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TRANSLATION

Disappointing effort

Unnecessary paddings and more than a fair share of errors in translation makes Waiting for Rain a disappointment, says GOUTAM GHOSH.


WAITING for Rain, the translated version of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Brishtir Ghran, is a disappointment. With due respect to Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, who won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1989, and to the effort of the New York-based translator, Nilanjan Bhattacharya, the stratified disaster seems to have begun with the translation of the title. Brishtir Ghran means the fragrance of rain, not waiting for rain. That the smell of humidity could lead to rain is irrelevant. There are excellent translations of works whose titles were not translated. For instance, Claude-Levi Strauss' Tristes Tropiques. Sirshendu's Brishtir Ghran may be equally difficult to translate, but Waiting for Rain is nothing less than a disaster.

Armed with an attractive cover and a reader-friendly font (typeface, if you will), the book attempts to transcend the weaknesses that most translations suffer from: difficulty with equivalence and more significantly, the poetry of a language that is often lost in translation. The result seems to have been a more-than-tolerable crop of bloomers that cannot be swept under the carpet as "typos".

After sketching two generations quickly, the author drops anchor on the third generation. Whatever may have been the past, it is Somsundar of the third generation who matters. The story has been told through the eyes of two characters — Somsundar and Manju. Somsundar's narration accounts for 60 per cent of the 217 pages. Somsundar, a former boxer, is blessed with impressive courage and takes risks impulsively at times. Manju's character is interesting and the reader may wonder why Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay did not develop her character with the same tender care with which he portrayed Somsundar. The story is like a segmented straight line and the inner dialogues of Somsundar and Manju reflect their personalities and inner conflicts.

The impact of the period of radical communism in Bengal on the characters doesn't impress because the narration lacks depth. This is no fault of the translator. One might wonder, for instance, if revolvers were ever given so easily (as Neetu did) to someone (Somsundar alias Nentu) who was not a hard-core member of the extremist wing. And liquidating someone in revenge? That's a questionable extrapolation of what the radicals believed and practised in Bengal. This again is not a fault of the translator.

Ignoring these inconsistencies to savour the flavour of the novel may not induce a reader to overlook the errors that may have crept in during translation or copyediting. The "sky-blue domestic aerogramme" is our Inland Letter. In the Bengali version, it is referred to as Inland. The identity need not have been butchered to reach out to foreign readers. The explanation of an Inland Letter could have been added to the glossary.

A magical transformation likewise remained unexplained: "... we took a bus to the nearest station, from where we boarded a bus bound for Kolkata. As the train raced towards Kolkata, my heart began to lift... " How could a bus become a train midway?

"Rice porridge" is payas in the Bengali original. And as any Indian reader knows, payas (or payasam) is not the same as rice porridge (boiling rice to make it a paste) that is known as kanji in the South and fenabhat in Bengal. Payas is a sweet dish made with milk, rice (or vermicelli), raisins, cashew nuts and special molasses (depending on the season) in Bengal. An "undershirt" is genji in Bengali, but the American English equivalent has probably been preferred with an eye on the market. But no market preference can condone "room all in shambles" (p.45).

The Glossary at the end of the novel is replete with "literally". It could have been drawn up carefully to include Bengali words and their sensible English equivalents. Words like ser and kos were missed. Even if the translation were sponsored for the U.S. market, the slips would be indefensible.

Reading the original and the translated version together shows that Nilanjan has been fairly honest in his translation. But for the bloomers — accidental or by design — the translated version flows smoothly, except the irritants that you will identify if you read the original and the translation together. One does not expect a word-by-word translation, but there are unnecessary paddings wedged in by Nilanjan Bhattacharya. The translated novel would have been richer without these.

A reader unfamiliar with Bengali may find the translation interesting if the errors are ignored — in books published even by reputed publishers. But to a Bengali in rain-starved South, it may be worth waiting for the rain than to invest in the translated version of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's book to while away a few hours.

Waiting for Rain, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, translated by Nilanjan Bhattacharya, Penguin Books India, 2003, p.220, Rs. 250.

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