Interview: Arunava Sinha on his experience as a translator, his insights on the translation industry and his new books

By Bidisha Bagchi

With years of experience, Arunava Sinha has achieved recognition for his works as a translator and has an impressive list of acclaimed publications to his name. It is through him that book lovers get a glimpse into a world that might have otherwise remained unknown to them. Quite recently, his current work ‘Chowringhee’ was aired on BBC Radio 3. WBRi had the honor of interviewing Mr. Sinha about his experience as a translator, his insights on the translation industry and his new books.

Your experience includes translating a wonderful variety of books by renowned Bengali writers, what is the process like to make a work come to life in a new language?

Ideally, I would have liked not to have read a book at all before translating it. That way, the translation would be as close to the original as possible, untrammeled by judgments and perspectives gained through an earlier reading. But I do have to read a book I intend to translate to ensure that I like it enough to want to work on it. Besides, since I make my own pitches instead of being commissioned, I have no choice but to read and digest a book beforehand. The actual act of translation, then, involves jettisoning whatever baggage I may have acquired through a previous reading. I try not to interpret, but to stay close to the surface of the text. And I try to reproduce the voice of the writer, I try to hear the words and sentences and cadences and melodies in my head so that I can approximate them.

I believe in offering a smooth reading experience in the translated version, rather than retaining the syntax or structure or expressions of the original language - as some translators do in order to remind the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The content should take care of that.

Before translating a book, do you have conversations with the author, if yes, what do you talk about?

I do have general conversations when the author is alive and willing to talk, but never about the specific book before completing the translation. I want to approach the translation as a reader might, without having access to the author's explanations. After the translation is done, if the author is interested in reading it and discussing it - and not all authors are - we do talk about it and consider changes.

What would you say is the difference between writing and translating?

The greatest difference is that the translator does not have to think up the content, it's all there. Secondly, the translator cannot write as he or she would like to, but as the author did. And a writer can edit his own content; a translator can only edit the form. My translation credo is: leave out nothing, add nothing.

What are the best and worst things about working as a translator? Is it solitary work like writing?

The best is that there's never any threat of writer's block. The material is always there. And the epiphany of having actually completed the translation - of transporting the original work, as it were. The worst is probably the risk of losing your own voice eventually. Different translators have different techniques. Much of it is solitary work, but there's always the love-hate relationship with the dictionary and the thesaurus.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

I've just completed a collection of twenty marvelous short stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay, written in the 1970s and '80s. They're not conventional in having a beginning, middle and end or a twist in the tail or capturing a conflict. Instead, they are almost whimsical stories that very often seem to exist only for the thought or image or idea in the last line - but they go to the heart of people's lives in their unstructured sharpness.

Right now, I'm working on a collection of three novellas by the writer Bani Basu. One of them is set in a Marwari family in Calcutta where the women have all died. The second is about a household of women with only one man and a young boy - and a secret. In the third, a woman wakes up one morning to discover her husband addressing her as well as their son by different names - he seems to have been transferred into a different existence altogether. Eerie and deeply uncomfortable, all of them.

In your experience as a translator, how have you seen industry standards, techniques and common practices evolve over the years?

The most important development is that publishers are seeking translations now, and the number of translations is growing fast in India. In a country where so many languages offer such fabulous work, translations can - and should be - a rich source of English language books. This is beginning to take wing now.

Do you consider e-books or kindle to be a threat to the book industry?

On the contrary, they can rescue books from the high costs of production and deliver them much more cheaply and efficiently to readers. I am delighted that e-books are becoming so popular.

Can you recommend any resources for people who would like to know more about becoming a translator?

I would avoid all resources, and simply read and read and read. The best writers only used other books to learn, it's no different for translators.

What words of wisdom can you share with translators that you wish someone would have shared with you early on in your career?

Start early on in life. I began much later than I would have liked to - and that, too, almost accidentally - and now I'll never be able to translate all the books I want to. Also, try not to get sucked into an unrelated day job. If possible, marry a rich person who can support you.