In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal
Somdatta Mandal, an eminent academic, has translated so many books and writers that it is difficult to pin her down as a doyen of one great. Her extensive work amazes with its variety intercepted with humour. Reading through her translations, Nirmalakumari’s account of how Tagore was manipulated by Mussolini, is like comprehending and living through history. It adheres and makes an impact to lead to the realisation that history is often repeated, only the cast of characters and locations change. That Tagore could put that behind him and rise above this incident (hyped by the media then) to connect with his vision reflected not just in his writings but also in the institution (Santiniketan) he created and which he reached out for help to keep intact. All this is brought home to us through just one of Mandal’s many translations, Kobi and Rani.
She talks more of her extensive findings while translating and experiencing the world from writings across the ages. She reflects on how Tagore’s vision for Santiniketan remains to be yet realised. Her answers showcase a scholar who shines in any setting not just with reflected light of others she translates but with her own inner convictions laced with a rare sense of humour. She has much to say and share in this extensive interview. We are happy to project her voice to you.
You were teaching in Santiniketan. Tell us a bit about the legendary university. How is it different from others? Has it lived up to what the Kobiguru visualised?
I retired from Visva-Bharati two years ago after teaching in the English Department there for about eighteen years. My area of specialization has been American Literature, Film and Culture Studies and Diaspora Literature. I started teaching in Santiniketan initially thinking of it as a new job at a university, but soon realised that away from the cacophony of life in Kolkata where I was born and bred, working and living all that while, the place would gradually exert its own idyllic charm upon me. Now in my retirement I want to live there in peace and use the place as a writer’s retreat. In spite of being in the news at present for all the wrong reasons, Santiniketan has its own charm, lifestyle and culture that grows within you and cannot be imposed from outside.
I think most people know, but nevertheless let me reiterate a few facts about Santiniketan. Kobiguru had visualized the institution to be different from other standard ones so that away from rote learning methods, students could imbibe the fresh ambience of studying in the lap of nature. As publicity pictures still project it, the classes in the school section are still held open air under the trees, but the university section is similar to other standard institutions.
In fact, ever since Visva-Bharati was established in 1921, it was considered to be a special place of learning inviting teachers and students from all over the world. The poet selected for its motto an ancient Sanskrit verse, Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam, which means, ‘where the whole world meets in a single nest’.“Visva-Bharati,” he declared, ” represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” The institution has excelled in areas of fine arts, singing, painting, dance, different Indian and foreign languages, and especially in the idea of rural reconstruction.
Tagore laid great emphasis on universal humanism, internationalism and trans-culturalism. He sought a positive outcome from the East-West encounters. This syncretic culture imbues the vast oeuvre of his work: it has propelled his activism and lives in his pragmatic projects today. His vision was to ultimately strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the establishment of free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres.
Since 1951, when Visva-Bharati was considered as an institution of special eminence by an act of Parliament and was turned into a Central University, problems started creeping out gradually from Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it had to abide by the rules laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC), follow its basic dictates of syllabi formulation etc. and on the other, the old ashramites and others consistently worried about the institution losing its special character to become like any other run-of-the-mill university. This dichotomy has not been resolved till date and sometimes the conflict between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ takes an ugly shape. Apparently, Tagore had made a special rule that in order to generate local employment people residing within the radius of twenty kilometres of the university should be given jobs but according to Central Government dictates, it should have a pan-Indian profile and recruit people from all over the country. This turmoil has resulted in a sort of stalemate for the past few years.
I mention all this to emphasise that the glory of erstwhile Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati has diminished greatly in the process, and it is no longer the experimental school that Tagore had initially wanted it to be. Even during his lifetime, he went from country to country delivering lectures to generate funds for his dream project and had realised how difficult it was becoming to sustain the institution financially. There is the famous saying that he had even requested Mahatma Gandhi to help and run the institution in his absence. In 1940 a year before he died, he put a letter in Gandhi’s hand,
“Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure, and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”
Anyhow, after joining Visva-Bharati, I realised that apart from some cursory reading, I hardly knew anything about this great man, this polymath, someone who queried some interpretations of his life and work through a holistic perspective. Also, interdisciplinary seminars and interactions with faculty members of other departments made me aware of many new areas that I was oblivious of. It was quite unconsciously that little by little the spirit of Tagore, his work, his culture, seeped into my veins as it did into that of many of my city-bred colleagues.
