When one meets translator Arunava Sinha, the immediate impression is one of immense, restless energy. That impression is reflected in his vast body of work: a list of award-winning, internationally renowned translations, the tally of which currently stands at an astonishing 72.
When asked about his prolificacy, Sinha notes that he has found his identity “in the act of translating; it’s very immersive and it can bring so much joy”. Working from Bengali to English and vice versa, and across many genres – classic, modern and contemporary fiction and nonfiction – his latest works include among others, a translation of Bengali Writer Sankar’s memoir Eka Eka Ekashi into English as Dear Reader (January 2023, HarperCollins India).
Sinha is currently an associate professor of practice in the Creative Writing department at Ashoka University, and Co-Director, Ashoka Centre of Translation. Despite translating for decades, and running an academic programme on the same, he notes that his greatest challenge while translating is to be able “to persuade the reader to forget that the work they’re reading was first written in an entirely different language…The satisfaction comes when I feel like I have done so successfully,” he adds.
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In an interview with Lounge, Sinha talks about time itself as a workspace, the translators he looks up to, and why translation is a marathon. Edited excerpts.
Describe your current workspace to us.
My workspace is time! I need only that, and a device to write on – a laptop, iPad, or phone.
Has it always been this way or has this evolved since you started out?
By the time I started translating on what I call an industrial scale, we were already using laptops, so even then, it didn’t really matter where I was. I will say this though – the laptops have become much lighter and easier to handle!
Since time itself is your workspace, does the hour of day affect your working ambience?
I always work very early in the morning from a sofa in the living room, and late at night half-reclining on the bed! On the days I don’t teach or meet students, and early in the semester when there is no grading to be done, I work at the university. I also work a lot while travelling – on the metro, or on flights.
What are the few things that have always been with you when you work?
I always have the source text saved as a pdf, or sometimes I take photos of the pages. I also have the ‘Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary’ – if not physically, then its online version hosted by the University of Chicago. Also – a plug point! Very important for the devices!
If you were to create a physical workspace – what would it look like?
It would be somewhere very far away from hustle and bustle of urban construction spaces: a room with a large window, looking out onto maybe a garden, with clear, unpolluted air, and mild weather. There has to be a fast internet connection, and, miraculously, somewhere nearby a very good bookshop.
Describe your first book memory.
I started reading in Bangla before my fifth birthday. I remember loving Buddhadeva Bose’s kid’s stories. I was so taken with the stories I ended up convinced that a statue of the Buddha in the house I lived in was actually of Bose!
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Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had while translating.
There are no eureka moments when you’re translating! It’s a marathon. I work on two to three books at the same time so that when my energy flags with one of them, I can switch to another. Although you develop close relationships with every text that you translate, I particularly love working on books by authors who do unusual things with language. Some of them are Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Bani Basu, Anita Agnihotri, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Manoranjan Byapari and Buddhadeva Bose.
Who are the translators whose work you most admire and why?
Internationally, I love works by Gregory Rabassa, Anthea Bell (known for translating Kafka and the Asterix comics) and Ann Goldstein (known for translating Elena Ferrante). There are also Daniel Hahn and Katy Derbyshire. In India, there is Daisy Rockwell (who translated Gitanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize), J. Devika and Jayasree Kalathil who work with Malayalam, Jerry Pinto who translates from Marathi and N. Kalyan Raman, who works with Tamil. In Bangla, I love Meenakshi Mukherjee, who translated a book called The Virgin Fish of Babughat, and Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri’s translations of Sukumar Ray.
Is there a genre you love but can't or don't want to translate? Why?
Poetry. In my heart, I just know that I can only translate some poets, not all, and then only some particular poems by them. I can do most of Rabindranath Tagore’s later work written in the sparse Modernist style, but not so much the beautiful earlier lyrics. I would find a lot of Bishnu Dey, Buddhadeva Bose, Jibanananda Das and Kazi Nazrul Islam very difficult. Sometimes, you also mentally move on – when I first read Sunil Gangopadhyay’s ‘Neera’ poems (poems about a character called Neera who was his muse, translated by Sinha in a work published by HarperCollins in 2013), I was mentally in a space in which the poems’ effusiveness really resonated with me. But right now – I know I would feel very distant from them.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.
Rushati Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.