Rowing Across Languages

Ten Bangla poems translated to English, on the occasion of World Translation Day
rowing across languages

Guest Author: Debmalya Bandyopadhyay

I have always shared an intricate relationship with language. Until a certain age, I had recognised Bangla as my own and only alphabet, having been taught to read and write in it from an early age. Almost all of the literature that I had consumed as a child was in Bangla. My continuous interaction with its tongue was only challenged in school, where we were expected to communicate, read, and write in English. I recall the effervescence of one of my very first fears – not having the words in a language to express myself. This anxiety had later morphed into a different form, when I had realised English was not something I could choose to ignore for my intellectual pursuits. Having read practically nothing beyond the school curriculum, that same fear had been revived. Only this time, it questioned whether I was enough of a person in English. Was I able to express myself, my thoughts, and feelings, beyond the requirements of examinations? This feeling of inadequacy had urged me to start reading more of English literature on my own, and to explore whether I could express and evoke just as much as I could in Bangla.

In The Republic, despite his criticism, Plato had ascertained – “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” Perhaps it is this close proximity to the objective truth that has always fascinated me and drawn me to poetry. I find it rather interesting how the same truth in a poem pervades readers in different ways, and, in turn, makes them feel something that is entirely their own. Poetry is therefore an excavation of these private feelings that each of us dabbles in, it is the air that inhabits these individual spaces of ours. Simultaneously, it is also a way of holding someone’s hand to say – No, you’re never alone.

Choosing to write was a decision that had found me, just as flame finds fuel, as a dream finds a child. Having been enamoured by a poem’s power of turning fact into fable, I was hungry for it. Initially, my vocabulary had only worn the garb of Bangla, and my writing had carried a distinct shade of everything I had read as a child. It took me quite a few years of reading on my own, to reach a point where I had found the confidence to express myself through English. It was while strolling on this corridor of a foreign language, that I had discovered myself as a translator. At that point, to quote Kamala Das, “I speak in three languages, write in two, dream in one.”

In interacting with these tongues that build and break me, I have come to believe that my identity as a translator, and as a writer, have always been quite cohesive. Writing involves the urge to put words behind a thought, to convey it as closely as possible to the way it is constructed in our mind. This itself is an act of translation; of finding words to represent a pre-verbal idea. That way, our subconscious state of mind is perhaps the first language that blossoms in us, the very first addition to our toolkit for life. On the other hand, when we translate a poem, we are always trying to find its epiphanies, its evocations, the warp and weft in its craft. Our job then is to express what we discover in it, include the creative touch that it breeds in us. This textual transformation provides it somewhat of a personal energy, which of course comes with its own risks and responsibilities, but also with the incredible joy of sharing a body of treasure. It teaches us to celebrate the living, breathing entity that language is.

The poems I have chosen to translate here are handpicked carefully from that archival room that I build out of love. They are some of the birds that have chosen to stay in me for years, refusing to flee into the sky of forgetting. How rewarding it has been to sit with them again, breathing in their small silences. Each composed by a masterful voice in the post-Tagore era of Bangla poetry, their readings have never failed to move me with imagery and metaphor, their nurture and illumination of ‘vital truths.’ Trying to transcribe their impact into English has therefore been an incredibly challenging and euphoric experience. As it usually goes with translations, in order to amplify the poet’s voice, I have taken some liberties in rearranging phrases and thoughts, played around with their form, spacing, and enjambments. As Octavio Paz had said, “A translated poem is another poem.” If the resultant output manages to convey to the readers at least a fragment of their intended impact, my feeble efforts would have triumphed.

Step into this room with me, dear reader, spend some time with some of the greatest Bangla poets, and my labour of love.

