While I know we’re lucky enough to have a diverse readership, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of you were unfamiliar with quite a few of the languages featured in our International section. Or maybe I’m just projecting . . . which is quite possible, because as I leafed through Issue 42, I came across what was, to me, a beautiful jumble of script that would look great as a tattoo. The first (uneducated) guess I had was that this was Hindi script. Little did I know that what I was seeing was Bengali, or Bangla, the second-most spoken language in India, the official language of Bangladesh, and a language with an amazingly contentious and passionate history. Bengali is part of the Indo-European language family. This is the same (extremely) general branch that English falls into, so technically, Bengali and English have a common root. Below, though, you can see just how linguistically distant they are.
|Bengali and English indicated with green arrows|
This distance lends itself to untranslatable words and meanings like, for instance, the fact that there is no specific word for have in Bengali. Right. That means all of the following things we take for granted in English aren’t there for us in Bengali:
- To have your mother’s eyes
- To have and to hold
- To have or have not
- To have fun
- To have an ace up your sleeve
- To have no idea
- To have your cake and eat it, too
- To have a cold
- To have to go
And from there, you also can’t access any of the conjugations of have, i.e. has, had, etc. Well, how do you say things like that, then? There are definitely ways to express those general ideas, but as Westerners, we have (hah!) to be able to change the way we think about the world. Most languages spoken in the Western world are centered on the individual. As a society, we’re acutely individualistic. Everything we express—verbally or in writing—places us, as individuals, as the focus. From that point of view, we discuss the world in a sort of one-way dialogue. (When I first learned this as an undergrad, this was a sticking point for a while. How else could you view the world? I would wonder, as my linguistics prof skipped on to his next exciting point about berries being their own food group in Norway . . . ) Any time we say “I/you/we have,” we put ourselves as the center of action, and let whatever else we’re talking about play second fiddle as dependent on the fact that, first, there is—and must be—a you, I, we, etc. to affix the secondary object or person to. Contrast our me-me-me point of view with that of Bengali (and many other languages), which discusses the world through a complex, reciprocal pattern of interrelationships that has no concrete center, and that allows everything and everyone to interact on a level playing field, linguistically. A very dry, very basic way of explaining this is by understanding that generally, Bengali language structures itself something like this:
X is to me
with me is X
The fact that no one goes around saying “I have” suggests (and I’m guessing here) that there might also not be a verb for “to be.” I say this only because if you can’t say “I have,” it seems likely that you also wouldn’t express the English claim to existence, “I am,” which is the epitome of individual-centeredness. Ask Stephen Crane. He knows what I’m talking about. These are (obviously) enormous linguistic differences, but they don’t only tell us how linguistically different English and Bengali are, they also tell us how disparate these cultures and their worldviews are.*
So now imagine being an English-speaking translator and finding these amazing poems in Bengali that you really want to translate. Taking the cultural and linguistic differences into account . . . how do you get the author’s message across? Any translator will tell you that taking a piece of writing from one language to another involves more than your multilingual dictionary and the help of Google Translate.
|Opening stanzas: "Conjugal Prayer"|
From “Conjugal Prayer”
How can I live with a saint in perpetual meditation
who renounces everything at night
and goes off to some dream city?
In Hindu mythology, Ālaka is described as a fabulous, hidden Himalayan city—the city of wealth, and the City of the Blessed. This is where Kuvera, the god of wealth, reigns, and the city is described as having a golden lotus-lake, golden houses, and crystal palaces. It’s enclosed by a golden wall and is a place where every desire is indulged.
|Kuvera, god of wealth|
Ālaka is no one-hit wonder—it has a rich literary history. It’s a city of the gods, the setting of mythological stories that answer the questions why and where did we come from. In the end, Wright’s selection of dream city is probably for the best. As she explains, “The expression “dream city” [allows] readers of the translation to understand the poet’s intention here . . . ” By not weighing her selection down with culturally predetermined ideas of what each alternate city might suggest, she leaves the poem to speak for itself.
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To read poetry from Shamim Azad, as translated by Carolyne Wright, check out the International section of Issue 42.
Hear Azad’s poetry in the original Bengali, as she reads to the music of After Art Band:
Conjugal Prayer (mentions Ālaka)
Waiting for the Touch
I Want to Pierce with the Arrows of My Voice
*If you know more about this and can reign in my hypothesis, leave some info for us in comments!