The Burdens of Translation: Nawab Faizunnesa's Rupjalal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 24, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, June 24, 2017

The Burdens of Translation: Nawab Faizunnesa's Rupjalal

In 2003, while getting ready for my PhD oral examination on English women writers of the British Raj, I read Sonia Amin's The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal : 1876-1939. Amin wrote in her introduction that she had chosen 1876—the publication year of Rupjalal—to mark the beginning of women's history in colonial Bengal. My interest in Nawab Faizunnesa was instantly ignited. I tried to obtain a copy of Rupjalal during my visit to Bangladesh the next year, but found out in the process that finding a needle in the haystack would have been an easier task.

I went to see Mansur Musa, the then DG of Bangla Academy, and asked him for the copy reprinted by the Academy in 1976. Something in my approach convinced the honorable DG (maybe my inexperience, or my eagerness, but I am not sure which of the two!) to ask his people to look for the book. Two weeks later, I was told that no copy had been located. I approached the DG again, this time, requesting permission to search for it myself. He then gave me access to the restricted rare books section.  Two staff members helped me as I dived into the piles of books, some of which had been manually catalogued, and some of which had been stored chaotically. After hours of searching, one of the gentlemen handed me a book with termite-bitten pages—Faizunnesa's Rupjalal! I asked the DG for one last favor: a photocopy of the book. He granted me that wish too. Till this day, I am grateful to Professor Musa for believing in me.

I translated a few poems from the book and talked about them in my oral exam. My PhD committee members then asked me to translate the whole book. They wanted to read the book, they said, and expressed willingness to include it in their academic courses—on South Asian History, or Creative Writing, or Gender Studies, or Translation Studies—once published, of course. Rupjalal was published ultimately by Brill Publishers in 2008; most research libraries of the world obtained a copy of the book, and it  was made a part of their reading list for courses on South Asian Women's History or Literature. I have taught it myself in one of my Graduate courses in Gender Studies.

The task of publishing, nay translating such a book, may seem like an easy one. But, in truth, the task of a translator is never that simple. For me the most powerful writing is the one that can convey a complicated thought or concept in the most plain and simple language. Writing, or translation for that matter, has the maximum impact when it touches the reader without much effort. After all, Language is a medium of expression, not a hindrance. I somewhat agree with Gayatri Spivak, who says that the translator's surrender to the rhetoricity of the original text and her ability to speak of intimate matters in the language of the original retains the “literarity, textuality and sensuality of the writing,” and  helps her embrace the Other through the intimacy of cultural translation (The Politics of Translation, 43). I believe that translation is a two-fold process.  A translator translates for the Other (the original writer), and for the others (the readers). And as a translator, she must let the Other be. Instead of imposing too much of herself on the otherness of the original writers, she should always invite them in—as if to possess her. 

   Rupjalal is narrated partly in poetry and partly in prose. Both the plot structure and the narrative technique are influenced by the Mangalkabya tradition. It frequently alludes to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and exhibits a strong resemblance to The Arabian Nights. The poetry section follows the tradition of Bengali lyric poetry, which is then blended with the Muslim literary traditions of writing in mixed language.  Some verses are written in rhyming couplets (payar), some in four-lined rhyming verse (choupadi), and some, in three-lined verse (tripadi). The payar verses are end-rhymed while the tripadi verses are long couplets with two caesuras.  

Working with a text with such a complicated narrative pattern is an exhilarating challenge for any translator.   I took the challenge to recreate the poetic form in English as closely as possible, without tarnishing the lexical sense of the original text. At times I translated every word, or every line; at times, when the imagery or the expression was too complicated, I had to use more words or lines than Faizunnesa originally used in her text. 

My intent to analyse, historicize and translate was motivated by Faizunnesa's contribution to the field of women's writing in Bangladesh. Given the contemporary context, I also think that my translation may have saved Rupjalal from extinction.  After all, an English translation is more accessible and comprehensible than the original— written in an archaic Bengali language— dead, and almost forgotten.  But how can we forget our pioneers? How can we build a rich literary history of women's writing in Bangladesh if we forget to revive the foundation that was laid for us by our forerunners? I feel that I have been able to rectify history's neglect of Nawab Faizunnesa and hope that others will also take up projects to retrieve valuable texts written by women writers from disappearing from our shelves after termites had feasted on them .


The Ordeal of Rupbanu



4 The month of Sravan             pours monsoon rain

Darkness envelops whole nature.

The sky falls apart         and breaks my heart

Like rain drops, I tremble in fear.

At a time like this          where is he? Which

Paths does he tread? And what hurdles

Block his ways?!          I wish I could erase

All the dangers that lie in his path.


Bhadra is a dangerous           month. Ferocious

Tidal waves threaten rivers

My heart falters   as it sees no hope. Tears

Betray my eyes; what if he is

Trying to return?  What if this rain

Has caused a flood? How would he return?

And what if             his boat or his ship

Sinks in the deep ocean?

My heart sinks              in sorrow. Fate brings

Me nothing but loads of despair.

My lover suffers                  in a remote place

And for him, I suffer here.


Excerpt from Fayeza Hasanat's Nawab Faizunessa's Rupjalal Leiden: Brill, 2009. Fayeza teaches at the University of Central Florida, USA.

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