Hayden's Ferry Review


Foreign Tongues: Bengali

HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. These recurring Foreign Tongues posts offer some culture and history—a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.

While I know we’re lucky enough to have a diverse readership, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of you were unfamiliar with quite a few of the languages featured in our International section. Or maybe I’m just projecting . . . which is quite possible, because as I leafed through Issue 42, I came across what was, to me, a beautiful jumble of script that would look great as a tattoo. The first (uneducated) guess I had was that this was Hindi script. Little did I know that what I was seeing was Bengali, or Bangla, the second-most spoken language in India, the official language of Bangladesh, and a language with an amazingly contentious and passionate history.

 Bengali is part of the Indo-European language family. This is the same (extremely) general branch that English falls into, so technically, Bengali and English have a common root. Below, though, you can see just how linguistically distant they are.

Bengali and English indicated with green arrows

This distance lends itself to untranslatable words and meanings like, for instance, the fact that there is no specific word for have in Bengali. Right. That means all of the following things we take for granted in English aren’t there for us in Bengali:

  • To have your mother’s eyes
  • To have and to hold
  • To have or have not
  • To have fun
  • To have an ace up your sleeve
  • To have no idea
  • To have your cake and eat it, too
  • To have a cold
  • To have to go

And from there, you also can’t access any of the conjugations of have, i.e. has, had, etc. Well, how do you say things like that, then? There are definitely ways to express those general ideas, but as Westerners, we have (hah!) to be able to change the way we think about the world. Most languages spoken in the Western world are centered on the individual. As a society, we’re acutely individualistic. Everything we express—verbally or in writing—places us, as individuals, as the focus. From that point of view, we discuss the world in a sort of one-way dialogue. (When I first learned this as an undergrad, this was a sticking point for a while. How else could you view the world? I would wonder, as my linguistics prof skipped on to his next exciting point about berries being their own food group in Norway . . . ) Any time we say “I/you/we have,” we put ourselves as the center of action, and let whatever else we’re talking about play second fiddle as dependent on the fact that, first, there is—and must be—a you, I, we, etc. to affix the secondary object or person to.

 Contrast our me-me-me point of view with that of Bengali (and many other languages), which discusses the world through a complex, reciprocal pattern of interrelationships that has no concrete center, and that allows everything and everyone to interact on a level playing field, linguistically. A very dry, very basic way of explaining this is by understanding that generally, Bengali language structures itself something like this:

          X is to me



          with me is X

The fact that no one goes around saying “I have” suggests (and I’m guessing here) that there might also not be a verb for “to be.” I say this only because if you can’t say “I have,” it seems likely that you also wouldn’t express the English claim to existence, “I am,” which is the epitome of individual-centeredness. Ask Stephen Crane. He knows what I’m talking about. These are (obviously) enormous linguistic differences, but they don’t only tell us how linguistically different English and Bengali are, they also tell us how disparate these cultures and their worldviews are.*

So now imagine being an English-speaking translator and finding these amazing poems in Bengali that you really want to translate. Taking the cultural and linguistic differences into account . . . how do you get the author’s message across? Any translator will tell you that taking a piece of writing from one language to another involves more than your multilingual dictionary and the help of Google Translate.

Opening stanzas: "Conjugal Prayer"
In Issue 42, Carolyne Wright discusses just that—translating Shamim Azad’s Bengali poetry and the difficulty of capturing and faithfully representing the cultural aspects of that poetry. After all of that linguistic difficulty we just talked about, there are still other aspects that are just as arduous to get right. Wright specifically calls out trying to translate the idea of what she calls a “dream city,” which is the mythical city of Ālaka. (Information on the city can also be found under Alaka, Alakapuri, and Alkapuri, which makes for some interesting Google searches. I have never been more annoyed at Alaska.) This dream city has a ton of cultural weight in Bengali, but in English, Wright struggled to find an equivalent. “Ālaka could be translated as “El Dorado” or even “Oz” to convey the sense of a fantastical city of unimaginable wealth and splendor, ” she says. But neither of these cities quite conveys the cultural significance of Ālaka.

From “Conjugal Prayer”

    How can I live with a saint in perpetual meditation

    who renounces everything at night

                                    and goes off to some dream city?

In Hindu mythology, Ālaka is described as a fabulous, hidden Himalayan city—the city of wealth, and the City of the Blessed. This is where Kuvera, the god of wealth, reigns, and the city is described as having a golden lotus-lake, golden houses, and crystal palaces. It’s enclosed by a golden wall and is a place where every desire is indulged.

Kuvera, god of wealth
As Wright has already pointed out, that description of Ālaka is a far cry from the Emerald City of Oz or El Dorado. The contemporary Emerald City, with its creepy behind-the-curtain, wish-granting wizard and its personified nonhumans falls into the fable-fabulous, just as Ālaka does, but has less of a mythological significance or religious aspect. (I know some of you are protesting this last point, but we can deconstruct The Wizard of Oz later. Right now, let's focus!) In similar failure, El Dorado, the city of unimaginable wealth (and unimaginable bloodshed), only matches the wealth aspect of Ālaka’s characteristics. So if we had a Dorado City of Oz, we might get closer to the cultural sense of this city, but we’re still a bit off.

Ālaka is no one-hit wonder—it has a rich literary history. It’s a city of the gods, the setting of mythological stories that answer the questions why and where did we come from. In the end, Wright’s selection of dream city is probably for the best. As she explains, “The expression “dream city” [allows] readers of the translation to understand the poet’s intention here . . . ” By not weighing her selection down with culturally predetermined ideas of what each alternate city might suggest, she leaves the poem to speak for itself.
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To read poetry from Shamim Azad, as translated by Carolyne Wright, check out the International section of Issue 42.

Hear Azad’s poetry in the original Bengali, as she reads to the music of After Art Band:

Conjugal Prayer (mentions Ālaka)
Waiting for the Touch
I Want to Pierce with the Arrows of My Voice

*If you know more about this and can reign in my hypothesis, leave some info for us in comments!