25 June 2008


“Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For a boy growing up in a Bengali family (from West Bengal, India), the literary works of Rabindrath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and other eminent Bengali writers were prescribed reading. Furthermore, on my parent’s insistence, I was introduced to Bengali translations of English, French and Russian fiction – both novels and short stories – as well as universally-known works such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

As a teenager, ready to make my own choices in literature, writers like Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, O Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky became obvious names on my reading list. Added to that list were hundreds of others; far too many to name here. But, there was one common fact about my reading habit: I had switched entirely to English. I no longer read Bengali translations of any foreign literary work.

This made me wonder: who were those translators from my childhood who had so painstakingly and faithfully translated Homer and Hugo, Dickens and Dostoyevsky for Bengali readers like me? Why did I not remember them? And, even now, why do I not remember who translated into English Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels from Spanish or Milan Kundera’s novels from Czech, and later from French … all of which I read so avidly?

It was with much humiliation that I realised a brutal fact: that, although translators play a critical role in bringing authors and poets and playwrights to prominence in various languages, and in the minds of millions of readers across the world, their talent and enterprise are ignored by the best of us in the most supreme of moments when literature gives us pleasure.


Madhuri said...

You are right - even I have felt guilty of this neglect several times. To remedy, I am now trying to consciously remember some of these names. There is Giovanni Pontier who has masterfully translated Saramago's works, and William Weaver who re-translated the Italo Svevo novel on Zeno and also translated many works from Calvino like Invisible Cities. They are definitely people to be admired, for if we know these works, it is only through them.

runawaysun said...