My impetus to read and translate Tagore also gained momentum when we had to work for the academic excellence of our department by working for the UGC SAP (Special Assistance Programme). The thrust area of this Departmental Research Scheme was “Tagoreana” – we started visiting libraries and academic institutions all over India and began compiling all available material on Tagore in English. It gave us a clear picture that in reality very few critical books had been written on him in English and the plight of translated volumes was even worse. It seemed as if the work done till date was equal to a few pebbles lying on the vast seashore of knowledge. Along with this comprehensive checklist, at the end of each year, we organised a seminar on different perspectives related to Tagore and his work. Also, in order to justify the seriousness of the project, we started bringing out a book publication every year, with each teacher contributing to it. This was when I got interested in reading and translating Tagore’s non-fiction, his selected letters, his humorous pieces of dramatic skits known as Hasyakoutuk, and different essays and travel narratives. It was a vast gold mine in front of me just waiting to be explored. Here was a man of all seasons and gradually by default, being in Visva-Bharati, all of us gradually veered away from our initial area of expertise and got seeped into reading, writing and translating him. I remembered how in a light vein a professor of the Hindi department saw our first publication on ‘Tagoreana’ and told me, “Even you English professors have now got stuck in the old man’s beard!!”
You have translated lot of Tagore. What got you interested in translation — and as tough a writer as the maestro in English?
Before coming to my translation work on Tagore and how it began, I need to mention here that my role as a translator began in a strange way with a commissioned piece of work many years ago. Professor Sukumari Bhattacharya had an interesting Bengali book entitled Ramayan O Mahabarater Anupratik Jonopriyota (The Comparative Popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and she wanted it to be translated into English. Her daughter Tanika Sarkar had begun doing the first few chapters but could not complete it. So, she was looking for a competent translator whose style would not clash with the earlier section already translated. I was given a sample chapter to work on and had to literally go and face her in a serious interview before being assigned the job. She went through my translation meticulously, pencilled a few changes, and gave me the green signal to go on. Translating very difficult Sanskritised Bengali was a real challenge in my life which very often had to be combatted armed with a thesaurus and dictionary. Sometimes, I found that after a whole afternoon’s labour I had proceed only two sentences. Anyhow, after I eventually submitted the entire work, the file somehow got lost. In a bed-ridden state Professor Bhattacharya went through the entire manuscript and approved it, often suggesting a few changes in the use of words. A few months later she passed away and nothing was heard of that translation anymore. For almost five years I would brood over the fate of my unborn first child. Fortunately, when her house was being cleaned and vacated, the lost file was recovered, and the book was published by Anustoop under the joint names of Tanika Sarkar and me.
That difficult initiation as a translator gave me tremendous moral boost and confirmed my capability as a serious translator. Tagore was no longer a problem. The only fear that I had was being too close to the original text as taking liberties with such a canonical writer was unthinkable for me. But times changed. I realised that readability of a translated text was a very important criterion than mere literal translation. So gradually I started becoming even more colloquial with Tagore’s texts. It should read as if it was written in English itself and not in the convoluted style of late 19th century or early 20th century. Contributing to The Essential Tagore volume brought out by Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati in 2011, to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, was also an eye-opener for me. The extremely meticulous editors Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty made me revise my entries several times in order to make the text read not like a vintage piece but a living vibrant text. Translating some of the skits from Hasyakoutuk was challenging and fun at the same time, as we could come across a different Rabindranath, full of pun, wit and satire, and quite different from the serious philosophical poet he is usually considered to be.
Again, teaching the very poor quality of translation of Tagore’s Home and the World done by Surendranath Tagore during the poet’s lifetime to graduate and undergraduate students at the university made me realise why so many of my non-Bengali professor friends spoke so badly about the text. Gradually I found myself translating many more different areas of Tagore’s writing. The essays of Pother Sonchoy (Gleanings of the Road) that Tagore wrote during his 1912 visit to England were not travel pieces per se and often ventured into philosophical musings. Niyogi Books readily brought out the volume and it was released in Kolkata at the Oxford Book Store with a lot of fanfare by Sankhya Ghosh and many others.
In the meantime, along with many lesser-known letters, early essays on travel by Rabindranath, Visva-Bharati Publications Department brought out the book Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family that contains entries of travel essays written by nineteen members of the Tagore family beginning from Dwarkanath Tagore to Sumitendranath Tagore. Incidentally, among these nineteen entries, nine were by women of the Tagore family. So you see, translating travel writing and Tagore somehow overlapped without any conscious effort on my part.
Again, translating two travel narratives by Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis (aka Rani) is equally important because they are memoirs based on her travels with Tagore. Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakshinnatey (With the Poet in the South) narrate the incidents of the poet’s tour to Europe in 1926 and to South India and Sri Lanka in 1928 respectively. Incidentally, though written many years later, the first narrative is the only account of the important seven-month trip that Rabindranath undertook to Europe where he met Mussolini and many important political and social stalwarts of the day. Both these travelogues are included in my present volume of translation entitled ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.
