Interview with Arunava Sinha, translator of An Educated Woman in Prostitution
Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern, and contemporary Bengali fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from India and Bangladesh into English. Around sixty of his translations have been published so far. First published in 1929, An Educated Woman In Prostitution: A Memoir of Lust, Exploitation, Deceit by Manada Devi and translated by Arunava Sinha is a book that defies genres, style and even intent. That the book sold out its’ first editions when it was published in Calcutta to much public scrutiny is no surprise given the manner in which the supposed author, a woman belonging to a well to do upper caste and class family falls into prostitution and then writes to tell all about the higher echelons of society who come to her in the dead of night while spouting idealism during day time. The book gives a true reflection of Calcutta in terms of the socio political backdrop of the time it is set in, while it touches on the winds of change blowing through the elitist society, it is well possible that the author did not exist but is actually a composite of many real women who took on prostitution because of the circumstances that pushed them into it.
When you were translating An Educated Women in Prostitution did you at times feel or could you see that there are certain patterns that still continue to exist in society today?
To be honest, as a translator that is neither my focus nor would I claim to know enough on realities right now as far as theme in this book are concerned to say with any certainty that okay yes things have changed. Having said that, I do agree that whenever you’re reading a book you read it- comparing it to the times you live in so this book was no exception.
An educated woman in prostitution for me was in some ways a testimony to the age old tradition of a family’s honour being directly linked to a woman’s sexual habits. Do you think such traditions still hold value?
Yes, as a man I continue to see so many things that don’t seem to have changed from the past but there’s certainly a lot more that needs changing in the way women are perceived by men, family, by society at large. And yes, indeed so much of it has to do with what you described, like it or not, that particular identity just can’t seem to be separate. And then inevitably relationships, judgements, viewpoints all appeared to be coloured in one way or the other because of a woman’s sexual habits.
Why do you think it is important for such texts to be translated and read by a wider audience?
Well it’s important because a text such as this that has something important to say shouldn’t be locked in the language or time period it was written in- the logic behind translating anything that is good! Most importantly if we want to understand where we are, where we want to go, it is very important to understand where we’ve been. And very interestingly it is a text by a person who is not necessarily flying a flag of revolt or taking a radical position- which makes it double interesting because you are then seeing the world through the eyes of a victim- who has the abilities to rise above victim mode if only there was equality and freedom to do it, it is the everyday person who you see is imprisoned by the lack of equality, opportunities, and freedom, which should’ve been their due naturally. That is when you realise or get a sense of where the change has to begin at.
Does a script speak to you? Does it touch you in a way that you decide that okay I’ll be translating this?
Well Yes, for the most part. I’m a reader like anyone else. So I respond to books just like you respond to them, and I’m sure there are some books you respond to with the notion that it has touched you even more and you want to recommend it to your friends, right? But of course whether this is enough for a book to see the light of day in translated form is not always clear. A publisher will have to look at both sides of the coin here, it’s a combination of let’s say market and business reality and personal passion, and when the two intersect in a good space you get a published translation.
What is your idea of free woman?
You know I’m not so sure that it should be a man that shall be answering this question, it should be women who must decide this for themselves, and maybe men should just listen and do what they need to- to make it possible!
Is there an advice you’d want to give to young writers and those who aspire to be translators?
Yes, just practice more, keep practicing; READ, READ, READ! Read across languages, across genres, spend half your life reading and spend most of the other half writing. You’ve to give it everything you have got.