Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bengali, by golly!

A couple of years ago, I bemoaned the fact that Tolkien’s works haven’t been translated into any of the major languages of India. There has been gossip about a Marathi translation of The Hobbit for years, but this is apparently no more than legend. As part of my previous discussion, I wondered whether the lack could partly be explained: “[s]ince nearly everyone in India speaks English already, why bother translating Tolkien into Hindi (or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali or Punjabi or …).” Well, a Bengali “translator” has emerged! (For the rest of this post, I will refer to him by him nom de plume, Aniruddha.)

This past May, I received a truly unexpected email message from Aniruddha, and along with it a sample of a dozen or so pages from a Bengali “translation” of The Lord of the Rings. I have to put translation in quotation marks, because further conversation with the author revealed that it’s not a translation in the strict sense, but rather a close re-telling. From the author’s description, this re-telling is much better than some of the Russian “translations” of Tolkien. He tells me, “I have used Tolkien's own words (translated into Bengali, of course) in 90% of my narration, [but] it can’t really be called a translation of the book, since I haven’t gone word for word and page for page of Tolkien’s book. So, it is technically a re-telling, with the Bengali reader in mind, with extensive illustrations and maps, all with Bengali captions.” Aniruddha’s illustrations, the ones I’ve seen, reveal a strong influence by the Peter Jackson vision, as you can see above.

The manuscript — all 550 A4 pages of it — has been in private circulation “between the author’s close friends and relatives” in Bengal since the beginning of this year. Aniruddha offered to send me a copy, but the shipping costs were prohibitive — and there is the minor hurdle that I don’t read Bengali! :) It has not been published, though the author is quite interested in publication. He had spoken with some Bengali publishers, but found them totally nonplussed. I pointed him in the direction of the Tolkien Estate, whom he had not yet thought of approaching. Last week, I got an update. Aniruddha was kind enough to send a photo taken of him in the Eagle and Child, on holiday in Oxford in June. He also told me he had heard back from Adam Tolkien, who directed him to contact HarperCollins in the U.K. He did so and awaits their reply — an unfavorable one, I would expect, for two reasons: (1) the financial consideration, and (2) the fact that this is not a direct, word-for-word translation. Still, you never know.

What a fascinating turn of events! I feel privileged to have gotten an early, and inside, look at the project. Even if this version never reaches a larger audience, as seems likely, one has to admire the effort. I myself would always prefer a literal, word-for-word translation, but it sounds as if Aniruddha’s Bengali version is very close, at least. And judging by the sentiments he expresses in his Foreword (below), he seems to be approaching the matter from more or less the right mindset. Of course, he has made some decisions I don’t agree with (for example, the invention of dialogue, or rearrangement of the narrative structure to put simultaneous events together in the narrative, further signs of the influence of Peter Jackson). Here is the Foreword, so you can judge for yourselves:
The objective of this book is to introduce Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ story to the average Bengali reader, young and old. And, in the process, bring out the great lessons the epic holds for the modern world: the value of friendship, the futility of war, the dominance and apparent invincibility of evil, which the forces of good find difficult to destroy, and the sheer will-power and determination which bring about such ‘eucatastrophic’ changes. That nobody is too small in this world, and sorrow can also be turned into great strength.

Unfortunately, Tolkien’s works are not appreciated in Bengal (and in India as a whole) as much as it should be. Not yet at least: Peter Jackson’s great cinematic effort and the wide English language readership in India notwithstanding. It is hoped that this Bengali rendition (or ‘re-telling’, if you will) will motivate erudite Bengali scholars to read Tolkien’s original books, and maybe someday somebody more skillful would find enough inspiration to do a full Bengali (or Hindi, or other major Indian languages) translation of Tolkien’s entire works.

Even though this Bengali rendition does not follow the original text to the letter, the underlying structure of the story has been essentially retained, and the Bengali reader is taken through the range and beauty and historical depth of Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation. As much as possible, that is, within the limited space of a (comparatively) short narration.

To fulfill these objectives, many illustrations and maps in Bengali have been added to enliven the story (altogether 135 illustrations and maps in the entire 50-chapter book in 3 volumes). Synopses (Sankhhiptosar) have been added before the beginning of the second and third volumes to bring the reader up to speed, which recapitulates the previous events of a complicated and evolving plot.

The ‘time-line’ of the story has been ‘matched’, so to speak, without taking away the suspense and mystery of the story-line. Especially in the second and third volumes, simultaneous events have been more or less put together, sometimes in the same chapter, unlike in the original books. So there is no need for the reader to go back and forth to understand the sequence of events.

For example, Tolkien’s ‘The Two Towers’ is divided into two ‘books’: the first tells the story of Aragorn’s adventures in Rohan for about 10 days after the breaking of the Fellowship, and then the second ‘book’ returns to Frodo and his journey towards Mordor at an earlier date. The Bengali rendition follows a more conventional approach, telling both storylines as they develop, rather than treating them as entirely separate. Similarly for ‘The Return of the King’.

