Rita Chowdhury, former director of the National Book Trust (NBT) and eminent Assamese poet and novelist, points out that regional literature in India needs quality translators to shine on a wider platform. Chowdhury received the Sahitya Akademi award for his Assamese novel, Deo Langkhui (The Divine Sword, 2005), about the Tiwa kingdom of Assam. Currently, she is the editor-in-chief of Gariyoshi, a renowned Assamese literary magazine. In this interview, she reflects on how translation works as a means of conveying regional history to a wider audience in light of her two award-winning novels, makam (meaning “Golden Horse” in Chinese; it was originally released in 2010, and later in English as Chinatown Days) and Popiya Tora Sadhu (Tale of A Meteor, 2015), which she also translated into Bengali herself.
Excerpts from the interview:
What prompted you to translate your own books, makam and Popiya Tora Sadhu, into other languages? What problems did you face during the translation process?
One of the problems that Assamese books face when translated into English is losing their “soul”. Translating our various folk songs, idioms and tones into another language while retaining their fundamental essence is very difficult.
I gave my first book, Makam, for translation from Assamese to English to a very experienced translator. But I was disappointed when I reviewed the work in between. It is a political novel that takes place in Makum in Assam and talks about the Chinese communities living in the region, the Sino-Indian war of 1961, racial discrimination and also the history of Assam tea and his Chinese origin, etc.
When translating such a novel, the translator should have knowledge of the geography of India and China, land disputes, demographics, politics and culture of the communities, among others. Otherwise, it will never be reflected in the translated book as in the original.
So I started translating it myself. Many books of regional literature, despite their rich content, do not attract readers across borders or do not receive the kind of accolades they deserve due to poor translation.
If we read the translations of writers like Paulo Coelho, we hardly realize that these books weren’t originally written in English, so fluid is the translation. It also depends on coordination between editors, translators and writers.
However, translating your own book into another language is a tedious process. It’s like rewriting the book because the language is totally different and so you go through the same process.
What is the status of translation with regard to Assamese literature?
Although over the years the translation of Assamese literature has increased, yet it is not satisfactory. The main problem is again to keep the tone of the books intact. As a language, Assamese has similarities with the Bengali language. So when an Assamese book is translated into Bengali, it’s a smooth job. I translated my book Popiya Tora Sadhu in Bengali with the help of a composer and I had no problems during the process.
But when we directly translate an Assamese book into English, most of the time we lose the gist due to the lack of quality translators, with a few exceptions. It’s better if we go through a process “via language”. For example, if we translate an Assamese book into Hindi first, it becomes easier to get quality Hindi to English translation work because there are many quality Hindi translators who are well versed in Hindi. Hindi and English. The problem with most Assamese translators is that if one has a good command of English, they may not have the same understanding of the Assamese language. However, the situation is improving a bit with the advent of schools like Axom Jatiya Bidyalay, where students can learn both English and Assamese.
What was your experience at NBT regarding translations?
NBT is a huge organization with teams of excellent editors in different Indian and foreign languages. He does a lot of translation work. One such project is the ongoing India-China Translation Program, which includes the translation of 25 classical and contemporary literary works from Chinese into Hindi and Indian literary works into Chinese. This implies a close association with language specialists. Through programs like ‘Aadan Pradan’, he selects classics from the languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and translates them into English and other Indian languages. Thus, in a way, NBT contributes to the promotion of regional literature by translating them and making them available in more languages.