(ATTN EDITORS: This is the sixth in a 10-part “Translating India” series where 10 noted translators — in articles written exclusively for IANS — share their experiences of translating from their respective languages.)
By Maharghya Chakraborty
When you tell someone else’s story, where do you draw the line between your voice and theirs? When you tell someone else’s story, how do you maintain distance even in the very act of telling? Can a translator be entirely and completely non-partisan and still hope to do justice to a work whose very essence is rooted in acutely felt pain and anger? Can a man tell a woman’s story?
Of all the troubling questions and misgivings I can recall when talking about my experience of translating Taslima Nasreen’s “Nirbasan” to “Exile” none was perhaps more impactful than the last one. Considering the volatile social and political climate we have come to inhabit in the past couple of years across the world, this was also a particularly pertinent question. How can a cisgender male translator approach a woman’s narrative — that too a literary figure who has ironically come to represent our collective shame at not being able to take a stand when faced with coercion and intolerance — and not reproduce and perpetuate the systematic violence, literal and otherwise, that patriarchy has wrought on her by failing to tell her story like how she would like it to be told?
There is no way to skirt around the issue of gender because it is right there, front and centre, in Nasreen’s oeuvre. Her views on gender have drawn bouquets and brickbats alike — they reflect a life lived on one’s own terms in the face of numerous adversities just as they speak to the many conversations now emerging across the globe over issues of gender justice and equality. What must be noted here is that Nasreen’s work has never been more topical and urgent than it is now, deeply troubling as well, as exciting times that have made us confront long-perpetrated inequalities and injustices and attempt to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of gender both as a category of discourse and as a lived reality.
I cannot say what exactly translating “Exile” has managed to teach me; it has however forced me to confront privileges, many of them exclusively male, that one tends to take for granted in rarefied social spaces such as ours where one is encouraged to be “awoke” while at the same time judiciously steering clear of uncomfortable or unpleasant questions.
And then there is the anger. Nasreen’s anger does not manifest in complaints of unfair treatment against some absent metaphysical entity; instead, it is a roar of defiance against forces that seek to silence dissent. Because that is exactly what “Exile” is — an account of a life that has been defined by pain, betrayal and anger. Over the years the emotions may have dulled, but they have lost none of their edge, like an old throbbing ache that has become so familiar that it is nearly impossible to think of life without it. This anger cannot be faked; neither can it be accurately enumerated because, just like pain, it is deeply subjective and nearly impossible to quantify.
A large component of translating “Exile” had to do with walking this tightrope — to steer clear of sentimentality as much as possible and still maintain the honest essence of Nasreen’s emotions, forged as they are in the fires of persecution, and make them as tangible and palpable as they are in the Bengali original.
Taslima Nasreen is an unabashedly Bengali author in both thought and feeling. And yet, for well over two decades, she has been persona non grata not only in her native Bangladesh but also in the only other place she was ever truly comfortable — West Bengal. She was driven away from both places via numerous tricks and ruses and has never managed to find her way back. At a time when debates over freedom of speech and expression are being fought out in the public domain, much more so than when her books were being banned over various banal charges all those years back, “Exile” will hopefully be a step, however small, in helping her find her way back home.
(Maharghya Chakraborty is an up-and-coming Bengali writer and translator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)