Author Nandana Dev Sen On Translating Her Mother Poet Nabaneeta’s Work

Apr 25, 2022, 12:51 IST

NANDANA DEV SEN

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Author and actor Nandana Dev Sen had been translating the work of her mother, prolific Bengali poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen, for years. She talks about doing it for her latest work – a book for a world audience

I started translating my mother’s poems years ago, as an undergraduate at Harvard, and it was driven purely by necessity,” starts the talented Nandana Dev Sen. “Ma was often invited to give poetry readings, but little of her work was available in English.” Little did she know that, one day, the dream of having her work published in that language would come true.
NANDANA DEV SEN
Having grown up in a home with three generations of poets in the poetry-loving city of Kolkata, Nandana admits that her mother took her and her sister to so many poetry meets that she used to complain as a child that they rarely went to the cinema or the zoo. In hindsight, she is grateful for the exposure.

“Working on Acrobat in the aftermath of losing Ma was overwhelming; I could hear her voice with every poem – she was so close, yet so far away.”

A writer, child-rights activist and award-winning actor, Nandana has to her credit six children’s books, translated into over 15 languages, but her latest, Acrobat (Juggernaut) is one that is closer to her heart than words can express.

NANDANA DEV SEN

It is a collection of the poems of her mother, the prolific Bengali poet, Padma Shri Nabaneeta Dev Sen, translated into English for a world audience. As thrilled as the ailing Nabaneeta had been about signing the contract for Acrobat, passed away two weeks later. Reminding herself every day that she was gone was tough for Nandana. “Working on Acrobat in the aftermath of losing Ma was overwhelming; I could hear her voice with every poem – she was so close, yet so far away,” she says.

“As a translator, I had to ‘enter’ the text, claim it as my own, and it was only then that I discovered the many layers of her emotional history, including the breakdown of my parents’ marriage.” 

For Nandana, delving into six decades of Nabaneeta’s poetry all at once was like reading an unedited journal of her life. An aspect that she had taken for granted was her intimacy with the poems, because she loved her mother’s work and knew it by heart. “Much in the same way that we take our mother’s love for granted, we assume we understand everything about it,” she says. “But, as a translator, I had to ‘enter’ the text, claim it as my own, and it was only then that I discovered the many layers of her emotional history, including the breakdown of my parents’ marriage,” the author tells us. Nabaneeta was married to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

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A question that Nandana was constantly riddled by was: “Putting aside the many linguistic, cultural and technical challenges of translating poetry, how do you find the language to articulate the grief of someone you love, when you are lost in your own grief for her?” Translating her mother’s work became a survival tool for her, too, just as it had been for her mother.

“A question I kept asking myself was, how would Ma have written this poem in English, delivering all the nuances?” 

One of the biggest challenges for a translator of a literary work lies in drawing a balance between the translations being effortless in their flow and, at the same time, being faithful to the original work. It was not easy for Nandana. “A question I kept asking myself was, how would Ma have written this poem in English, delivering all the nuances?” she remembers. “In the process, many of my versions grew closer to English adaptations rather than clear-cut translations. In making this choice, I was emboldened by Ma’s wholehearted endorsement of my earlier renderings.”

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“At every phase of her life, her poetry reflected the truth of her deepest, most intimate self. I wanted to strike the perfect balance.” 

While Nandana wanted the collection to accurately represent six decades of her mother’s luminous poetry, she needed to pick pieces in a manner that covered the very core as well as the broad range of the work. Maintaining the delicate balance was essential. “At every phase of her life, her poetry reflected the truth of her deepest, most intimate self. I wanted to strike the perfect balance – between older and newer poems, longer and shorter, uplifting or soulful ones, poems with and without rhyme – poetry that illuminated every stage of her life as a woman, and an artist.”

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The author has great faith in the empowering and healing power of poetry. “It’s heartening, though not surprising at all, that, across the world, poetry has seen a huge resurgence during the pandemic,” she says. When Nabaneeta passed away, she retreated into it. “Not only poetry by my mother, but Rabindranath Tagore, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver…” In the bargain, she found her favourite (well, one among many) by Nabaneeta – The Lamp. “My mother wrote it after my grandmother died, on her birthday. It’s a beautiful poem about the relationship between the two, but also about the life-giving power of words – how my grandmother refused to go to bed so she could keep reading all night, how important it was for her to keep engaging with the world of words.”

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For Nandana, this poem reads like one of many conversations she used to have with her mother, even when she was gravely ill. “It was impossible to make her stop writing and go to sleep. Ma’s last column, dictated from her bed in the middle of the night, came out a week before she died; in it, she had excitedly announced the signing of Acrobat,” she enthuses. It is no wonder, then, that this book is closer to her heart than most others.

All images courtesy: Nandana Dev Sen
Book jacket courtesy: Juggernaut

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