“The translation process is a rigorous delight. But the product? As a translator, you also always carry with you an anxious awareness of the shortcomings you have achieved. You have seen that, or so you hope. but you failed to postpone it. -Tom Kuhn.
Like all other translators, Abdus Selim, too, encounters in this book the enormity of transferring poems originally written in German to Bengali via midwifery from English. The journey through three different languages makes the poetry likely to spread some of its original meaning, charm and musicality. Despite such possibilities, Selim seems set to retain the content of the original while retaining some of the stylistic smoothness. The Bengali in which he presents Brecht’s 32 poems in Kobita: Bertolt Brecht (UPL, 2022) is lucid, dynamic and electric.
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As Selim wrote in the preface to his own Bengali translation of Brecht’s play, Galileo Galilei, “Brecht is a great artist and it is wrong and unfair to regard him as the proponent of a limited theory. He is largely unknown in this country. I believe that a full translation of his poetic works would clear up some of this confusion.” (my translation)
This particular volume is an attempt in that direction. In choosing which poems to render in Bengali, Selim emphasized the socio-political dimension of Brecht’s poetic self. His love for the oppressed, marginalized, dispossessed and excluded is evident. In the poem “The Legend of the Whore Evelyn Roe”, the existential dilemma of a prostitute is brought out in attractive language. The poem “Germany, you are a pale creature” is filled with the poet’s unconditional love for his homeland and fulmination against those evil elements that vitiate the heart of the country. Another poem titled “The Spring” signals the regeneration and rebirth of humanity and nature. It speaks of a promising prospect of a new future filled with optimism, dynamism and camaraderie.
Some of the poems are political in nature and seek to strike at the fascist, capitalist, and imperialist forces besetting the world in which Brecht lived. “The Last Wish” is one of those poems that values the audacity of a prisoner of war, who slapped 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 tearing down the evil section of society that exploits the overwhelming majority. The poem “Pride”, however, evokes his immense pride in the moral height taken by ordinary Russian maids, who cannot be sold for nothing despite their abject poverty. The poet implies that a socialist society supported by Marxist ideology elevated the character of the Russian people.
Selim’s Bengali translation of these poems uses idiomatic and fashionable Bengali without any stain of pedantry. From the poem “I, the survivor”, he translates the saying “Survival of the fittest” as “Joggyotai toh tikiye rakhey” instead of the more common pedantic version, “Joggyotomer udborton”. His choice of easy, everyday terms shows his intelligence and sagacity. Reading the poems in Bengali, I felt that he kept in mind Yuval Sharon’s assessment of Brecht’s poetry: “His poetry is full of dialogue and debate, with a tone mainly characterized by spirit and the crackle of everyday discourse become surprising and memorable.”
Selim is most likely the only Bengali version of Brecht’s collection of poetry by a Bangladeshi author. The translator wears several hats: pedagogue, teacher, playwright, critic and media personality. This Bangla Academy Literary Award winning writer has many popular and critically acclaimed translations and prose plays to his credit. He still leads an academic and intellectually active life, teaching at Central Women’s University, writing occasional essays, translating books, lecturing, and running addas. This particular translation work, Kobita: Bertolt Brecht, bears witness 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]