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Tete-a-Tete: Ranjita Biswas

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Ranjita Biswas, an Award winning Writer & Translator )

The Wise Owl talks to Ranjita Biswas, a journalist, author and translator based in Kolkata. Ms Biswas has won several awards for her translations from Assamese to English. Among her translated works, 'Written in Tears' won the Best Translation Prize in English from Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters, in 2017 and 'The Loneliness of Hira Barua' bagged the PFC Valley of Words Award in 2021 for best English translation. Biswas is also an award-winning writer of children’s fiction. Her 'Music of the Hills' has been translated into Spanish, Hindi and other regional languages. Among the non-fiction works, the author’s coffee table book, 'Brahmaputra and the Assam Valley' traces the socio-cultural life of Assam along the Brahmaputra River. She has also authored ‘Notes from a Spanish Diary,’ an interesting book of her travels that explores the aura and ambience of Spain. Besides, she is also an avid short-story writer. Ms Biswas contributes to national and international publications on gender issues, development, health, film, travel, and art and culture.  

Thank you, Ranjita, for talking to The Wise Owl.

RS: You wear many hats, Ranjita. You are a writer, a journalist and a translator. Which role is closest to your heart? Or let me put it differently, which role gives you the maximum satisfaction?

RB: Well, it’s almost like having to choose the dearest among three children. When I am writing short stories or children’s fiction, I don’t have to worry if I am being true to the original story or missing out on understanding the essence. I am in my own world happy weaving new patterns. As a journalist, when I see a potential story in a news item or current affair, my fingers itch to put the idea into words, thinking of whom to contact for quotes, where I can place the story. While translating, I am always looking for the right word, right expression, often changing the initial choice; it challenges me constantly, but I enjoy it. Lately, I must confess, I am spending more time on writing short fiction and translating fiction than on journalistic work.

RS: You have won awards for your translations of fiction from Assamese to English. Our readers would be eager to know how you were introduced to Assamese literature. What triggered the need to translate Assamese literature into English?

RB: I am Assamese; my early schooling was through the Assamese medium. Those days English medium schools in upper Assam were not that common.  My parents were voracious readers. I grew up reading books in Assamese, Bengali (both share the same script except for a few letters), and English.

In my teenage years I was introduced to Assamese short fiction, which was seeing a new wave, so to say, in the 60s. However, I didn’t see myself translating works from the language at that time. Later while living in Guwahati, a few litterateurs, like (late) Dr Nirmal Prova Bordoloi, observing my interest in Assam’s socio-cultural history, wondered if I could translate some of her non-fiction works. I found it very interesting and a learning process too. Then I translated fiction by front-runners of Assamese literature like, Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia (Fetters, Sahitya Akademi), Homen Borgohain (Pita-Putra, National Book Trust) etc., won the KATHA Award three times translating short stories, and eventually found myself getting deeper into the field.

RS: Translation of a literary work or even folk tales is a very challenging task essentially because it requires the translator to ensure that the essence of the original is not lost in the translation. Also, the syntax of regional languages is different from English. How did you overcome these challenges? (If I recollect correctly, you have called the process of translation ‘a tightrope walk.’)

RB: Yes, indeed, it’s a tightrope walk. Translation, after all, is an attempt to bring out the flavour of a writer’s imaginative creation. It entails a great deal of responsibility for the translator - not only to transform the text from one language to another faithfully but also to bring out the nuances, the ras or flavour, of the original, as far as possible.


In the Indian literature context, while translating into English (or in case of culturally different backgrounds across the world, surely), other challenges remain - how to explain terms of endearment, address form, etc., and weave them into the story without losing the flavour with too many bracketed explanations.  For instance, in Assamese, the word morom has so many connotations – it can be love between a man and a woman, it can be tenderness, love for a child, et al. In such cases, the translator has to explain skilfully the relationship contextually. 


