Quader Mahmud’s Translation of Habibullah Sirajee’s Poems : Jainab Tabassum Banu Sonali

Cover Story : Shabdaghar-Slected Best Book 2021-Poems

While reading any Bengali book translated in English, I tend to notice whether the translator has killed or saved the author. It is because a translator deals with the art between tongues. As translation is also the art of revelation, it is the translator’s job to make unknown things known and reveal them to the people of the other language, for example, from Bangla to English. The one who translates poetry takes this huge challenge to convince the readers with proper tone, diction and discourse. There is an immense chance for the meanings and connotations to get lost in translation. Therefore, it is the translator’s responsibility to transliterate a piece of poetic work by retaining most of its original appeal. When the poetic essence of the original language is retained in the translated version, the reading experience becomes very rewarding and joyful.

Recently, my reading of poet Habibullah Sirajee’s poems in Quader Mahmud’s translation has been a thought-provoking, emotionally charged and staggering experience. The poetic pieces which my eyes went through lingered in my mind and took me to a world of déjà vu. I read Sirajee’s Bengali poems which beautifully defamiliarized the world around me. His poems are filled with atypical images, unusual metaphors and non-poetic elements. His way of incorporating these aspects in his poetry is what makes him a different modern poet. Reading some of the poems in English also bestowed the same kind of impression upon my conscience. Therefore, I can assure that the translator Quader Mahmud beautifully sustained and kept the original poet survive in translation.

Habibullah Sirajee (1948-2021) was a renowned Bangladeshi poet who served as a President of Jatiya Kabi Parishad and the Director General of Bangla Academy from 2018 till his death. He was awarded Ekushey Padak by the Government of Bangladesh for his outstanding contributions to Bangla language and literature. He was a mechanical engineer by profession which is also reflected in his poetic works. His use of similes, metaphors and figurative language apparently seems ordinary as he uses simple words in his poetry. However, as Mahmud writes, “he almost mechanically engineers his poetry, and, as if like a linguistic megalomaniac, effortlessly grafts alien words, images, similes, allegories and ideas into his verses; and makes his own poetic phrases.” His diction, in this way, makes him more than just a poet. He is a crafter of poetic words.

Quader Mahumud, the translator of Sirajee’s poems, is a print and broadcast journalist and columnist who happens to be a poet and novelist too. Mahmud obtained his degree in Bangla Language and Literature from Dhaka University. He settled in the UK since December 1973. Despite being a UK citizen and immigration adviser, the eminent translator Mahmud keeps on nurturing his native language through his literary and non-literary works. He knew the poet very briefly. However, his admiration for Sirajee’s works impelled him to come up with this book. This book is a poet’s translation of the works of another poet. Quite a remarkable example to assess literary relationships!

Quader Mahmud’s book 50 Poems of Habibullah Sirajee was published by Shamabesh Books in 2015. This publishing house is a sister concern of Pathak Shamabesh, which is one of the biggest bookstores of world fiction and avant-garde literary publication. This book is dedicated to Syed Najmuddin Hashim (1925-1999) who was a journalist, bureaucrat, diplomat, writer and translator. Interestingly, therefore, a poet, a poet-translator and another translator altogether co-exist inside the same book cover. As a reader and critic, I cordially appreciate Mahmud’s generous approach towards other writers of the same language.

Sirajee’s Bengali poems were published in sixteen anthologies since 1975. Mahmud translated 50 selected poems that encompass various themes including politics, war, love, life and so on. The translator’s selection of poetry clearly shows his intention of bringing Sirajee’s versatility and wide range of poetic interests to the readers. Moreover, Sirajee is an unconventional modern poet who has been unknown to the international readers due to the language barrier. Mahmud’s attempt to build the bridge between the codes or registers is, indeed, a significant contribution to Bengali literature.

Translation is never an exact clone. There is no such direct mimesis in translation. In poetry, it gets difficult to translate each word denotatively maintaining the rhyme scheme, rhythm, intonation and internal structure. However, in prosaic poetry, a translator can enjoy this flexibility. He can retain the original essence and still can transliterate the poems in his own way. This way, the poetic dictions of both the poet and the translator can coexist in a single poetic piece. Mahmud follows the method of transliterating Sirajee’s poems sharing a mystical bond with him. I could sense the cordial friendship between them.

In 50 Poems of Habibullah Sirajee, Mahmud consciously avoids selecting poems which “blossom with typically earthly Bangla words-pictures which don’t naturally travel across the languages” (translator’s note). In many cases, he retains the Bengali words like baburchi, bhaat, paatal and so on to sustain “Sirajee’s complex and often unusual and hazardous word-play in Bangla” (translator’s note). He adds footnotes where he clarifies the meaning of these essentially unchanged Bengali words for his English readers.

The first poem “Memory, Museum” is loaded with atypical images. The string of words creates a stream of consciousness which reminds me of Jibanananda Das’s surrealistic poems. In fact, Mahmud himself writes that Jibanananda Das and Dylan Thomas are two of Sirajee’s favorite poets. I also think, after reading his poems, that he was a possessed reader of both these poets’ works. Here, in this particular poem, memory is compared to “a translucent elephant that is seated with a museum on its shoulders” (13), which also brings to my mind Dylan Thomas’s way of using puzzling metaphors or Jibanananda’s way of metaphorizing horses from the grey and colorless world. Starting with pellucid images, finally the poem concludes optimistically when the poet writes, “Ruination itself is not life; ruination is a step of creation” (13). The inevitable nature of time and history reflects in this very line.

