Research is in my blood: Suresh Basak

Suresh Ranjan Basak

Widely known as a literary critic, essayist and translator, Suresh Ranjan Basak prefers to identify himself as a maverick writer. He started his literary career with writing poems in 1969, but subsequently shifted to literary criticism and translation. He has twenty-one titles to his credit, which have been published at home and abroad. He has published more than 150 articles, essays, reviews and editorials in national and international journals and periodicals in Bangla and English. He was awarded the Bangla Academy Award 2020 for his contribution to literary translation.

In a recent interview with New Age, Suresh Ranjan Basak talked about his literary career, literary works, the present state of translation in Bangladesh and more.

New Age: Your early translation works like Shatabdir Sahitya, Latin Amerikar Nirbachita Chhotogalpa, Eksha Bachharer Ingreji Kabita, and bi-lingual translation works like 700 Bachharer Ingreji Premer Kabita, The Prophet brought you into the limelight as a translator. Tell us the beginning of your literary career.

Suresh Ranjan Basak: These books brought me close to a large number of readers, if not exactly into the limelight. It will sound queer to many but I never intended to be a translator. It was a sheer coincidence. Like all young people, I once wanted to be a poet. If my memory does not betray me, my first poem was published on February 21, 1969 in the supplement of a Dhaka-based weekly newspaper. I had been writing and publishing poems sporadically since then. But I soon came to realize that poetry would not be my forte. I always felt drawn to writing literary essays and criticisms. That gained momentum during the years I spent studying and teaching literature. Editors of literary supplements of the then leading newspapers, magazines and journals gave me an inspiring platform.

New Age: Would you relate how you came to choose a literary career?

Suresh Ranjan Basak: Well. I think, one cannot be a writer if one does not hear the call from within. Of course, inspiration from others helps a lot. I consider my readers, editors, national and international publishers as major sources of my inspiration. I would particularly mention poet Shamsur Rahman. He called me over phone one good noon in 2001 and asked me to prepare a manuscript as quickly as possible. After that, the book titled Eksha Bachharer Ingreji Kabita was published in February 2002 from Sahitya Prokash with a foreword by the poet himself.

New Age: There has been a surge in the number of translation works in the past decades. How would you evaluate the present state of translation in Bangladesh?

Suresh Ranjan Basak: It is difficult to comment on the general scenario of translation in Bangladesh. As you have said, yes, there has been a substantial increase in the volume of translation works – from Bangla to English and from English to Bangla. A number of veteran translators, namely, Kaiser Haq, Fakrul Alam, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Quazi Mustain Billah —to name a few— are making wonderful contributions in the field of Bangla to English translation. Some young translators have also joined the queue. But the gap between the two generations is perceptibly wide. When it comes to English to Bangla translations, the volume of publications is much larger, apparently to cater to the need of an expanding readership. This has led to a quick and compromised brand of translation, which does justice neither to the source text and author nor to the readers of the target language. Here too, we see a blend of promising and frustrating translators. It is sad that we could not produce translators like Gregory Rabassa and JS Bernstein who translated the works of Garcia Marquez from Spanish into English or like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who translated Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie from French into English under the title Of Grammatology and Mahasweta Devi’s short stories and novels from Bangla into English. Let us not mention Jorge Luis Borges who translated profusely from English, French and German into Spanish. All these translations are as delightful as their originals. I am eagerly waiting for a renaissance in our translation.

New Age: Literary criticism is virtually absent in Bangladesh. What are the issues plaguing our literary arena? We would like to hear your thoughts about the function of literary criticism.

Suresh Ranjan Basak: Well, your question itself is conclusive in the sense that it denies any presence of literary criticism in Bangladesh. But I should rather call it a stagnant scenario. I think a host of reasons are responsible for this advisory state. Newspaper literary supplements could play a vital role as they did in the past. Once, literary criticism was encouraged by literary editors. Those days are almost gone. Now the media houses are more interested in publishing money-generating supplements. Although journals, magazines and periodicals could play a patronizing role, but they did not or could not. And writers have also turned their backs as literary criticism is not instant coffee. The narcissistic desire to write and instantly publish has contributed a lot to this wasteland-like scenario. Of course, the academic journals of some universities, mostly published in English, are trying to do some justice to literary criticism and promote critical thinking. But very few people have access to or interest in them.

New Age: Do you think there are great works in Bangla literature that have not yet been translated but need to be translated into foreign languages?

Suresh Ranjan Basak: I strongly believe that we have many great works of fiction, poetry, drama and prose that deserve to be translated into foreign languages, particularly English. Our acclaimed fiction writers were not adequately translated; if done, it was more or less sporadic. For example, if I am not wrong, world class novels like Prodoshe Prakritajan, Dakshinayaner Din of Shawkat Ali, Kritadaser Hasi by Shawkat Osman, Sabitri Upakhyan by Hasan Azizul Huq have so far failed to draw our translators’ attention. We can still develop rich corpuses of excellent literary works by translating Syed Waliullah, Abu Ishaque, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Shawkat Osman, Hasan Azizul Huq, Humayun Azad, Rizia Rahman and others. Poets are luckier in this sense. The major poets such as Shahid Qadri, Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq and Rafiq Azad, among others, have, at least, the consolation of having their selected poems published and being anthologized in English. Bangla short stories and dramas are by far the most neglected genres in English translation.

New Age: You received the Bangla Academy Literary Award in the past year for your contribution to translation. How do you feel?

Suresh Ranjan Basak: The award is a kind of national recognition of my humble contribution to literary translation. You can call it a reward for what I had done in the span of more than four decades. But a tinge of sadness dilutes the euphoria. My identity as a translator now appears to overshadow my identity as an essayist and literary critic. Still, I should say it has been a good experience.

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