The arts editor of the Dhaka Tribune reports from the city's thriving annual literary festival, where writers and translators came together for a special launch of the latest Comma Press 'City in Fiction' anthology - The Book of Dhaka.
What better occasion could one have imagined for the launch of The Book of Dhaka – all the stories in which are set in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, each bringing out a unique aspect of the bustling city with high-rise buildings and sleek cars on one hand, and slums and the ubiquitous presence of rickshaws on the other? The perspectives in them differ, to the point of clashing at times, but they complement each other too. This is a Dhaka seen through the fictional lens of writers who have lived through the city’s ugliness as well as its sheer beauties.
It was 19 November, the closing day of the Dhaka Literary Festival 2016 at Bangla Academy in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As anticipated, the crowd was bigger and thicker around the KK Tea Stage a little before a quarter past four when the programme was scheduled to begin.
The last panel on the same stage, ‘Words under Seige’, saw Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek writer in exile, and Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal, among others, speaking about the overt state mechanisms and the covert ideological pressures through which voices of dissidence are silenced. Enthused students, readers and journalists were streaming out of the room where the stage was set, while new batches, mostly young, were going in.
As I walked towards the entrance of the room, I came across Arunava Sinha, one of the editors of The Book of Dhaka and a prolific translator of Bengali fiction and poetry. Before I could congratulate him properly, he took the stage with Kaiser Haq, a Bangladeshi-English language poet; Syed Manzoorul Islam, a famous bilingual fiction writer; Pushpita Alam, the other editor of the book; and Daniel Hahn, a British author and translator who moderated the session marking the launch.
Right from the beginning, Hahn brought a vibrant touch to the session and his witty quips created an ambience for a lively discussion. After a quick introduction of the speakers on stage and a short description of the book, he passed the mantle on to Kaiser Haq. An illustrious translator himself, Kaiser traced the somewhat sinuous route of what appeared as a remarkable instance of creative collaboration between writers’ organisations, publishers and quite a good number of creative individuals from Bangladesh, India and the UK.
Kazi Anis Ahmed, a fiction writer and co-director of the DLF, formed Bengal Lights Books and Dhaka Translation Centre (DTC) with the aim of giving a boost to English translation of Bengali fiction in Bangladesh. Haq became the director of DTC and the first translated book of the centre was launched at the 2013 Hay Festival Dhaka (now known as DLF), which was attended by Emma D’Costa of Commonwealth Writers. Emma then approached Haq and Khademul Islam, director of Bengal Lights Books, with the idea that they should collaborate on a workshop where the participants would dissect a story in the presence of the author.
Soon English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) came on board. The first workshop was conducted in 2014 by Arunava Sinha and the author selected for it was Shaheen Akhtar. Most importantly, the participants each were assigned to a story and the workshop the next year took the translators up with their assignments, working diligently to improve their craft. The much-needed funding and organisational support to hold the workshops in Dhaka were provided by English PEN and Commonwealth Writers, a cultural initiative of Commonwealth Foundation. That’s how, according to Haq, The Book of Dhaka was born.
Hahn soon moved on to Pushpita. Pushpita shared the pleasure and sheer excitement of the editing process, of how meticulously she and Arunava went over every line and how they debated over matters of style. In answer to Hahn’s question about annotating every story, some of them copiously so, Pushpita said, ‘If you translate certain expressions and phrases, you risk putting the cultural references out of context. So, it’s better to keep them unchanged and explain them in end notes.’
When it was emphasised by Hahn that this book was a translation project to train up translators from Bengali into English, Arunava chipped in with a comment that garnered much applause from the audience: ‘That certainly makes it one of the most unique books of translation in the world, I imagine … I think it’s fantastic for workshop participants to know that this work is actually going to be a part of a printed book so early in their career. It’s really a great incentive to carry on working, as you know, without money or real fame and glory, other than only for the love of it.’
Syed Manzoorul Islam reflected on his storytelling and self-reflexive narrator. A professor of English, he always borrows his stories from newspaper reports, or from his students. He then digs them out, he explained. His story, ‘Weapon’, selected in this collection, was borrowed from a student. His narrators, he went on to say, never claim to have represented reality as it is. The narrator in them rather makes it clear, by incessantly talking to readers, that he is no omniscient narrator and knows as much as is revealed to him.
Towards the end of the hour-long programme, the story writers were invited on stage. Only Shaheen Akhtar joined the panel and shared her excitement about the book. The other writers whose stories have been selected include Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Anwara Syed Haq, Parvez Hossain, Rashida Sultana and Wasi Ahmed.
The programme ended with a note of high hopes that such collaborative projects should continue to train up more of local translators and bring out the best of Bengali literature in English translation.
As someone closely involved in the ongoing campaign for promoting Bengali literature in the international arena, I found the launch a pure literary delight. This, I believe, is the first time a translated collection with such a wide range of literary collaboration came through, presenting us not only with a collection of wonderfully translated stories but also with an apt opportunity to reach readers in the west. Publishers bringing out English translations of Bengali literature have often failed to make their books available to readers of other languages, whether in the east or in the west. But this book stands to reason that collaborative efforts can actually make a difference and bridge the gap between cultures and languages, between the east and the west.