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Dialogic Reading of African Literature in Bengali: An Interpenetrative Image of Africa in Bengali Translation


Dialogic Reading of African Literature in Bengali: An Interpenetrative Image of Africa in Bengali Translation

Dr. Elham Hossain


Department of English

Dhaka City College

Dhaka, Bangladesh


Borrowing Bakhtinian conception of dialogism it can be said that translation is a dialogic process as it goes through dialogues between two different cultures, languages, texts and authors. Africa with its more than two thousand indigenous languages can be comprehensible to the monolingual, bi-lingual and multilingual readers of the world only through translation. In Bangladesh a vast majority of readers are mostly monolingual. So, to be comprehensible to this Bangladeshi readership African literature requires to be translated into Bengali. A considerable number of African literary texts have been translated into Bengali though in comparison with the bulk of European and American literary texts it is not a very remarkable quantity. Due to the interpenetrative and conglomerate nature of translation, Africa that appears in Bengali translation is very often tinged with Bangladeshi perspective. It happens due to the pitfalls in the communication emanating from the limitations to negotiate with the anthropological, political and historical realitiesin which the source texts are produced. Besides, translation is never apolitical because it re-creates the source text for the target readers through intertextuality and negotiations between two diverse cultures and languages. Interaction today in the world of multiculturalism and transnationalism is possible to a remarkable extent through internet and cyber technology. But in postcolonial situation in context of neo-colonization, crony capitalism, economic realities and psychic boundaries deeply impact dialogues between two diverse cultures, inevitable for creative translatability of the phenomenon related to the source text and the target text. How a translator responds to the synchronic and diachronic locations of the source texts remarkably impacts the re-creation and authentication of the target texts. This paper seeks to explore the image of Africa in Bengali translation.

Keywords: Intertextuality; bilingualism; dialogic; heteroglossia; dialogues; translatability


Translation is to be a critical activity, a dialogue that challenges the impulse of narcissism by which every society and culture wants to be pure and unadulterated. It rather opens up the chance of cross-breeding and decentering. Silvia Kadiu in her book Reflexive Translation Studies: Translation as a Critical Reflection refers to the French translator Antoine Berman and asserts:

… translating is a process through which a literary work is analysed and judged. Reflexivity in this view refers to the translator’s reflection and judgment on the original work, to the role of translation as a met text, to its function as a text commenting another text.  Through this act of criticism, the translated text makes visible hidden or latent aspects of the original, according to Berman, and as such it fulfills the ethical aim of translation, which, he argues, is to be ‘an opening, a dialogue’. (95)

Thus, translation is not only a linguistic paradigm shift but also a process of intertextuality between diverse thought process and psychological aspects. It also aptly reveals the translator’s ideological and political stance about the source text. In this connection the condition of translation of African literary texts in Bengali, especially in Bangladesh, interprets our stance about African literature invariably. A preamble, in this respect, is needed for the exploration of this issue extensively.

Translation possesses the power of knitting geography as a nation because of its being an intercultural phenomenon. It invariably expands the scope of language and reframes the boundaries of signifiers and signifieds. Dialogism in translation ensures dialogues between two different languages, cultures, author and translator, translator and readers and thus in voice and tone it becomes polyphonic and heteroglossic. In a dialogic approach readers must listen to the characters who have different viewpoints and perspectives. They differ from one another and stand face to face with their individual power of ideation and conceptualization of the situations and circumstances in which they reside. The voices of the characters never subjugate to the voice of the author or authorial finality. So, while translating a competent translator maintains his position only just of a catalyst in bringing the translated text in close to the readers without manipulating the cultural, ethical, and anthropological locations of the source text and its characters. Translation is a very crucial task as it “could be both at the service of imperialism and a site of resistance” (Malena 438).This contradictory nature invites the readers of translation studies to approach dialogically for “a better understanding of colonial power relations, of the limits of cultural transfer, and of the problematic of difference and alterity” (Ibid 438). Difference and alterity may have the chance to be emerged because translation works remarkably to eternalize the source text through the renewal of language.

