Lost and found in translation

… or, The Argumentative Old Git indulges in a bit of navel-gazing, and ends up with a long and rambling post

Today, I started reading When the Time is Right (Bengali title: Tithidore) by Buddhadeva Bose, translated into English by Arunava Sinha. Published in 1949, it is one of the most renowned of Bengali novels, written by one of the most prominent and gifted writers of the post-Tagore era, and I have long been meaning to read this.

Yes, I know, the obvious question: why not read it in the original Bengali? The answer to this, for anyone who has the patience to read through this long and dreary piece of autobiography, is complex.

I have not attended any Bengali class, or received any Bengali lesson, since the age of five. Five years and eight months, to be more precise. What Bengali I was taught in the year or so I attended school in India had to suffice. That wasn’t, admittedly, too bad: I knew by heart all those wonderful nonsense poems in the collection Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, and also many of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems for children. And even some poems not intended specifically for children: I could, I still remember, recite the entire Debatar Gras – a fairly long and complex poem by Rabindranath – by heart. And I understood it too – at least, I understood the story it told. Perhaps I had an aptitude for the language. I’ll never know.

Growing up in Britain, I spoke Bengali with my parents at home, and, at my father’s insistence, even read some simple Bengali books. But that soon petered out. I was attending a school not knowing the English language, and, if I was to be properly educated and find my place in this new land, I had to learn this strange language they all spoke. So out went the nonsense poems of Sukumar Ray, and in came the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. (l still prefer Sukumar Ray’s poems, by the way.) And, far less painlesslythan might be supposed, I took to my brave new world: soon, I was sharing adventures with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, or thrilling to Holmes and Watson facing the perils of the ghastly Hound of the Baskervilles. And then, on to Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare, and all the rest. I remember my grandfather telling me before my coming to Britain that I’d be learning “the language of Shakespeare”: that wasn’t quite the language I learnt at school, but I made do.

I took to Western popular culture too – partly through my schoolfriends, and also through the television set my parents had rented because they had thought it would help me with my English. First children’s programmes – Top Cat, Robin Hood (with Richard Greene), Crackerjack; soon, programmes for grown-ups – Dad’s Army, Sergeant Bilko, Morecambe and Wise – and even, once I was old enough, the now famous BBC dramatisation of The Forsyte Saga. Western pop music, which my parents so disliked, followed. I absorbed Western culture – specifically British culture, and, even more specifically, Scottish culture: I became a keen supporter of the Scotland football team, and was in tears when they were knocked out of the 1974 World Cup on goal difference. The English language was not my first language, but it soon usurped that position.

Of course, I continued to speak Bengali at home with my parents, but the vocabulary one uses with parents is naturally a bit limited. And I don’t mean merely in terms of not getting to know the rude words: I soon discovered that when I wanted to discuss anything of a serious nature – say, literary matters, or politics, or philosophy, or whatever – anything of moment, anything of significance – the limited vocabulary I used when speaking to my parents proved increasingly inadequate.

Things were even more complicated. The Bengali language, possibly uniquely, takes two quite different forms in writing and in speech. Of course, there are, and have been, many writers who have bridged the gap, but nonetheless, there are many words that are used regularly in writing, especially in writing on complex matters, that, in my experience at least, are rarely or ever used in everyday speech. Usually, an approximate but more commonly-used equivalent is found; or an English word is substituted, the incongruity between English vocabulary and Bengali syntax nowadays too commonplace even to be noticed. There are certain words that, even in writing, seem to be disappearing: every Bengali-speaker knows, for instance, what the word patsala means, but to use that word instead of its English equivalent “school” seems nowadays but a quaint affectation.

(I once used in conversation with people who were, unlike me, Bengali born and bred, a Bengali word I had discovered in my reading, and from the sea of blank faces I observed around me, it was obvious that the word I had used was unknown to them: I quickly substituted the English word, and the conversation then flowed again as normal.)

And so, as my grasp of English improved, I found myself far more articulate in my second language than I was in my first, to the extent, indeed, that I felt embarrassed to speak in the first, as what I wanted to express far exceeded what I was capable of expressing. I suppose this must have pained my parents – especially my father, who was very attached to Bengali literature and culture – but I think they accepted the inevitable.

Of course, it is a truism that teenagers turn against their parent’s values, but return to them later in life. And the problem with these truisms is that they are, quite often, true. Not that my “rebellion”, such as it was, was anything more than teenage posturing: I dearly loved the films of Satyajit Ray, after all, and found myself more deeply affected by Pather Panchali (and the rest of that trilogy) than by other film I had seen; and, much though I claimed to dislike Rabindrasangeet (the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, which, effectively, form the national music of Bengal), this music had formed the soundtrack to my childhood, and those tunes were more firmly lodged in my mind than I cared to acknowledge. So when, in middle age, I sat surrounded by the multi-volume edition of the works of Rabindranath and the invaluable Samsad Bengali-English dictionary, the journey back was neither as long nor as arduous as I had expected.

