SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 7 JANUARY, 2018
Ranjita Biswas: “I Follow My Heart When I Choose a Work to Translate”
Biswas get the Sahitya Academy Award for Translation Written in Tears
Ranjita Biswas, a noted veteran journalist with several awards in her portfolio, should feel proud about her book, Written in Tears having bagged the Sahitya Academy Award for the Best Translation (English) this year. She is an independent journalist, fiction and travel writer and translator. Written in Tears is a collection of some long stories, short stories and novellas originally authored by noted Assamese litterateur Arupa Patangia Kalita. She has earlier won Katha Translation Award several times and her byline is known across the global map. Very recently, her unique travelogue Notes from a Spanish Diary published by Niyogi Books was launched in Kolkata. But let us hear it from the winner herself.
Tell us something about Written in Tears.
The book is on the theme of the conflict situation which the Assam valley went through extensively through the ‘70 to the ‘80s with widespread violence affecting common people’s lives. The protagonists are women caught in the turmoil trying to hold onto hearth and home while the world outside was crumbling. In any such conflict, women, children and the elderly suffer the most. This is the story everywhere. Look around at what is happening in our contemporary world! Sadly, the history of suffering repeats itself and we are either victims or witnesses unable to do anything.
What made you choose Arupa Patangia Kalita for translation over other Assamese writers?
I have translated works by other writers too. Among these are Fetters (from Shrinkhal, Sahitya Akademi), a collection short story by pioneering writer/ filmmaker Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Pita-Putra by noted writer Homen Borgohain’s eponymous book (National Book Trust), and As the River Flows (Harper Collins), a collection of some of the best short stories in the contemporary Assamese language. But yes, I have done more translations of Arupa’s works than of other authors. I find her way of building a story fascinating. In her stories I find reflections of the Assam I grew up in- the landscape, the flowers and vegetables, the homes of people all so meticulously portrayed. But amidst all this what comes through are her strong beliefs, empathy for women characters, their pain and trauma which I can relate to personally.
How do you go about choosing which author/s and/or stories to translate? Is there any criteria?
I follow my heart when I choose a work to translate. When I first translated Arupa Patangia Kalita’s work – she was yet to be a Sahitya Akademi awardee, it was Ayananta (Dawn), I liked it so much that I suggested it to ‘Kali for Women’ (later Zubaan) myself. I believe it is one of the most powerful novels in contemporary Assamese literature with a strong feminist outlook expressed subtly that brings across a quiet strength that impressed me. The matter of relating to a creative work for any individual - whether a book, film, or a painting, is subjective. Personally, before choosing to translate a work, I have to like it and feel enough empathy so that I feel I can bring about the essence of the story in another language (in my case English) to the best of my ability.
You have been working on translations for several years now. What is it that attracts you to this genre of literature?
Translation today is recognized as a literary genre standing on its own. In fact, it’s often called ‘transcreation’ because a good translation is not just a word-by-word transformation from one language to another but where the author (and the work) and the translator are closely intertwined to evolve and find a language of its own.
Translation has been a learning process for you. How did you evolve into a translator of great merit from being a journalist for many years?
I have been journalist for many years now covering women and gender issues, development, art and culture, etc. But reading is part of this profession I believe. I have been a voracious reader of fiction from my childhood, thanks to my parents’ influence, particularly my father who introduced me to Assamese and Bengali fiction. I think these influences remain somewhere embedded and come out at some time. I first took part in KATHA prize stories competition and winning awards boosted my confidence. Yes, translating from my mother tongue has been a constant learning process. Through reading and translating Assamese fiction I keep myself rooted to my land as I live in Kolkata now. It also keeps me updated on the developments in literary scene there though it’s tough sometimes like distance learning.
How long did the prize winning book translation take and how many drafts did you have to go through till you got to the final proofs?
Actually choosing the works from Arupa’s considerable oeuvre took more time. She is a prolific writer and her strong views are stamped on most of her works. But I wanted those works which related to the theme. I took a year, give and take few weeks, to complete the first draft. Of course, it took two to three drafts and after editing too (which was very good indeed) I made changes. I find that while writing other books too, a minimum of two years’ incubation period is in order.
Translation is no longer in the margins as it once was said to be. Do you agree?
Of course! For those who speak of ‘lost in translation’ from a puritan point, I always say how else could we get introduced to Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez or those who don’t read Bengali, to Tagore’s work unless through translation? Recently I read the four volume Neapolitan saga starting with My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym booklovers would love to unravel) and am ever grateful to the brilliant translator Ann Goldstein for bringing that slice of post-war Italy closer through this complex relationship story. Translation as a genre is now too well-established to stand scrutiny. The only yardstick is how well it sticks to the original and yet be creative to introduce the reader to a new land, new culture.
What tips do you have for translators who wish to choose this as a genre for literary writing since you are recognized as a scholar in translations?
I am not a scholar in this genre. I simply enjoy playing with words and expressions while also challenging myself to find the right tone and ambience to create the original writer’s work as authentically as possible. I strongly believe that the translator should be familiar with the language, nature and work of the original writer to make an authentic translation. While doing Dawn I stayed in Arupa’s beautiful house in Tangla, a small town at Bhutan’s foothills, where she taught in the local college so that I could get the Assamese expressions, flora and fauna in the rural setting right as I am more of an urbanite. To be the same wavelength with the author is also important. Arupa somehow has full faith in me and is ever ready to respond to my queries. Most of all, you have to love the work; then other things fall into place - all the labour, cross-checking, wrecking the brain for the right word, etc. that go into a translation.
What did you feel when you heard the news?
I was surprised. I didn’t know that the book was recommended. So when I got the news, frankly, it needed some time to sink in. But yes, I am thrilled.