Translation is the gateway to ethnographical and intercultural understanding. It immensely contributes to the transculturation process through which a community leads towards transformation. Here lies the power of translation. Actually, translation, according to Tullio Maranhao, “…can refer to not only linguistic but also cultural and inter- and intrasemiotic systems” (xi). It is because a translator writes not only what a creative writer writes, but also what a creative writer means. To grasp the meaning of the creative writer a translator must possess the capacity to bring about ethnographic negotiation with the context in which the source text is produced. This capability enables a translator to understand the translatability of the source text and in such circumstances he may avoid being branded as in the word of Italian critic Beneditto Croce ‘a traitor’ (Das 1). To obtain authenticity of a translated text a translator must be a reader first and then a writer and he should have the capacity to develop interpersonal communication. Hence, translation is known as a ‘reader centred’ task (Das 101). The most important task of a translator is to

“give his reader the same image and the same delight which the reading of the work in the original language would afford any reader educated in such a way that we call him, in better sense of word, the lover and the expert” (Lefevere, qtd. in The Translator’s Invisibility 101).

If a translator can overcome the barrier between the original language and target language he is received widely by the readers. But the difficulty that a translator of African literary texts in Bangladesh encounters is his inability to have a comprehensibility of a huge number of pidgins and creoles pose a barrier to the translators. But many of African literary texts have been produced in African languages, for example, Sotho, Kiswahili, Bantu and other indigenous languages except English, at best French. Hitherto, almost all translated texts of African literatures are written in English. Texts of African literatures in indigenous languages are not usually translated into Bengali. But it is undeniable that too many African writers of the second generation who were born after 1960 English is the first language and hence today a huge bulk of African literature is produced in English, a lingua franca of the globalized world.

But Africa is still unable to draw a considerable attention of the First World countries and the Third World countries as well. In 1963 British historian Trevor Roper boastfully enunciated that Africa, before the advent of the European colonizers, did not have any history. According to him, it may be only a ground suitable for the archeological discovery, not of any interest for the historians. It is a bog, in his views, of stagnant water. The fact is that even in the twenty first century Africa’s diverse culture, indigenous languages, wisdom and knowledge still have failed to draw considerable attention in our country. In this vacuum some translators are working very appreciably with a view to developing a dialogic relationship with Africa. But the image of Africa that they are producing in their works is interpenetrative because translation is a reconstruction of “a world out of elements that are not only of another language but also of another time, another place, an entirely other system of thought” (Augst 1).So, the translator’s negotiation with difference constitutes a renewed identity and hermeneutic urgency.

As translation re-creates the identity it is never apolitical. It is entangled with the power-structure and it dialectically negotiates with the hegemonic apparatuses of the society. It is utterly political. If viewed the history of the subcontinent it is found that “[T]ranslation became political during the colonial period” (Das 103). The first de facto Governor General of Bengal Warren Hastings took initiative to translate Dharma Shastra from Sanskrit to Persian by the local pundits and from Persian to English by some English scholars with a view to fortifying their hegemony upon the natives after knowing their epistemology. Bhagavad Gita was translated by Charles Wilkins in 1774 and many seminal books of this subcontinent were translated into English to enslave the natives epistemologically. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala was translated into English by the Asiatic Society established by William Jones with a deliberate intention to grasp Oriental epistemology into their grip and ensure their hegemony upon the local people because it is true that epistemology of any community constructs and controls it as a powerful apparatus. Hence, inevitably the subjugation of a community’s epistemology ensures the compliance and obedience of it. As translation possesses the potential to transform the source text into ‘Other’ by altering its tone and voice the colonizers with the inception of their colonial enterprises in any part of the world put much emphasis in translating the local texts of epistemology and aesthetics into their languages. Thus, they used translation as a tool of fortifying their hegemony upon the natives. In this connection, the study of translation conspicuously has a subtle relevance in the study of postcolonial theories.