On reflection, “journey” is not a well-chosen image. When one journeys, the closer one gets to the destination, the further one is from the starting-point. But that was not so here. The western culture that I had absorbed throughout the greater part of my life – highbrow, lowbrow, everything in between, from the operas of Mozart to The Morecambe and Wise Show, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Hammer horror films, from visiting art galleries to boozing with my drinking cronies in pubs – I continue to regard as my culture, and for the best of reasons: not because I was born into it, but because, having lived with it and absorbed it, I happened to rather like it. And I find frankly rather offensive the suggestion I have heard from diverse sources that one’s cultural values are or should be determined by the accident of one’s birth. There is, as far as I am aware, no evidence whatever that cultural values are coded in our genes: usually, these values are simply those we have grown up with, and have thus become accustomed to. And sometimes, one finds oneself attracted to cultures one has neither been born into nor has lived with: whenever I revisit, for instance, the works of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov, or listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky or Stravinsky, I feel curiously at home. I cannot explain why I love all things Russian: I have never set foot in the country, and don’t even know the language. But there’s no accounting for these things. However, Bengali was still a language that I was close to, and it seemed madness not to try to get to know it a bit better.

As I tried to re-acquaint myself with the Bengali language, I found, rather to my surprise, that my pondering over each individual word with a dictionary proved a surprisingly effective way of reading poetry. Even when I read a poem in English, I focus in my first reading on the sounds and the rhythms of the piece: I treat it almost purely as music. Only then do I consider the meaning of the words – or, rather, the different levels of meaning of the words – and their various connotations. Only after pondering these matters for some time – often a very long time – do sound and sense begin to gel together, and communicate more than either could have done in isolation. (Sometimes, the sense fails to materialise adequately, and I satisfy myself with the sounds alone: this is true of much of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, whose works fascinate me despite frequently not making much sense.) So approaching the Rabindranath poems with my Samsad dictionary was not in the least a barrier to my appreciation, especially given the extraordinary musical qualities of these works. (My mother is sometimes surprised when I read some poem she considers difficult because of its excessively Sanskritic diction. But for me, the reed is as the oak, as it were.)

So now, I think I have gained a Bengali vocabulary that would have pleasantly surprised my late father. However, the words that I can understand on the printed page do not come to me at speed of conversation; and so, when talking, I do tend to revert to English. Although I still speak Bengali with my mother, as I always have done.

And similarly with reading prose narratives. I am still nowhere near as fluent in Bengali as I am in English, and I still do not have the confidence to embark on a Bengali book without my trusty Samsad dictionary at my side, as a sort of comfort blanket if nothing else. This means that I am quite happy with Bengali poetry, which requires close consideration of each word, but less happy with Bengali prose, where, in considering each word carefully, I lose the sense of pace and the momentum. I’m sure I could read the Buddhadeva Bose novel in the original if I tried, but it would require far more time than I currently have; and, in addition, I’d have to carry around with me a bulky dictionary. As I do most of my reading on the commuter train, this is not really a very attractive option.

So, the translation it is. And, admittedly a mere 20 or so pages into it, it seems a very fine translation. As well as enjoying what I am reading for its own sake, I am also having fun trying to guess at what was in the original Bengali. For instance, in the opening sentence, Rajen-babu is described as having “delicate” tastes. Could the word used in the original Bengali be soukheen, by any chance? If so, this is a very good translation of what really is a quite untranslatable word.

There are a few other words I can think of in Bengali that have no equivalent in English. One is naka: in Bengali, this is an adjective used to describe people who are irritatingly childish and affected in a manner that sets one’s teeth on edge, and the use of the word betokens contempt for whoever is so described. It is an apt description for, say, Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield, or for Madeleine Bassett in the Jeeves & Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse. And also for various people I have encountered in real life but whom, for obvious reasons, I will not name here. I have often wondered why there is no equivalent of this word in English. Is it because there is less naka-ness amongst English speaking people? Or is it that there’s less tolerance for this sort of thing amongst Bengalis? I guess we’ll never know.

The Bengali word I think I miss most in English is adda, and why this word doesn’t exist in English I do not know. Adda refers to people getting together primarily or solely for the joy of conversation. The English words “gossip” or “chat” don’t really cover this, for adda can be about anything – from light, trivial matters to profound discussions on politics or philosophy or even the very nature of our being: there are no limits to a good adda, and the pleasure of it is in the flow of convivial conversation. (I believe there is a Spanish word, tertulia, that approximates to adda. If there are any Spanish speakers reading this, please do feel free to correct me.) Now, I am what is known as an addabaj, i.e. someone who loves adda. Except, of course, I like holding adda in a pub, with the booze flowing freely, thus enjoying the best of all cultures.

