Books by Ghulam Murshid



Translation Issues Arising From Lured By Hope, A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, by Ghulam Murshid, translated by Gopa Majumdar

Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Previous Segment: A General Review




I have to confess at the outset that I never look forward to reviewing a work translated from Bengali into English, because the simple pleasure of reading the book through as an outsider, without worrying too much about translation-related issues, is destroyed. When I sense problems, I inevitably sigh and get up, get the source text out, and begin to compare the translated text with the source text. My travails begin. It is an onerous and thankless task; one never makes friends with other people by pointing out their errors to them, and the people on whose work I must make my comments are usually people I know. It is the surest way to lose friends. Why do I swallow the bait and accept such assignments? Partly, I suppose, my own intellectual curiosity about the work-methods of colleagues - just to see how others approach their tasks and deal with the problems they face. There is also a flicker of hope, an act of ‘aspiration’ or drawing breath; I kind of take a deep breath and begin my task, hoping that my colleagues will receive my comments in a positive way, hoping that others might learn something from a discussion of details. There is, I guess, a little bit of the frustrated teacher in these attempts. Had I had the opportunity, I might have contributed something through classroom workshops, but I have seldom been asked to contribute in that way. I have no idea how the numerous Translation Studies departments that have sprung up in universities really operate; from academic gatherings I have attended, I realize that theory predominates, and actual practice is a Cinderella of the arts. Yet every human activity worth its salt needs both the structural support of some theoretical framework and the wisdom and patience of practice. Even gatherings that are termed ‘workshops’ turn out, more often than not, to be conferences, with an emphasis on the presentation of ‘papers’, not looking at anybody’s ‘work-in-progress’, which is what a workshop really needs to be, and how at least poetry workshops (of which I have a lot of experience) function. In Britain, where I live and work, theory is dominant even at the publication level: judging by the lists of prestigious publishers who specialize in the publication of scholarly works, it is easier to get out a fat book on translation theory than an actual piece of translated literature. A house that publishes books on theory may not touch the translated literary work with a barge-pole. I sense much power-politics and hypocrisy in all of this, for the theorists are invariably academics with some power in their hands, whereas the actual translators are more often struggling freelancers, so the entente cordiale between academics and publishers rolls on, while the cause of translation itself, the exchange of literary material between peoples of different language-groups, languishes behind. In this respect, it is refreshing to see that OUP India has published the English translation of a Bengali literary biography; it is high time the different linguistic traditions of the subcontinent paid heed not only to each other’s poetry, fiction, drama, and so on, but also, at the academic level, to each other’s critical discourses, because there must be some differences in their modalities. It would be too depressing if a uniform, globalized discourse, conducted in the medium of English, was the only broadcast that was heard in the pan-Indian arena. While it is fashionable in some circles to sneer at the ‘home-grown’ discourse, some of us, including Murshid and my humble self, take our critical work conducted in the medium of Bengali very seriously. In Bengali it has a long history. It is by means of taking our work seriously, and applying our best energies to it, that we can hope to affect the methodology of the younger scholars not only in the metropolises, but also in the more ‘provincial’ centres of learning. Many magazines do keep up a fine frenzy of critical activity. Some of the editors drive me crazy with their requests for more and more articles.... One may think that all that is another story, but really it is not. The very fact that a lengthy literary biography could be serialized in a weekly or fortnightly magazine tells us something; it is not something that happens in the part of the world from where I am writing this article. Those who do not habitually consult ‘home-grown’ discourses need to remember that they are entering a slightly different literary and cultural world, and entering a slightly different world is always rewarding: it always teaches us something.


With these words as a preamble, I shall offer my comments with humility and goodwill, hoping to be helpful and not a nuisance.


I shall begin by confessing that I am not altogether comfortable with the degree of abridgement which this book has undergone in its English incarnation: the 419 pages of the second Bengali edition have been reduced to 254 pages in the English edition. I am uneasy about what this curtailment implies in respect of the processing, presentation, and reception of information in the post-colonial context. The General Editor of the series explains the editorial objective in a note thus: ‘This book is one in what we hope will be a series of short biographies of men and women from the late nineteenth century to the present day, who have contributed in discrete ways towards building modern India. With a non-specialist readership in mind, the biographies will provide concise, authoritative introductions to the lives and works of individuals who have had the courage to pursue their own visions and vocations - in the process, often touching the lives of many others in a positive and substantial way.’ The problem is that Murshid’s original book was conceived and shaped within a very different paradigm. It is not a short, introductory kind of book at all. As a classic author from the nineteenth century, Michael did not need a preliminary introduction to Bengalis. His name was already known; lines from his poems were already familiar to most readers from their schooldays. What they needed was not a first course, but richer fare, something meaty and gutsy, full of vivid details and written with some gusto, which would appeal to both sets of readers, the specialists and the non-specialists. And that is what they got from Murshid: a lavishly documented, definitive biographical study of a much-loved literary figure, incorporating the results of extensive, painstaking researches, with a wide appeal, with much in it for the general public and at the same time rigorous enough to satisfy scholars.