Other than Tagore, you have translated more writers from colonial times to English. Why do you translate mainly travel-related writing from the past? What got you interested in this period and in travel-writing?
My interest in travel writing began many years earlier when it was not even recognised as a canonical enough genre. In a seminar on ‘Travel Writing’ that I had organized in our department, I received a great impetus when Mushirul Hasan, the famous historian and then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, attended as the chief-guest and delivered the keynote address. He had already worked and edited several volumes of travel narratives especially in Urdu and made it clear that this area of study upheld immense possibilities.
Now let me mention how apart from the writings of Tagore and his family members, my interest in travel literature grew. After work hours, I started spending the late afternoons in our university library and found immense treasure of travel books in Bengali among the unkept dusty stacks, books which had not been issued for as long as fifty years. No one gave me any computerised list of what texts were available and this manual hunting revealed many unheard names of writers. I just picked them up, issued them and dumped them in my car. Some of the books were brittle, some never issued at all. In this way I had picked up Paschimjatriki by a lady called Durgabati Ghose who went for a tour to Europe with her husband in 1932. I liked the text very much and translated it and Orient Blackswan published it as The Westward Traveller with a foreword by Ashis Nandy. Anyhow, in due course of time, I had developed a handsome collection of travel texts and my interest increased with time. In the meantime, to digress a little, I have edited three volumes on Indian Travel Writing, and one special issue of an online journal, the first one in 2010 and the last one in November 2020. The number of abstracts that flooded my mailbox everyday was unusual and in spite of strict deadlines, I had to reject many good papers due to lack of space. I remember the publisher of the first volume returned 90 copies of the book as he said that since travel writing was not included in any university syllabi or course, they were not selling, and he lacked space in his warehouse. Within a span of a decade, the genre has gained a lot of popularity and many scholars are now keenly pursuing their research in this area.
Speaking about translating writers from the past I find it safer as in most cases the copyright period is over and seeking permission is easier. Also, I must confess how I underwent a personal trauma after translating a living writer. Let me be a bit more specific. Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s Koruna Tomar Kone Path Diye is an excellent narrative about her visit to a seminar in Hyderabad and her sudden decision to travel to the Kumbh Mela. This book interested me a lot and I went through a publisher seeking her permission to translate the text. She asked me to submit two sample chapters and then gave the green signal to go ahead. I completed the entire translation within the stipulated time and sent it to her. Now began the difficult part. She did not like certain sections (“I don’t see myself in it as I should”, she explained) and the manuscript went through innumerable revisions and alterations, often with the consultation of family members and other editors. The cheeky, colloquial tone of the original Bangla text was lost – one perennial problem of translation for sure. Anyhow, the publisher introduced two more editors and in the end the book did come out under a different translator’s name with a due acknowledgement in the foreword for all my effort! So, it was a wise decision on my part henceforth to stick to older writers from the past.
Also, though for a long time, travel writing had been relegated as an inferior form of literature, I found in many texts what I call little nuggets of history. For example, in Durgabati Ghose’s text there is a hilarious incident about her going to meet Sigmund Freud in Vienna. As the daughter of the famous psychoanalyst Girindra Sekhar Bose, she went to meet Professor Freud who was her father’s friend, and what emerged in that meeting is something unusual when Durgabati felt that Freud himself should be psychoanalyzed for his excessive love of dogs. When I mentioned that incident, Ashis Nandy regretted that if he knew about this incident earlier, he would have definitely included it in his book, The Savage Freud. Again, in Crossing Many Seas, Chitrita Devi tells us how she went to visit the British Parliament in 1947 and on that very day saw the white paper of independence being granted to India. Many other such interesting historical events and significant people are often found in very ordinary travel narratives.
What are the challenges you face while translating Bengali to English? How do you solve them?
Basically, I still consider mine as literal translations and do not venture out into bringing in radical changes. The basic challenge I face is maintaining a readable sentence structure as the English and Bengali have different methods of composition. I don’t translate directly into the computer, rather I prefer to do it in long hand. Though it entails more work, I find that I end up usually reversing the order of the sentence when I am correcting and keying it in the computer. If possible, I then ask any friend of mine to read the translation and offer any necessary suggestions for change. This system works well for me. Also, now I usually try and translate everything in the past tense and that makes it more readable. Breaking up long, convoluted sentences into shorter readable ones is another method I tend to adopt. With time and experience, I feel more confident in making such alterations.