In the case of folktales, it’s a different situation. Most of them originate in oral tradition with myths, social conditions of the time, and other influences. There is no copyright issue of course, but bringing out their essence into English from say, Assamese, needs manoeuvring. Then there is challenge of interpreting the stories in the modern context. This dilemma troubled me when I translated an age-old Assamese folk tale collection (yet to be published) recently. Though the stories were familiar to us from childhood, today, considering new thoughts on sensitiveness of young readers, some seemed pretty violent. The world over, there is a lot of debate going on currently among folklorists, writers, social historians as to whether folk tales as we know them – with surfeit of cruelty, violence, etc. should be watered down for today’s new generation. Some opine that children read them like fantasies and forget about them later and, in any case in later life they would be exposed to some of these social problems and to completely cocoon them in an ‘all-good’ world is not advisable. As for myself, balancing these considerations, I left out a few stories from this collection, explaining why I did so. Now it’s the editor’s call.


RS: A lot of sceptics believe that a translation cannot do justice to the original. What would you say to assuage the concern of such sceptics?

RB: First and foremost, I consider the expression ‘lost in translation’ more a cliché than a real issue today.  After all, all translations are ‘approximate.’ Without going into the endless debate on the subject, it is undeniable that translation is the only way, whether in a multilingual and multicultural country like India, or the diverse world, to get introduced to the literature of another region. It can transport us, even while ensconced in the home, to a new landscape, its people, lifestyle, cuisine, etc., not forgetting the human situation.


Without translation, could we get introduced to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or for that matter for non-Bengali readers, to works of Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, or for others, to the rich Hindi and Malayalam literature?


RS: I’m sure our readers and viewers would like to know how you prepare yourself when you begin a fresh translation project? Let me be more specific and ask you how you prepared for the translation of Arupa Patangia Kalita’s ‘Dawn’ (2004), ‘Written in Tears’ (2019) and ‘The Loneliness of Hira Barua’ (2020)?

RB: Firstly, I have to like a story or novel to want to translate it. I read it twice sometimes to feel the same interest.  I was introduced to Arupa’s stories through Assamese magazines from the 80s and soon realised that she was emerging as one of the most powerful voices in Assam’s contemporary literary scene.  Reading her evocative novel Ayananta, I instantly felt an urge to translate it. I contacted Kali for Women (Zubaan later) with the proposal knowing well their emphasis on feminist literature; it was promptly accepted. Titled Dawn it was later translated into Hindi too.

The focus of 'Written in Tears' is on Arupa’s stories and novellas that build around the turmoil that engulfed the Brahmaputra Valley from late 70s to the 80s extending to the 90s, commonly referred to as the andolan or Assam agitation. Its effect and aftermath created a vacuum and affected the society in many fronts. I lived in Assam during this period and was familiar with the issues and so could empathize with the author’s narration. This book won the Sahitya Akademi’s Best Translation in English (2007)

Arupa won the Sahitya Akademi Award (Assamese) for the collection, Hira Barua othoba Mariam Austin (The Loneliness of Hira Barua). By now we both have become comfortable with each other’s creative process, and she wondered if I could take it up. I enjoyed translating the book. It has won the PFC-Valley of Words Award (2021).


RS: Translation is now given the respect that is its due but even now some hold that an original writer has a greater claim to fame than a translator. You have rightly argued that a translator’s work is more of a ‘transcreation.’ Would you please enlarge upon that?

RB: Yes, these days many prefer the term ‘transcreation’ to establish the translator as a partner in the creative process. Understandably so. A bad translation can ruin a good book. Not for nothing that many major literary prizes today put original work and translated ones on par for the selection. Think of South Korean writer Han Kang, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for The Vegetarian sharing the prize money with translator   Deborah Smith.


Ultimately, a translator has to make his or her own decision how best to project a work, even though it might read a little different. Of course, liberty can be taken only when the translator is faithful to the context. These are crucial decisions for the translator and he or she is no less involved in the creative journey.


