A Linguistic Examination of Twelve Stories | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 30, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 30, 2017

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A Linguistic Examination of Twelve Stories

Twelve Stories by Hasan Azizul Haq, Translator: Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, ISBN: 978-984-91722-4-6, Bengal Lights Books, 2015

As part of the Library of Bangladesh series, Dhaka Translation Center (DTC) has published a translation of twelve stories written by Hasan Azizul Haq, one of the most prolific writers of contemporary Bengali literature. The translator of Twelve Stories, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, is himself a writer who has authored a number of significant works in Bengali. His commitment to maintaining a balanced relation between the source language (i.e., Bangla) and the target language (i.e., English) can be felt throughout Twelve Stories.

Commitment to the specificity of the struggles of the people depicted in the original text and the determination to represent these struggles by maintaining what we may call linguistic fidelity to the source text are crucial in translating a politically committed author like Haq. If the translator concentrates only in satisfying the needs of the target language, the vibe created may dilute the complexity of the source text. Translators could, of course, address these issues regarding linguistic fidelity by providing adequate background information. This can sometimes be done through “introductions, footnotes, critical essays, glossaries, maps, and the like,” so that the provided information “acts as a running commentary on the translated work”.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay conveys the social reality depicted in Huq's story,  Patale Hashpatale (translated A Hell called Hospital), by keeping feudal honorific words like Huzoor and kinship terms like Chacha. But it has to be said that the word Chacha required a footnote since Chacha could be both paternal uncle and a way of adressing elderly people, and it  has to be contrasted with mama or maternal uncle in Bangladeshi contexts. 

That Haq is critical about the role of the reluctant educated class in Bangladesh in his fiction is portrayed in the following conversation on a news report about salary increases recently decided upon by the government in the story. The conversation can be seen taking place between a member of the silent masses and a subaltern in a hospital:

The man who had not spoken a word so far now remarked, “It will [government will raise salaries]”

“It will? Why?”

Because the government wants to silence the educated class.”

“As if the educated class ever speaks anyway! They have always kept their mouth shut…Don't give me the educated class bullshit, I've seen enough educated class in my lifetime.”

The alienation of the educated class is also explored by Haq in the story translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay as, “The Public Servant.” This story can be read too as an example of allegiance to authority maintained by public servants at all levels. This is an instance of what sociolinguists would call language ideology, that is to say, the belief that allegiance and servitude flow through one's veins and is reflected in speech utterances. In the source language Haq uses the phrase “murdha theke jononendriyo” which translated literally is, “from head to the pubis.” That this allegiance is craftily molded in the public servant's intelligence so that it streams from his head and moves ultimately towards the phallus is present in the source language. Because in the English translation this nuance is omitted, readers may fail to get the message that Haq has conveyed. Haq's ironic message is that a public servant is taught to serve the bureaucracy in such a way that he might even lose his sense of the self.  This is why the translator of his fiction needs to commit himself to the specificity of the political context of the utterance.

Another story of the collection, “Excavation” is about two journalists visiting a village to report on an irrigation project in which a canal is to be dug to connect it with a nearby river so that villagers could use it for irrigation. The locally appointed collaborator ensures the journalists that when the excavation is done, “The two barren fields on both banks of the river will be fertile once again.”  Another crucial issue emphasized is that “publicity should never stop…” that is why the journalists are there. Yet “in no circumstances do the people belonging to this [underprivileged] class benefit much – their situation, their position, their problems…everything remains unchanged.” The ones who are supposed to question the sickness of meaningless developmental projects and the unequal distribution of wealth, that is, journalists, may find themselves not being able to perform their professional task as has been expressed by the main protagonist Shahed himself: “Shut up!” roared Shahed. “Don't ever mention ethics and journalism and all that bullshit again…The entire country is going to the dogs and his highness is talking about ethical journalism!”

While depicting the socio-economic inequalities in Bangladesh, Haq is not indifferent to nature depicted as the backdrop against which his characters' struggle.s Powerful imageries are used in almost all the twelve stories translated for this purpose; often the characters and the nature mesh into one in their desire, frustration and angst. Take the story titled, In Search of Happiness which begins with: “How cool the shade over there must be! It's calling out to me.” The main protagonist of the story, Kunkum constantly “opened herself up to the mute world” and it would seem from outside that she “never” understood herself “fully.” She confesses that as she “watched a dragonfly rub its head with its leg,” she heard a “solitary crow”cawing and a “dove cooing. “A dry leaf floated from a tree to the ground. [And] the wind whistled through the trees.” Kunkum carries in her breasts this strange pain and a kind of je ne sais quoi feeling which can only be shared in immersing herself fully and nakedly in nature, by “finding bliss in letting go.”

Human ability to play 'evil' and 'brutal' have not been ignored by Haq either. The story, Vulture is an apt example. A group of boys playfully kills a vulture. Fatigued by their innocent but brutal playfulness, they return home “swaying and staggering, limping and tripping, exhausted and famished,” they “talked about the next day's plan.” That there is spontaneity even in such brutal acts by individuals has been addressed by Haq over and over again in his writing. 

Like any other original writer, Hasan Azizul Haq may appear untranslatable at the outset. He appears so, not because of his diction and style, but because of the very content that he deals with, i.e., the specificity of the struggle of the have-nots under an uneven economy like Bangladesh and also the specific crises suffered by individuals across societies. Those who look for 'comfort' in literary texts will also find Haq disturbing. In depicting a harsh reality without compromise, he pushes his readers to a revolutionary understanding of society. Hence translating him to the people in a different language would require a commitment to the struggle of the masses. The translator Bhaskar Chattopadhyay must have felt the challenge to the fullest, and it does appear that he tried his best to satisfy his readers to the best of his abilities in Twelve Stories.

Mahmud Hasan Khan is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

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