In the postcolonial situation the task of translation of a foreign text goes on at a considerable speed. Now the West has become the nucleus of the power-structure and economic enterprises. Due to the germ of colonial legacy still dormant in the psyche of many of the Third World academics, a latent desire behind the act of translation works among the translators to be aided by the favor of the West.  Again, translation is related to various objectives. It cannot evade the practice that more sales beget more prestige and more recognition. Thus, translation creates a dialogic condition by establishing connectivity among many. Owing to the impact of colonial experience, and even because of inherent colonial legacy European and American literary texts are capable of occupying a very considerable space in translation studies in Bangladesh. But at the same time it is true that Bangladeshi readers do not have as much connectivity with African literature as they have with English or American or even Latin American literature. It is because of the marginalized status of African literature in the curricula of the universities of Bangladesh. Besides, racial attitude which is mostly borrowed from the white skinned people retards our interest in African literature to a significant extent. Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, Ben Okri, Camara Laye, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Farah Nuruddin, Tayeb Salih have some entrance into our curricula of the universities. Prize winning readers usually can draw more attention of the readers. With the corporatization of the global economy, readers have started to be considered as market and this market consumes the product which has more publicity and wide celebration. So, basically the prize winning authors, especially Nobel, Booker Prize or Pulitzer winning authors can occupy the focus of concentration of the readers. Wole Soyinka and Abdulrazak Gurnah won Nobel Prize in 1986 and 2021 respectively. And the events of winning the Nobel Prize are contributing to the development of connectivity of the international readership with African literature. But a huge quantity of Francophone and Lusophone African literature is almost unable to draw our attention. As a result, the study of African literature, especially produced by these prize winning authors in translation usually offers a fragmented picture of Africa to the readers beyond the boundaries of Africa. Again, because of being too much politically conscious African literature is not always able to draw considerable attention of the readers of Bangladesh because due to the ecological, social and cultural background people here are more interested in aesthetics than politics and it gets reflected in their study of literature, too. On the other hand, predominantly African literature, in broad sense, exhibits a conspicuous stance against hegemony or the existing power-structure.

Also, ideological location of the translator manipulates significantly the act of translation. The role of the translator as a mediator or communicator gets impacted by his location in the target culture. Translators of the Global South or Third World countries like Bangladesh cannot deny the global hegemony of English. It occurs due to their growth out of the unequal power-relation between the First World and the Third World. To deconstruct or challenge this power-structure and hegemony translators need to fortify their positionality as a mediator between the texts of the Third World countries and those of the First World countries. It is difficult but not impossible to challenge the insidious discursive practice of the hegemony of English as one of the major lingua franca of the First World texts. It cannot be overcome by a culture oriented approach because it enables the translators to evade ‘negative stereotyping’. In this connection, Bandia “…discusses African writing in European languages and argues that translation of their works requires a source culture oriented approach which takes particular care to avoid ‘negative stereotyping’ in the transfer into the colonizer’s language…” (Baker 140). As English is an overriding language, to understand the viability of other languages and, above all, owing to its close relation with the power-structure, it occupies the focus of the attention of the translators. So, inevitably in Bangladesh mostly the texts written in English are usually chosen for translating into Bengali. Besides, European and American texts get priority for translation because of their hegemonic status in the world literature which is now mostly patronized by the corporate economy. In competition with European and American literatures, African literature in English lags far behind. In addition, African literature in indigenous languages does not get considerable attention for translation. Only the writings produced by a few of African authors, such as, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugiwa Thiong’o, Ben Okri, Sembene Ousmane, Ama Ata Aidoo and a few other writers who use English language as their medium of writing are able to draw some attention of the translators of Bangladesh.