Ms Majumdar explains that one of her problems as a translator ‘was simply related to the serialization of the entire text. When it came out as a book, the publishers did not find it necessary to have it pruned and edited. Some of it therefore remained repetitive. I did what I could do [to?] streamline and edit the narrative - but I am fully aware that perfection has not been achieved.’ I must say I am puzzled by these comments. First, Murshid himself did a thorough revision of his work after its first publication in book-form. The second edition of 1997 is a corrected and augmented version of the edition of 1995. Unnecessary repetitions were cut, but fresh additions were also made; as a result, the overall number of pages increased from 372 to 419 pages. Secondly, in Bengali magazines, just because a book is serialized, it does not necessarily mean that it has been written in instalments. I did not read Ashar Chhalane Bhuli when it was serialized; I read it only as a published book, between hard covers. As far as I know, the book was not written bit by bit for the express purpose of serialization: I do not think any author of a scholarly book works (or can work) that way. The MS was shown to Sagarmoy Ghosh, the editor of Desh, when it was virtually ready, and he decided to serialize it. Almost the same thing happened to my own first novel: in this case the entire novel, completed, was sent to the editor of Desh at his request, and he serialized it. So if Gopa has found parts of Murshid’s book to be repetitive, the problem cannot be laid at the door of serialization; it is more likely to be her personal reaction to the style of the book.


The original book is written in a chatty style which appeals to the general reader without taking away from its scholarship, but I wouldn’t say that it was so very repetitive that it needed to be ‘pruned and edited’ in a substantial way. Whatever pruning and editing were necessary were actually done by the author himself for the second edition, which is the text which was supplied to Gopa and from which she has translated, though, curiously, this bibliographic information is not given anywhere in the English book. Murshid looks before and after as the narrative progresses, making connections and cross-connections between his data all the time. He doesn’t just tell a story; he also analyzes his findings. He asks questions that arise from a consideration of his research findings; some of these can be answered; others cannot be answered so easily, so he provides intelligent surmises from a scrutiny of the data at hand. In line with the intellectual trends of our times, he underlines and makes explicit the process of inquiry itself, making the steps and connections manifest to the reader, explaining why we ask certain questions, how we go from point a to point b, how we resolve problems. Sure, this quality hasn’t been entirely lost in the translation, but I would say that it has diminished. The Bengali book has a wider ambit and a more leisurely, stream-like, meandering pace. Isn’t there more to a literary biography than ‘information’? Should the translator not make an attempt to capture the original writer’s style also - as far as is possible?


The translator’s interventions in the present text have been substantial. The two texts are not really parallel. Sentences have been recast, paragraphs reshaped, whole sections discarded. As already mentioned, the entire seventh chapter called ‘Samyojan’ has been discarded. Chapter Four, with its detailed discussion of the links between Michael’s life and his literary work - most valuable from a literary-biographical point of view - has been severely cut. Information that came later has sometimes been brought forward and vice versa. The notes of the two books do not correspond. A strange editorial feature of the English book is the two sets of notes, one set at the end, indicated by daggers in the text, and the other as footnotes on the main pages. I am not sure that this gives the right impression. In some ways the book is not so much a translation of the original text as an adaptation. Was that the intention? I am not an anti-adaptation fundamentalist, but would question the extent to which reshaping has been carried out in the present project. Too much playing around with someone else’s text can cause meanings to deviate, and that is what has happened in this book with a certain regularity. Attempts by the translator to ‘streamline and edit’ the text have resulted in fresh textual problems which weren’t there before.


Nothing, I am sure, is as irritating in a review as groundless criticism, so I need to give examples of what I mean. They were spotted not by comparing the two texts systematically, which of course I could not do (and did not set out to do), but because I simply began to notice certain internal problems as I read through the English text, and when sufficiently puzzled, checked the bits in question against the original text. As the two texts are not parallel, every such checking involved quite a bit of searching. All my references to the original text will be to the 1997 edition.


On p. 37 of the English book I read:


‘The first educated man from Bengal to visit England was Mirza Abu Talib Khan (1752-1806). He was sent to Europe by the Nawab of Murshidabad in 1799. He visited different countries in Europe and lived in England for three years. On his return to Bengal he wrote a book describing his experiences in those countries. The book was published in 1803 and later translated into a number of European languages including English, French, and German. However, among educated Bengalis, it was Rammohan Roy who was the first to set foot on British soil in 1830, followed by Dwarakanath Tagore in 1842...’