Why do you think translating is important? What is the role of translations in a world with 6500 languages?
In spite of all its drawbacks, translation is the only way in which we can open out to other people, whether in regional languages in India or in other languages across the world. Let me give you an interesting example. Recently I reviewed a book called Rebati: Speaking in Tongues. ‘Rebati’ is a famous short story written in 1898 by the famous Odia writer Fakir Mohan Senapati. It is a tragic tale in which the dream of self-actualisation of a young girl through education comes crashing down as much due to a rampaging epidemic as due to a mindset deeply hostile to change. In this particular book, the editor, Manu Dash, has managed to bring in 36 different incarnations of the story. Arranged alphabetically, ‘Rebati’ is presented in twenty-four Indian and twelve foreign languages in all. As the editor informs us, most of the writers commissioned to translate it in different languages have taken the English or the Hindi version as their source text. For the lay reader therefore, it is not possible to vouch for the quality of the translated text. But that we are able to understand the significance of this late nineteenth century story across so many countries and cultures across the globe is what is more significant than the actual quality of the translation.
Is it possible to have cultural exchanges among languages without losing out nuances in translation?
Translation and its problems, especially when the translated pieces are twice or thrice removed from the original source text, is nothing unique and hence even labelled by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation’. In one of his earlier semiotic investigations, ‘The Search for the Perfect Language’, Umberto Eco argued that the Book of Genesis charts the decline of humanity into the chaos of Babel. The poly-linguistic world we live in is one more punishment from God for our baseness and general nastiness. In ‘Mouse or Rat?: Translation As Negotiation’, Eco is back on the subject of this post-lapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. He suggests that translation is a ‘negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures – “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.”
As a translator I am very conscious about this kind of cultural exchange. Maintaining culture-specific words within the translated version, but at the same time making its meaning clear for the reader to understand, is probably one way of retaining this culture specificity. The lesser the use of glossary the better. Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts which she self-translated from Italian into English attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”
Which is your favourite writer to translate? And why?
None in particular. I just sometimes happen to like a piece of work and feel it should be translated for a greater pan-Indian readership. Sometimes the reverse is also true. In the summer of 2004, I was residing at Bellagio in Italy on a Rockefeller Fellowship when the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine published a new short story by Jhumpa Lahiri called ‘Heaven-Hell’. Upon reading the story about the protagonist called Pranab-Kaku, I was so taken aback by its Bengaliness, I felt that every Bengalis who usually do not read English fiction and yet basked in the glory that a Bengali girl had recently won the Pulitzer prize should immediately read it. Without a second thought or even seeking any permission from anyone, I instantly sat down and translated the story into Bangla. Later when I returned to Kolkata and gave it to a senior professor to read. he was so impressed that without even informing me he sent it to the magazine Kali O Kolom which published it. I am lucky that no one sued me for copyright violation.
Recently I read a short story called ‘Barnabaad’ (Casteism) by Manoranjan Byapari in the Sunday supplement of Pratidin newspaper called Robbar and felt the urge to translate into English immediately. Dalit writing in Bengali is slowly gaining academic attention and I immediately asked someone to seek permission from the writer to allow me to translate it into English. Byapari, busy with his own electioneering campaign at that time, was thrilled and immediately gave me the permission. The translated story has been accepted by the international journal Transnational Literature and will see the light of day soon. So, you see there is no special or favourite writer for me to translate. Way back in the nineties, I remember I had voluntarily translated some essays on cinema that Satyajit Ray published in Bishoy Challachitra, but I was too naïve to know then that you needed his wife’s permission to do so. The translated pages therefore travelled to the wastepaper basket in due course.
Was it different translating Bengali women from translating Tagore? How did the experience differ?
Usually, the tone of Bengali women’s writing that I have translated to date is much more colloquial and homely, but we cannot always make generalisations. Many women wrote their travelogues at the request of family and friends and not for public consumption. But some women like Krishnabhabini Das took her job of imparting knowledge rather seriously. Also, we should not make the mistake of assuming that all Tagore’s works are of high philosophical and moral content. There are many pieces of Tagore’s writing which are also simple, homely, easy to translate and again there are places where he often quotes from the Upanishads and one needs the help of Sanskrit scholars to understand the real meaning of those quotations. So, there is no such hard and fast rule, and it all depends on what particular work and by which writer we are translating.
Were the Bengali women, like Krishnabhabini Das, you translated any different from the women associated with Tagore? How and why?