Cultural location of both the source texts and the translated texts contribute to the task of creating stereotypes for the context of the source texts and they significantly control the attitudes and approach of the target readers and consequently, they may derogate the source texts. These stereotypes and translation patterns tend to domesticate and dehistoricize as well as foreignize the source text because,

[T]ranslation wields enormous power in constructing representations of foreign cultures. The selection of foreign texts and the development of translation strategies can establish peculiarly domestic canons for foreign literatures, canons that conform to domestic aesthetic values and therefore reveal exclusions and admissions, centers and peripheries that deviate from those current in the foreign language. (Venuti 67)

In Bangladesh many of the texts of African literatures that have already been translated and are being still translated are found manipulated by the limitations of the translators about the context and the situations related to the realities such as cultural atmosphere, aesthetics and moral values. Actually, readers spontaneously respond to a literary work whether it is an authentic text or a translated text when they recognize themselves in it. Hence, to impress the readers, translators very often impose their own linguistic patterns, local dialectical elements, linguistic and aesthetic issues upon the foreign texts. It has a conspicuous chance to derogate the source text. For example, it is found that while translating Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War a Bangladeshi translator has put the vernacular of the local people of an area of Bangladesh. It tells upon the synchronic and diachronic location of the source text. At the same time, this domestication process tends to dislocate the source text both topographically and linguistically. The translator may have done it to exhibit the similarities between the marginalized people of two different cultures and bring the target texts closer to the target readers. But falling into the cleavage of such domestication process, source texts confront the risk of losing its genuine color and flavor emanated from the indigenous aesthetics and values. Actually, the fact is that the realities in which Achebe’s characters live are not same as those of Bangladesh in respect of their location in the existing power-structure.

Again, a very common tendency among the translators to translate the best sellers or prize-winning books can obviously be held responsible for presenting a fragmentary picture of the source culture. As soon as an author wins Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize or Nobel Prize, his/her books are translated almost overnight. Target readers also show a staunch interest to read only those books in translation that belong to the culture of the majority of the people. This disposition is mostly political because it desperately promulgates the agenda of the writers belonging to the culture of the majority and in the existing framework of corporate economy it is undeniable that the readers are a construction. They are not free in the sense that they possess the liberty of deciding what they will read and what they will not read. Hence, the literary works of the writers with less familiarity become marginalized and do not have any chance to enunciate the voice of the minority or peripheral people to the power-structure of the society in which the target readers reside. It is true, “there is always a difference between how people view themselves and their group and how they see others” (Schippers 5). Therefore, the whole body of a society’s normative disposition is constructed by these binary opposites. A considerably honest translator, while translating a major text of a major author, has the probable risk of presenting an incomplete picture of the society to which the source text belongs. In addition, in doing it, he may deliberately assume the cultural realities of a particular group as the representative cultural realities of the whole community. Psychologically interpreted, it may happen owing to the translator’s colonial bent of mind and an interest in the corporatization of the market. Also, majority of the books which are translated are originally in English language. But these books do not usually get priority for translation into the language of the ethnic people and again translation is marked specially for its gender and sexual orientation and thus, a hegemonic disposition is exposed through its unusual relationship with the readers of the ethnic groups. It happens because “[T]ranslation is a central and inescapable fact of the economic, scientific and cultural life of a minority language” (Baker 170).As translation promotes appropriation of the foreign culture within the language and culture of the majority of the people, the minority of the people remain outside. Thus, translation tends to go hand in hand with hegemony and power. This hegemonic nature of translation tends to keep the minority groups of people out of the chance of being globally updated and thus they are marginalized. Again, corporatization of the publication business significantly controls the enterprises of translation. As the translators have to depend on the publishers, and the publishers as investors are undeniably concerned about profit maximizing enterprises, they cannot evade the hegemony of English language as the best sellers and prize winning books are mostly Anglo phonic. Thus, the germination of interest in translating African literary texts goes with their international recognition. In 2021 Tanzanian born African author, now living in Britain, Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the Nobel Prize in literature. Hence, a craze is felt in Bangladesh now about reading as well as translating Gurnah’s works in Bengali. It marks the implication how the reading is regulated and controlled by some specific organizations of the power-structure. Connectivity gets some impetus only with the corporatization of the elements that determine the definition of the readers. Hence, even in post-colonial situations colonial legacy, the rise of neo-colonial temperament and crony capitalism still manipulate the nature and character of reading, writing and the act of translating.

