I recently went to Dhaka to teach a mixed group of students from across the city – mostly students, teachers and translators who were already some way towards being writers in English.
As part of the workshops we set to talking about translation. Why write in English when Bengali – or Bangla – is one of the few languages in the world people have actually died for? In 1952 students protesting the enforcement of Urdu as a national language were shot dead by the police; an event recorded in the Bangladeshi national calendar each year on 21 February, International Mother Language Day. And why write in English when there is already such a vast cannon of Bangla literature, including songs, plays, poetry, novels and not forgetting the Nobel-prizewinning Rabrindranath Tagore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabindranath_Tagore) whose poems we used during our two-day course as springboards for our own writing.
The students were ambivalent. They are proud of their language and heritage and want to share it, and are appalled at how impossible it is to get close to the truth of the rhythms of Tagore’s poetry in an English translation. And yet they are eager for English – the ‘International Language of Business’ – which gives the writer the opportunity to be heard by the world and to say things that would be unsaid in Bangla.
I know about some of this, growing up bilingual in Wales – the way that the poetry of the old language creates a sense of community, the fierce pride it evokes, the sense of being understood, not just now, but in a kind of continuum of all the Welsh people who have ever lived. And then how necessary English is if you want to get ahead, to participate.
In between there is the work itself; the translation of the world from one linguistic mindset to another; the thoughts that have been thought in Bangla being written in English; the way that the languages start to slip – becoming Benglish (Singlish – the Singaporean version of this is close to being considered its own language.)
We talked at length about this, about authenticity, territory, how some thoughts, feelings and nuances just cannot be translated into another language. The words for these thoughts and feelings don’t have synonyms with English, because they belong to an experience and often a landscape that is uniquely Bangla. In his introduction to his translation of Tagore (published by Bloodaxe) Kataki Kushari Dyson talks about this problem:
‘I remember the effort of imagination I required as a child growing up in the Bengali countryside, reading a Bengali translation of some Western book to appreciate the description of a young woman walking over a frozen river. I had never seen snow or a frozen river. But I was even more intrigued to find a man described as poor because he had no hat on his head and no shoes on his feet. I appreciate that a man who had nothing to eat was poor, but hatless and shoeless did not seem such terrible mishaps after all. I was myself hatless and frequently shoeless as I wandered about and did not consider myself a sorry sight on account of that. I remember my father explaining to me that in a cold climate those conditions would be much more uncomfortable and could even make one ill.’
The translation from one culture to another usually loses something of the music of the original. The physical, sensual nuances of the world are only ever gained by actually existing in a place for a time, naming its smells, its sounds, the unique colour of the light because of where it sits beneath the sun. This is partly because all good writing is a translation of our physical experiences. In the terms of a writing workshop it is physical, sensual accuracy that often accounts for a great deal of discussion. These are the passages that pin down the world of the story, making it at once both recognisable and new. The writer’s translation of the world into the language of their piece of work is really what a good class should be aiming to achieve; to encourage the student to live inside their experience of the world so they become adept at describing it; and also to show them how each distinct and unique voice on the bookshelves is just, in its very basic form, a translation of the imagination of the author.