Fakrul Alam, an eminent translator, critic and academic, has been impacted by major voices in both scholarship and history. Edward Said, who is known for his work on orientalism and postcolonial studies, and the ‘father of Bangladesh’, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were the major influencers in his life. We can see the impact of Said in Alam’s critical viewpoints perhaps when we look at his latest venture, an upcoming publication, Reading Literature in English and English studies in Bangladesh Postcolonial perspectives (2021), a sequel to an earlier book of essays, Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (2007). He has more books on the pipeline, both on criticism and another translation of nearly three hundred Tagore songs.
A recipient of the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) and SAARC literary award (2012), Alam, born in 1951, has lived through history. This interview with him takes us on an adventure in time — mulling over different phases of South Asian struggles to gear up as individualistic, independent entities based on the concept imported from Britain, nationalism. It is an interesting journey moving with him through Pakistan dominated East Pakistan to modern Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina where he not only translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography but also the nineteenth century Bengali epic Bishad Sindhu and the poems of Jibanananda Das. Without more ado, we are privileged to present to you Professor Fakrul Alam —
What got you interested in translations?
In Dhaka’s St. Joseph’s High School where I did my “O” levels, we had a Bengali teacher who was a great fan of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. Sir would ask us students to translate passages from his novels fairly regularly. Since he was the only Bengali teacher we had for four years, I ended up translating quite a few pages of the novelist’s work in school! But our teacher taught us almost nothing and just graded our papers after skimming through our work without saying much about the work we had submitted. Then in 1992, when I was hard up for money, a friend working in the World Bank said I could make some by translating government documents for them. This I did for more than a year. But I hated the work and gave it up. Once again, it was work that taught me nothing much and interested me only marginally. In other words, my initial ventures into translating once again did not really get me interested in translation.
I really became interested in doing translation in the mid-1990s when I started reading Jibanananda Das’s poems. They possessed me and I read them again and again. Without thinking about what I was doing, I began translating lines from his signature poem, “Banalata Sen” into English. Once I had started, I went on and on. After I had finished this poem, I took up another of his poems. I showed my work to a few people I was close to. Encouraged by what they said, I published them. Readers seemed to appreciate them as well. That encouraged me a lot. And that is how I really got interested in translating literary works. Looking back, I realize that there was something obsessive about my Jibanananda translations. But I guess I also wanted to come close to the poems and find out why they were so beautiful, haunting and overwhelming. You could certainly say this was translation as possession!
You are bringing out a book of translated Tagore songs in Bangladesh. How many songs have you picked and what was the basis of selection?
Yes, I hope to have a book of my translations of Rabindranath’s song-lyrics out in a few months’ time. I haven’t really counted, but I think I’ll have over 300 of them collected in the book.
What was the basis of my selections? Most important was my love of them. I listen to Rabindra Sangeet, that is to say, the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, every day without fail, unless I am travelling outside Bangladesh. Over the years, some songs by a few singers became so much a part of me that I began translating them. As was the case with my Jibanananda Das translations, you could say that translation was an act of homage as well as a way of coming really close to what you love. It strikes me also that many of the songs I ended up translating are by my favourite Tagore song singers — artistes like Debabrata Biswas and Kanika Bandhopadhyay for instance. Once again, translation as an act of possession!
As I contended in an essay I wrote some years ago which is now part of my collection, Once More into the Past, I grew up with Rabindranath’s songs, for my father loved them immensely. Whenever he was home and Rabindranath’s songs were being played on the radio, he would increase the volume so that we could all listen to them with him. My sisters learnt the songs formally from music teachers at home. I even accompanied one of my sisters on the tabla for a few years as she learnt Rabindra Sangeet or the songs of the poet. And the songs were very much part of the resistance movement against Pakistan — the nationalist movement that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The songs that I end up translating are very much influenced by my experience and love of them.
Recently in an article in Daily Star based on a lecture that you gave in Berkley, you quoted Tagore who had said : “Sometimes the meaning of a poem is better understood in a translation, not necessarily because it is more beautiful than the original, but as in the new setting the poem has to undergo a trial; it shines more brilliantly if it comes out triumphant.” What exactly did you mean by using this quotation? Would this be applicable to Tagore’s own songs?
