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The Bard in Bengali: Sampling the Sonnets

Dattatreya Dutt sheds light on the creative process of translating Shakespeare's sonnets into Bengali.

Dattatreya Dutt
Bengali translations
A selection of Bengali translations held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library

The greatest pleasure of translating Shakespeare’s sonnets (and especially the songs) is the haven of near-certainty that I reach when it is over. With blank verse, and particularly with the prose dialogues, I feel embarrassingly burdened with my freedom. Possible alternate expressions surface ceaselessly, clamour for interviews, wheedle a post out of me, and finally place me in worrisome doubts about the wisdom of the employment. For the poems, however, I can put up a ‘Restricted Area’ signpost ― with the Prosodic Police to back me up. 

Bengal has been astonishingly rich in Shakespeare translation. At least a hundred and sixty-five translations (including some thirty-five adaptations) of his works (all the plays plus the longer poems) have been traced till date. His sonnets, however, have not been translated in their entirety. The best-as-yet body of translations, by the gigantically talented poet Sudhindranath Dutt, number only twenty-four, which took him twenty-four years (1930-54) to polish and perfect. His was the major body of sonnet translations; others mostly have had a go at individual sonnets. 

Sudhindranath’s propensity for using Sanskrit-based words (he was a polyglot polymath, and expected his readers to measure up to him) often detracted from the lucidity that usually characterizes Shakespeare. At his simplest, however, Sudhindranath produced some translations which are still unsurpassed:

Sampling the sonnets-1

Wise ones (like me) try to steer clear of the sonnets covered by  Sudhindranath Dutt. Yet translations, however powerful, have to be replaced every so often. Stupendous though the genius of Sudhindranath was, modern Bengali ― the language, and the ethos itself ― has since moved towards a more limpid style of expression, sweeping my personal preferences along with it: 

Sampling the sonnets-2

The above translations (mine) adopt a colloquial tone because Shakespeare has captivated me as a playwright: a person speaking to another through a persona: a dialogue-writer who just could not resist poetry. But these versions too will work only for today, and the ‘ultimate translation’ will ever elude us. Translations demand supersession ― else they become museum pieces labelled ‘Do Not Touch the Artefacts.’ This is because expressions in every target language must sound natural, and ‘natural’ expressions are eternally on the anvil. So this dialectical struggle ― between the intended and the expressible, between the had-been and the should-have-been ― will continue.

I am afraid translation is a highly creative process that involves the personality of the translator. A single poem impresses two translators in two different ways; and accordingly they carry the personal imprint of the translator, involving his individual temperament, sensitivity and seriousness. I’ll make my point with some parallel Bengali translations of the popular Sonnet No. 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

The first, by Sudhindranath, evinces his classically rich and weighty style that demands a high degree of erudite aesthesia from his reader. We note that he has attached a title to the sonnet: Phalguni ― meaning ’One (i.e. Arjuna) born in Phalgun (the first month of the Spring)’, and symbolically is Spring embodied. Further, that ‘Summer’s Day’ has been changed to ‘Spring Day’ at the onset because Summer is acutely oppressive (even a killer) in India, and carries traditional values radically distinct from what it carries in England. Consequently, at line 9, ‘eternal summer’ has here become ‘unageing Phalguni.’ Once you adjust to his Miltonic grandeur, Sudhindranath’s versions appear more as independent sonnets based wholly on Shakespeare’s thoughts, images, rhetoric, and prosody. They also reflect the spirit of an age when Shakespeare was the grave ‘Bard of Avon’: the paradigmatic ‘Classic’: the ‘ultimate classroom text.’

Sampling the sonnets-3

Contrast this emotional intensity and prosodic fidelity with the utter callosity of approach in the following “thematic translation“ by Sakisabre Saki, circulating on the Web [], which dismisses the possibility that Shakespeare just might have been a poet, or that the Sonnet is a formal composition with a predtermined prosodic order. Moreover, given the translator’s unfamiliarity with both English and Bengali, one can even guess the person’s nationality: 

Sampling the sonnets-4

Compare this again with the next one by Shibendu Chakraborty ― a time-bound task executed in one of our Shakespeare Society translation workshops. This one, clearly not the model translation, still shows how much of Shakespeare can be transmitted through Bengali simply by attending to the sequence of images and flow of meaning (although Prof. Chakraborty has adopted the matrabŗtta ― a Bengali metre much lighter than the English iambic):

Sampling the sonnets-5

The Elizabethan poets considered themselves master versifiers: primarily versewrights taking pride in their technical virtuosity. From the terza rima to the Spenserian stanza ― you name it, and they have it. That is why they did not necessarily need a ‘fresh’ or ‘original’ idea for each poem: their craftsmanship counted. I find this attitude instructive and admirable. A sonnet to me is not only the expression of a mood, but a self-consistent logical thought-structure ― an argument ― manifest through a given form. In spirit it is architectural.

Sudhindranath was a master of complex versification; and I have followed him in adopting the 18-letter Poyaar as the Bengali parallel to the iambic pentameter. My personal problem with Shakespeare’s sonnets is my discomfort with the abab cdcd octave pattern, and predilection for the abba cddc rhyming scheme (and there you find my ‘personality’ already interfering with the translation process). Still, without spending, on the one hand, nearly half a lifetime like Sudhindranath, and without Google translating like our web friend on the other ― but with more time than the niggardly two hours granted to Prof Chakraborty ― one might, in a couple of days, come up with something like this first draft for the same sonnet:

Sampling the sonnets-6
Sampling the sonnets-7

The Summer image proved problematical: the Indian May is not ‘as fressh as is the month of May’ of England. Here, in May, you swoon from heat; not from love. There’s nothing ‘darling’ about it. Then again, tropical rain follows Indian summer. So I thought it better to replace Summer with Spring throughout the poem. That is the downside. On the upside you’ll notice that:

1. The rhythm doesn’t falter. 
2. The rhyme-scheme has been preserved. 
3. Each line translates the parallel line in the original; sequence of images are nearly identical. 
4. The flow of language is natural: no ‘poetic licence’ has been taken (except ‘ ব’ at line 9). 

Not that I will be able to score all the four points with every sonnet; but it is a viable target. This one still needs honing; but since it was this blog that inspired it, I dedicate this translation ― TO THE ONLY BEGETTER ― THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST.

P.S. I should also add my apology for rushing in where angels fear to tread. So, here goes ― 

Owed to His Sonnets

O blest be the Bard (who also blessèd is) 
Licensed by use to contract or expand 
Words at will, shred rhetoric rules with his 
Claws ‘n frays. So, perplexed here I stand

And do my worst to mouth in modern times 
What he in riddles might have meant or not: 
Now shuffling wily words to match his rhymes, 
Now taxing syntax till some sense be wrought.

Thus struggle I with him in mother tongue 
And he, unwilling, wrestles with such fate; 
But construe not my intentions as wrong, 
That I, translating, hope to trans-elate 

Myself. Nor blame me, reader, nor guffaw 
Haply he trips me up and yells: “pas faux!”

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