Interview _ Rinita Banerjee

Rinita Banerjee is a freelance copy editor and translator.

A recent graduate with a Master's degree in English from the North Carolina State University in the US, she worked, until recently, as an editorial intern at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and has earlier edited social sciences and literature in translation books at an academic publishing outside in India.

She also writes short stories and flash fiction. Her work includes "The Door" and "Keeping" both of which have been featured in Tuck Magazine, an online, political, human rights and arts magazine.

In this interview, Rinita Banerjee talks about her writing, poetry and Journeys in Translation.

How would you describe the writing that you do?

The writing that I do draws from the images, silences and noise that surround me and are within me.

Sometimes it draws from the infinitesimal moments that one would really pass on as insignificant: like a sigh, a smell, a streak, a twitch, a line; it is like I am keen on what is in between the pages of a book when someone holds its pages in the middle and runs the thumb over the rest, the pages moving very fast till one reaches the end; one could even suddenly stop in between, out of nowhere. I am also keen on absorbing the ruffle the action causes.

It is like a photograph of a single thing that holds my attention completely. I feel that sometimes an emotion at a moment is so engulfing, so all-encompassing, that an explanation of why it is there becomes insignificant. Even what follows, is not important. Therefore, I think I would perhaps never attempt a novel because there, I would have to give away the mystery surrounding the moment. I am not interested in complete, finished, well-rounded wholes; I am in favour of the momentary, rough on the edges, tilted, dark and dark and dark little things, important things, things that are to be guarded, kept, sheltered.

A lot of such dark and dark and dark little things, images, moments, and one very important phrase that a dear friend of mine said to me once.

Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?

Everything I read, observe, speak or am silent about, and absorb, and even some that I seem to filter out – all of that influences me.

It is difficult to point out one single inspiration. There is my intuition, what belongs to my heart essentially. Along side that, there is a constant grappling with different voices in my head; I am always arguing with those when I intend to express something. Between my intuition, and those voices, I begin to write better – I think.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

This is a very difficult question to answer.

I feel like I am not the kind of person who thinks that as a writer I am very separated from the kind of person I am. So, the stories I am keen to tell, somewhere, always are influenced by what I have felt at a certain point in time. Therefore, I am always in a quandary about whether I should write more memoirs or whether I should attempt fiction. Just that I can invent more and interpret more if it is fiction, whereas in a memoir – the interpretation I have of a situation puts on me the burden of expressing that as the only truth – and that terrifies me a little. To keep writing separate from my personal experiences is a task.

Journeys in Translation encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) and to share the translations on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?

My most significant achievement as a writer is perhaps yet to come. So far, I have had two of my short stories published in Tuck Magazine, an online UK magazine.

But I think, the best I have written so far is a memoir of my experience of my father (who passed away several years ago) that I wrote as part of my Capstone project towards the end of my graduate program. A well-published professor of mine said it ought to be published. I was overwhelmed by this feedback and very humbled. Overwhelmed because I wrote very differently from many of my American classmates; my voice was very different perhaps because I came from a very different culture. And so I was never a very confident writer. The praised memoir was one I had written non-stop across perhaps two days; although it wasn’t very long, it was exhausting because it was so personal. When I received the feedback with literally no edits on it, I was aghast. I never want to publish it though. But yes, this was perhaps most significant for me since I had brought together the ability to tell a story through writing that was convincing and strong, and was very authentic.

The fact that I am working on a translation of a children’s bilingual book (a very thin one, illustrated too) with an Indian publisher currently waiting for the first proofs is also significant to me! It will be my first published translation.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

I came to know of the Journeys in Translation project through Facebook, and I believe I wrote to Ambrose Musiyiwa thereafter to know the details. Since I am hugely interested in translation, I was immediately interested in the project since it would have helped me exercise the skills I thought I had with regard to translating/editing.

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work you put into the project?

I had thought that it would be an easy affair – after all Bengali is my mother-tongue and I have studied it at school too. However, it has been challenging – translating these poems into Bengali. That’s also because I am used to doing translations into English.

Further, I think the most challenging part of this work has been to not to get lost in the technicalities of translation – for choosing the right words to express the right layer of meaning has preyed on my mind every time I started translating. And then the next level of it was to choose a sentence construction, that even though contesting the original constructions in many ways, related the meaning in a more fuller way. And that would affect my view of the poem in totality.

I almost felt the need to sit with the author and discuss the nuance of a certain situation or words used, to attempt a good translation of it. So I have spent a lot of time on the poems I translated so far. In “Waiting”, for instance, I got stuck with the usage of pronouns because third person pronouns aren’t gender specific in Bengali. Again, and I think I mention this as part of the post I uploaded at the time of uploading the poem: I found it problematic to translate “There were more than she thought” literally, exactly. Adding “she thought” in Bengali was making the sentence construction rather cumbersome and not sounding right; hence, I stuck to the “intended” meaning of “there were more” in number than she had imagined till before she saw them. So I added a word shonkhaaye or “in number.”’

I am always dissatisfied with my translations. That is also because I am a finicky person. I like to see the threads as I weave something. That is most annoying too, because the process tires me out, to keep going back and redoing an attempt to translate. In this context, consulting with my mother has been extremely helpful. In translating “Children of War” – I was getting stuck in between the voice of the speaker which I took to be a child’s and the diction that was best relating the meaning/ethos of the poem. So, my mother and I were into a long discussion on how to relay the meaning of “suffer” or even “milk mixed with fear”.

The literal translation of the word “suffer” in Bengali, in the context of the poem was sounding frivolous. And so I had competing thoughts mainly put in my head by my Ma. A word I used, jorjorito, to render the meaning of “suffer,” literally perhaps, means, to be oppressed by, or ridden with – but it sounded right in that I was able to interpret the sense of the sentence better.

Even for the title “Children of War” – it was a significant discussion that my mother and I had. For children afflicted by war, war is everyday, life is war, war is quotidian. So, my mother asked if “Children of War” could reel in “life” as a concept. We discussed this and titled it in Bengali as Jeebon-shawngramey biddho shishu – “jeebon” as in life. (I am still debating about it in my head.)

There was always also the tussle between using passive against active sentence-constructions – the former sound better and more correct, but then this is a child’s voice (how I saw it). But a child who has learnt to live with a gun as best friend, how both raw and grown up can he/she be – are questions that helped determined the course of the translation. Conversations with my mother, and thinking aloud and for longer periods of time, have immensely helped tackle the translations.

As part of Journeys in Translation, Rinita Banerjee has translated Pam Thompson's "Dislocation", Kathleen Bell's "Waiting", Penny Jones' "What’s In A Name" and Malka Al-Haddad's "Children of War" from English into Bengali.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

There is certainly immense value in initiatives like Journeys in Translation. This project is important because it helps us understand that words uttered in one language are words communicating emotion; and emotion is not shackled by language. This project allows this thought to transcend categorized identities like that of “refugee.” Refugees are, ultimately, human beings; so their pain, joys, experiences are no different from those of other human beings and are, thus, equally important. Their experiences need understanding, since they are worth that – understanding and empathy – emotions we must all be capable of.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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