Some tidbits of dialogue have been added here and there, and occasional adjustments made to characters to make the story more sensible to the Bengali reader. While these do not affect the progress of the fundamental plotline, they are nonetheless different from the original text.

For example, Aragorn’s initial ‘reluctance’ on Kingship and Arwen’s expanded role are adopted from Peter Jackson’s film version, as also Haldir’s army in Helm’s Deep and the Ring in Osgiliath.

I do hope you enjoy reading the Bengali book, and I look forward to your comments, free and frank!

— Aniruddha
Calcutta, February 2010


  1. And 3) the Estate always says "No".

  2. The FishWife7/23/2010 3:52 PM

    Fascinating. :)

  3. Harm J. Schelhaas7/23/2010 6:16 PM

    «And 3) the Estate always says "No".»

    Indeed. Which can be a serious misjudgement, as in the case of the Tolkien-Schuchart correspondence, of considerable interest, not only to the readers and researchers of the Dutch translation of LotR, but to all scolars taking part in debates on and research of translating Tolkien in general, and in the hands of a competent Flemish scolar, whom, unfortunatly, the Tolkien Estate appeared not to be taking seriously, at least at the time when the situation came to my notice (and that of others, among them Mark Hooker) in 2006.

    In this case however, I would tend to agree with the Estate if it said “No”, although with regrets. For one, this reteller seems to think the misguided attempts at ‘improving’ the story by Peter Jackson c.s. are preferable to telling the story as the author actually intended it, which seems to go hand in hand with his setting out as lessons to be learned from the epic those that Jackson c.s. have said they have found there, and not those that the author stated as more important (and also hand in hand with movie-inspired illustration).

    For another, if this reteller considers himself competent to execute a retelling fit for publication, he should also be competent (or able to acquire competence) to produce a faithful translation, instead of hoping that some future Begali scolar might be prompted (or piqued?) by his retelling into making a proper translation. However driven, accomplished and conscientious this reteller is, however much he has exerted himself without any expectation of recompense, I think his efforts have been misdirected.

    In adapting from one medium to another, the technical or stylistic demands of the target medium may necessitate changes. Many people seem to regard this trivial truth as an excuse for any amount of maltreatement, from its general triviality no necessity can follow in specific cases. Rather, necessity has to be proven on substantive grounds in each case. My view is that where narrative media are concerned, that necessity can be proven in only a fraction of cases where the trivial generality is commonly given in argument. So also was Tolkien’s view, as it appears consistently from his letters and interviews.

    But all this applies when transferring to a different medium. Where there is no change of medium, it can not be grounds for the necessity of changes, no matter by what detour. Transferring changes, made in another medium on the grounds they were demanded by the change of medium (however unproven the claim may be), back to the original medium, is always fallacious.

    In translating a work into another language in the same medium, the author deserves that the story as he wrote it and intended it, with all extra-narrative elements that he put in there, is rendered into the target language as faithfully as that language allows. No one should have steel sold to them as mithril.

  4. Hi Jason,

    In your older post you quote René van Rossenberg’s review of A. Bigger's article "Love Song of the Dark Lord". That review seemed to me far too negative. The article, for all its shortcomings, contains much food for thought, though in my opinion it shouldn't have been presented as a matter of translation but of *reception*, which is what it is really about. Most of the topics it discusses apply whether you are attempting a translation or you are reading the original but happen to have "the religious and cultural background of Indian recipients". Even if when I read it I didn't have the remotest idea about most of the topics the article touches on, and I still don't, I found several passages thought-provoking, like the discussion of the role of the Ring, which "rules them all" not by physical force but by means of temptation and addiction; "The Ring does not attack one's body but one's soul!". According to Bigger, this is a pivotal point of contrast: "the soul is in most Indian philosophical systems so completely separated from the world that it is - though it is possible to delude it - impossible to seduce it at all. ... In fact, the idea of a completely evil being seducing the others to become evil themselves is unfamiliar to Indian tradition". I don't know how accurate this is as a description of the facts, but the matter deserves consideration per se, which may even shed light by contrast on a Westerner's understanding of the story.

    When it comes to translating/retelling, I would expect a conscientious translator to weigh issues like these, not in order to recast the story in an Indian frame (something which Bigger does not seem to advocate) but to try to tell the same story in spite of them. So, although the problem of departure from the original narrative is important, I would find it even more interesting to read what difficulties due to cultural separation Aniruddha had to face (if any), and how he addressed them.

  5. @FishWife: Yes, and see what responses it has now brought forth! :)

    @Harm: I agree with all the major points you made in your thoughtful and very articulate comments. And Mark and I have been discussing the “Dutch Samizdat” offline as well. I may have more to say about that soon, too.

    @Hlaford: Fair enough. As I said in the older post, I hadn’t read Bigger’s essay (and still haven’t). If we can extract René’s assessment from its context, then I still say he makes the kind of points I would make myself about translation and culture; however, you are right that these issues can be quite thorny.

