Interview with Somrita Urni Ganguly

At ITA, the latest crop of mentees were announced for the Writers Centre Norwich's annual literary translation mentorships. Our publisher, Deborah Smith interviewed some of these up and coming translation stars, starting with Somrita Urni Ganguly.

What’s your connection to the language you’ll be translating from? Are there any other languages you know, or have even tried translating from?

I speak in four languages, read and write in three, think in two, dream in one and I claim the language that I dream in as my own. English is the language of my emotional make-up. I was born and bred in an ‘Anglo-Indian’ locality of Calcutta -- Ripon Street (and it is still Calcutta for me, not Kolkata; at least not in English). When we relocated to the North Calcutta, of rickety rickshaws, red-brick walls, treacherous trams and Bonedi Bangalis, later in life, I got branded as ‘too Anglicised’ by the custodians of Bengali culture. English was my first language in school, a Methodist school run by always-English-speaking, occasionally-Bible-reading teachers. I played with English speaking young Calcuttans, listened to Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, read Shakespeare and Austen, sat in Oxford Cha Bar as a pretentious dilettante, walked down the South Park Street cemetery as a flaneuse in search of Henry Derozio. It was the language of conversation at home with mum and dad. It was the language in which I wrote my first love-letter (still unsent), composed my first verse (still unpublished) and dreamt my first dream (still unrealised).

My parents, anticipating in some visionary way, my eventual relocation to the Hindi-speaking Capital of our country, as early as 1996, had decided to opt for Hindi as my second language in school. I complied. For a six year old, language was of importance to the extent that it could be used as a vehicle to express wants and crib complaints – “I want a chocolate pastry”; or “woh mera seb kha gayi”!

French has been an adult obsession for me – sometimes intense, sometimes neglected. I started learning French at Alliance to be able to pronounce the names of swanky French dishes in suave French restaurants correctly, so as to avoid the smirks of the trained servers. However, given that my ambitions in French were so humble to begin with, my knowledge today remains limited to vous vous appelez comment.

My engagement with Bangla has been fairly recent. By the time I joined University (in Delhi) my inadequacies in what should have been my mother-tongue had been pointed out to me on several occasions. I discovered Jibanananda Das, under the pressure of this cultural chauvinism, in my grandfather’s jaundiced library one day when I was twenty-one and immediately fell in love with the literature that I had been accused of neglecting for so long. Yet, I have been wary of the politics of assigning a language as someone’s ‘mother tongue’. Mother-tongue has a fairly straightforward definition – it is the language native to your mother. But the Truth is hardly so simple. My mother is from East Bengal, my father from West. They both speak in Bengali, but very different Bengalis. Which is the standard version, which the dialect? And what is my mother tongue? Bangla or Bangaal? What if a child is brought up by her father whose native tongue is not the same as her mother’s and the child embraces the father’s language? What if the family has lived away from their native land and the child adopts the langauage of the new clime?

I suppose I could say that Bengali is the mother-tongue that I arrived at belatedly, instead of being born into it.

Before translating from Bengali, I used to translate from Hindi: lyrics or short poems, mostly – Gulzaar and Harivansh Rai Bachchan, mostly.

What’s the appeal of literary translation, and how did you fall into it? What’s your path been like so far?

Professor GJV Prasad (who is now my PhD supervisor) offered us an extensive course when I was in the third semester of my MA programme – Translation: Theory and Practice. He gave us an exhaustive reading list: Walter Benjamin, Derrida, Lefevbre, Harish Trivedi, Mahashweta Sengupta, Tajaswini Niranjana, N Kamala, Sujit Mukherjee, and the other usual suspects. However, in class, before proceeding to the readings, he always dedicated an hour to discuss our translations. He reminded us daily that his course was not just about the theory of translation but also the praxis and that by the end of the course he would expect us to have built our own portfolios. None of us got that far in four months, I think, but it initiated me into the process of translation. I had read out my translation of Gulzar in class one day when Prof. Prasad told me in his characteristic matter-of-fact way, “Gulzar will be happy with your work. He is a very fastidious man. You should send him a copy of this.” I have not been able to chance on Gulzar’s mailing address yet. I have a cover letter on stand-by though, just in case!