I noticed the inconsistency at once. How could Rammohan be the first educated Bengali to set foot on British soil if Mirza Abu Talib Khan had gone and done it before him? I then turned to the original text and found that Khan was mentioned there as the first educated Muslim to visit England, while Rammohan of course was a representative of the educated Hindu elite. I discovered that this portion in the English book was actually an expanded version of the original text, taking more information from the original end-note (but not all of it) and incorporating it into the main text. While the text has been changed, an inconsistency which wasn’t in the original text has inadvertently been introduced. Further, the extra information, such as about the translations, makes one wonder in which language Abu Talib had originally penned his book. In the original text, the whole matter is dealt with briefly and unobtrusively in parentheses (p. 50 of the 1997 edition). The translations are mentioned only in the end-note. Because the matter has been elaborated in the main body of the English text, with the mention of so many translations, the question immediately raises its head. Some readers of the English book might well assume that Abu Talib had written his book in Bengali. But the relevant end-note of Murshid’s text gives us the name of the book, which makes it clear that it was a book written in Persian. That is what one would expect, since Abu Talib was an emissary from a nawab’s court.


On p. 51 I was startled to read: ‘The voice of reason was, as yet, almost totally unheard among Hindus.’ I reckoned Murshid couldn’t have written a sentence containing such a sweeping statement. I turned to the original text; the sentence which is there (p. 68) is more like: ‘He [Michael] had also observed that as yet in that society [the Hindu society of his time] the messages of reason were in many respects not of much consequence.’ The original statement is more nuanced and balanced. It implies that the messages of reason were heard, but not heeded.


What I am trying to suggest is that if a translator’s focus moves away from the act of translation itself, towards ‘streamlining and editing’, things can go wrong, especially if the translator is translating not her own text, but another’s, something which she has not generated, nor inhabited for any length of time. On p. 53 of the English book, a sentence is quoted from a letter written by Michael to his friend Gourdas Basak in mid-April 1843: ‘I am not about to come and live with or rather near to my father.’ The context told me that there was something wrong, and when I turned to the original book (p. 70), I found that Michael had said the opposite, that he was planning to go and live with or near his father.


On p. 71 I was perplexed to read: ‘This city, at the time, was popularly called ‘benighted’ Madras.’ I was perplexed because it would have been a very odd sentence in a Bengali book. Bengalis have never thought of Madras as a ‘benighted’ city; why would they? That was an adjective favoured by white missionaries, surely. Searching for the corresponding Bengali fragment, I found it embedded in a longer sentence; Murshid does not say ‘popularly called’; he says something more like: ‘...a city referred to as ‘shrouded-in-darkness’ [tamasachchhanna] in the language of the Calcutta British [kolkatai ingrejder bhashay] of those days’ (p. 94). So ‘benighted’ is indeed a good translation of the original phrase, but in the phrase ‘popularly called’, the translator’s attention has slipped from her source text. This is what can easily happen if the translator gets too engrossed in reshaping sentences and curtailing paragraphs. Inadvertently, she has here adopted a colonial English point of view, when she should be conveying the original author’s Bengali point of view.


The urge to clip and streamline the text can even disturb the format of a quotation which is not being translated but simply copied. On p. 85 I was puzzled to read this sentence extracted from the Bengal Hurkaru: ‘We are not of those that think a poet must necessarily be poor and miserable; but we believe that a youth who pens a stanza when he should engross has only himself to blame if his pen neither brings him fame nor food.’ I realized that the word ‘engross’ was being used in a somewhat archaic way, but could not quite make sense of the whole sentence, so on turning to the original book, located the passage on p. 114. The quotation there was identical in respect of the words, but presented in a slightly different format. To draw attention to what has happened, I am italicizing the whole passage:


We are not of those that think a poet must necessarily be poor and miserable; but we believe that a youth


Who pens a stanza when he should engross


has only himself to blame if his pen neither brings him fame nor food.


That immediately clarified it. There is actually a quotation within a quotation; the word ‘Who’ begins with a capital letter and that particular line is indented. Changing the original layout has rendered the sentence opaque in the English book. Indeed, this could be the layout person’s error, not the translator’s, but the issues impinge on each other, and greater alertness in proofreading was required.


Just a few pages afterwards, I was puzzled to see Madras School being referred to twice as ‘the university’ (p. 89). Turning to the Bengali book, I found (on pp. 119-20) that Murshid had simply written ‘school’, ‘school-bhavan’ (referring to the building). So why had the word been changed? The mystery was explained on p. 100 of the English book: ‘... Madras High School, which was then called Madras University’, the equivalent of which can be found on p. 137 of the Bengali book. The Bengali book has no inconsistency; has the translator’s anxious focus on rewriting and reshaping brought about a certain inconsequentiality here?