In “Architecture,” Sirajee, as Mahmud pointed out earlier, engineers the poem by using architectural discourse. The architect designs everything before the plan happens to be executed. The young architect wears “black and white gown of creativity” and “washes in hands in the cold water of the basin” (15). The colors are not chosen randomly. Black and white gown is the color people use while mourning death of someone or declining something. This line juxtaposes the ideas of youth, the architect’s young age and the colorlessness of his professional robe. This celebrated architect can be anybody—God, an actual human architect or the poet himself—who uses the right tool to design a plan and then leaves it to hibernate until the time the entire gamut of imagination takes off in the vibrant expression of a fresh poem. Quader’s choice of words is well-nuanced. He creates a mechanical replica of the original by choosing words in English with synonymous connotations. His command of the English language is discrete and sophisticated.

One of my favorite poems is “Crocodiles and Humans,” because I have found that the supreme truth is easily and flamboyantly written in this poem. The poem cannot but remind one of Manik Bandopadhyay’s short-story, “Sorisrip” (The Serpent) which was first published in 1939. In Sorisip, the author shows how human beings possess treacherous reptilian traits. Crocodiles are primarily aquatic creatures, and most of the time they seek comfort in the “chill taste of water” (18) and sleep out almost the whole day. Humans, on the other hand, have come to their current versions having travelled through a rapturous evolutionary passage of time. They are “greedy, frugal and spiteful and at times are coward” (18). But since we are thinking and talking creatures, we bestow the stigma of being fearful and dangerous animals upon crocodiles while holding the stature of the “best creations” on earth to ourselves. However, the intermingling of crock-human traits creates “a very close affinity” (18) when the territorial line is crossed. This world is a “modern zoo” where the crocks and humans coexist with similar characteristics. The poet proves that poetry is not a mere site of emotional discharge. It is an aesthetic way of revealing the truth.

In “Coward’s Private Essay”, the poet defines who a coward is. It is easy to say that “cowards have no weapons but their sham anger” (22). However, the poet clarifies the contextual positions of a coward in a society. He challenges “an easy simple confession from hearing, watching and experience” (22). A coward has “no useful lethal weapons, no languages, only illicit rot in the un-nourished roots of existence” (22). This poem so wonderfully narrates the critical bastion of society from which to judge a so-called coward. Nonetheless, I feel Mahmud could have translated “bhaat” as rice here. The retention of the original word does not seem necessary in this context.

“Anger, A Kind of Aurjun Twig,” metaphorically speaking, is a moral poem. Sirajee writes that “Man’s only malaise is anger” (29). Although anger is a natural human trait, it is ravaging when it goes against nature. And then “Aurjun stands alone; against power and courage, [and] anger devours love” (29). The poet compares anger to the twig of Aurjun tree. This sort of metaphysical conceit is what makes Sirajee a unique poet. The translator does not translate ‘Aurjun’ which, thus, I think, has preserved the original essence of the poem beautifully. However, he adds a footnote to convey the meaning of the tree in English that Aurjun is a kind of Niger tree.

In many other poems, such as: “Departure of Saturday”, “Swans on the Rajpoth”, the translator retains a few Bengali words. The mixing of codes primes up the English versions of the poems. For example, in “Departure of Saturday”, the poet writes,

Two cats’ fire of warmth won’t be the same on the same roof.

Or rainwaters in a Chaitra-draught don’t moister one others heart! (34)

The importance of keeping the word ‘chaitra’ unchanged is that it gives a pictorial view of the season. I read a few of Jibanananda Das’s poems in English translation. When words like ‘hemanta’ are translated as ‘autumn’, the meaning remains the same, but the essence is somehow lost. It is because the Bengali autumn differs from the English autumn. Moreover, we have six seasons in a year whereas the English celebrates four main seasons yearly. The gap can be bridged by reserving these Bengali words in an English translation. What’s wrong in that if the English-speaking readers have to google a few Bengali words to find out their meanings? It is, in fact, a good way to let the world know a few Bengali terms. When the readers find interest, they may look for learning our language!

Reviewing this book is to review the translator’s attempt of transliterating 50 Bengali poems of Habibullah Sirajee. As a reviewer, my utmost focus is on how Quader Mahmud does justice to Sirajee’s poems and to what extent he has been successful in doing so. It seems to be a jubilant attempt by  Mahmud as he has beautifully translated 50 poems. However, I feel that while compiling all the poems together, Mahmud could have made separate sections to include poems in terms of coherent and congruent themes and subject matters.

In the translator’s note, Mahmud writes, “What does he talk about here in this anthology? What are his issues? Politics? Yes, there are a lot. Love is most infrequent; passion is rare but hard-core, emotion-free?” After reading these lines, I thought I would find the thematic sections in the coming pages. However, the poems are randomly and less consciously listed in the book. If I were the editor, I would have placed poems with similar thematic appeal under a individualized section.

Nonetheless, Quader Mahmud’s attempt is praiseworthy. Translation is a risky job. The risk of crossing the linguistic and cultural barrier can risk the stature of the translator himself. It becomes riskier when the translator tries to switch the codes from his own language to the foreign one. Quader Mahmud has done a commendable job by taking a huge challenge to bring Sirajee’s Bengali poems to the attention of international readers. By undertaking this risk, he did not endanger his identity, rather saved and even enhanced his ability of playing with languages. Overall, 50 Poems by Habibullah Sirajee is a great production which will make the contemporary readers know and understand the brilliance of one of the underrated, yet significant poets of Bangladesh.

Jainab Tabassum Banu Sonali : Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature

Premier University

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