For this course I undertook two projects: translating Kabir Das and translating Anjan Dutta. One was a fifteenth century Indian Bhakti saint, a prophet-poet, writing in a language that challenged the very idea of standardized Hindi and pure Sanskrit. His mystic philosophy is too myriad to be pinned down even today.

The other is a modern Bengali singer-songwriter, penning lyrics about the beauty of the everyday. My experience with these two vastly different writers helped me conclude that I thoroughly enjoyed translating. This was three years ago.

Besides, given my chequered history with Bengali, initially in my growing up years, I had read Bengali literature in translation. Reading Tagore in translation was blasphemy just as ‘reading Lolita in Tehran’ was sacrilege. This helped me realize the potential of literary translations. There is a time-tested tradition of using art for revolutionary purposes. Translation, by creating wider access for a text, not only gives it a fresh lease of life, but also multiplies its incipient, potential threat.

Recently, I was a participant at a workshop on translating disability literatures - ‘Translating Disability Across Cultures: The Translation and Representation of Disability in the Modern Indian Short Story’ organized by the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study (JNIAS), with the academic support of the International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies (IATIS), in association with Routledge. I translated two stories by Tagore for the workshop.

My translation-mentor, Arunava Sinha, and I have been discussing some writers who shake us out of our comfort zone – those dreams will have to be realized sooner than later

Do you have a favourite Bengali author whose work you’d love to translate? What kind of writing appeals to you? As well as your aesthetic preferences, are there any other social issues – gender, social class, etc – that would make you keen to translate a particular author?

The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, I have always felt, is less of an individual author, more of an experience that has enthralled the Indian imagination for generations. That is one author I would love to translate, despite the existence of preceding translations. Every translation, I think, is an act of rereading the text and there can never be one kosher translation. The author’s genius lies in creating enough space within the text that can accommodate these different readers and contain all these various versions. So, some day, I will perhaps add my own interpretations of Tagore through my translations.

I also dream of translating authors writing in English, that I have grown to love, to Bangla – perhaps Joyce’s Dubliners, or Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, or Bronte’s Wuthering Heights one day! To translate an idiom that is so rooted in a particular socio-cultural context would be a challenge; the real excitement would come from taking my readers to texts which have changed my life significantly, and to show them why.

I am a dreamer (and a socialist!). However, I do not really pick up a book with the intention of finding a gendered angle in the narrative, for instance, or a discourse on marginalities: racial, physical, social or sexual. The discovery of the politics is a journey, a process, not a destination that I plan to consciously arrive at. It is hard to explain why I like a particular story, just as it difficult to define what a good story is: something that I have been able to identify with, something that has talked to me over the years. If I were to translate something, I would do it for the love of the story – that alone; unless, of course, this translation is a part of a commissioned project that would require me to focus on certain issues. For example, I would like to contribute towards the building of an archive of Indian writings on disability. Presently, some of us are considering this project seriously. That would require me to identify, among other things, disability literature in India and translate some of this fiction to English and Hindi. This is a project with an agendum, so I shall be looking at texts with a specific motivation.

Aside from literary translation, what do you do?

I am presently a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies (CES), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi; and a Project Fellow with the University Grants Commission of India under their Special Assistance Programme at the CES, JNU. For my PhD thesis I’m looking at the representation of female athletic bodies in sports fiction.

1 ‘Bonedi’ is a Bengali word meaning aristocratic or affluent or someone with inherited wealth.
2 ‘Woh mera seb kha gayi’ is the Hindi for “She ate my apple”.
33 “What is your name”, in French.

 New talent, Somrita.

New talent, Somrita.

Somrita Urni Ganguly is a Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was selected for the Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme by the Writers' Centre Norwich in 2016 and is presently working with the award-winning translator Arunava Sinha on translating a novel-in-verse from Bangla to English. She writes fiction and falls in and out of love, habitually. You can follow her on Twitter @blessed_damsel

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