Before I moved to Dhaka in Bangladesh for work-related reasons in October 2021, I knew almost nothing about the literature of the country, which has around 165 million inhabitants. Prose and poetry authors in Bangladesh publish mainly in Bengali and English, with a small number of authors writing in Urdu or other minority languages. Bengali / Bangla is also spoken in neighboring West Bengal. In India, Bengali is the most widely spoken language after Hindi.
Although Bengali is one of the ten languages in the world with the highest number of native speakers, the literature written in this language is hardly noticed outside of South Asia. This may be due to the fact that there are few translators who can translate Bengali texts into another language, but also because there is still little interest in the so-called western world in literature that does not repeat the orientalist cliché of the “exotic” India and its neighboring countries, a cliché that is so common in most English-language books or films coming from South Asia – even when there are of course positive exceptions. Even a Rabindranath Tagore was specifically awarded the Nobel Prize for his works written in English – his Bengali texts are far less well received to this day.
I would therefore like to take the opportunity to present works on my blog that were written in Bangla but are also available in English translation. The Bangladeshi or Bengali literature is diverse and there are interesting authors to discover. Today I would like to present an anthology on contemporary Bangladeshi poetry edited and translated by Hassanal Abdullah. Abdullah has lived in the United States for a long time and has long made a name for himself as a poet, translator and editor.
In this collection, 38 poets from Bangladesh are presented in the order of their date of birth, each with three to eight poems. The period extends from the partition of India in 1947 to the present. This large selection alone shows the diversity of modern poetry in Bangladesh. In addition to a foreword by Nicholas Birns, professor at New York University, there is a contribution by the translator and editor in which he goes into greater detail on the principles according to which he selected and translated the poems. He particularly points out that he has gone to great lengths to translate the tone and peculiarities of the style of the various authors into English. Numerous experts helped him polishing and improving the rough drafts, but also in some cases the authors themselves. The translator particularly emphasizes that each of these translation projects is, to a large extent, teamwork. In my opinion, the result turned out well!
The poetry collected in this anthology shows the poet as an individual, man or woman (there are some excellent female poets in Bangladesh), Muslim or Hindu, sophisticated Dhaka-based intellectual or poor poet from the rural area. Some poems are inspired by folk songs and poems, other clearly know modern world literature well and show the influence of modernist poetry. Universal topics as love, family life, loneliness, political struggle – many of the authors were involved in the 1952 Language Movement and the Liberation War 1971. Spirituality and the role of religion are also reflected in the poetry of this anthology. One example by Shamsur Rahman, probably the most prolific and popular poet in Bengal after Tagore and Kazi Nasrul Islam, the two founding fathers of modern Bengal poetry:
Five Travelers Roaming around a lot, they, five of them, Finally, before dusk, came to sit under An age-old tree to alleviate their tiredness. A bird from within the branches, Asked, “Tell me, who are you?” Answering the question, the travelers Got deep into their conscience. One of them said, “I do have a great Interest in Hinduism.” The second one’s voice sounded Like a flute, “I am a Buddhist monk.” The third one said, “I am a devout Christian.” Immediately, uttered the fourth one, “I submitted myself to the lord of the land And sky; I am a Muslim.” But, the fifth traveler, smiled a bit, Holding an insect in his hand And showing great curiosity, He replied, “I am nothing but a Human.” (tr. Hassanal Abdullah)
An overview with the short biographies of the authors and the references close this beautiful volume. Anyone who would like to get an overview of the diversity of contemporary poetry from Bangladesh will be well served with this anthology. The book was made possible by financial support by the Queens Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Well done!
Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry (tr. Hassanal Abdullah), Cross Cultural Communications / New Feral Press, New York 2019
© Hassanal Abdullah and CrossCultural Communications / New Feral Press for the translation, 2019 © Shamsur Rahman, 2019 © Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-22. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.