INTERVIEWED BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE
It is rare these days to come across a translator who not only has a passion for the craft, for that is a given when it comes to Venkat Ramaswamy, but also follows a clearly etched code that combines activism and literary translation. In a world slowly imperiled by the rise of Chat GPTs and machine translation, Ramaswamy’s nuanced and painstaking linguistic analysis in service of literary translation restores faith in the intrinsic humanness of the translation process. Born in 1960, and brought up in Kolkata, Ramaswamy, a Tamil translating Bengali and Bangladeshi fiction, upholds the linguistic uniqueness of our country. He is a translator who has a marked proclivity for anti-establishment fiction and noteworthy marginal writing, and seeks to carry voices from the grassroots not only to the cosmopolitan Indian reader but to a global readership.
Antonym Magazine’s Rituparna Mukherjee spoke to the critically acclaimed translator in an attempt to understand his unique translating principles and outlook.
RM: You have spent a considerable amount of time in your career as a literary translator translating Subimal Misra . Although you chanced upon him accidentally, what motivated you to plan, select, anthologize and translate his work?
VR: Yes, I have spent a long time indeed. I began in 2005, and the final book is likely to be published next year. Soon after I began translating Misra, I read an essay titled “My Life with Roth”, by Michael Hofmann, the translator of the Austrian writer, Joseph Roth. I think that planted seeds in my mind of a long-term translation project. Subimal Misra’s short fiction, especially from his early phase, was more accessible to non-Bengali readers, so I began with that. But since I had gotten quite deep into “Subimal Misra”, my interest in translating his writing continued even after I submitted the manuscript for the first book, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, in 2009.
I translated some more stories. And then I attended the Sangam House writers’ residency in early 2011, in Nrityagram, near Bangalore. That was what made me a serious literary translator. I was translating all day, every day, week after week. Thus, began the manuscript for the second book, Wild Animals Prohibited. But by then, the idea of a long-term, or multi-volume, project had seized me, and I had begun to visualise two more books. The idea of curating his work over his entire writing life.
I also translated a book titled Those Days, by the journalist Debashis Bhattacharya. The author was a former Naxalite activist. This is an account of West Bengal and Calcutta during 1970-71, when the Naxalite upsurge was at its peak, and was then brutally crushed by the state. I saw this as a companion volume to Misra’s stories, or anti-stories, since a significant theme or element in my first two Misra books was the Naxalite uprising.
So basically, I was doing much more than “translation”. I had to get “inside” the Subimal Misra domain. But I was not a “Subimal Misra reader”, nor had I ever studied literature formally, and despite having read a good part of his work, I did not feel equipped to engage with his writing like a literary critic would.
After I started translating Subimal Misra’s early stories, I began educating myself about Misra, i.e. his writing, and the critical responses to him. And I was in regular communication with him. So, it was natural that I thought to proceed with the Misra translation. An ongoing part of my Misra endeavour was listing his stories for translation, and so this formed a kind of spine to my efforts.
I was not translating as a profession, but as a passion. I was seeking to ferry important voices from the margins in Bangla to others, via English. And I was able to do that because I was in the fortunate situation of having independent means, which allowed me to devote time to translation. A few years before I began translating Misra, I took up the responsibility of managing my family’s small business, a flowmeter factory set up by my late father in the 1960s, in the era of import substitution. For over a decade after that, I strived to make the company into a successful global niche manufacturer. So when I began getting deeper into translation, I had the means to do that.
Perhaps the most important factor was finding a good publisher, and I was fortunate in that regard. Ruchir Joshi, film-maker, writer, and columnist, a friend from childhood, introduced me to Karthika, the editor at HarperCollins then. They brought out the first book, and then the second book.
Misra had asked me to translate the two anti-novels, This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale, and When Colour is a Warning Sign – his first foray into longer fiction, which he wrote in the 1980s, after over a decade of writing stories that came to be referred to as “anti-stories”. So that comprised my third book. The book also includes an essay he wrote on the “anti-novel”. The fourth and final book, now with the publisher, tentatively titled The Earth Quakes, has Mistra’s anti-stories from the 1990s and 2000s, his late work. His work in this period challenges readers acutely.
I must say that HarperCollins’s spirited resolve to publish four books by Misra is bold and admirable, and I cannot imagine being a translator without them. Finally, the Subimal Misra project benefited from two more residencies, in the USA, and in South Korea. It would not have been possible but for them.
