Library of India

International Translation Day: Why I read Tagore in translation (and why I translate)

The burden of reading in the original alone can impose a form of cultural chauvinism.

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 It was the language in which I wrote my first love-letter (still unsent), composed my first verse (still unpublished) and dreamt my first dream (still unrealised).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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.