Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Mahmud Rahman
By Lisa Carter, Intralingo Inc.

Lisa Carter: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

Mahmud Rahman: I translate from Bangla (Bengali) into English.

Bangla is spoken as a first or second language by over 200 million people in Bangladesh, the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura and immigrant communities in the UK, the US, the Middle East and elsewhere.

I translate literary fiction and so far I have solely worked with material created in Bangladesh. I have translated five short stories, a novel excerpt and one full novel.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

MR: My journey into literary translation is an outgrowth of writing my own fiction in English.

Though I’d been writing prose in English for many decades, I turned to narrative prose—mainly fiction—in the mid-1990s. I started with short stories and eventually put together a book of stories by 2005. The book was published in 2010. I also completed a novel between 2006 and 2011, but this book is currently looking for a publisher.

Cover, Talaash by Shaheen Akhtar

Talaash, by Shaheen Akhtar

Besides reading books in English, either original or in translation, I also read Bangla. Sometime around 2005 I began to acquaint myself better with contemporary fiction from Bangladesh. I came upon a novel, Talaash by Shaheen Akhtar, that depicted 30 years in the life of a woman who had survived sexual slavery by the Pakistani military during the 1971 war that freed Bangladesh. This book shook me up and I wanted to share some of it with those who cannot read Bangla. I decided to translate an excerpt.

During the annual conference of the AWP in Austin, Texas, in 2006, I was asked to read at a panel and also to read something at an off-site reading for International Women’s Day. For the panel I read from one of my stories; for the other reading, I chose to read the excerpt I translated from Talaash. People liked it, and that encouraged me.

In late 2006, I returned to Bangladesh for an extended stay to begin drafting my own novel. In earnest I began seeking out Bangladeshi prose. Beyond the joy of reading, I felt this could add a new layer of complexity to my own writing. I often write about the same social context taken up by Bangla writers and it seemed that it would be helpful to absorb how Bangladeshi characters and settings are written out by writers from within.

Covoer, Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque, translated by Mahmud RahmanSoon after I arrived, I read an interview with a writer named Mahmudul Haque. He was unknown to me, but he had penned many novels and stories from the ‘50s to the ‘70s before turning his back on the literary world around 1981. Within a few weeks, I read three of his novels and one collection of stories. I liked the writing so much that I became determined to translate Mahmudul Haque. He deserved to be known outside those who read him in Bangla. I know the value of translated literature: I had been stimulated by fiction originally written not just in English but also languages like Portuguese, Gikuyu or Japanese. Why should the world not receive the best of our Bangla writers? As a writer of fiction in English, I felt I could do justice to Mahmudul Haque’s prose. I searched out the author, he befriended me and I would end up translating two of his stories and one of his novels. Sadly he died just as I was about to complete the first draft of the novel Kalo Borof (Black Ice).

I had another interest in embracing translation during that time. While absorbed in drafting my novel, I yearned to work with language on a different plane. Some fiction writers write poetry. I am not a poet. But I recalled my experience with that excerpt I had translated from Talaash. Here I could work with words and sentences at a close level in two languages. And because in my own novel I was rendering into English conversations of characters speaking in Bangla, I felt that translating might have a beneficial effect on my own novel. I think it certainly did.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

MR: When translating, you have to read the original text word by word, sentence by sentence. There is a certain pleasure in reading fiction at this close a distance. One gets a sense of how different authors construct their stories. One almost gets a sense of an author’s mind. And every so often, there is a puzzle to solve, word constructions that cannot be solved merely from dictionaries. I enjoy solving puzzles.

From childhood, English was my medium of instruction and Bangla was only one subject in school. I also left Bangladesh to attend college in the U.S. and have spent most of my adult life here. As a result of all this, my vocabulary in Bangla is limited. While translating something, the word choices made by an author can sometimes compel me to make frequent trips to the dictionary. This can be tedious. I envy those translators who have a greater command over the source language. In these instances, collaboration with other translators is vital.

The hardest thing is when one confronts the limits of translation. So far I’ve been able to solve most of the puzzles I’ve come across, but there is one area where I encounter a thick wall. This concerns dialect. Often the writers I translate write in many voices and their use of dialect gives their prose a distinct pleasure to the reader in the original language. Sometimes I have come across translations that attempt to translate dialect and end up creating crude languages which evoke existing dialects elsewhere, such as Cockney or Black English. I find these jarring.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

MR: Most of my recent translation projects have been stories or, in one case, the opening chapter of a novel. I would love to translate another novel but that requires more time than I have on my hands right now. I work full time and have to do my writing or translation during spare time on nights and weekends.

Last month I completed the translation of a new story. Not being a professional translator, I choose my own stories to translate. A story has to compel me somehow. Then, of course, there’s the issue of rights to a work being within reach.

Many years ago during a visit to Bangladesh, a friend gifted me a collection of Bangla stories from the 1970s. One story had stuck with me. It was about a man who comes out of prison after ten years. As a youth, he had gone underground with a Maoist party and ended up being captured by the police. He is released thanks to the efforts of a younger sister who he doesn’t even remember. He’d been so obsessed with politics that he hadn’t thought about his sister at all. But the same sister, now grown up, gives him a home. He doesn’t know what to do with her love and he’s also utterly bewildered by the city that has changed beyond recognition. This story captured something unique about Dhaka and Bangladesh in the late 1970s.

I’m excited that it’s been accepted for publication.

Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator resident in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of Killing the Water: Stories, published by Penguin India, and the translator of Bangladeshi novelist Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice, published by HarperCollins India. He can be found at:

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