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Literature can travel with translation

Last updated: 18 July, 2009
Utpal Borpujari in New Delhi 23:55 IST

Over a Cuppa

He is a legend in Bengali literature, but only recently the non Bengali reader has learnt of his existence. Meet Mani Sankar Mukherjee, known in literary circles by his pen name Sankar. All along his “middle class Bengali arrogance” made him think that those who wanted to read him should first learn Bengali.

But now, thanks to Arunava Sinha, who has translated two of his most-celebrated novels into English – Chowringhee and Jana Aranya (The Middleman), both published by Penguin – Sankar’s literary genius is being discovered by the rest of the world. The second book, of course, is already a legend of sorts, thanks to its cinematic adaptation by Satyajit Ray (Ray called it his “bleakest” film ever). Ray also adapted his Seemabaddha into another equally-acclaimed film, while Chowringhee was made into a movie by Pinaki Bhushan Mukherjee. Sankar shares with Deccan Herald why it took him years to get translated, even though his books continue to be bestsellers in Bengal. Excerpts from the interview laced with typical Sankar–style humour:

Is it not too late in the day to reach out to the outside world when you have been writing in Bengali for so many years now?

Firstly, there is no time table as far as literature is concerned. And secondly, I think it has to do with my middle class Bengali arrogance, which made me believe that if anyone wants to read me, let them learn the language and then read. That is what I used to tell anyone who would approach me for translation of my writings.
I also recall a British era advertisement during Second World War saying such and such things are not available – non-availability creates and sustains demand, and I tried to be in the same category I think! I was lazy and never thought there was a scope, but now it has happened.

But even after Ray made two films based on your stories, wasn’t there any interest shown by anyone to translate your books into English, because the films travelled quite far?

Honestly I did not have much interest in this aspect. I am reminded of a story of Diptendu Kumar Sanyal, a Bengali editor who died very young. He read somewhere that some Bengali authors had got together to get Bengali literature translated, and said he would oppose it and would fast unto death if it happens. I met him once and asked him why was he opposing it. He said, I cannot allow mother Bengal to be humiliated, because if it is translated, the sahibs will immediately know which author had plagiarized whom!!! But jokes apart, I was not too keen on this aspect ever.

The Middleman was showcased in the recent London Book Fair too. What was your experience?

When I went to London, I was put up at a hotel on Cromwell Road. I found the name of the street familiar. When I came back I did some research, and found that it was in a lodge on the same Cromwell Road that Rabindranath Tagore had stayed when he had gone there to look for a publisher to his self-translated Gitanjali. My original writing had allowed me to travel only upto Asansol by train, but the English translation first took me to Delhi and then to London. That way I have seen how translations can make literature travel.

Do you think because of the global success of Indian Writing in English, there is an upsurge of interest in writing in various Indian languages also?


I have a feeling it has nothing to do with the brand of a language, as in general there is a search for interesting writing in all languages. English is so vast and its appetite is so huge that it needs large amount of material. But at the same time, all good literature is not translatable. It depends on the subject and its universal appeal. Chowringhee and The Middleman have that universality about them, as they reflect our society’s concerns which are alive even today. I think that is why they have been translated into English.

The subject of The Middleman still holds relevance. Do you someday plan to update this novel or write a sequel, setting it in the present times?


I don’t think so, though the idea is interesting. Sequels are never a good idea that is the reality. I think I am lucky that the subject is still alive, if not more alive. But just for the sake of it, I cannot do it. It is the story of a society in transition, not the story of a character, though it is told through the eyes of an individual. And the story ends with the fact that the conscience is still there, hope is still there.

Were you not approached by other filmmakers for film rights of your books, after Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya and Chowringhee?

I am not one of those writers who are enamoured by cinematic adaptations. I understand the differences between the two media and the limitations that come with it in cinematic adaptation of literary works. I somehow don’t get attracted by the idea that much despite all the glamour associated with it, and the attraction that more people are likely to know about you.

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