). But it also creates the larger academic, political and social space where the yawning chasm between the savarna Hindu and the outcaste Dalit, where the difference between the haves and the have-nots, where the unbridgeable gap between the English and the non-English speaker is minimised. Pluralities are good, but not at the cost of an insular existence.

Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran notes how her reading group managed to fight against the tyranny of time and politics by daring, in their most private and secret moments, in their extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, to listen to music, to fall in love, to walk down shady streets and to read Lolita in Tehran. I have been translating for about five years now: from Bangla to English. My translations have the ideological purpose of making a language that has spoken for me for twenty-six years speak for others who don’t fit in, who defy the categorisers.

I want to unsettle a cultural dictator, or two, and continue to read Tagore in translation. It doesn’t make me any less Bengali. It only adds to the definition of what it could mean to be a Bengali.

Somrita Urni Ganguly is a translator and a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, JNU.