On the same page 89 of the English book I noticed something else that was interesting to me. There is a paragraph there, quoted from the celebrated J. E. D. Bethune, but a paragraph immediately after it, which had also been quoted in the original book (in Murshid’s own Bengali translation, p. 120), has been omitted. Why? Because Bethune had said something uncomplimentary about Bengali literature, that as far as he was aware, even its best specimens were gross and obscene? But I think omitting the second paragraph simplifies the complexity that exists in the picture that Murshid has painted; it should not have been cut simply to reduce the size of the book. No one can deny what Bethune did for female education in Calcutta, but even he could have had a missionary-style, Macaulay-style, dismissive attitude towards writing in the native languages; the mixture of attitudes was very much a part of the times, and Murshid is very aware of this ambivalence. Cutting this bit flattens the third dimension of history.


A similar flattening can be seen on p. 90, where the translator writes ‘the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both written in Bengali’; ‘both written in Bengali’ sounds like a lame phrase which could not have been penned by a Bengali writer; the original phrase is more precise, more like ‘the Kashidasi Mahabharat and the Serampore edition of the Krittibasi Ramayan’ (p. 122).


A different example of stylistic change, but equally intriguing, occurs on p. 91. When I read the phrase ‘on 18 August 1849, Madhu’s first child - a daughter (Bertha Blanche) - was born’, I said to myself, ‘No, that doesn’t sound right! Murshid is well-known for his researches on feminist issues and would not have written anything smacking of political incorrectness; he would not have referred to the father only; he would have mentioned both the father and the mother.’ And fair enough, on p. 122 of the Bengali book I discovered a more exuberant and elaborate sentence, more like: ‘... exactly one year and eighteen days after the wedding, on Saturday 18 August, the second day of the lunar waxing phase, their [tander] first child, Bertha, was born.’ I have emphasized the plural pronoun. Was it really so very necessary to clip Murshid’s colourful style and in the same process substitute the single parent for the two parents clearly referred to in his original text? Anyone who knows Bengali writing knows how very important the lunar phases are in Bengali references to time; the reference to the precise lunar day indicates that Murshid has consulted the old almanacs; he knows what he is talking about, and like an inspired biographer truly tuned to his subject, he is writing very deliberately in the old Bengali style, to highlight this important moment in the life of his hero and his wife. Why make it duller and more matter-of-fact? Interestingly, Bertha’s second name is not given at this point in the original book. It comes a little later (p. 124), along with her third name, Kennet. Substantial reshaping of the text has moved this information to this point in the English book, while ‘Kennet’ is introduced in the third paragraph from here.


Am I nit-picking? I certainly do not wish to! I am trying to make a point - and I hope Gopa will pardon me for making it - about the danger of not maintaining one’s focus on the source text even when translating prose. If anything, it is the translation of poetry that forces a certain elasticity on the translator’s style, or, shall we say, allows it more latitude. To accommodate the sense and the sound, to bring over the rhythm or formal metrical qualities along with the original images, a certain amount of reworking may well be absolutely necessary. The translation of prose, unless it is for the express purpose of abridgement or adaptation (say, for children, or for the act of transfer from one genre to another, such as from a novel to a play or a screenplay) calls for a more rigorous approach to the contents of the source text. There are two ways in which deviation can be dangerous. First, the subtle shades of what a writer is trying to say may be encoded in the steps of his syntax, in the balancing of his clauses and phrases, and too much recasting can cause these nuances to fade, with nothing (such as the magic of sonic patterns in poetry) to compensate for this loss. Secondly, in the reordering of things, errors can be inadvertently introduced.


On pp. 117-18 of the English book, an interesting episode of Michael’s literary apprenticeship is recounted. Michael was trying to write his first play, and being diffident about his Bengali, had requested the well-known Sanskrit scholar Ramnarayan Tarkaratna to have a look at his MS, but while the budding playwright had only wanted to have his grammatical errors weeded out, the pundit had gone ahead and rewritten ‘virtually every sentence in his own style’. Annoyed, Michael confided to his friend Gourdas Basak: ‘I did not wish Ramnarayan to recast my sentences - most assuredly not. I only requested him to correct grammatical blunders, if any. You know that a man’s style is the reflection of his mind ....’ In Lured by Hope Gopa has effectively retold the story of Michael Mashusudan, earlier told by Murshid, in her own style and in an abbreviated form. The two books do not really correspond in the sense suggested by the term ‘translation’. While the translator has created a new text that is, on the whole, a pleasant enough read, yet I cannot but note that the practice has caused Murshid’s original style - with its Bengali-ness, its vivid ‘Murshidian’ individuality, its colours, chimes, cadences, undulations, quirks, indeed its East Bengal pizazz, for it is in some respects a little different from a Calcutta-bred author’s style - to be almost completely suppressed and overlaid with a uniform English style that is very much Gopa’s own. Whether this is, from the point of view of translation theory, an ideal enterprise in our times, in these days of heightened post-colonial consciousness, is open to debate.