The more fundamental question would be, why I did this. It could be viewed as a madness, and a stubborn persistence in that insanity. More than one friend asked me to translate something other than Misra. My wife told me that translating him had made me like his writing, dark. But the translations have taken on a life of their own. It is readers who promote its readership through word of mouth. Utsarga Ghosh has written a PhD thesis on the afterlife of Subimal Misra in translation. And the translator who concluded the final volume is not the person who began the first story; the Subimal Misra translation journey has been a means for that. I was also able to communicate with Michael Hofmann, and get his acknowledgement as a fellow-translator. The final Subimal Misra book is dedicated to him.
RM: You have often said that being an ‘insider-outsider’ to the Bengali socio-cultural fabric has enabled you to gain a perspective that is uniquely familiar yet distant. How has being a non-native speaker of Bangla provided you with an advantage or a challenge in translating Bangla fiction especially in terms of its linguistic peculiarities?
VR: Who I am, where I come from, and so on, are givens when I am the translator. But the only thing of importance is the translation, and its quality. As a translator, I have the responsibility to grasp and render perfectly every word and sentence of a text. But yes, there is a personal dimension involved as well. The fact that I, a “non-Bengali”, translated Subimal Misra and Shahidul Zahir is indeed curious. Two unique names, from the two Bengals. How come no one translated them?
If I was an “insider” (in West Bengal), I would probably never have dared to translate Subimal Misra, or in all likelihood have valued the name and work of a Sunil Gangopadhyay. But as an “outsider”, the name of Misra was just another name, rendered special only because of a friend’s endorsement. The same can be said in regard to Shahidul Zahir, it was just another name to me, made special by the recommendation of a friend whose judgement I trusted.
Similarly, if I was an “insider”, I would in all probability not have become an activist, and thus entered deep domains in the city and society – which the mainstream of “insiders” would hardly have encountered, through their being “once removed” from that. But I was educated in various ways by that experience and journey.
It is difficult to put into words. Basically, as an outsider, everything is novel for me, or in today’s jargon, everything is data. Everything is taken for granted by an insider, while anything and everything can catch the attention of an outsider, who may then ponder over, or probe the subject. The insider may not have that sight.
It was the political scientist, Ranabir Samaddar , a close friend and fellow-activist, who acknowledged this outsider-insider aspect ten years ago. He dedicated a book to me, and told me that my lens had helped him shape his thinking.
Again, since I was not raised in a Bangla-speaking household, I do not possess the cognitive and linguistic universe of someone who was. I do not inhabit the literary world and life they do. So, I have to invest thought and effort to overcome that disadvantage. I have no awareness of Bengali literature, so that is another big disadvantage; I have to be alive to literary allusions.
I approach a text via “language”. So, perhaps being an outsider makes me discern different accents, intonations, and speeches (I prefer to use this expression, rather than “dialect”), both on the streets, and in writing. When an author uses such speech in the original text, that is intentional. How do I convey that? It makes the work polychromatic, while the translation can only be monochromatic. That frustration led me to a solution of sorts, i.e. of Romanizing selected bits of other bulis or speeches. Translation thus becomes an opportunity to also curate a buli. The reviews of some of my recent translations have complimented me for that.
As an “outsider”, since there is no particular version of the Bangla language that I am rooted in, perhaps it is easier for me to see Bangla as basically an array of many “speeches”. In actual daily life across the two Bengals, only a very small percentage of people speak the “babu Bangla” of Kolkata. I feel a natural allegiance with all these bulis, and especially those of Bangladesh possibly because my first playmate as a child was a motherless Bangaal boy.
RM: You have often sought to retain the localized terms, proverbs and idiomatic use of the Bangla language. In terms of its international reception, what challenge might such retention have for an international readership? Does your translation undergo any kind of revision for an international audience?
VR: Yes, I do use Bengali words when I think the words merit usage in the original. Ghomta, muri, chire, chochchori, are some of the words that come to mind. A mature reader of a translated work of literature must above all be open to receiving and learning words. Reading translated works could be a means of personal growth.
When one grows up hearing and reading English, one also comes across foreign words, and then learns about so many things. Like, say, the French words souffle, croissant, chignon, or puissant and bourgeoisie. Words like this have become part of English speech and writing. Similarly, from a pan-Indian, or pan-South Asian perspective, there could well be many words or terms that we would prefer to adopt even when we speak English, words that are part of daily life, culture, acts, rituals, and customs.
When I translate, I imagine the reader being a Bangla-speaker. Next, someone who has some familiarity with Bangla. Third, an Indian, or South Asian. Finally, everyone else. You could call it a tropical tilt!
But when it is an international edition, some of that may have to be toned down!
RM: You have said many times that you read with a machine-like technicality when you read for translation, with the sole exception of Shahidul Zahir, who you read for pleasure before translating. In this regard, has the experience of translating Zahir been different from others? Also, is complete self-effacement from a literary work possible for a literary translator?