Postmen in Autumn’s Forest

Shakti Chattopadhyay

In autumn’s forest I’ve seen many a postman wander,
their grass-fed sacks swollen yellow like bellies of sheep
They have picked up letters old and new from the
forest’s floor, I watch how they keep pecking in secret
like a crane at fish, their craft
shrouded in such impossible mystery
it distinguishes them from our postmen – from whose hands
letters indulgent in love keep
losing their way

We keep moving away from each other
We keep moving away, greedy for letters
We receive many letters from far away
We are handing the postman our letters tinged with love
               having moved far from you
Getting more distant from ourselves, how we
risk spilling everything – our naivety, weaknesses, and desires

We can no longer see ourselves in the mirror, on the balcony
we keep floating upon afternoon’s solitude. This is how
we undress ourselves to be immersed alone in moonlight.
It has been a while since we had embraced,
a while since we had been kissed, or listened
to our own music, a while since we had discovered
the absurdity of children.
We keep floating to a forest older than all forests,
where rocks bear the leaves’ immortal tattoo on their chin
such an otherworld is what we converge into

In autumn’s forest I’ve seen many a postman wander,
their grass-fed yellow sacks swollen like bellies of sheep
They have picked up letters old and new from the forest floor
Only the letters have grown more distant
but the trees stand still.

(Hemanter Aranye Ami Postman – হেমন্তের অরণ্যে আমি পোস্টম্যান – Podyoshomogro, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Ananda Publishers)


Jibanananda Das

We survive another day – yet the scenes are always born:
Moheen’s horses graze on autumn’s moonwashed horizon;
like Stone Age beasts – still feeding, gluttonous
over the Earth’s queer dynamo.
On a crammed night the breeze carries their stable-smell;
straw drops on steel with its melancholy voiceover;
the takeaway’s cutlery shiver – like kittens, asleep
        in a bruised stray’s obscure hold;
time’s tranquil blows the paraffin lantern out
within the roundness of the stable;
grazing the horses’ hushed, neolithic moonlight.

(Ghora – ঘোড়া – Saat-ti Tarar Timir, Jibanananda Das)


Bhaskar Chakraborty

Everywhere, the evidence of love. Characters in stories and novels fall in love, and then they marry each other. There are so many clerks and officers in factories and offices, so many musicians and professors in music schools and colleges – love gleams in their faces, ricochets off their spectacles, buttons, and rings. This is my haunting: I can’t lift my hands and touch my dreams. I’ve been thinking of you all day. In a little seaside town – feather footed, whose children have you been playing with today? Whose shirt are you tugging at, now in bed? I’ve enjoyed this summer vacation with my sweat and dirt. And now, on this winter night – B.T. Road blanketed with silence in the distance – I’m completely idle. I don’t sleep, I don’t write, I keep remembering our ancient mornings and afternoons…

I keep carrying an unworldly trophy for you, day and night.

(Chhayapoth – ছায়াপথ – Kobita Shomogro, Bhaskar Chakraborty, Bhashabandhan)


Jahar Sen Majumdar

Are you saying something? Would you say something? Just now, sunset has
touched a butterfly’s death scene in the bamboo clump, everywhere the tinge

of a strange sleep, an aged madman sitting quietly upon Bengal’s quay
sheds snakeskin with a sickle and cries. The oldest emblem

ambles out of a broken Shiv temple, into the horizon. A giddy little
girl carrying rosary beads runs behind it, mumbling

something incoherent. Amidst all this, a plump tree weeps letters
of the Bangla alphabet, the Bangla new year irrigates the field’s

rusty aesthetic, its yellow memories. Are you saying something?
Would you like to say something? Everywhere is tinged

with the strangeness of this sleep, this slumber quilted
with clouds. Giddy little girl carrying your rosary beads,

          please don’t step inside this dream

(Krishijol – কৃষিজল – Amar Kobita, Jahar Sen Majumder, BookSpace)

Late Night’s Poem

Parthapratim Kanjilal

Lorries and motorcars drive past the bamboo clump
                                  towards the stars
The driver at the window finds the galaxy,

delayed smile;       the way one smiles when resigning
from a job spanning years. He remembers to fill his bottle;
a pond somewhere around.

Past the bamboo clump, lorries and motorcars drive
                                  towards the stars
whose shadows stagnate
over the pond’s still water.