On p. 102 I find a sentence where an error of English syntax has occurred: ‘He had come to know some of his colleagues quite well, and had known one of them - George White - was known to him since his time at the Orphan Asylum school.’ This defective sentence does not really correspond to a sentence in the Bengali book, but has been put together by editing 5-6 lines of the original text (p. 142). Has the effort to abbreviate induced this slip in any way? Could an idiomatic glitch on p. 66 - ‘better and superior than Hinduism’ instead of ‘better than and superior to Hinduism’ - be due to a similar cause, because there too there has been some reshaping of the original text (p. 87)? Of course, these could be simple errors, but I am reluctant to call them so. Gopa is a competent translator, and to call such things simple errors would insult her skills. I suspect that such errors have occurred because her attention has slipped from the act of translation and has been redirected to cutting and recasting. Curiously, they have eluded the gaze of the publisher’s editor too.


As regards George White, a paragraph of 19 lines has at this point been cut to 12 lines. The information that has been cut includes White’s Raipuram address, 29 Old Gaol Road, which could have been of interest to local historians in Madras, and some of White’s activities in the Orphan Asylum, his involvement in its meetings, the fact that in a meeting on 30 August 1848, he made a proposal, which was adopted, that he contributed one rupee a month to the Asylum, that he was also on the committee of another body for the welfare of widows and orphans in Madras. In other words, there was a profile of Henrietta’s father as a social activist here, which indicates why his character might have been attractive to the young and idealistic Michael, who might well have been in search of a father-substitute during his exile in Madras.


Continuing to look at p. 102 of the English text, we move on to a paragraph that discusses the difference between the serial remarriages of someone like Michael’s father to pubescent girls (in failed attempts to beget a successor for his estate after Michael’s defection from his ancestral religion), and the remarriage of Henrietta’s widowed father to a sixteen-year-old girl. There we come upon this clipped sentence: ‘It was impossible to find older unmarried girls among Hindus.’ But what the Bengali text really says is that ‘in Bengali society it was not possible for anybody except a Kulin Brahmin to marry a girl older than that’ (pp. 142-43). The detail about the Kulin Brahmin caste has been omitted in the English text. Why? It is an interesting bit of Bengali social history, an integral part of the historical backdrop of this narrative, is it not? It is clear to me that many of these decisions to cut have nothing to do with the ostensible objective of the editorial process: the avoidance of repetitions caused by the serialization of the original book. And the danger of playing around with the source text is made manifest in the very next paragraph, where it is asserted that Henrietta ‘could not get on with her stepmother, who was slightly older than her’ (pp. 102-03). As a matter of fact, Henrietta’s stepmother was slightly younger than Henrietta, as is made completely clear on pages 142 and 150 of the Bengali book: when the stepmother was sixteen, Henrietta was just 40 days short of her 17th birthday. Is this also an error caused by the translator’s attention slipping from the act of translation and being deflected towards cutting and reshaping the text? In my opinion, if the translator had been following the flow of the original sentences more faithfully, such slippages could have been avoided. Translating requires the utmost concentration on another person’s words. Try to edit those words at the same time, and you could invite trouble!


On p. 112 we hear about Michael’s attempt to get a job after his abrupt and precipitate return from Madras to Calcutta. He applied for the post of the headmaster in the Hooghly Normal School. ‘He was asked to take a written examination which, sadly, he failed.’ But failing an examination is not really what is implied in the Bengali text. There are two sentences in the original. The first one mentions that he had to take a written test (‘likhito pariksha’); the next sentence is: ‘Parikshay tini here jan’ (p. 155). The meaning of pariksha shifts slightly, as indicated by the verb here jaowa, which means ‘to be defeated’. It picks up its cue from the notion of the written test and converts it into the much larger notion of one of the struggles or challenges of life, in this case the struggle to grab a job. It is in this struggle, challenge, or ‘test’ of life, that Michael ‘was defeated’. If Gopa were to sit and ponder the point, she, I think, would have to agree that here jaowa is not a verb we use about failing an exam. For just failing a written examination we use phel kora or akritakaryo howa. The notion of here jaowa is used more in the context of bigger struggles: wars, elections, lawsuits, life’s major battles. Michael might not have ‘failed’ the written test in any gross sense. What Murshid is saying is that Michael just failed to get the job; it was not offered to him; it was offered to another contender for the job, Michael’s friend Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay. This, I would say, is a typical translator’s trap, falling into which causes the translator to lose the thread of what the original author is saying. Literary texts specialize in these traps, as meanings shift subtly and almost imperceptibly.


Curiously, the notion of failing has caused a problem in another spot in the English book. On p. 152 we hear that Michael’s ‘attempts to study law in India, and take the qualifying examination, had failed a number of times for various reasons’. Such a statement can give rise to the impression that Michael did actually sit this exam a number of times, and that each time he failed. However, if we turn to p. 227 of the Bengali book, we find out what really happened. The examination itself was cancelled for three consecutive years, so Michael never got a chance to take it in the first place. So ‘fail’ is the wrong verb to use here.