I wanted actually to say that when we hear someone singing a song, it is the melody that primarily grips the listener; the lyrics tend to be secondary for most of us. The tune will stay in memory for a long time with the best songs; but their words won’t. At best, and unless you have an exceptional memory, you will remember only the opening lines after a while. But it is only when you translate a song that you can savour the way the composer has blended words with the music throughout to make an organic composition. The sound echoes the sense and the way the poet-musician strings words with music is what is most compelling. I think only the translator and the singer who has given thought to what the song is about can get to understand the song in its fullness and grasp the essence of the composer’s work. And just as a singer feels triumphant when she or he has captured the essence of the song through his or her rendering, the dedicated translator can get the satisfaction of catching a lot of what is intrinsically elusive through her or his work.
Of course, most of the music is inevitably lost in translation, but it is at least something if translators can come somewhat close to the original by making use of their auditory imaginations as well as their ability to interpret the words on the page. I had used as an epigraph to my Berkeley lecture the opening line of a Rabindranath song-lyric where the poet expresses his delight at catching “uncatchable loveliness in rhyme’s bids”; that is exactly how a translator feels when she or he has captured the essence of a Rabindranath song-lyric, although, and of course, I’m always aware that there is a lot lost —after all, the original composition’s melodic elements can’t be captured fully in translation. But if the best of the original can be approximated surely the translated poem will shine in a new context.
You have translated both Jibanananda Das and Tagore. What made you opt for two Brahmo poets?
First of all, and as far as I can tell, Jibanananda’s Brahmo family background has had little or no impact on his work. To me, he became more and more of a modernist with every passing decade of his life. With Rabindranath, however, his religious background is central to many phases and aspects of his creativity. Indeed, there was a period when he was completely immersed in Brahmo religious thinking and deeply influenced by its practices. But to me, also a student and admirer of Emerson and the Transcendentalists of mid-19th century America, this was something to contemplate and admire but it did not become a part of me except when I listened intensely. To present my position somewhat differently, though I am captivated by the religious poems of Rabindranath, the non-religious poems where Brahmo beliefs don’t matter are equally appealing to me. Rabindranath surely does not have to be restricted to his Brahmo origin and beliefs. I opted for poets affiliated to the Brahmo Samaj by birth or inclination, but they speak to me because of their poetic/lyric qualities and of feelings that go way beyond religion.
Did you find a lot of cultural difference while translating the above two poets as technically, they live on the other side of the border? Do you feel Bangladesh is culturally closer to West Bengal or Pakistan? Why?
You forget that Jibanananda spent most of his life in East Bengal. He spent only a few years in Kolkata. He did higher studies there for a few years and spent only the last decade of his life in the city. His Ruposhi Bangla poems are all about the flora and fauna of our part of the world. Indeed, has anyone represented our part of Bengal as feelingly as him? As for Rabindranath, let me remind you that coming to Shelaidaha and getting exposed to the Padma and the lush, green landscape of riverine Bengal was decisive for a lot of the poems, songs and short fiction he wrote. And of course, the bulk of the superb letters of Chinnopotra originate in East Bengal. Indeed, I have never felt that Rabindranath and Jibanananda are writers from the other side of the Bengal. I can’t resist saying to you in this context that the first time I went to Jorasanko during my second visit to Kolkata, once I got down from the taxi and asked people the exact location of the Tagore family home, I came across some who seemed not to be able to speak Bengali or could do so only using a non-Bengali accent! In Central Kolkata, you may even get the impression you are not in Bengal. And of course, we have a shared culture with West Bengal, the key here being not only language but also geography and proximity. The border is a divide, but only up to an extent!
Bangladesh uses Bengali a little differently from West Bengal. Would this be a true statement? Does that make translating from the other side of the border more difficult?
I don’t find this to be the case for educated people writing in Bengali. We may have different or distinctive accents, depending on the level of our education and the part of Bangladesh we are from, and a few words that we use of the language here and there may be unique and unfamiliar to people in West Bengal, but I have rarely found myself misunderstood or out of place when I speak to people in my visits to, let’s say, Kolkata or Santiniketan. This means that my use of Bengali is at best marginally different from a West Bengali’s use of the language.
How many dialects of Bengali are in use in Bangladesh? How is it there are so many dialects of Bengali?