Of course, no culture stands still, and India has been going through a period of accelerated change. People of my parents’ generation often find themselves shocked as they find that the culture to which they remain so attached is not only not to be found in their adopted country, but is disappearing also from the land they left behind. I do not, I confess, have my finger on the pulse in these matters, but it seems to me that the Buddhadeva Bose novel I am reading now, written in the late 40s, is describing a society that is already on the wane, and may well disappear entirely within my own lifetime. Even to me, it seems nothing short of surreal that those Rabindrasangeet, which in my youth had seemed excessively staid and demure, are now being performed by all-girl rock bands! Perhaps Bengali culture won’t disappear after all: it will merely be transformed, as all cultures are over time. But that is not up to me: that is up to people living in Bengal.


Well, that’s more than enough navel-gazing for one post. Sorry about the rambling nature of this one. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

7 responses to this post.

  1. In this case I would replace “navel-gazing” with “memoiristic” or something. It is a strong piece about multi-lingual reading. Your return to Bengali is a real achievement.

    I have found that even with my minimal and appalling French, and even German, I can approach certain poems in the original language in useful ways – sound, some hints of sense not present in English translations. But prose, a novel, no, hopeless.


    • I try not to get too autobiographical in these posts, but one can’t write about teh development of one’s literary tastes and perceptions without straying into that area.

      It is indeed interesting that while poetry tends to be more difficult than prose in languages one knows well, with languages one doesn’t know so well, it’s the other way round. I speak a sort of very broken, inarticulate French – or, rather, I keep quiet, and let my wife do the talking in French – but I was thinking of getting myself a dual language edition of Baudelaire and giving it a go.


  2. Posted by alan on May 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    “naka”: “twee” has some of the qualities of that, but is not quite the same, only slightly pejorative and doesn’t just apply to people.


  3. Another interesting post, Himadri. I especially like the comparisons of Bengali and English and the examples of Bengali words which are absent in English. It reminds me of a Danish flat-mate of mine from years ago who complained that there was no satisfactory equivalent in English of the Danish word “hygge”, which means to relax with friends in a pleasant atmosphere. It was one of the first times I realised how intimately expressive of custom and culture any language is, and that there is a blank in English here is itself revealing.

    I think one of the unlooked for benefits of learning almost any language with it’s alternative grammar and idioms is that it provides these new perspectives back onto your own language. My vantage points from both Latin and French are a bit wobbly, but I am still able to gain occasional views back on English that wouldn’t exist otherwise – its limitations and advantages, and its general character. I think it’s similar to how your own country appears to you after the first time you go abroad. I remember coming back from Paris as a teenager and noticing the layout of English pavements – I knew what they looked like before, of course, but my perspective on them had been enlarged, so that whereas before they were just pavements, now they were pavements laid out in the English way.



    • It is indeed curious that certain languages have words and expressions not available to other languages. And as you say, this indeed reflects a cultural difference. But what is equally curious, I think, is that when such a word is explained to people who do not have it in their own language, they have no difficulty understanding what that word means.

      I am a very poor linguist, I’m afraid, and I think I will make an effort now to learn French properly (I know it a bit, but it’s more than a little wobbly!) My problem is that I get too impatient, and want to read the good stuff right away! I have to accept that I’ll have to go through an awful lot of drudgery before i can learn Flaubert. And I’m sure you’re right – that knowing French, I’ll have a new perspective on English. It’s certainly worth a go!


      • Posted by Jim on August 30, 2013 at 10:24 am


        For getting oneself quickly to the stage of reading French with reasonable fluency I would heartily recommend “French Grammar in Context” by Margaret Jubb and Annie Rouxeville, followed by a couple of Dover’s Dual-Language Books. The Dover series includes “Les Fleurs du Mal” but “Candide” is probably the best starting point.

        I wish I’d realised forty years earlier that reading other European languages is perfectly possible for those of us lacking that special aptitude for languages I’ve always envied in others. Anyone who reads a lot knows how to use contextual clues to extract meaning from a text with great efficiency. And when reading in a foreign language one rapidly and painlessly acquires new, albeit largely passive, vocabulary along the way. Which at least helps with deciphering train timetables.


      • Thanks for the tip! That’s probably just what I need! All that “Bonjour madame” and “quelle heure est il?” you have to wade through to get to the interesting stuff really is pretty tiresome … I’m not entirely ignorant of French: i just need to expand my vocabulary a bit and brush up on my grammar, so your recommendations sound exactly like the sort of thing I need. And a dual-language “Candide” sounds ike great fun!

        Cheers, Himadri

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