Sheba and those Early Reading Years
It was in the latter half of my school life that I became addicted to reading stories. I had been exposed to them much earlier though. Whether good or bad, the full credit goes to a Bangladeshi publishing house that to this day produces paperbacks for children only. During those early reading years of my life, my parents would often present me with poorly written biography anthologies such as Shoto Monisheer Kotha (Biographies of a hundred sages) and pretend these were the kinds of book a child should read because one could learn valuable lessons from them. Having put it away, I busied myself devouring Sheba's compelling thrillers, gingerly though, because for me to do this meant tackling quite a few obstacles.
Seeing me flip through the pages of some kind of thin and at times thick paperbacks, they (my parents) would keep a constant eye on me. Often glancing at me from the corner of their eyes, they'd monitor whether I was cheating on them by reading worthless stories when I should have pored over my drab secondary school textbooks. When they blurted it all out, eyes bloodshot in anger over the better grades attained by their colleagues' children's, my spirits were indeed flagged. Yet cheat I did, impeccably. But that harmless, bluff opened up to me an exciting new world where overcoming all physical limitations imposed by space and time and age, I could freely roam, letting my imagination run loose, taking it to the bowels of a thick forest where no man had ever dared to leave his footprints before. Putting the tiny paperbacks into the front and back covers of a larger textbook, I did cheat my parents and now in hindsight, I'm immensely happy that I did.
They were surprised at the enthusiastic sparkle in my eyes while reading such drab textbooks because as far as they knew such books had never produced any sparkle in anyone. So when they lowered their gaze and found their eyes blocked by dull colours of a textbook, they were reassured, even proud. And why not? Blessed are those whose offspring shows such liveliness while learning by rote his textbook lessons. How grateful I am to my naive parents!
Thus evading our parents' eyes, a bunch of friends and I were obsessed with Sheba Prakashani, and its translation wing, Prajapati. This publisher and its imprint, alongside their regular thriller series like Tin Goyenda, Masud Rana, Reza and Suja, Tarzan, Western series etc. offered us a rich variety of translation. None of them were complete translations. They were rather abridged, in many cases, even less than half the original in length; but they were rendered so conscientiously that our young, inquisitive minds found perfectly accessible.
Henry Rider Haggard's She, The Return of She and King Solomon's Mines, translated by Neaz Morshed, are some of the most memorable pieces that took me to mysterious lands. Critical perspectives were of no use then. Reading was all about pleasure and imagination. Maybe that explains why I liked Robert Louis Stevenson's Botol Shoitan (the English title forgotten) more than George Eliot's Silas Marner which was very realistic compared to the former; translated by Kazi Shahnoor Hussain, they were bound together into a tiny book by Prajapati.
Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (by Rakib Hasan, also the writer of Tin Goyenda series), The Black Arrow (by Neaz Morshed) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (by Asaduzzaman) were fascinating. I can still recollect how the suspenseful narrative presented Mr Hyde's sinister acts, including the murder of innocent men and women, so as to make my hair stand on end, until the mystery would be solved and the moral lesson imparted. Sheba's truncated version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserable by Iftekhar Amin and Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers by Kazi Shahnoor Hussain were also excellent. The first one is a tale of a poor man's misery, a kind of tale that I was not yet ready to enjoy. Yet I was caught up in its complicated and tragic plot. This is one of those books that had brought me into the pains and losses of down-to-earth realities (I hadn't read Tagore's short stories or Bibhutibhushon's Pather Panchali yet). The second one by Dickens was a comic piece imbued with satirical undertones.
In fact, these are some of the samples every reader my age was familiar with. There were so many more that they can hardly be contained here, especially those from Prajapati's Kissore Classics (Juvenile Classics) series. To name some of them, one has to begin with Mark Twain. Then there was Alexandre Dumas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erich Maria Remarque, Jules Verne, among many others. Another writer was Jack London who overpowered my imagination for quite some time. I found his The Call of the Wild and The White Fang in our old and long-standing Macpherson Library in Bagerhat. The translator was Khasru Chowdhury. These books feature a dog as a protagonist, with its fate to fight and struggle in order to survive amidst all sorts of adversaries. Then I bought his Sea Wolf by Neaz Morshed which was about a man's struggle and determination against all odds.
It was not until the year of my S.S.C exams in 1998 that my interest declined in thriller series and juvenile classics. Since this time, I was drawn more to Bangla classics. Side by side, my interest in translation changed its course from shortened to full-fledged works of what I began to think as serious literature such as Belal Chowdhury's , Mrittur Karanara , a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicles of a Death Foretold, which I finished in my college years.
It is well known that Latin American writers such as Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa and many others gained immense popularity in the 1990s among Bangladeshi readers. It resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of a genre previously limited, namely the world of Bangla translation. The Latin American boom was joined by post-colonial writers e.g. Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee, Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri. And our publishing industry came forward with a rush churning out as many translations as possible of writers who had a demand in the market following their international awards.
When one reads an average translation of any of these writers, s/he has to be utterly disappointed. Let's pick, for example, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. In one of its translations that I'd read, one is faced with a skeleton of a story that in the original is fleshed out excellently in a figurative language that implies a lot more than it claims to say, not to mention the repetitiveness of certain ideas and phrases (such as the repetitive occurrence of the phrase 'the god of small things') that helps to construct potential symbols in the novel. In the translation of The Interpreter of Maladies, one finds the language and tone very vague, which does not in any way go with the original, especially with the matter-of fact details of Lahiri's stories. I realised eventually that the publishing industry had had to get them translated in the shortest time possible since the market had spoken positively of their demands, never mind the ensuing quality.
When I compare these fully fledged translations with Sheba's adaptations, I'm surprised to see the difference. No doubt, many of Sheba's translations were shortened, but they were lucid and more enjoyable. At least, they were not done in a hurried and shoddy manner. Quite the opposite, they were meant to be understood, not to be literally inscribed, in such a way that most of them leave an indelible impression on readers.
Looking back at those early reading years when a bumpy ride with Kishore, Musa and Robin (the three musketeers from the Tin Goyenda Series) or with one of those translated heroes, was the only preoccupation I used to know; I find myself in a hapless state of being an adult who's struggling to find a footing in his career. My parents would say, “Told you, shouldn't have skipped your studies. Could have been a banker! Or a successful civil servant for that matter.” I'd humbly say, dear Mother and Father, cheating on you to stick out with Sheba had filled my childhood with a thousand colours that cannot be bought with any bank notes or solid social standing. It rather flows like an undercurrent which not only soothes but also guides your oft-lost son in this city of the absurd, in this city of the impossible.
The writer is In-Charge, Daily Star Books.