On The Translations

I have been rewriting texts from Asomiya to English for a while now. I don’t want to call it translation as, for me, it’s a loaded term. In any case, what I was doing in the beginning was actually rewriting.

Asomiya is my first language. I studied in an Asomiya medium school, and wrote poems in Asomiya. When I was in college I had ambitions. That’s the reason I opted to do a major in English literature. For one thing, almost all my favourite Asomiya poets were teachers of English literature in colleges and universities. I wanted to be like them. Read English and write Asomiya.

I grew up in a small town. My contact with the existing literary circle was very limited. Yet, I published a few poems in stray magazines and newspapers. It wasn’t much. For me, writing was more important than publishing.

In 1997, I left Asom for higher studies in Pune, Maharashtra, where I have been since. Therefore, my knowledge of Asomiya literature is limited to that particular year. I go home every year; but my link to Asomiya literature was already broken. My knowledge of the contemporary Asomiya writing is scattered.

I started rewriting in English out of necessity. None of my friends in Pune could read and understand Asomiya. So, I started to convert my Asomiya poems into English for them. Over time, the process became so fluid that I abandoned Asomiya and started to write in English from the scratch. So, half of my poems in the collection Glimpses Of A Personal History (Kolkata, Writer’s Workshop, 2004) was originally written in Asomiya and translated into English and the other half was written originally in English.

My tryst with translation of modern Asomiya poetry occurred a few years ago while working as a lecturer of English in a provincial college in a provincial town. Suddenly, I was cut-off from everything I was comfortable with. Everything was different — people, geography, language. On top of it, my job was relatively easy. For the first time, I was missing home. I opened my bag and pulled out all my Asomiya books. Among them were two of my favourites — Selected poems of Nilim Kumar and Hiren Bhattacharya’s Soichor Pathar Manuh. To pass time, I started to rewrite those poems into English. It was a good exercise, especially when I had no clue how to rephrase a particular Asomiya expression in English.

A year later, I returned to Pune, to a new job; the translated lines were just another file on my computer. I was chasing the real life.

In 2009, I was invited to attend a workshop on literary translation in Kolkata, organised by the British Council and the Sahitya Akademi. I revisited the poems. I also did some reading on translation theories, which, to say the least, confused me. Soon, I abandoned the theory and decided to follow my heart. The Kolkata workshop helped.

However, doubt remained. I am doing it right? I knew the answer. No. I was not doing it right. I am not following the theory. I am not following the history of Asomiya translation in English. Before I decided to sign up for the blog, I did some research on Asomiya translation into English. There aren’t much. Even then, the one person who towers above the rest in the context of Asomiya literary translation is Pradip Acharya. Now, Pradip Acharya is a legend. I haven’t have the good fortune to meet him. But I have heard a lot about him from friends, who tell me that he is one of the last remaining intellectuals of Asom. I have no reason not to believe them. Way back in 1990s, he translated Hiren Bhattacharya’s poems into English, titled Ancient Gong, which remains the definitive introduction to modern Asomiya poetry for the English-speaking world. He is a respected translator. I read whatever I could find of him on the web. And I was very upset.

His translations are very different from mine, more literary, more nuanced, far, far superior. I realised I am just wasting my time. I can never achieve what he has achieved. If Pradip Acharya is perfect 10, I am two-and-a-half. Whatever am I doing?

I abandoned the poems all over again.

A few months later, I talked to a friend, whom I had shown my translations. He said they read well and I should go ahead with them. I told him about my apprehension. He said: “I think it’s better that you cannot write like the master. You are not a clone; you are offering a different voice. You translation may not be definitive, but it will attempt the same things the original poets attempted. And it’s better than not trying at all.

Yes, it’s better than not trying at all. That’s why I don’t call these poems translations, but rewriting. This is how I read these poems in my mother tongue. This is how I relay their voices to you. I try to be truthful. I try to be humble. After all, I am privileged to have known these great poems written in the greatest language I have ever known, the language that my mother speaks.