Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Eighteen 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. Besides India, his translations have been published in the UK and the US in English, and in several European and Asian countries through further translation. He was born and grew up in Kolkata, and lives and writes in New Delhi.
All of this is true, but it leaves out the astonishing way in which Arunava builds the habit of translation into his daily riyaaz. His FB posts are often composed of (http://arunavasinha.in/category/poetry/) translations of poetry or excerpts from translated short stories; the sense of enjoyment that comes through in his life’s work (and play) is inescapable.
Q. What are your first memories of language—learning to speak, the books you first read, the conversations around you? Have you always been comfortably bilingual, or can you trace periods when one language might have been more important than another?
The first words I remember hearing were in Marathi, shouted out by older children in the house in Mahim, Mumbai, where I spent the first four years of my life. But these were just sounds without meaning. My first actual memory of words that conveyed their meanings are from the songs my mother would play through the day on the radio. The ones I remember are Rabindrasangeet sung by Debabrata Biswas – sunilo shagore, shyamolo kinare, dekhechhi pawthhey jetey, tulonahinarey… Or, amaar hiyar maajhey lukiye chhiley dekhtey tomaye paaini aami dekhtey tomaye paaini..
I started out talking and reading – very early, from about 4 – in Bangla. English took over in a rush at the age of 8, and all my reading switched to English books. But Bangla remained the language of communication with family and neighbourhood friends. So, essentially, I’ve been bilingual from childhood. But I didn’t enjoy studying Bangla as a subject in school.
(And no, besides those three, I don’t read or speak any other language. Which I regret greatly.)
Q. Do you have a reading plan in place for each year/ each decade? How do you decide what books/authors you want to translate—and is there any school of writing that you find yourself unwilling or unable to work with?
The only reading plan is to read as much possible, and much of that is aimed at discovering and identifying what to translate. I scout little magazines and book recommendations in Bangla newspapers and magazines for leads, and I start a great many more Bangla books than I finish. I’m still able to read English books for pleasure and without a specific objective.
With the exception of one or two writers like Buddhadeva Bose and Rabisankar Bal, I am still led by books rather than authors when choosing whom to translate. Of course, I’m often trying to double-think publishers too, which is a bit of a pity in some ways as it lowers the chances of taking risks, but I am grateful to my publishers for continuing to trust my judgement, even though this has, more often than not, led to box-office debacles.
As for genres, I have tried – and failed – with campus / first job novels and romances. Never again, I’ve told myself.
Q. Translators often talk about translation as though it is a parallel act of creation; if there’s a sliding scale of creativity, the translator would fit in somewhere between the editor and the author. As important as fidelity to the writer’s words is, the translator will either bring the words to life or not. When you’re translating from Bengali into English, do you feel that sense of re-creating the text?
I’m wary of weighing translation on a creativity scale. The label doesn’t really matter. It’s a unique process of transferring meaning, rhythm, sound, intent and so on from one linguistic and cultural context to another. David Mitchell described it as part crossword puzzle and part poetry. Strictly speaking, the process does involve re-creation, but I don’t think of it that way. Like every good translator, I try to make myself as transparent as possible, even though translation is a stream of choices. Sometimes, when you read different translations of the same text, you’re delighted by both the similarities and the differences – especially by the differences because you see how there can be different routes to the same destination even though you can seldom think beyond your chosen route.
Q. And what have you learned over the years from other translators—not necessarily limited to translators from Indian languages?
The most exciting discovery has been the fact that translators all over the world face the same questions when they’re working on the text. And I was thrilled to find Gregory Rabassa saying he does pretty much what I do – which is to be led by the text rather than try to read too much meaning into it or attempt interpretation of analysis. He has translated books without having read them beforehand, and that is a method which resonates with me. Not knowing anything about the writer, their style, history, leanings, and so on actually purges the text of all context that could interfere and reduce the richness to a single version perceived by the translator, and that would be shame.
Q. How much time do you allocate to reading and to translations? Do you need to set up a separate/ private working space in order to translate well?
Yes, translation – reading, writing, thinking – is woven into every hour of my waking life. I do have a three-hour period every night – 10 PM to 1 AM – dedicated to it, but I happily let it leak into other parts of my day too. I can translate anywhere and anytime, actually. While I do have a designated space at home, I’m not bound to it, and lack of access to it doesn’t hamper me either. Perhaps the best thing about the process is that there’s never writer’s block – at worst, if one text is proving difficult at a particular point of time, I just switch to another one.
Q. How much has the act of translation over the years shaped not just your reading and working life, but shaped or changed your understanding of the world we inhabit today? Do you see, for instance, Indian history or language debates, or even contemporary politics, in a different light, influenced perhaps by the authors you’ve come into contact with through translation?
I’m sure translating has changed my reading and world view surreptitiously, even if I’m not aware of it in explicit terms. What I do know is that no one reads a text the way a translator does – not even scholars. It’s like immersing yourself in a piece of music without being an expert – you let all your senses be taken over, shutting out the world. That may sound mystical, but that is just how the books I translate take over my life. In my case though, since I’ve always sought out works in not written originally in English, translation is probably a logical culmination of that journey rather than the starting point of a new one.
The one conclusion that I have drawn is that it is very important to live your life in the language you write in. It’s not a precondition for writing a great book, but it certainly helps.
Q. Has the practice of translation changed you as a person, or changed the way in which you might see your friends, your writing community, the daily life around you?
Here again, I’m not self-consciously aware of these changes, but it stands to reason that anything that is such a big part of my life is bound to change me and my perspectives. The only thing I can pinpoint is that it has widened the range of my reading, which has brought with it an exposure to lives and relationships and ways of thinking that I might not have encountered otherwise. And, of course, it has made me admire writers even more – the very act of writing a book, any book, seems to me a remarkable achievement.
Q. Very few translators seem to want to be writers of their own books; the craft of translation seems to offer ample satisfaction on its own. Do you think you’ll ever want to be a writer of an original work as well, or conversely, do you think you’ll ever want to stop translating for any reason?
You’re right, most of our tribe don’t fancy themselves as writers of original works. I suspect some of it has to do with the comfort of working on existing texts – you don’t have to THINK things up. And the more you translate, the more afraid you are of the process of writing something of your own – something that was demonstrated quite strikingly at a recent translation workshop I was a part of. But there’s another reason too – working as you do with excellent books, you realise just how high the bar has been set. And many of us ask ourselves, why add to the noise when there’s music to be made? Which is why I don’t see myself stopping, although I do have a low threshold of boredom, which worries me sometimes. Fortunately, translation offers enough variety and one can always choose to push the envelope.
Q. What do you admire most about the great translators, Indian and elsewhere? And what has the practice of translation as a craft has given them/ you that you most value?
Most of all I admire the great translators for the books they translate. Had it not been for a Rabassa or an Edith Grossman or an Anthea Bell or a Willam Weaver, our perception of Garcia Marquez or Julio Cortazar or Mario Vargas Llosa or W.G. Sebald or Italo Calvino would have been quite different.
The greatest value for all translators, I think, is in the number of weapons they can add to their arsenal of writing skills. As writers, we can only write as ourselves. As translators, we have to write like several different – and superb – writers. There’s no contest.