It began with a series of workshops organised by the Dhaka Translation Center in partnership with Commonwealth Writers (CW), English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). Ten of us had been selected to participate in the first week long workshop, out of about fifty applicants from across Bangladesh. Arunava Sinha, the prolific translator from India, was leading the sessions. We were assigned to do a consensus translation of a Bengali short story.
During the first couple of days, we focused on dissecting the story, getting to its core essence, with the help of the author, Shaheen Akhtar. She generously attended every session and patiently answered each and every single question. When we began the process of actually translating the story as a group, line by line, it seemed a herculean task.
We were constantly arguing and progress was excruciatingly slow. It really drove home the fact that a single word or phrase may be interpreted, and thus translated, in countless different ways, because every translator brings his or her own style and perspective to the table. It also clued us in on the equally daunting task that lay ahead of the initial phase of rough translation – editing. By the end, we learned to compromise on the details in order to stay true to the overall spirit of the story. An interesting outcome was the author revealing to us how our questions had changed the way she looked at her story and her own process of writing.
The center and its partners – CW, English Pen and BCLT – wanted to build on the momentum generated by the workshop, so a follow-up session was planned which would lead to the publication of an anthology of translated short stories. The partners brought in the UK publishing house, Comma Press, which had previously published several translated anthologies. Thus, The Book of Dhaka was conceived.
The story selection process proved to be particularly challenging, as Dhaka is a relatively new city and most Bangladeshi short stories were based in the rural areas. We also worked to find the perfect balance between time period, strata of society represented and locations as well as gender, experience and age of the authors.
For the second phase of the workshop, we focused on editing. Each of the initial ten participants was assigned a Bangla short story to translate beforehand. During the sessions, the founder and editor at Comma Press, Ra Page, and Arunava Sinha – highly skilled editors both –worked through sections of each of our translated stories, brutally whittling them into perfection. In the process, we learned to look at our work through the eyes of our intended audience, choose what is essential to their understanding and appreciation of the original writing, and “trim the fat.” These ten stories eventually comprised The Book of Dhaka,published worldwide by Comma Press,UK, with Bengal Lights Books as the Bangladeshi publisher.
Recent events have called into question the state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The Book of Dhaka presents a counter-narrative, reintroducing the world to the literary treasure trove that is Bangladesh. Now more than ever, when the much of the planet is embroiled in a clash of cultures, translation can serve as a powerful tool in building the bridges of reconciliation.