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« Psychological Science: The Theory of Test Reliability – Correcting 100 Year Old Mistakes – Part 2 (Norman Costa) | Main | Grief: Is it a mental disorder? »

January 25, 2012


Interesting reviews. I know nothing of the Bengali supernatural folklore tradition and am now quite interested to read a collection of such stories, although these reviews more inspire me to search for a better collection than to read this one.

The forms of superstition are parochial, but the underlying themes--as everyone from Jung to Joseph Campbell has explored-- are often peculiarly universal. The idea of the vengeful or sorrowful spirit unable to let go of an interrupted life as easily encompasses King Hamlet's Ghost, a yiddish dybbuk, or the ghosts of Japanese monogatari. Although the parochial "parish" is far from my own cultural backyard, I very much enjoyed Ueda's Ugetsu Monogatari (Columbia Press paperback version): 17th century Japanese ghost stories featuring women with long dripping hair and bugged-out eyes returning to haunt unfaithful lovers, serpents seducing unsuspecting samuri by taking the false shape of maidens, reclusive monks transformed into Kurtz-like cannibals, etc. I liked them so much that I've been meaning to read the early 20th century Tono Monogatari, discussed by one of Andrew's friends, Robert Ito, in an article in The Believer.

[Related aside: Discussing monogotari, a friend told me that when she wouldn't follow her Japanese-born mother's directions as a child, her mother would respond, "If you don't do it, I'll come back and haunt you when I die!" A sentiment, if not an actual sentence, entirely familar to me from the pantheon of Jewish-mother threats.]

Do any of you know of any other collections of Bengali folklore in English (or French or Italian, if that helps at all) translation that you'd recommend?

Anna: Bengali ghost stories are quite similar to Yiddish ones in that there is always a bit of "domesticity" about them. Thanks for the link to Robert Ito's article. I am going to look read it as soon as I finish writing this comment. I am totally unfamiliar with Japanese ghost stories.

I am not sure if there is any other collection of Bengali spooky stories that would read better than this one. I suspect that most translations would fail for similar reasons as noted above. I had never read Bengali ghost stories in English before. Believe it or not this book was located by Dean.

After reading the article in The Believer, I think you should tell your own ghost story, Ruchira. That would rival some of the strange occurrences described as being based on real incidents in the Japanese village.

Per WorldCat, Hauntings is remarkably the only title held by participating libraries traced with the subject heading "Ghost stories, Bengali -- Translation into English." There are, however, a few dozen collections of Bengali folk stories in English, some of which pertain to ghosts. Humayum Kabir's Green and Gold: Stories and Poems from Bengal, published in 1958, includes a story by Manoje Basu, "The Ghost," for example.

Why librarians make the best friends. Thank you, Dean!

Dean: Humayun Kabir and Manoj Basu (particularly, Kabir) are well respected Bengali writers. I don't recognize the title of the book. But if I came across the stories, I am sure a majority of them would be familiar to me.

Sujatha: Okay I will do that when I am in Delhi by e-mail to some of the authors. Like Dracula, I will be in a better mood to describe the eerie experience when I am on "native soil." Also, my sister can refresh my memory since she was with me and had a weird experience of her own.

I'm trying to find the contents. Meanwhile, excerpts from a review by Edward C. Dimock, Jr., in a 1959 issue of Journal of Asian Studies:

There are two criticisms of Bengali writing which are most frequently heard. The first is that it is overly sentimental. The second is that there is no psychological depth, no feeling for tragedy, and no power. As for the first, I think it is true that there is a certain too-sweet quality about some Bengali writing. But I think also that this volume proves that sentimentalism has infected only those who have been exposed too long to second-rate Victorians and to such of their followers as Saratcandra; it is not, as some have contended, a natural disease of the Bengali literary sense...
The second criticism, that there is no psychological depth and no feeling for tragedy, is undeniably true. In the best of these stories, there pretends to be none. Nor is there here the power which comes from the feeling of cosmic imminence (although such a feeling as that of imminent evil in Faulkner is perhaps better accounted for by the theory of rasa in Indian poetics than by any other esthetic theory). All of this might affect those who have been weaned on Aristotelian theories of the immense seriousness of literature somewhat adversely. But I think that one must meet these writers on their own grounds, which are not Aristotelian. If one does this, I think that he will find a rare lyric quality in their writing. This lyricism has been the pride of Bengali literature since the fifteenth century...

Finally, regarding the second of two flaws Dimock identifies, the first being the absence of certain writers, particularly "some from the lively literary community in East Pakistan," this on translation:

To my knowledge, the only native-speaker of English on the board of translators of this volume is the American-born Lila Ray, wife of the Bengali novelist Annadasankar Ray. The others, while often themselves distinguished Bengali writers, do not and cannot be expected to have control of current English idiom. (I am not speaking now of writers like Humayun Kabir, Amiya Chakravarty, Sud- dhindra Nath Datta, and Buddhadeva Bose, who write English with quite as much grace as they write Bengali, and who have translated their own works for this volume.) As a result, the attempt to translate idiomatic Bengali into idiomatic English often falls particularly flat. For example, in the story "Prehistoric" by Manik Bandyopadhyay, an excellent story by an excellent story-teller, the central figure is a dacoit, a robber. His speech is of a peculiar kind. The translator makes this of it:

"So still sitting by me you are, eh? Run along quick. If he sees you, he'll kill you off straight," continued the beggar-woman.

"Oh, keep that joke to yourself! Any blasted rogue can come and kill me off when he likes, eh? I'm good enough for ten like him, see?"

Again, in Tarasankar Banerjee's "The Seat of Stone," the real beauty of the story and of the language is marred by such lines as: "He brought me thick boiled buffalo milk, gur, and rice crispies." I do not want to belabor this. These are minor points and in no case do they seriously affect the structure of the stories, though they are occasionally jarring to the English-speaking reader. Nor do I mean to imply that such strange translations run throughout the book. Some stories, such as Saradindu Banerjee's "The Divine Image," which strives more for mood than for realism, are beautifully done.

I'm not quite sure that I understand the accusation of 'no psychological depth, no feeling for tragedy, and no power' against Bengali writing. I think that is a function of the fact that translators from Bengali to English are not truly bilingual enough to convey those qualities effectively in their translation, and/or are taking recourse to pale imitations of Western idiom that lose impact (for instance, my complaint about Tagore's own translation of his songs in Gitanjali
Also, what is Dimock's objection to ""He brought me thick boiled buffalo milk, gur, and rice crispies." - Seems like a perfectly innocuous translation to me. Does he object to 'rice crispies'? I don't think there is a better term to describe it as 'fried puffed rice' sounds even more clunky than rice crispies. Strange translation? I think not.
Dimock has not been so critical about the writings of Sarat Chandra in his earlier textbook for second year students of Bengali. (
Maybe he got tired of wading through Srikanto (as I did, by the time I had gotten through about half the book, in translation.) ;)

Unless the author actually used the trademark term Rice Crispies, or some other term for "a popular puffed rice breakfast cereal," I think the translation wasn't the best it could be. "Fried puffed rice" would have sounded just fine to me. If Dimock is right that the language of the story exhibited real beauty, interposing a word out of Sunday morning television advertising certainly would blow the effect. There were similar instances in Hauntings, but I can't find any just now.

Hauntings did not exhibit psychological depth, but then neither was it lyrical in English. The stories tended to tell, rather than show, as they say in Creative Writing 101.

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