Brecht’s poetry presented in delicious Bangla
"The process of translation is a rigorous delight. But the product? As a translator, you also always carry with you an anxious awareness of the ways in which you have fallen short. You have seen it, that, at least, you hope; but you have failed to carry it over." - Tom Kuhn.
Like all other translators, Abdus Selim, too, encounters in this book the enormity of transferring poems originally written in German to Bangla via the midwifery of English. The journey through three different languages makes poetry susceptible to spilling some of its original meaning, charm and musicality. Despite such possibilities, Selim seems poised to hold on to the contents of the original while retaining some of the stylistic sweetness. The Bangla in which he presents Brecht's 32 poems in Kobita: Bertolt Brecht (UPL, 2022) is lucid, dynamic and electric.
As Selim wrote in the preface to his own Bangla translation of Brecht's play, Galileo Galilei, "Brecht is a great artist and it's erroneous and unfair to consider him as a proponent of a limited theory. He is unfamiliar to a large extent in this country. I believe a complete translation of his poetic works would dispel some of this confusion". (translation mine)
This particular volume is an attempt in this direction. While choosing the poems to render in Bangla, Selim has put premium on the sociopolitical dimension of Brecht's poetic self. His love for the oppressed, the marginalised, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised are obvious. In the poem "The Legend of the harlot Evelyn Roe," the existential dilemma of a prostitute comes to the fore in an appealing language. The poem "Germany, you bond pale creature" is replete with the poet's unconditional love for his motherland and the fulmination against those evil elements vitiating the core of the country. Another poem titled "The Spring" signals the regeneration and revival of both humanity and nature. It speaks to a promising prospect of a new future marked with optimism, dynamism and camaraderie.
Some of the poems are political in nature and seek to pummel fascist, capitalist and imperialist forces battering the world in which Brecht lived. "The last wish" is one such poem that valorises the boldness of a war prisoner, who punched and spat contemptuously in the face of a Nazi commander and embraced martyrdom. In "Letter to the playwright Odets", Brecht asks a playwright and other artists through him whether artistic protest against injustice is effective in the demolition of the diabolical section of society who exploit the overwhelming majority. The poem "Pride", however, is redolent of his immense pride in the moral high ground taken by commonplace Russian maids, who cannot be sold for anything despite their abject poverty. The poet implies that a socialist society underpinned by Marxist ideology has elevated the character of the Russian people.
Selim's Bangla translation of these poems use idiomatic and trendy Bangla with no stain of pedanticism. From the poem "I, the Survivor", he translates the saying "Survival of the fittest" as "Joggyotai toh tikiye rakhey" instead of the more prevalent, pedantic version, "Joggyotomer udborton." His choice of easy, everyday terms shows his smartness and sagacity. While reading the poems in Bangla, I felt that he keeps Yuval Sharon's evaluation of Brecht's poetry in mind: "His poetry is full of dialogues and debates, with a tone predominantly characterised by the spirit and crackle of everyday speech turned surprising and memorable."
Selim's is most probably the only Bangla version of Brecht's poetry collection done by a Bangladeshi author. The translator wears many hats: educationist, teacher, playwright, critic and media personality. This Bangla Academy Literary Award-winning writer has many popular and critically acclaimed translation works and prose pieces to his credit. He is still leading an academically and intellectually active life, teaching at Central Women's University, penning occasional essays, translating books, giving talks and leading addas. This particular translation work, Kobita: Bertolt Brecht, is a testament to his credentials and deserves a wide readership.
Liton Chakraborty Mithun teaches English at Central Women's University and can be reached at [email protected].