This question is more or less a repetition of the last question. Each woman’s writing has a different aim and purpose and so they cannot be clubbed together under some general definitions. The reason for the travel and the target readership is different in each individual case. Published in 1885, Krishnabhabini Das’s England-e-Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) was published in Calcutta originally without her name in the title. Her identity was just that of a Bengali woman who chanced to go to England along with her husband. Her book was not a travelogue in the true sense of the term, but her aim was to seriously convey the social conditions of England at that time and to educate her sisters back home who were still in fetters and did not know much about female emancipation. Her writing is serious in nature, and she took the help of other sources and books to authenticate and explain everything in detail.
For Hariprabha Takeda, a Bengali Brahmo woman, who went to Japan in 1912 for four months along with her husband to meet her Japanese in-laws there, it was a totally personal affair. Thus, even though language was a big bar, Bongomohilar Japanjatra [The Journey of A Bengali Woman to Japan] is more intimate in tone and narration where she tries to define the idea of ‘home’ to her readers. For Chitrita Devi, sister of Maitreyi Devi, Onek Sagor Periye (Crossing many Seas) narrates travels to different places in the world in seven different segments. As a member of the P.E. N. network, her outlook and narration is much more erudite and polished than others.
I can go on citing more examples but the basic point I want to make is that the social class and status of the woman narrator is different in each case. For women associated with Tagore, this becomes even more clearly marked. Rabindranath’s daughter-in-law, Protima Devi, wrote Nirbaan (Nirvana) immediately after the poet’s death. This text is very different from the four other women who narrated the last days of their association with Rabindranath. Though the incidents are the same, each woman’s narration comes in different styles. Thus, Rani Chanda or Maitreyi Devi or Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis’s narration have to be read side by side to understand what I mean as to the relationship of the subject to the narrator. My book The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs does exactly that. Translating each woman’s narration separately was a challenge no doubt but when they are juxtaposed together, the point-of-view of each narrator becomes clearer.
Why do you stick to women and Tagore only? Have you ever thought of exploring translations of other writers like Nazrul or Jibonanondo?
As I have already mentioned, this was not a deliberate choice. I am not a feminist as such but somehow at the end of the day I find that I have translated the works of more women than men. Since none of the translations that I have done till date have been commissioned projects by publishers or authors themselves, I just translate what and when I fancy reading and feel inspired to translate. You know translation has often been called ‘transcreation’ and this creative process is something that interests me very much. Though not a creative writer per se, the translating process also gives me liberty in selecting words, style and that grants me a lot of freedom which is no less important than creative writing. About translating Nazrul or Jibonanando, I must admit that I am not very comfortable with translating poetry. I prefer to stick to prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. The more difficult the prose style, the more challenging the translating process becomes. Also, in hindsight I feel since women were marginalised in the creative process and often not taken seriously at all, as a woman myself, it is my duty to explore and translate the writings of women even more.
Have you ever thought of writing yourself?
I have written a lot of critical essays and articles but when it comes to creative writing, my contribution is negligible. However, for a long period of time I wrote small features for the ‘Now and Again’ column published in the Op-ed section of The Statesman. These pieces made me quite popular as often when introduced to strangers for the first time, I would be asked whether I was the same person who wrote that column. Occasionally, I wrote several short entries about any and everything in life that interested me or I experienced first-hand without any false attributes in them. They were written primarily to divert myself from boring academic schedules and I called them ‘Vignettes of Life’when it was first published. Later it expanded into another edition called ‘More Vignettes of Life’ and the last one being called ‘Vignettes of Life Once More’. They contain any and everything that happened to me and in places around me, I am the narrator and the protagonist, and the result is that I have been able to make people laugh. In this troublesome and problem-ridden world, pure laughter and fun are vanishing so fast that I consider these short entries to be really cathartic. As for serious creative writing like writing short stories or poems, I never attempted to do that. Perhaps I am too prosaic a person you might say with very little imagination.
What is your next project? Tell us a bit about it.
I am at present involved in a voluminous project which I began at least five years ago about different Bengalis from colonial times travelling to Vilayet or England and narrating their experiences in different genres of writing. Though I had to be selective in choosing the travellers over their two-hundred-year time span, sometimes unavailability of the primary texts made things more difficult. I am at present working on approximately forty such travellers, some of whom had written their memoirs in English. For those who wrote in Bengali, I am translating selected portions of their work for the purpose. So it is a quite laborious and time-consuming work but at the same time, very interesting because the multifarious reasons for each person’s travel to the coloniser’s land is mind-boggling. The structure of the book includes a brief bio-note of each traveller along with several sample pages from the actual narrative so that the reader can savour their experiences first-hand. I hope it sees the light of day soon.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
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