In Bangladesh most of the readers are monolingual. They can read and write mostly in Bengali. So, African literary texts in translation have a tenuous economic status here. As the market is the first priority to be considered by the publishers, they are usually unwilling to take the risk of losing their investment. As a result, they want the bestsellers to be translated into Bengali with a view to having an access into a big market. Bestsellers have already reached the mass readers and when they are translated they cross the borders and reach more readers and thus serve the purpose of the investors. On the other hand, less familiar books do not usually draw much attention of the translators and their patrons, that is, the publishers as there is the risk of their not being widely accepted by the readership. If translated, even the translators know that they cannot occupy a permanent space in the spectrum of existing literary canon; rather they enjoy “…the status of domestic ephemera, passing with the changing interests of the broadest possible audience, falling out of print when sales diminish” (Venuti 124). This stance is common throughout the world of corporate economy and Bangladesh as a Third World country is not an exception. Professional publishers are not much willing to publish the books of less familiar authors and as such, usually the popular and prize-winning African authors are translated in Bangladesh. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugiwa Thiong’o, Ben Okri, Sembene Ousman, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Leopold Sedar Senghor and a few others are translated into Bengali, not wholly but partially. There are many African authors who write in Portuguese, French and indigenous languages and they are powerful in using well-knit content and style. Almost all of them remain out of the boundary of knowledge of Bangladeshi readership. The negotiation of both the publishers and the translators in the existing economic framework creates a linguistic and cultural stereotype which unjustly gives a gesture that African literary canon is limited and it is revolving only around political subject-matters. A huge and variegated canvas of African literature covering aesthetics, folktales, myths and romance remain out of the queries of the readers in Bangladesh.

For translating African literary texts it is essential to know that correspondences between the source language and the target language produce meanings which are always plural because both the source text and the target text or translated text are the derivatives which “consist of diverse linguistic and cultural materials…” and a source text is a repository of many semantic possibilities (Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility 18). Translation of a source text becomes successful in retaining the same aura of semantic possibilities and reproducing the flavor if the translator possesses the capacity to accommodate all these dimensions of meanings. A translator has to overcome every nuance of the original text but this task becomes difficult when he fails to bring about a negotiation between the source culture and the target culture. A translator does not merely translate; he also interprets and adapts the source text. Hence, a proper dialogic negotiation between the source text and the target text is a must and it authentically presents the source culture to the target readers to a great extent. In Bangladesh some distinguished translators are producing some remarkable translations. As documentation is the first and foremost condition of appropriate translation, it should be addressed by the translators to represent Africa truly. To the readers and this task will obviously perpetuate the source texts. In this connection, translators like Shamsuzzaman Khan, Kabir Chowdhury, Syed Shamsul Haque, Asad Chowdhury, Kajal Bandyopadhyay, Khaliquzzaman Elias and several others have achieved accolade in translating some of the major literary oeuvre of Senghor, Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe and many other African litterateurs. They have also translated a handful of folktales, speeches, interviews, dramas and novels. All their translations manifest the authorial voices of the source texts. Their translations have achieved viability to a great extent because of their capacity to bring about a correspondence, not always with physical contact with African culture and languages, but with their extensive and sincere study of Africa with all its diversities. But as translation is not apolitical, only translating the major authors translators may knowingly or unknowingly stereotype the image of Africa. Venuti, in his book The Translator’s Invisibility claims that translation is a site in which a cultural other is manifested. But it is also true if the translator can bring about intertextuality between the self and the other, then the distance between the source text and the target text can be overcome to a considerable extent. And in this connection, the above mentioned translators have exhibited their potential in their translated texts.