(Onek Raater Kobita – অনেক রাতের কবিতা – Table, Durer Sondhya, Parthapratim Kanjilal, Chhnoya)

The Poem I Picked Up From the Street

Bhaskar Chakraborty

Three drops of rain now white on the evening’s wings
Boys and girls join discordant voices for a few songs.
A drunkard gets drenched on a November night
Fourteen years have passed; I haven’t killed myself.

I have to find the way to your house. I’ve often wondered.
Today, I see the curve of that street kissing a little bird’s beak.
I feel like throwing all my books away. Last night,
I dreamt you only loved me.

The radio is a toy box, come approach the broadcaster.
Keep flying in space, keep floating in the clouds, alone.
Ladies and gentlemen, a new announcement this week:
Cash or easy instalments, find love in a minute.

This morning I’m out to buy the City of Joy,
to buy day and night, to purchase thoughts, dispatch to Delhi.
Everything crumbles for an inch. If God wants to
gnash his teeth, daggers drawn, let him prepare.
I’m not turning back home.

(Je Kobita Ami Rasta Theke Kuriye Peyechilam – যে কবিতা আমি রাস্তা থেকে কুড়িয়ে পেয়েছিলাম – Kobita Shomogro, Bhaskar Chakraborty, Bhashabandhan)

Sleeping Giant

Nabarun Bhattacharya

The city has had dinner
The city isn’t hungry anymore
so its leftover – men, mothers and children
survive the night on the pavement.

The city is even out of desire,
so the prostitutes have gone to bed.
The city is no longer zealous, in fact
it is quite calm.
The city is asleep,
the city is asleep
guarding its wealth and greed,
the city sleeps.
Except for printing
lies for the news
everything else is quiet, even the city’s
pet police vans doze off
at their own stations.
A spell of petrol has showered
this is the time to guide
a raging fireball of meteor
to the city –
fast asleep.
Come, hold on to your matchsticks.

(Ghumonto Doityo – ঘুমন্ত দৈত্য – Ei Mrityu Upotyoka Amar Desh Na, Nabarun Bhattacharya)


Arupratan Ghosh

They return to find someone left
behind, locked up in a room, this night –

recalling some of our moans, all ancient
hunters have fallen asleep upon a bed
of cashew leaves older than the river.

Sometime then, the harbour lights are switched off
flowers drop from the sailors’ dreams
upon the facile quayside, the boats
maudlin like poppy, watching how men arrive
to touch the swollen waters, a tad forgetful
in the winters – year after

Beneath your tender wellspring –
as if an enchanted clerk.

(Shommohon – সম্মোহন – Ei Shohosrodhara, Arupratan Ghosh)

20th July, 1961

Binoy Majumdar

If you do not return, astronaut of boiling water –
do not mingle with vapour like the air,

that too is worth an experience; your absence felt
like a blue rose’s inexistence in a country

burning with blossoms; who knows, maybe
you are still gullible; there are many

strange truths – perhaps you elude me in the way
of the faint smell of my own hair, some full moons

an eclipse drives the light soft and inarticulate:
there’s no dearth of such strange truths.

(20 July, 1961 – ২০ জুলাই , ১৯৬১ – Phirey Esho Chaka, Binay Majumder, Kobi)


Jibanananda Das

This morning the world is filled
      with a soft, green, lemongrass light;
grass green and fragrant like raw pomelos
      where the deer sink their teeth –
I wish to drink that verdant lushness
      like glasses of wine,
to ravage its body – rub my eyes against its,
      feathers lost in grassy wings,
to be born as grass from within
      the grass-mother’s delicious darkness.

(Ghaash – ঘাস – Mahaprithibi, Jibanananda Das)

Debmalya Bandyopadhyay is a student of mathematics, poetry, and everything that the world offers in between. His poems and essays are upcoming or have appeared in The Hooghly Review, CounterClock, Anthropocene Poetry, Spacebar Magazine, Snowflake Magazine’s Queer Anthology, The Alipore Post, On Eating, and Subterranean Blue Poetry, among other literary journals and magazines. He pursues a PhD in Pure Mathematics at the University of Birmingham, UK. Read more from Debmalya on this blog, here.

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