When I was sixteen, I joined a flood-relief expedition organized by the Red Cross. In the north of what was then East Pakistan, the Jamuna – the local name for the Brahmaputra river – had flooded. With a government rest house in Sirajganj close to the riverbank as our base, we spent the week on a motor launch distributing food and medical supplies. We came across hundreds of people, some stranded on the roofs of their huts, others on patches of higher land. When we had arrived in Sirajganj, people had been stacking sandbags along the river. By the time we left, those makeshift embankments were gone and the river was edging closer to the rest house. We later learned that within days of our departure, the brick-and-cement building fell into the river.
That was my first encounter with river erosion, a regular feature of life in Bangladesh. Since the country is situated on a young delta, the rivers play a give-and-take game with millions of lives. In some places, the river eats away at the land while in others it creates new silt beds. From the stories you hear, it seems that much more is taken than given. On the streets of Dhaka when you ask people why they came to the city, many will tell you it was because the rivers took their homes. Four years ago when I visited relatives in the south of the country, people took me to the water’s edge and pointed to the middle of the river and said, that’s where our old house used to be, that’s where our grandparents are buried.
When I asked Ahmad Mostofa Kamal for a story to translate for a mini-feature in Words Without Borders on Bangla writing, he sent me four. Though longer than what I had asked for, he included the story Opekkha because it was a story dear to him. He said I could translate and cut it down according to my best judgment.
I’m the kind of translator who prefers to build relationships with authors. It was an interview of Kamal’s in the Dhaka daily Prothom Alo that had first introduced me to the reclusive and fascinating Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque. That led me to my most ambitious translation project: Haque’s novel Kalo Borof. I included translated excerpts of Kamal’s interview in the English translation of that book, Black Ice. We worked well together and I appreciated his trust in me.
Opekkha gave me a close up on how people’s lives are affected by river erosion. I have long been fascinated by water, and my own book Killing the Water included many stories about war and migration linked through the metaphor of water as the agency of escape, life, death, and reflection. I was also drawn to Opekkha because it is told in three voices. It opens from a collective point of view, that of the community of villagers, and then it proceeds to channel two individuals: in a first-person voice, a citified son of the house facing the river’s wrath, and from third-person, a villager who is about to lose the little good fortune he had found in life.
I felt the story would be reasonably easy to translate. Most words were familiar and the sentence structure not complex. There were some unfamiliar themes and I looked forward to learning something new. The main challenge would be to render the three voices with sufficient distinctiveness. That too did not turn out to be difficult. I believe I was successful in conveying the word choices and cadence of the sentences in each segment so that they appear in distinct registers.
While working on this project, I marveled at how the Internet has enhanced the tools at the disposal of the translator working from Bengali to English.
In the past I have mainly relied on print Bengali-English dictionaries and I have three now, two from West Bengal in India and one from Bangladesh. This time my first lookup often started with online dictionaries. There are three dictionaries (two Bengali and one Bengali-English) hosted at the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia, University of Chicago.
With a great deal of Bengali content online, the Internet also allows one to search for words and phrases in Bengali. Often a dictionary definition is not enough and examples of a word’s usage can help locate a better choice in English.
Online searches in Bengali are now much easier because of the prevalence of content in Bengali Unicode fonts and because Gmail’s Compose window allows one to transliterate Bengali words from Roman script into Bengali.
Opekkha had several allusions to the way many Bangladeshis practice Islam. It mentions pirs, angels, prophets, and the fear of the punishment of the grave. I worried some because I have limited knowledge of such things. Here too, the Internet came to my aid in exploring some of these mythical and religious allusions.
It was new to me that many people along the rivers believe that river erosion is the work of a prophet named Khizr. Web searches revealed that this personage (spelled variously as Khadir, Khidir, Khizr, etc.) is sometimes called a prophet, sometimes a saint, sometimes an immortal man. There are shrines to him in Samarkand and in the Indus delta in Pakistan. Nowhere could I find any reference to his role in river erosion but he seems to be universally connected to water. Indeed, in the past it seems that there is a tradition in Bengal of people praying to Khizr for safety while traveling on the rivers.
In the end, most of my effort went into cutting down the story. With the Bengali original over 5,000 words, my first rough draft was around 6,400. It took four drafts to reduce it to the final length of Waiting. I almost felt like the river in the story, cutting away at the story first in large chunks, and then in careful smaller bites. But unlike the river, I knew that there would be a point when I could not go any further without destabilizing the internal balance of the story. For sure I kept the heart of the story, but I was happy to preserve still more.