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Wooing Shakespeare across cultures: Shakespeare in Bengali

We are marking Shakespeare’s birthday with a blog by Dattatreya Dutt about the art of translating Shakespeare into Bengali.

Dattatreya Dutt

Dattatreya Dutt is Professor of English and Drama, co-founder of the only Shakespeare society in India, co-editor of Theatre International and president of a mime theatre group. In addition, he is a playwright, director, translator, and critic among other things. His books on Aristotle's Poetics and on play-writing are considered milestones in Bengali drama criticism. He has worked with Hans Heyme, Guenter Grass, Shombhu Mitra, and Badal Sircar, among others and has lectured abroad on Shakespeare and on Tagore.

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

You fall in love gradually; you woo her step by step. You submit to the loved one, and coax and cajole her into saying ‘yes.’ So it is with translation. But the farther away the other one is in time and place, the tougher becomes the task.

As the co-founder of the Shakespeare Society of Eastern India, I sang and played music in the “Songs from Shakespeare” event at our Shakespeare Birthday Festivals. Once in a rehearsal I playfully sang parts of a song in Bengali, and the ensemble demanded complete renderings. Since rhyming comes naturally to a Bengali, I translated quite a few of them, following their original wonderful tunes. They were a huge success with our audiences.

Thereupon I was pressed to translate some Shakespeare scenes for performances, and I discovered that translating Shakespeare’s prose is much harder than translating his songs. There are no tunes to help you along; no metrical scheme to monitor the language. Moreover, they are funny and ‘punny’ ― desperately difficult to carry across in a different cultural milieu. European cultures share a common base at a certain level. That does not work here in Bengal.

Historically, geographically, and culturally remote from Elizabethan England, Bengal has been astonishingly prolific in translating and adapting Shakespeare since the mid-nineteenth century. Tagore himself translated Macbeth when he was thirteen. A host of translations appeared throughout that century and the next. Some were effervescent blank verse interspersed with unnatural prose; and some reduced whole plays to pallid statements with utter disregard to their expressiveness. All failed on the stage.

I looked at the plays as performance texts. I was (and still am) convinced that Shakespeare had intended his plays to be performed ― whatever post-modern agnostics may say about the inscrutability of authorial intention. And this conviction lay at the root of my translations of Shakespeare. However, I had set myself a few tasks:

  • Create an actable text.
  • The audience should get the feeling of a Bengali play; not of a ‘translation.’
  • Find a style that makes poetry the natural speech idiom of the speakers.
  • Use racy colloquy wherever appropriate.
  • Edit verbiage that your audience would reject as dull theatre.
  • Remain faithful to all prosodic variations.
  • Follow the flow of intellect, emotions, and images, line for line.
  • Search out Bengali parallels for obstinate original metaphors/images. 

Michael and Tagore had used 14-letter lines; but the extended Poyaar (18 letters) served my purpose better because it accommodates five stresses comparable to the pentameter, and is more flexible. Here you can place the caesura either after two, or after three stresses. And the first eight letters (or the fifth-twelfth letters), normally two words of 4+4 letters, can be broken up into three words of 3+3+2 letters, or of 2+3+3, as need arises. The last six letters similarly can be divided into 3+3 or 4+2 or 2+4. This immense flexibility is further augmented by the power of the Poyaar to treat compound consonants as single letters, allowing for aural levity and gravity. I exploited this versatility to bring out the dramatic element in Shakespeare’s blank verse.

The difficulties lay elsewhere. Consider: “If music be the food love, play on” (Twelfth Night). However you may render ‘food’ in Bengali, it would raise a laugh; for there is something indefinably gross about food and eating in our culture (compare Hamlet: “A’ took my father grossly, full of bread”). The metaphor simply says that music feeds love. So for an appropriate image from our culture I chose the image of the fuel feeding the fire:

সুর যদি প্রেমের ইন্ধন, তবে বাজাও, বাজাও,

I also stumbled at places; e.g., at ‘great nature’s second course’ (Macbeth). I could hardly expect my audience to relate to some obscure passage in the Mahabharata regarding the vitalising power of meat; and didn’t tamper with it. In an extreme case, I radically substituted the ‘new map with the augmentation of the Indies’ (Twelfth Night) with an ancient deed of property settlement, reasonably certain that it would work for my audience as a viable image of a creased countenance.

There were language-specific problems too. How does one translate Sir Toby’s ‘I would not ... make water but in a sink-apace’? Here were dance rhythm and scatology united through punning! In translation it came out as:

ঝাঁপতাল ছাড়া নাইতাম না; একতাল না হলে হাগতাম না!

― ‘I wouldn’t have bathed except with a dive (jhaamp) into a pond (taal)), wouldn’t have shat unless it was one (ek) great heap (taal). The punning consists in Jhaamptaal being a classical 5x2 beats rhythm, and Ektaal a 12-beat one.

An example of a historic problem would be the reference to Bishop Garnet’s trial in the Porter Scene in Macbeth. Here I presented the equivocator as Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata, whose single lie/equivocation in life: “(aloud) Dead is Ashwatthama― (whispering) the elephant” earned him a brief visit to Hell (and thus into the Porter’s drunken delirium). This replacement connected with the audience, and with the scholars too; for the line was held to be beyond meaningful translation till then:

ওরে! এ যে ‘ইতি গজ’-র যুইষ্টির! অ্যাঁ! ধম্মের দু-পাল্লায় এত ভাঁড়াভাঁড়ি করে, ধম্মটুকু বাঁচিয়ে অধম্ম করে, শেষে সগ্‌গটুকু ভাঁড়িয়ে হল না?

Translating Shakespeare as theatre has also taught me a lot: e.g. the necessity of having a third murderer in Macbeth III.iii, and how he dovetails into the action. My analysis of the action of the scene and the justifications for delaying Banquo’s entry by a line are provided in my published translation.

My translations are not ‘literary’ translations. I have spent years in literature classes on Shakespeare, wondering about the purpose of it all. My translations may be taken as a resolution of that bewilderment. They are edited, but undistorted texts: honest attempts to retrieve the theatrically poetic Shakespeare, demonstrating why his audience considered him their strongest playwright, and how he is still great theatre for the Bengali audience.

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