Fortunately, in India too, the creative genre of translation has come a long way since Sahitya Akademi launched its programme in the mid-50s to bring bhasha literature to readers through translations. Today, many prominent publishing houses in India have consciously taken up projects to bring regional literature to a wider readership. In the process, the ‘invisible’ person i.e., the translator, has also been able to step out of the shadows to earn well-deserved recognition. Remember, at one time the translator’s name didn’t even appear on the book cover!


RS: What according to you are the aspects or characteristics of Assamese contemporary literature that make it special, so much so that you feel the need to bring them before a wider readership?

RB: Assamese contemporary literature is one of the richest in India’s bhasha arena but due to fewer translations, it remains rather unexplored. Through their stories one can get the feel of the landscape, the customs, the cuisine along with the lifestyle of the common people. See how Arupa describes the feeling of a new bride while sitting next to the groom in ‘Arunima’s Motherland’ (Written in Tears): “She was swimming in that aroma like a Kandhuli fish jig-jagging in the pond - its white back taking on the afternoon glow of the sky. Like the fish coming up and down in the water and making designs of rings and bangles on it- she was swimming in that exquisite aroma.”


The good thing is that many new translations are coming up. For me personally, besides the love of words and the challenge, a desire to reach out to a wider readership and introduce them to the richness of Assamese literature has been a motivating force for continuing the work.


RS: Your non-fiction work mostly constitutes travelogues. What is it about travelogue writing that beckons you?

RB: From my young age my dream was to travel and see the world. By God’s grace I have travelled to more than 40 countries – to attend conferences, for workshops on issues I write on as a journalist, and some on my own to explore new lands. On return, I like to write about he places I had visited.

But rather than writing the travelogue as an ‘arrive, see, where to go’ kind of stories- there are guidebooks for that anyway, I like to dwell on the impressions gathered during the travels- of the people on the street, the cuisines that reflect a culture, folk traditions and the socio-cultural contours of the place while weaving in the narration. After all, travel is not just about visiting places and then posting the images on social media. It’s an exploration, a wanderlust that nudges to be satisfied. For my book Notes from a Spanish Diary on Spain, a country I love and have visited many times, I did extensive research as the groundwork. I also brought in India contextually, wherever it seemed relevant -like, while talking about Flamenco and about its roots in the subcontinent.

RS: You also write books for children. I’m sure our readers would like to know what attracts you to this genre.

RB: I write adventure stories for young adults. Today’s generation of young readers mostly read such stories located in foreign locales. Why not write stories located in our own country (many children’s fiction writers these days do that, of course). My stories are on the background of the Northeast, and have been published by the Children’s Book Trust, National Book Trust, Mango Books, etc.

When you write for children, you have to think like them in their age group. The language, the sense of wonder, all these have to be woven into the stories without being condescending. I enjoy that. I recall small incidents that happened in my adolescence and then expand them into fiction. In Music of the Hills (NBT) the theme is on biodiversity- how two sisters help capture smugglers of the indigenous orchids from Meghalaya which is banned under law. My memory about a so-called haunted house in our locality in Shillong starts off the story. It has been translated into multiple languages and also introduces readers to the ambience of the North-East state. Another story revolves around a poacher turned conservator of rhinos at the Kaziranga National Park. This story actually is built on a real-life figure I met on a visit to the famous park.

RS: Are you happy and satisfied with your creative journey? Is there anything you would do differently, if given a chance? I mean, is there ‘a road not taken’ for you?

RB: Writing a novel, actually, if you talk about a road not taken yet. I start out with an idea, the characters are there vaguely, but I can’t seem to go ahead after some time, for whatever reason. Maybe someday! But on the whole, I am quite happy with the trajectory of my writing career because I started quite late, after I brought up my two children.

RS: What advice would you give to translator wannabes or travelogue writers so as to help them hone their craft?

RB: I don’t know if it’s an ‘advice’ but with my long experience as a translator I can say that it’s a constant learning process. In contemporary fiction the language keeps evolving; new words, even from other regional languages, have been added to Assamese. Besides, I have also noticed the growing diversity of themes in Assamese contemporary literature since I started working in the field more than two decades ago. So one has to keep up with the trends by reading the latest works. This helped me to select the fourteen stories by a new generation of contemporary women writers which has just been published: The Areca Nut Tree and Other Stories. Incidentally, not one of them has insurgency or violence at the core but reflects on social issues.