VR: I should say that since the authors / texts I choose to translate are important in my view, I do engage with the texts, and have a dialogue with them, so to speak. And each writer engages with a different part of me. Since 2020 I have been working with co-translators and assistants, and much of that has been online. The text is read out to me, and I translate it. And sometimes I can’t help lapsing into a commentary on how I view something in the text, how I relate to it, and so on. So, my associates can observe my relation to the text, as well as my method of translation.
But with Shahidul Zahir, it was a return to the sheer delight and pleasure of reading literature, something that I luxuriated in during my halcyon days as a university student over four decades ago.
To be translating a writer you are in awe of, and a work you consider a masterpiece, is indeed rich. My co-translator, Shahroza Nahrin, and I, shared that rich experience. Working on Zahir instilled in me the ethic of extreme care, diligence, patience, and painstakingness which translating a work like the novella Life and Political Reality requires. I will never forget a sentence in that novella which defied comprehension. And then I got it. I would like to think that this is an example of “found in translation”, where something only a rare reader of the original text “gets”, is made available via English, not to spoon-feed the reader, but to prompt deeper reflection. The novella Abu Ibrahim’s Death too had an opaque sentence. I think Shahroza and I were working together online on this one, and arrived at a satisfactory English rendition after considerable thought. The “opaqueness” in the two instances was also different.
One has to get deep inside a word, or a string of words. Microscopic attention is needed in order to discern such challenges, which can then be addressed. Such effort brings a rare satisfaction.
Self-effacement – is it possible? I don’t think so. You are what you are. The very fact of translating a particular text comes from deep within myself. And then, what word I choose to use also comes from within me. Yes, a translator can also try to be reflexive in this regard, by observing, reflecting upon, and interrogating that choice of word, and where that comes from.
What this touches upon is the imperative of being creative. A machine can translate. But a creative literary translator can do a better job! And being creative is a very personal thing, it comes from deep inside you. So, you are essentially expressing yourself, rather than effacing yourself.
I recall my translation of a short story by Shahaduz Zaman, of Bangladesh, parts of which were written in rhyming verse, in the style of punthis, i.e. chapbooks with stories told in verse, a very popular form, or genre, in the Bengali-speaking world. I was able to render the verses in matching rhyming verse in English. In this case too, there is a happy “found in translation”. The rhyming verses in English lend an additional dimension of humour and amusement. This output is something uniquely mine. Someone else would have rendered it very differently. But in doing so, I only sought to exactly reproduce the original. I strive for fidelity and responsibility in representing a work. The translator may be invisible, but s/he cannot be effaced. S/he breathes through the translation.
Let me bring up yet another issue. When one is translating into English an autobiographical novel or memoir by a writer like Manoranjan Byapari, or Adhir Biswas – there is an element of bizarre ridiculousness in the exercise. A Dalit character conversing in English! When the reality is that “English” is nowhere present in his life and world, except as the prerogative of some, whom Byapari would rather see dead! English is not just another language in India. Because of our history, it is also something associated with class, power, and privilege. So, the point is that the language, i.e. English, should be so clear, simple and flowing, and the narrative so engrossing and moving, that the reader almost forgets s/he is reading “English”, and the aspect of ridiculousness does not enter the reader’s mind. A kind of invisibility, or inconspicuousness, of the language. In service of the voice. I guess this was there implicitly in my translation. After I completed the manuscript of Byapari’s The Runaway Boy, I requested a friend, who is a writer in Bangla and English, to do a critical reading. He told me that it was the author’s voice in English. But this is something I need to keep in mind consciously now.
RM: Your body of work suggests that you have a predilection for translating works that represent the marginalized of the society. How far has your work as a social activist influenced your choice of texts? Would you consider your translation an extension of your activism?
VR: Although I arrived at translating Subimal Misra accidentally, undoubtedly it was my sensibility from my background as a grassroot activist that made me feel connected to his writing, which is deeply anti-establishment, and celebrates the acts of protest, resistance, rebellion, defiance and anarchy by the underdog.
Having begun with Subimal Misra, I had to be judicious in my choice of authors and texts, it had to carry a certain gravitas and significance.
I was also implicitly responding to whatever was happening in the country post-2014. I had been working with poor Muslim slum dwellers for over twenty-five years. In 2016, I read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (a good case of better late than never!), and after that I was involved in a study on sanitation, in Tamil Nadu, in which we looked closely at “manual scavenging”. All this only made my sensibility sharper, in regard to what I should translate.
There was an activist spirit in my Subimal Misra translation endeavour. And now I see my translation work itself as a form of activism, in response to the environment we are living in. The works directly address this environment.