On p. 126 the word ‘fundamentalists’ gave me a jolt. I felt that it was inappropriate. This is not a word that is used in the context of the Bengali Hindus of the nineteenth century. Its adoption in the Indian media is very recent. What had Murshid written? I located the original word and found it to be rakshanshilder (p. 176), which is really closer to the notion of conservatism or orthodoxy.


Throughout my perusal of the English book, I kept wondering on what basis cuts in the text had been made. Were there clear criteria in the translator’s head, or were the decisions rough and ready? Some small, homely details have evidently been chopped. Thus the Bengali text mentions how after Michael had left Calcutta and disappeared into Madras, his distraught mother made up a small parcel and entrusted it to Gourdas, begging him to send it to his friend (p. 124). ‘What was in that bundle?’ - asks Murshid - ‘What might an ordinary Bengali mother of those days have sent to her child with whom her communication had been severed, who had become a Christian and hence an alien?’ When I had read this, my own mind had immediately and involuntarily started its speculations. Were the items clothes? Were they perhaps edible goodies, dry sweets or pickles that she reckoned would not spoil during a voyage from Madras to Calcutta? It is often by asking such simple questions, by tugging at our heart-strings, that a biographer establishes a connection, a human bond, between his subject and his readers. I have not found any reference to this parcel in the English book; I am sure it was regarded as too trivial and it easily slipped through a large hole in the net. But an example of a more deliberate omission which occurs on p. 136 has perplexed me. In a letter to his friend Rajnarayan Basu, dated 15 May 1860, Michael mentioned that he was mourning the loss of a relative of his wife’s, who had died ‘in England five months ago’. The English text comments: ‘It is not known which relative he was referring to. Perhaps Madhu did not wish to reveal every detail about his ‘wife’s’ family, in order to protect her...’ Fair enough. But a glance at the corresponding Bengali section (pp. 192-93) informs us who the dead relative was most likely to be. It is not impossible, comments Murshid, that Henrietta had lost a relative living in England, but there is good reason to believe that the departed relative alluded to here is none other than Henrietta’s father, George Giles White. Of course, he did not die in England, but in Madras. But that little white lie in the letter is probably to hide Henrietta’s real identity. The date of White’s death does fit the context, if not to a T, nevertheless quite admirably. White had died in Madras earlier that year, on 7 January. Personally speaking, I have no doubt in my mind that Murshid’s guess is correct. Someone writing a letter on 15 May 1860 may well refer to an event of 7 January 1860 as something that had happened ‘five months ago’. The fact is that White had also been a friend and colleague of Michael’s, which is why he must have felt the loss more keenly. I haven’t understood why this bit of information was excised. Surely, it is quite relevant to the picture, especially in a biographical work. White was, after all, a kind of common law father-in-law to Michael.


Earlier, I referred to a layout problem in a quotation from the Bengal Hurkaru. On pp. 138-39 there is an extract from Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, which does not quite correspond with the fuller extract presented in Bengali translation in the original book (pp. 198-99). The discrepancies have left me mystified. These cuts have nothing to do with the avowed aim of ridding the text of redundancies generated by its first publication in instalments. On the other hand, I notice that on p. 146 an addition has been made, both in the text and in the shape of an additional footnote right there on the page, which I cannot locate in the corresponding Bengali section (pp. 210-11). It is a reference to an opinion of Tagore’s about the relationship, or rather the lack of any relationship, between a poet’s life and his work. This reference may well be buried somewhere else in the Bengali text, but it certainly does not appear at that point, on pp. 210-11, which corresponds (roughly) to the English text of p. 146. Why was it inserted? It actually sticks out a little bit, especially as the quotation from Tagore - ‘Kabire pabe na tahar jiban-charite’ (‘You will not find the poet in his biography’) - is a tongue-in-cheek assertion that cries out for some more discussion. In contrast, the question of how Michael came to elevate Ravan (p. 147) in his Meghnadbadh Kavya is incomplete, in my humble opinion, without a little note pointing to Milton’s elevation of Satan in Paradise Lost. I had always understood that Milton’s Satan, the grand adversary of God, had been a model for Michael’s Ravan, the adversary of Ram, but I do not find any discussion of this issue in either Murshid’s Bengali text or Gopa’s English text.


One major problematic assertion in the English text is that Michael ‘suffered an identity crisis’ ‘only when he went to Europe later in his life’ (p. 147). This assertion does not tally with what Murshid says on p. 213 of his text. There he says clearly that though Michael’s thoughts about his identity were not the same throughout his life, he did suffer from some sort of identity crisis from his youth onwards. Europe merely ‘deepened’ the crisis and gave it ‘a new turn’. I fear that too much chopping and changing, and excessive straining to mould the new text into a streamlined form may have resulted in this anomaly in the English text.


