Gained in translation

Have you noticed the English subtitles of Bengali films? They might make you chuckle, but in faraway London, they helped a Calcutta girl launch a successful career.

By Samhita Chakraborty
  • Published 5.04.15

Have you noticed the English subtitles of Bengali films? They might make you chuckle, but in faraway London, they helped a Calcutta girl launch a successful career.

"When I used to see those subtitles in movies or serials I would wonder, isn't there anyone around who can do a decent translation?! Sometimes the translations are so literal that the viewer will have no idea what is really being said," laughed Soma Das, who has translated Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Kagojer Bou as My Paper Half, published by Niyogi Books some months back.

An ex-student of Calcutta Girls' School and St. Xavier's College, 39-year-old Soma lives in London with her husband and two children. She says there's a creative seed lodged somewhere inside her. Her journey as a translator took off after a brief meeting with Manisankar Mukherjee aka Sankar.

"Some years back, we were trying out moving back to Calcutta. My father knows Manisankar babu, so I went to meet him to get an idea about the literary scene in Calcutta," Soma recalled.

Sankar suggested writing her own book, or editing. "He gave me something to edit, from one of his books that was being translated by someone else. I'm sure I passed the test because one day he called me and asked me to translate two chapters of another book. He shared that with Penguin and that's how The Great Unknown (Kato Ajanarey) happened, in 2010."

Over the next four years, Soma translated five more, including a personal favourite by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, titled Karuna Tomar Kon Poth Diye, which was published as The Holy Trail: A Pilgrim's Plight by Supernova Publishers, and one on cricket.

While a number of works in Indian vernacular are being regularly translated into English, translation is still a small part of the Indian publishing industry. One of the reasons, feels Soma, is the nature of the market.

"It's a very strange market. What I've seen is if a book is too voluminous, translation doesn't work. The younger generation doesn't want to read a long book. Also, the storyline has to be catchy. If it's a long-drawn-out story, with too many characters going at a very slow pace towards their own goals, joys and sorrows, it doesn't work," she said.

The biggest Bengali-to-English success story in recent times is, of course, Sankar's Chowringhee, translated into English by Arunava Sinha and published by Penguin. The publication was covered by the biggest newspapers in the UK and Sankar says he was moved by the reception he received when he went to London. The English translation has now spawned editions in French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and other languages.

But Chowringhee's fate, though inspiring, isn't half the translation story. While there is a sizeable Bengali expat community that would like to read Bengali works in translation, availability is a problem. "Readers of translations are people who don't know Bangla and also the younger generation, who know Bangla but are not avid readers of Bangla literature. They would still like to be connected with stories of and from Bengal, but they prefer to know those stories by reading them in English."

But Soma's books are not available in London. "That's a pity because, there's a huge community here that goes to Calcutta and buys these translations and brings them here."

The other problem, she feels is the quality of translations. "I picked up a Tagore translation for my daughter. The English was so tough that even I had to open the dictionary and look up some words! These won't work to attract young readers."

But is translating a viable career option?

"If you are careful, and professional, you can make money. You have to have your contract sorted out. I don't go for royalty, I take a one-time payment and that, if you negotiate well, is not a bad amount. But I met this guy from Assam at a translation workshop in Calcutta who had translated five books from Assamese into English and all he got by way of compensation was one complimentary copy of each book. Just one."

But it's painstaking work nonetheless. "Sometimes you have to move away from the literal a bit, a literal translation doesn't always work. What I do is sometimes I explain a context to give the reader a flavour of what is being said. Yet you have to be careful not to get carried away. Because in some little corner of yourself, you too are a writer. So, one has to guard against that. You must project exactly what the author is saying. You are not the creator of that work. You are just a medium."

So, why then tell someone else's story?

"I'll write my own story the day that creative seed sprouts. Till then, I like being able to bring a piece of literature to a wider readership. It is also my way of being connected to Bengal sitting far away in London," she smiled.