RM: What would you consider absolutely essential to your process as a translator? What in your opinion makes for a good translation?
VR: As I have already emphasized, commitment to quality above all else; and reflexivity, feedback, diligence, and persistence. You must be painstaking. Translation can be meditative. Translation enables growth, and growth is essential in the practice of translation. As a translator, one should try to view oneself as a literary curator. You carry a huge responsibility.
RM: Who among the current writers of Bengali and Bangladeshi fiction excite you as a translator, works that you think should be translated?
VR: As I said earlier, I do not inhabit the world of Bengali literature. But I have my antennae, and circle of friends, so I learn about some writers and books. And I began an engagement with Bangladesh in 2019.
I am translating the novel Talashnama, by Ismail Darbesh. That has become something of a phenomenon in West Bengal, and specifically in the Muslim community, since its publication in 2021. The author holds up a mirror to his community in an empathic way. People in the community who would otherwise never read a novel have read it. Its impact, in translation, cannot be compared with that of the Bangla original. That is an organic phenomenon. But it is a work that will be educative for a reader in English in India, and especially in this time.
Ansar Uddin, a marginal farmer in a village in Nadia district, West Bengal, has been writing for over thirty years, and his work is like an ethnography of the life and milieu of rural Muslims in West Bengal, and the changes over the last fifty years. He is a memory keeper. I translated his collection of essays, The Song of the Faraway Village, with Labani Jangi, and we are keen to translate his novel Gorakhaler Kathakata (Telling Cowherd Tales), about the vanished world of the village cowherd.
Audity Falguni is a gifted and sensitive Bangladeshi writer. I translated a beautiful story by her, “Rukmini Kanu’s Days”, and I would like to translate a collection of her short stories.
I am translating a collection of short stories by the Bangladeshi writer Shahaduz Zaman, a medical anthropologist who lives in the U.K. He is a perceptive, thoughtful, and creative writer, and in one of his stories he pays tribute to Shahidul Zahir, whom he knew. So, he is dear to me. Noora Shamsi Bahar, from Dhaka, is collaborating with me on this project.
Mashiul Alam is another Bangladeshi writer. A friend in Chittagong gifted me a collection of his short stories. I read one of them and then translated that, and since then we have become close friends. His writing is like a clear and flowing stream. I have begun work on a volume of his stories, all set in Moscow, where he was a student in the final days of the Soviet Union.
My Bangladeshi co-translator Shahroza has asked me to join her in translating the stories of Jharna Rahman. We had worked on one story, and that was a rich experience. She will also be the lead translator for Shahidul Zahir’s novel, Shei Raate Purnima Chhilo.
I translated a story by a very young and gifted writer, Hamiruddin Middya, who is a farm labourer from a village in Bankura district. That was for a collection of stories by workers in Asia, to be published from Singapore. I am keen to translate a collection of his stories as well.
And I have undertaken to translate Raghab Bandopadhyay’s novella, Childhood, and Shawkat Ali’s novels, The Struggle and The Plebians in the Twilight.
In short, I have my hands full, and have much to do in the coming days. There is a Hebrew saying: “The day is short, the work abundant, the labourers inactive, the reward great, and the master of the house urges on.”
RM: What would be your advice to the independent translators who are starting their journey in this field?
VR: Thank you for using the term “independent translators’! May this tribe increase and flourish.
You must feel a natural or spontaneous stirring to translate, to share a work that thrills or moves you. So yes, you must have a love for, and a passion to translate, or rather, you must be impelled to translate.
Just do it! And that could be the beginning of a lifelong journey, bringing satisfaction, and in time, some financial reward as well.
You could devote a few hours every day, or every week, to translation. And thus, advance slowly, but steadily, towards a book.
In order to publish your translation of any work, you need to obtain the consent of the author, or the author’s estate. And once you are well advanced on your work, you can start communicating with publishers.
Doing some translation on the side will be an enriching experience, and a means of personal growth. And there is the option of choosing to embrace translation, and devoting yourself entirely, or principally, to that. That can be a profound journey, a sadhana, a Zen experience. A means of personal growth, as I said earlier
But more importantly, it is not about the translator as much as it is about literature. As the Hebrew saying I quoted earlier says, there is much work to be done. We need an army of translators from Bangla.
I am now trying to mentor young translators to the extent possible, by inducting them as co-translators. The book, Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas, with Shahroza, was a wonderful outcome of that. And speaking practically, two are undoubtedly better than one when it comes to serious translation of an important work of literature. The labour required, the diligence, and the responsibility can all be shared. And the process of collaborative translation can be an enriching and memorable experience.