Rita Chowdhury, former Director of National Book Trust (NBT) and an eminent Assamese poet and novelist, underlines that regional literature in India needs quality translators to shine on a broader platform. Chowdhury received the Sahitya Akademi award for her Assamese novel, Deo Langkhui (The Divine Sword, 2005), about the Tiwa Kingdom of Assam. Currently, she is the Editor of Gariyoshi, a renowned Assamese literary magazine. In this interview, she reflects on how translation works as a medium to take a regional story to a broader audience in the light of her two award-winning novels, Makam (which means ‘Golden Horse’ in Chinese; it was originally published in 2010, and later in English as Chinatown Days,) and Popiya Torar Sadhu (Tale of A Meteor, 2015), which she also translated herself into Bengali.
Excerpts from the interview:
What made you translate your own books, Makam and Popiya Torar Sadhu, into other languages? What issues did you face during the process of translation?
One of the issues that Assamese books face while getting translated into English is losing their ‘soul’. Translating our various folk songs, idioms and tonalities into another language while maintaining their core essence is very difficult.
I gave my first book, Makam, for translation from Assamese into English to a very senior translator. But I got disappointed when I reviewed the work in between. It is a political novel set in Makum in Assam and talks about the Chinese communities living in the area, about the 1961 Sino-India war, racial discriminations and also the history of Assam tea and its Chinese origin etc.
While translating such a novel, the translator has to have the knowledge of the geography of India and China, the land conflicts, demography, the politics and the culture of the communities, among others. Otherwise, it will never be reflected in the translated book like it does in the original one.
So, I started translating it on my own. Many books in regional literature, despite being so rich in content, fail to attract readers across boundaries or do not receive the kind of accolades they deserve because of poor translation.
If we read the translations of writers like Paulo Coelho, we hardly realize that these books were not originally written in English because the translation is so smooth. It also depends on the coordination between the editors, translators, and writers.
However, translating one’s own book into another language is a tedious process. It is like rewriting the book again because the language is totally different and so you go through the same process.
What is the status of translation when it comes to Assamese literature?
Though, over the years, the translation of Assamese literature has increased, yet it is not satisfactory. The main issue is again keeping the tonality of the books intact. As a language, Assamese has similarities with the Bengali language. So when an Assamese book is translated into Bengali, it is a smooth work. I have translated my book Popiya Torar Sadhu into Bengali with the help of a compositor and I did not face any issue during the process.
But when we directly translate an Assamese book into English, mostly we lose the essence because of lack of quality translators, barring a few. It is better, if we go through a ‘via language’ process. For example, if we translate an Assamese book into Hindi first then it becomes easier to get quality translation work from Hindi into English because there are lots of quality Hindi-language translators who have good command over both Hindi and English. The problem with most Assamese translators is that if one has a good grasp of English, he or she might not have the same grasp on the Assamese language. However, the situation is improving a little bit with the advent of schools like Axom Jatiya Bidyalay, where students can learn both English and Assamese.
How was your experience in NBT with regard to translations?
NBT is a huge organisation with teams of excellent editors across different Indian and foreign languages. It is doing a lot of translation work. One such project is the ongoing India-China Translation Programme, which includes the translation of 25 classical and contemporary literary works from Chinese into Hindi and Indian literary works into Chinese. It involves close association with language scholars. Through programs like ‘Aadan-Pradan’, it selects classics from the languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and translates them into English and other Indian languages. So, in a way, NBT contributes to the promotion of regional literature by translating them and making them available in more languages.