Another derailment has occurred on p. 149. There is a reference here to two versions of a sonnet that Michael wrote: ‘Kavi-matribhasha’ (‘The Poet’s Mother Tongue’), which was revised and re-titled as ‘Bangabhasha’ (‘The Bengali Language’). The comment then offered is: ‘It has become one of the best known poems written in Bengali ...’, which is really Gopa’s sentence (I cannot find its equivalent in the original text), and which immediately begs the question, ‘Which one?’ There can be no doubt that it is the revised sonnet that is better known. However, it is the first version that is quoted immediately thereafter, indicating to me that there is some confusion in the translator’s mind about the issue. In the Bengali book there is no confusion. The two versions are discussed in more detail; the first version is quoted in full, and the first four lines and the last two lines of the second version are also given (pp. 216-17).


On p. 153, ‘... Satyendranath Tagore and Manomohan Ghosh left for England to return as ICS officers’ is a problematic statement as it stands, because while Satyen Tagore succeeded in his project, Ghosh did not: he had to change his course of study and returned as a barrister instead. So it would have been better to write: ‘.... left for England with the intention of returning as ICS officers’. Again, there is no problem in the original book, but the problem has arisen in the English text because of extensive rewriting and reordering of material.


Two other strange discrepancies between the two texts which I have noted are to do with figures. P. 154 of the English text states that prior to Michael’s departure for Europe, Mahadeb Chattopadhyay agreed to pay Michael ‘an annual rent of three thousand rupees’. However, p. 229 and p. 245 of the Bengali book indicate that the figure was Rs 2997 and eight annas. Why was it felt necessary to round it up in the English text? (En passant, I note that another omission at this point is the identity of the official leaseholder for the property: it was not Mahadeb, but his wife Mokshada Devi. It is surely an interesting social detail?) The other discrepancy is to do with the first instalment of money Michael received in France via Vidyasagar. The English book quotes Michael’s letter to Vidyasagar, dated 2 September 1864: ‘I received your letter and the fifteen thousand rupees you have sent me’ (p. 169). When I read this, I realized that something must be amiss, as fifteen thousand was a huge sum for those days, and also noticed that the sum did not tally with the figures given in the following paragraph detailing how much Michael’s debts were and what he did with this sum. I turned to the Bengali book and found the information that Michael received a letter and one and a half thousand rupees (‘der hajar taka’) from Vidyasagar, with which he could pay off most of his debts and still have some money in his hands (p. 260). Somehow ‘fifteen hundred’ must have got transmuted to ‘fifteen thousand’, even though the sums are given in words, not in figures (where just one zero can make all the difference between the possible and the impossible).


These little problems have really brought home to me how important it is for a translator to maintain his or her focus on the act of translation itself and not get distracted by the tasks of cutting and editing. All kinds of inconsistencies and errors can result in a sizeable task (like this one) if the translator’s attention is diverted. If cuts must be made, then it is better if someone else does it, and in the case of a research-based book, the author is perhaps the best person to do it. Only the scholar who has collected the data and lived inside his/her research world for several years knows instinctively which the important details and links are within that world. Someone coming from the outside may not be in a position to detect the errors as they arise from the snapping of essential internal links.


From the fourth chapter on, the abridgement becomes drastic. Yet the details in these chapters (the original ones) are valuable in the map, especially from a Bengali literary perspective. In his Foreword to the book, Dr William Radice says, in support of the general policy of abridgement adopted in this book: ‘Ms Majumdar has wisely not attempted to translate the Bengali text of the biography in every detail, since anyone requiring that level of documentation would be able to read it anyway.’ I see the point he is making, but nevertheless I would say that this is an attitude from the past. Times are changing around us, and our attitudes need to change. Within India itself, and also from an international perspective, the tendency to regard critical discourses in the modern Indian languages in a casual, utilitarian way - as peripheral, dispensable material about which it is not necessary to have detailed knowledge, in which only regional scholars will be interested, and no one else, whilst ‘mainstream’ scholars will continue to do their business as usual in English ­- is a legacy from colonial times and needs to change. Indian scholars need to make better maps of what is going on in the different Indian languages. And I don’t see why foreign scholars shouldn’t do the same. How can we join the international arena and change others’ perceptions of us if our entry in full form is forbidden at the gate? The sad fact is that a critical discourse in a language like Bengali will not even receive a perfunctory review in the English-language media of India, and as for the rest of the world, we might as well forget it. But such a book could contain material that is potentially interesting to scholars beyond its linguistic boundaries. (That is why, for instance, I decided to write a brief article here in Parabaas summarizing the research findings of Ronger Rabindranath, and it is interesting that the ICCR’s French outlet Rencontre avec L’Inde decided to translate the article into French.)