Besides, it’s also important to keep in close touch with the original writer. It’s a two-way bridge after all.

In travelogue writing, I feel, you have to keep an open mind and enjoy the ambience of the place.  But a little bit of reading up beforehand on the destinations help. Personal touches with human interactions add to the enjoyment of savouring a travelogue. Hence, I enjoy, among others, reading travelogues by writers like Pico Iyer (Falling off the Map, etc), Mishi Saran (Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang), Vikram Seth (From Heaven Lake), Bill Bryson (for his piquant sense of humour combined with extensive information) and Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s works in Bengali.


RS: Are you working on a book or a project right now? When do we see it in the bookstores?

RB: I am translating a novel by a promising young Assamese writer. She writes in a simple language but there is a lot of depth in her observations about life. I really don’t know when it will see the light of day because I am doing it because she reached out personally with the request. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that some publisher will be interested.

RS: The new generation seems to be losing interest in the written word. Any suggestions to awaken their interest in reading?

RB: That is a general idea, but books are being published, and are bought and read, though it slowed down a bit during the pandemic. If books were read only by the older generation, so many books would not have been sold, I am sure. The way of reading may be changing, in Kindle versions, as e-books as preferred mediums for the new generation which is also being adopted by the older people too. In my city’s Kolkata Book Fair, arguably the biggest in the world as per footfalls, you see young people queuing up to buy books according to individual interests. Recently held after a two-year gap due to the Covid situation, the Fair was a resounding success toting up Rs 23 crore sales figure. So, I am optimistic.

This also reflects on the reading habit honed at home. Parents who encourage the reading habit in their children can expect to have readers at home. Libraries at schools, in the locality, and even mobile libraries in vans, can augment the love of words among the young generation. Mobile libraries, in India, incidentally, have received a great response in villages and semi-urban areas, particularly from children belonging to the economically disadvantaged section. It shows that the potential is there, we only have to tap it.

RS: In this day of globalization, music and films are heard and watched irrespective of the language of the composition or creation. Fora like Netflix showcase Korean, Russian, Scandinavian, Turkish films with subtitles making then understandable and accessible. Do you foresee this happening in the realm of books, in the near future?

RB: In the case of books, the translations are the ones readers go to; so there is no need for subtitles except for graphic novels where illustrations and text go together.

RS: Before I wind up, some rapid-fire questions. Who is your favourite contemporary writer of fiction? Any specific translator you hold in high esteem? Which book do you yearn to translate the most?

RB: There are many to pinpoint at a glance. I like works by Amitav Ghosh, Elena Ferrante (The Neapolitan Saga), in Bengali of Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Syed Mustafa Siraj, in Assamese of Arupa Patangia Kalita, Indira Goswami, etc. Then there are single books that stand out for me, like All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr set during the Second World War in France. Recently I read A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabella Allende and got a whole new perspective on modern Chile. Apeirogon, Colum McCann’s stunning novel, both in content and style, on a real life friendship between an Israeli man and a Palestinian, both of whom have lost  their daughters to internecine violence, is amazing.

In Bengali, I like translations by Jaya Mitra (Gypsy Nadir Dhara, on Ajeet Cour’s autobiography Khana Badosh), Arunava Sinha, Aruna Chakravarti, Pradip Acharya (Assamese) and a host of translators into English. Like when you read Elena Ferrante’s four-volume Neapolitan Saga you don’t feel you are reading a translation from Italian thanks to the translator Ann Goldstein.


Thank you so much Ms Biswas for talking to The Wise Owl. Kudos to you for choosing the challenging role of a translator. We wish you the best and hope that you bring more translations of good literature for lovers and connoisseurs of literature.  

RB: Thank you so for this opportunity to interact.