Bangla is one of the top ten languages spoken in the world, and while Bangladesh has a rich literary tradition in Bangla, this isn’t yet reflected in the amount being translated. The national importance of Bangla is immense: the struggle for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 is often traced back to the language movement of 1952.
I’m writing this after five days of intense debate at the first translation workshop supported by Commonwealth Writers, the British Centre for Literary Translation and English PEN, and the first workshop organised by the new Dhaka Translation Center (Bangladesh).
This was a workshop in consensus translation, described by Kaiser Haq (director of the DTC) as really being two creative writing workshops in one, with the original text being subjected to the same type of scrutiny as the English translation that was produced. The ten participants were not talking theory, instead they were learning through the process of translation.
Translation is key to opening up other cultures, ideas and ways of thinking. It’s the best possible way to communicate the richness of a culture and its language. Translator and workshop leader Arunava Sinha strongly believes that translation is becoming more and more important in a globalised world.
When asked by the participants how to choose something to translate, Arunava’s response was to ask yourself why you want to translate that particular piece. You have to like the story. If not, then why translate it? It must talk to you. You must be moved by it, but you also need to consider whether the story will travel across cultures. A key to being a good translator, Arunava said, is not only to be a better writer in the target language but also to be a better reader in the source language.
The participants worked together, in small groups and separately, translating the short story, ‘Limits of Love’, by the Bangla author, Shaheen Akhtar. The story had a voice, a living narrator, and used local dialects. All the challenges you might expect in translating from one language to another and across cultures (in this case Bangla to English) were present, but there were some specific ones too.
There were Bangla words and phrases for which there was no English equivalent, and short and staccato Bangla sentences; there were idioms, and many different words to describe a particular emotion where only one word existed in English; there were also sentences that lacked subjects and verbs. How do you translate onomatopoeia, similes and metaphors? Other difficulties the participants faced were how to translate a colloquial dialect – for example, what’s the appropriate English equivalent, Cornish or Cockney? English words which have entered into the Bangla language present yet another challenge to translators.
And the last word? When asked whether he’s threatened by Google Translate, Arunava’s response was: “when you’re tired of translating, Google translate is a good laugh!”. Perhaps that’s one thing then that the challenges and complications of consensus translation have in common with Google Translate: it’s also a lot of fun.
Emma D’Costa, Commonwealth Writers