My point is this: if a biography such as this book does not deserve to be translated in its full form, then what hope is there that we can show others what our ‘vernacular discourses’ are like in full panoply, and how can we ever affect the course of events in the world of scholarship? How can we be equal partners in the international assembly of scholars? So from a post-colonial perspective, I would challenge the purely utilitarian arguments and say that there is a need to dispute the policy of the gatekeepers. When Claude Lévi-Strauss is translated into English, or Edward Said is translated into French or German, do they have to suffer arbitrary and ad hoc cuts?


With so much reordering of material, the translator-editor’s style has come to dominate Lured by Hope, and Murshid’s own prose style has been submerged. We hear so much of the ‘translator’s invisibility’ nowadays, but in this case it is the author who has become invisible. His sentence-structures, turns of phrase, similes and metaphors have not really survived, nor has his sense of humour. Where Murshid comments that the educated Bengali middle classes did not welcome the Sepoy Mutiny, regarding it as annoying as the plundering raid of Maratha horsemen in their well-ordered universe (‘shajano samsare borgir hamlar moto ekta upadrab’, p. 212), Gopa reduces the image to: ‘no one wanted the security and tranquillity of their lives destroyed’ (p. 147). How we look at such transformations depends on our attitude to literary translation itself. Should the translation of prose be the translation of the content only, something akin to bhabanubad or saranubad? Or should there be some attempt to give readers a flavour of the original author’s similes and metaphors also? In the context of the Indian subcontinent, another related (and in my view, important) question can be raised. Should we not try to retain some generic traits of the original linguistic-cultural discourse, in this case a Bengali discourse, with its characteristic pace, temper, world-view, wit, rhetoric, imagery and so on, or should we superimpose on the Bengali text a uniform style that goes with an English-language discourse?


It is the old dispute between fluency and resistance. Personally, I prefer a slightly hybrid air in a translated text, a mixture of fluency and resistance. I like the new text to be sparkling and idiomatic, but at the same time to display, from time to time, those tilts and twists which let us know that this text hasn’t sprung fully from the native soil of this language, that there is another cultural tradition germinating within it, working through it. I like the translator to offer some resistance, especially at crucial points, so that the new text’s dual heritage is made manifest. I would say that as a translator, Gopa has in this book shown a marked preference for what translation theorists call ‘domestication’, whereas I prefer to see occasional gleams of ‘alterity’ or ‘otherness’ in the new text. The editorial or production decision to banish pictorial material from the book accentuates the ‘domesticated’ feel. I think post-colonial intellectuals in India need to grapple with and celebrate the subcontinent’s diversity and not be in a reductive mode.


Before I take my leave, I shall just point to three little problems that have caught my eye in the translation of Michael’s well-known poem ‘Rekho, ma, dasere mone’, given on p. 156. In general, I haven’t scrutinized the verse extracts presented in this book, but this one drew my attention, perhaps because it is at the end of a chapter. From what Gopa says in her ‘Translator’s Note’, I assume that it is a rendering by Dr William Radice. In line 7 of the poem, Radice translates: ‘Do not grieve at that’. But ‘nahi khed tahe’ is not an imperative addressed to the motherland. The poet is speaking about himself; he is saying, ‘If I do happen to die abroad, I shall not regret it.’ In lines 9-10, Radice writes: ‘What water lasts forever, alas, in life’s/ River?’ But that is not the meaning of ‘chirasthir kabe neer, hay re, jiban-node?’ Michael is saying that in life’s river, the waters never stay still, they always flow on; and in so doing they run on to death. And finally, the end - ‘even wax/ Doesn’t melt, if dropped in a lake of nectar’ - does not capture the original image. I see no ground for interpreting makshika as wax. I interpret the last line of the Bengali poem (‘makshikao gole na go, porile amrita-hrade’) thus: ‘Even a fly doesn’t dissolve/disintegrate, if it falls in a lake of nectar.’ A fly is the very image of life’s transience; it is easily squashed to death, easily perishes; but even a fly can become immortal if it falls into a lake of amrita and absorbs the elixir of immortality. What are we supposed to imagine visually? Something like this, I believe: when it first falls, the poor fly thinks it will die for sure, but as it struggles and in the process absorbs the precious liquid, it begins to gather strength and knows that it will endure in some way. If the poet lives on in the memory of his motherland, that is his equivalent of immortality, and he is no longer afraid of mundane death, of physical dissolution.


All things said, I am very glad that the book has been translated, even if it has been abridged, and that there is a version now available for those who cannot read the original book. Translation, especially of a long prose work, is an arduous and perhaps thankless task. Gopa must have toiled many an hour over her task, and I hope she will forgive me for pointing to certain problematic areas in the work.

Published January 22, 2004

Ketaki Kushari Dyson [ketakI kushaarI Daaisan*] was born in Calcutta in 1940 and educated at Calcutta and Oxford. She has been based in England since ... (more)

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