The volume or quantity of translation of African literature in Bengali should have been much more in comparison with the translation of English or American or Latin American literary texts. In this connection, it is relevant to mention that the study of African literature in Bengali is not new. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his famous poem ‘Africa’ in Bengali in 1936 after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Buddha Dev Bose composed ‘Chayachanna hey Africa’ (Trans. ‘O Shadowed Africa’). Both the poets with great compassion depict Africa with all its wealth of cultural diversity, ethnographical resources and geographical spectrum. They have criticized the colonial enterprises in Africa. In 1968 the then Bardhhaman House, now Bangla Academy, published a periodical named Parikraman. It was edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman and three valuable essays on African literatures and cultures were published in this periodical and “Hasan Azizul Haque, Ahmed Humayyun and Safdar Mir reflected on various pros and cons of African literature and its future” (Hossain 235). Their focus of delineation fell mostly on political aspects, such as Africa’s colonial experience and its response to the advent of colonial enterprises. Veteran author and linguist Suniti Kumar Chattapadhyay composed several highly informative essays on culture and ethnographical aspects of Africa. All these essayists, poets and translators have drawn a considerable amount of interest of the Bangladeshi readership to African literature and culture.

True, Comparative Literature Departments of universities can play a very crucial role in patronizing translation studies. Cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary translations and inter-lingual translations are usually encouraged by the Comparative Literature departments of the universities. Inclusion of more African literary texts in the curricula of the Comparative Literature Departments along with the development of a dialogic relationship will inspire the task of translating African literary texts. Translation without developing dialectical relationship with Africa may have the risk of offering a fragmentary picture of the diverse spectrum of African literature. It is undeniable that Comparative Literature Departments of universities are considered to be a potent apparatus and they shape and reframe the attitude and ways of viewing things of the learners. In the capitalist economic framework these departments are not out of the direct control of the hegemonic power-structure. Remaining under the directives of these institutions the readers may fail to pick up the cultural nuances, contextual contents and the circumstances out of which these literary texts emerge and consequently, they may run the risk of falling into a false consciousness that African literatures do not deserve considerable attention. Besides, the biases and prejudices borrowed from the colonial legacy and racial complexities invariably interfere the insight into African literature.

But it is optimistic that at present some initiatives are being taken from different corners to translate African literary texts in Bengali. With a view to bringing about a dialectical connectivity with African literatures Centre for Studies in African Literatures and Cultures, Dhaka has been working since 2014. It is working for inspiring the study of African literatures in Bangladesh. Its regular periodical Africar Alo publishes translation, essays, book reviews and interviews of African authors. It is found now that young people are becoming more and more interested in African literatures and cultures and they are translating fictions, interviews, dramas and short stories and getting them published in little magazines and periodicals occasionally. If patronized by the state, translation of African literary texts in Bengali will immensely contribute to the development of Bengali literature through intertextuality and it is undeniable that intertextuality is the reality of the present globalized and cybernetic world.

Works Cited

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Baker, Mona and Gabriela Saldanha (ed). Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. Routledge, 2008.

Das, Bijay Kumar. A Handbook of Translation Studies. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors (P) Ltd, 2003.

Hossain, Dr. Elham. Bishwasahityer Katha. BangalaGobeshona, 2021.

Kadiu, Silvia. Reflexive Translation Studies: Translation as a Critical Reflection. UCL Press, 2019.

Malena, Anne. “Translation Studies”. Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studiesedited by John C. Hawly, Emmanuel S. Nelson. Greenwood Press, 2004, pp 437-439.

Maranhao, Tullio and Bernhard Streck (ed). Translation and Ethnography: The Anthropological Challenge of Intercultural Understanding. The University of Arizona Press, 2003.

Schipper, Mineke. Imagining Insiders: Africa and the Question of Belonging.Cassell, 1999.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Routledge, 1995.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandal of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. Routledge, 1998.