In one of the shorter episodes of The Twilight Zone, a middle-aged man gradually loses his ability to speak the same language as his family, friends and colleagues. Starting with a few words and phrases, his entire vocabulary is eventually colonised by an unknown tongue, one which he alone seems to understand. Slowly, every single one of the people he knows peels off from his life, leaving him lonely, confused, and master of a language that no one but he can use.
Writers could be forgiven for feeling trapped in their own version of this twilight zone sometimes. Read at home, yes, but out in the world of other languages they’re the founts of stories, characters and dialogue that no one understands.
Imagine, if you can, the plight of novelists from my corner of the globe, India, whose books could be written in one of at least a dozen different languages – Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, and so on – each of them read only by those among the 1.2 billion Indians who have their particular language. As for being read outside the country, perish the thought.
Why is this important for writers from India? Why is it not enough to be read and appreciated by those who share their language, for that is no small number of people either. For instance, West Bengal, where I come from, has a population of 90 million Bengali-speaking people, larger than the population of every European country except Russia. Surely this is a large enough pool of potential readers to dip into?
Once upon a time, it was. But reading is an endangered activity, steadily losing ground to social media, mobile apps, and, of course, television and the cinema, not to mention the demands of bespoke modern living. And a home readership can no longer be counted on, particularly in liberalising developing economies like India, where the fulcrum of daily existence is now the acquisition of wealth rather than of ideas and knowledge
That’s not all. The relentless march of globalisation, backed by large investments chasing larger profits, is imposing homogeneity of taste on every outpost in the world, so that giant corporate production machines can create a uniform set of products and services for people to consume.
Crucially, this is not limited to soaps and colas, cars and computers. This strategy of production, marketing and selling has now been extended to the arts. Books, films and music are all produced under the compulsions of corporatised publishers and studios – often part of the same conglomerate – to sell as many copies to as many people as possible.
Coupled with the digital reach of the arts, which can cut across physical borders, this has already led to a one-size-fits-all approach to literature and entertainment across the world in general and the English-speaking universe in particular. So, when it comes to books, it is now a preferred publishing strategy to back unchallenging, familiar stories, set among recognisable people who live in recognisable places in recognisable times. Why, even fantasies have become drearily predictable.
The obvious casualty is diversity in literature. Every day, thousands of stories are being committed to the printed word in hundreds of different languages, set in a bewildering variety of locations in both time and space, told in an embarrassing richness of voices. And yet, what we see across the visible end of the publishing spectrum – whether in brick-and-mortar bookstores or on the pages of the extended Amazon family – reflect so little of this diversity.
What will happen to the work of that novelist from West Bengal then? How will anyone outside Bengal ever read it? The standardisation machinery will not accept it unless it conforms to the templates that sell. Already, writers are beginning to defect to this market-facing production line of fiction. The certainty that there will be no room for the unique voice that does not write in one of the accepted literary languages of the world – English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and so on – will swiftly silence every such voice.
That is why this voice needs to be heard louder than ever before. So that the uniformity of literature is disturbed. So that readers know that stories are told in every corner of the world, stories very different from the ones they know, stories that can transport them to places they have never been.
The irony, of course, cannot be escaped. Translation brings the literature of the ‘other’ within reach precisely by rendering it into the language that readers are familiar with. In that sense, it comes closer to the very homogeneity that it is a statement against. But by using a familiar language to tell stories from distant cultures and unexplored spaces, translations add to the diversity of that language, resisting the BigMacisation of literature.
And that is the reason I translate stories from Bengali to English – from a local language to a world language.
Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Thirty of his translations have been published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011), respectively, and the winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, he has also been shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee. He grew up in Kolkata, and lives and writes in New Delhi.
Arunava led the consensus translation workshop in November 2014 and the workshop on editing in translation with Ra Page from Comma Press in May 2015, both in Dhaka. The workshops were organised by the Dhaka Translation Centre, part of the University of the Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Read about the first workshop here. He is one of the editors of ‘The Book of Dhaka’, an anthology of stories about the city by leading Bangla authors, published in 2016 Comma Press in the UK and Bengal Lights Books in Bangladesh.