    Reception studies are in their infancy in Tolkien studies, and much more remains to be done. In the end, though, I find myself often thinking, if The Lord of the Rings is so culturally alien to, say, India or China, then how do we explain the popularity of the book there, and of the films? If the book is popular in India in English, what’s to prevent translation into Hindi, Gujarati, Panjabi, or even Sanskrit? And it has been translated into Chinese, in spite of differences in cultural markers (e.g., which colors are associated with evil or death). If the book came across to most readers in these cultures are neo-colonialist or Western-exceptionalist or what have you, shouldn’t they be less popular?

    And it is, of course, inevitable that some readers will view Sauron’s Ring as a metaphor for the spread of Western temptations across the world, etc. Such readings would have disappointed Tolkien, but they have their place (limited to the domain of “applicability”, as understood from a foreign vantage). One of the pluses of the Tolkien Encyclopedia (Drout, 2006) is that is offers a series of entries on the reception of his works in many countries and cultures (though, unfortunately, India isn’t one of them).

  6. Fascinating to see that Tolkien’s works have become the raw material for other artist’s works, transforming them into something new – now also in the written domain.
    After all, Tolkien worked on such transformed works professionally, and created them themselves (the Sigurd & Gudrún poems come to mind).

    Nevertheless, I’m sceptical about the quality of Aniruddha’s work in comparison to the ‘original’, and fully agree that the Estate should not allow it to be published as an official translation.

  7. Harm J. Schelhaas7/29/2010 5:42 PM

    Thank you, Jason, for your compliments.

    The “Dutch Samizdat” is something different from the Schuchart correspondence, though they are of course related, both of them having to do with translating LotR into Dutch, and therefor both touching on translating Tolkien in general.

  8. Harm, I will defer to your and Mark’s expertise, of course. Mark has sent me an essay he wrote on the “Dutch Samizdat”, but I have not yet had the time to read it.

  9. Harm J. Schelhaas8/02/2010 7:56 PM

    Ah, I'd be interested which version he sent you. I know it (at least under that title) as published in Dutch in Lembas 113 and as published in English in Translating Tolkien: Text and Film, Cormarë Series No 6. I think it was also published elsewhere. I also know of three subsequent articles more or less in continuation: ‘Schuchart vs. Mensink-van Warmelo: Round Two’ in Lembas Extra 2004; ‘Tolkien’s Tangled Text: Parsing Poetic Parlance’ in Lothelanor 14; and ‘Een opnieuw herziene uitgave van In de Ban van de Ring’ (‘A re-revised edition of the Dutch Lord of the Rings´) in Lembas 116.

    All of these are concerned with comparing two Dutch translations of LotR and their solutions of several translation problems. These are the official translation (in two versions, in the last mentioned article even in three versions) and one circulating unofficially on the internet, more particulary on Russian sites. Hence the first title. The Lothelanor article also very briefly looks at other translations, in German and slavic languages; there is of course much more in this vein in Mark’s later publications, most notably in The Hobbitonian Anthology.

    But all of this is done on the basis of published texts and published or circulating translations, there is nothing there from or even on the Tolkien-Schuchart correspondence.

    Incidentally, there are more versions of the official Dutch translation than Mark compared in those articles, at that time he was not aware of their existence; and since I have discussed those with him at our Lustrum in 2006 I have become aware of even more sub-versions. I really should write up some good Prolegomena on the gallery of versions. I have had that in mind for some years, for publication in Lembas and perhaps in Beyond Bree, or maybe The Tolkien Collector, but I haven't found the time for it.

  10. I think the version Mark sent me was from Translating Tolkien. You should definitely write up something on the constellation of Dutch versions. The Tolkien Collector would be an ideal venue for that kind of discussion, I think. I, for one, would be quite interested to read it. (Mark, surely, for another.)

  11. Harm J. Schelhaas8/04/2010 12:32 AM

    Short addendum to my previous post: Thanks to Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (who mention it in their Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide) I’ve found out since yesterday that Mark’s article ‘A Newly Revised Dutch Edition of The Lord of the Rings’, that I only knew in its Dutch translation in Lembas 116, was published in English in Translation Journal 9, no. 1 (January 2005).

  12. Saswata Ghosh10/05/2010 4:56 AM

    For some time now I was wondering why Tolkien was never translated in Bengali, a language, which otherwise attempted translating/adopting most of at least the english lit works (especially children's lit). the date of publication of The Hobbit falls within what may be called the golden days of Bengali translation. Incidentally I have come across your post, and am interested to know more about the manuscript, if possible, to read it myself. Could I get the email of aniruddh?
    As for his claim to be a reteller, I believe none posting above may judge. It may as well be a posing consistent with a cultural particularism which is fashionable these days.

  13. Hello, Saswata. Thanks for your interest. I don’t want to give out Aniruddha’s email address without his permission, but if you send me yours (to my email address, which you’ll find in my profile, above), I will give it to him, and he can choose whether he would like to contact you. I know that seems rather tedious, but it’s how I’d prefer to handle it. :)

  14. Hi Saswata. Glad to see your interest in a bengali LOTR. I have read Aniruddha's bengali manuscript. I also have a few 'sample' pages and pictures in bengali in PDF form which Aniruddha sends to interested readers by email. I can mail this to you, if you send your email address to me (