The reason why we have so many dialects in Bangladesh, however, has to do with geography. We are a land of rivers and some of them are huge. It is almost always the case that in a big river like the Padma or Jamuna, people on either side have different dialects because of the physical separation. After all, in the past communication was difficult and economic exchanges were limited. In Sylhet and Chittagong, the hills have played their part in the formation of distinctive dialects. And in the heart of Dhaka, the Mughal heritage has meant that we have the distinctive Dhakaia dialect, uniquely favoured by Urdu/ Persian diction. In other words, there are all sorts of reasons why we have so many different dialects in Bangladesh. I don’t know exactly how many dialects, but the wiki entry lists seven.
What are the hurdles of translating from Bengali to English?
In my own case, the first hurdle is my limited Bengali vocabulary. When I was translating the late nineteenth-century Bengali novel, Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrow in my translation), I had to consult at least two Bengali-to-English dictionaries all the time as well as look for archaic/obsolete words in a Bengali-to-Bengali dictionary. When I am translating Rabindranath’s song-lyrics, quite often I come across words no longer used in everyday speech or even contemporary written prose that send me to the dictionary repeatedly. The problem is not only that these words are no longer in use but that before I took up translating Jibanananda, my exposure to the Bengali language was somewhat limited by an English medium education in an “O” level school in the Pakistani period where only “easy” Bengali was taught, and where literature was scanted except for the Sarat Chandra novels I mentioned earlier. Indeed, I sat for an “Easy” Bengali examination for my “O” levels. And as I indicated above, our teacher taught us almost nothing there.
The other hurdle, and this is true for all translators, is translating the musical elements of a song-lyric. Bengali is a language that to me is intrinsically melodious. Rhymes come naturally when you speak in Bengali and soft and musical cadences abound. It is more difficult to rhyme in English and if you try to do so consciously, you sound artificial, especially in our time when rhyme is no longer in fashion. And yet in translating song-lyrics from Bengali, one must retain at least some of the music. This, however, is an almost impossible task. Not poetry but it is melody that is lost in the translation of Bengali song-lyrics into English!
You had written an interesting piece on Shakespeare bringing in Tagore’s poem on Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare influence Tagore or have an impact on Bengali literature?
The influence is no doubt indirect. But we know that Rabindranath translated parts of the Macbeth at an early age. And it is well known that Shakespeare was very popular in the late nineteenth Kolkata where he grew up. The English Bard clearly had an impact on the stage then as we know from the translations done at that time. But any influence must have been indirect and limited. Tagore’s dramaturgy is completely different from that of Shakespeare.
You have translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, Oshampto Atmojibani (The Unfinished Memoirs). Can you please tell us a bit about it?
Sometime in late 2006, I was invited by a very good friend whose family is closely connected to that of the man we called Bangabandhu—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—to meet Sheikh Hasina, then the Leader of the Opposition, and for a long time now the Prime Minister of our country. She had obviously heard of my Jibanananda Das translations and knew perhaps as well that I was beginning to translate Rabindranath’s poems and song-lyrics. She wanted me to translate the work that we now know as Oshomapto Atnojibani from the manuscript left behind by Bangabandhu that she and others had managed to first retrieve and then copyedit. I was delighted at the opportunity and began work. But because she was imprisoned by the caretaker government that usurped power in Bangladesh, the work stopped for a while. I had received only part of the manuscript by then. In the end, work resumed after Sheikh Hasina settled down as our Prime Minister and resumed supervising the translation project. The translated book was eventually published in 2012. I should add that I subsequently translated two other manuscripts that were also rescued from oblivion by our present Prime Minister and her sister. These are The Prison Diaries (2019) and New China—1952 (2021). The Unfinished Memoirs was published jointly by UPL in Bangladesh, Penguin India and Oxford UP, Pakistan and has by now been translated into several other languages. The two other volumes have been published by Bangla Academy but have not yet reached the international market.
We had heard of Mujibur Rahman as a national hero of Pakistan when we were kids, right after the 1971 war. Did you meet Mujibur Rahman in person ever? What was the impact he had on you?
Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu’s older son, was my batch mate at the university of Dhaka. He was friendly, unassuming and full of life and ideas. Soon after we met in the campus in late 1969, he took me to his house on at least a couple of occasions, along with a few other friends. On one of these occasions, he introduced us to his father. On another occasion, when the election campaign that would soon lead to an overwhelming majority for his party was on, Sheikh Kamal took me and a few other friends one day to attend at least two public meetings where Bangabandhu would be speaking. I missed the most important public speech that he gave, which was on March 7, 1971 (I have, however, translated it and it is available in websites) but I was there to listen to his second most important speech, which is the one that he gave on his return to Bangladesh from a Pakistani prison on January 10.
Of course, he impacted me. In fact, he is unforgettable. He is for us not only “Bangabandhu” or the “friend of Bengal” but also “jatir pita” or “father of the nation”. If you are a Bangladeshi at heart, you will have to acknowledge him in that manner. The more you know about him, the more you will be overwhelmed by his love for Bangladesh and its people, his courage, indomitable spirit, and self-sacrifices.
Having worked intensively on Rahman’s autobiography, do you feel, looking at the course of history, the Partition based on religious differences was a necessity?
In retrospect, Partition was perhaps not necessary, but surely it was inevitable the way things had been going. I have written about this a bit elsewhere but let us remember that there were three partitions– “Bongobhongo” (the breaking of Bengal) — or the short-lived partition of Bengal in 1905; the partition of the subcontinent in 1947; and the parting of ways for us in East Pakistan from the people of West Pakistan in 1971. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it is also easy to see now that in 1905 most educated East Bengali Muslims welcomed a split that would give their backward region not only autonomy but also economic and political empowerment. This partition was of course revoked in 1911 but it did give East Bengali Muslims a feeling of the kind of empowerment they had been denied previously. The 1947 Partition looks decisive now, but that it was not the last word is testified by 1971, when Pakistan split into two and we departed permanently from Pakistan. I should add that I am totally secular and regret that religion-based politics has made a comeback all over the world. I keep hoping we will have something like the European Union in the subcontinent — where though there are borders, we can move freely and connect with each other easily —border or no border — whenever we want to — and travel with only an ID cards and/or our passports and sans visas.
While writing of the founding of Dhaka university, you wrote of the Muslims keeping away from institutions of higher learning in pre-Partition India. Why was that the case? Was it because they did not want to be part of the British babu syndrome or was it some other reason?
There are two things to keep in mind. The fall of the Mughals and Siraj ud-Daulah’s defeat meant that the Muslim aristocrats would no longer be in power. They also either fell out of favour with the British or were steadily deprived of the culturally rich/lavish lifestyles they had been used to. Upper class Hindus in and around Kolkata, however, not only came closer to the British but also embraced English education and prospered in every way. This meant that Muslims on the whole would be late to realize the benefits of higher education in English. It took a while for Bengali Muslims to realize that though they constituted the majority in East Bengal, they were in the minority as far as jobs and upward economic mobility were concerned and would stay that way unit they resorted to higher education.
You are an established critic too. I read something about an upcoming book of essays. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Actually, translation is only a part of what I do and it is something I came to only mid-way in my academic career. By training I am a literary critic. I specialized in 18th century British literature and the American Renaissance writers. Back home after graduate work in Canada in the mid-1980s I became a postcolonial critic. That led me to South Asian writing in English and eventually Jibanananda Das. I am saying all this because I initially published a book on Daniel Defoe and then one on Bharati Mukherjee. I edited a big book on South Asian writers in English for the Dictionary of Literary Biography series in 2006. And in 2007, I brought out a fairly substantial collection of postcolonial critical essays and reviews on south Asian writing in English titled Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English. The book of essays that you mentioned is another large collection of critical essays I have assembled on postcolonial and South Asian literature in English. I have titled it English, the Language of Power, and the Power of Language: Essays and Reviews. It should come out as soon as the pandemic is on its way out.
Bangladesh and West Bengal seem to share much in common, including the three great poets Tagore, Nazrul and Jibanananda. You have translated two of them. What about Nazrul? Any plans afoot to translate him?
Actually, I have translated at least a dozen Nazrul poems, a couple of songs and one short story. Perhaps I will translate a few more. But Rabindra Sangeet will always make me do more and more translations of his songs. And I do plan to go back to Jibanananda Das’s poems, since so many of them came out after I had published my selections of translations of his poems in 1999.
But as I end, let me say: “Thank you” and all good wishes for you and the journal.
Thank you very much for your time and your lovely responses.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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