A Beloved Bengali Poet in Translation

In Acrobat, a mother and daughter’s last collaboration

Nabaneeta and Nandana Dev Sen embracing in 2018
Nabaneeta and Nandana Dev Sen in 2018Photograph by Mala Mukerjee

Nandana dev sen ’91 had always been her mother’s translator. One of her sharpest—and sweetest—memories from college is sitting in her dorm room during her freshman fall semester, rushing to recast several poems from Bengali into English for a lecture that her mother, the Indian poet and comparative-literature scholar Nabaneeta Dev Sen, A.M. ’61, was scheduled to give at the Radcliffe Institute the next day. Nandana remembers the two of them drinking hot chocolate and haggling over words deep into the night. “It was lovely, and very special,” she says, the first of many similar “literary projects” together. (Another involved a  visit to China and a stopover “somewhere on the drive between the Great Wall and the Forbidden City,” where mother and daughter sat in their car, churning out fresh English translations for a last-minute invitation to speak at a Beijing bookstore.) “Whenever Ma needed more of her poems to be translated,” Nandana says, “I did that.” 

Most recently she did it for a book published earlier this year, Acrobat, which compiles nearly 100 of her mother’s poems, spanning six decades and a broad constellation of subjects: womanhood, motherhood, love, intimacy, art, the body politic, the long tug of war against time. Written with compassion, but also with an edge (“My love is, in part, love—and in part war,” reads one line), the poems lay bare private griefs, anxieties, rages, desires, and ecstasies—and hint at the contours of an eventful and sometimes stormy life. A feminist and advocate for women’s freedom, Nabaneeta was born into a literary family: both her parents were celebrated Indian poets, and she began writing poetry at age 7. In 1959, she married economist Amartya Sen, now a Nobel-laureate and Lamont University Professor, and traveled with him to the UK and the United States (where she earned a Harvard master’s in literature); but the relationship fell apart when their children were young, and the couple divorced—a scandal in those days in their Bengali social and literary circles—though they remained friendly. Moving home to India with her daughters as a single mother, Nabaneeta became a professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. She also, after a decade-plus lapse, began writing and publishing poetry again, “re-opening that window,” Nandana notes in Acrobat’s introduction, “through which she could breathe.”

Many of the poems in Acrobat appear in English for the first time. Although Nabaneeta spoke several languages and studied (and translated) poetry from around the world, she wrote her own almost exclusively in Bengali. “It was a very conscious political choice for her,” Nandana says—a statement of cultural identity and loyalty to her native regional language and literature. In the Bengali-speaking world, she became a much-beloved literary figure; outside of it, however, she remained less known. In translating her mother’s poetry for a wider audience, Nandana relied often on intuition, sometimes adding words or even whole lines to capture the spirit and meaning of the original, when literal translation would not suffice. But she also made a couple of promises to herself: that she would preserve the rhyme scheme and metrical structure in formal poems, and that she would not use footnotes to explain any allusions. “I’d have to find a way to solve it within the poem.” 

These rules were sometimes hard to follow. Bengali—often regarded among the world’s “sweetest” languages, with its loping and melodic sound—is easily rhymable compared to English, and more readily given to poetic neologisms (“My mother had a talent for complex rhymes and making up words”). One of the most challenging poems to translate, Nandana says, turned out to be one of Nabaneeta’s most iconic, “Right Now: Forever,” a two-stanza verse that imagines the ordeals of a woman’s life as an epic battle from Indian classical literature. “Time has not the power to extinguish me,” the poem opens. “Don’t think for a moment that I wait upon Time.” The imagery—an armor-clad charioteer, a woman stripped of her sari and standing defiant—carry buried references to The Mahābhārata and to “our epic wars and our archetypal heroines”; meanwhile, the poem’s language moves between harsh and soft, colloquial and archaic. “And these grand personifications that my mother has of time and eternity,” Nandana adds. “How do you replicate that without it feeling overwrought? In a conversational way, without going off-key?” In the end, she let the language and allusions speak for themselves, without overt pointers. Even if the specific allusion doesn’t connect, it still works. “I mean, this is such a strong symbolic story in our literary and cultural history because it is so universal,” she says. “It’s every woman’s fear, every woman’s vulnerability.”

“Looking back, I think it helped me come to terms with living in a world without her.”

Originally, Acrobat was meant to be another joint literary project. But in November 2019, just as they were starting work, Nabaneeta died at 81. Nandana spent the following year carrying out the book’s translations on her own. “On the one hand, it was really painful, because in every poem, I could hear her voice,” she says. “And not in a metaphorical way—I could actually physically hear it, because I remember exactly how she read those poems. So many of them were her favorites.” But there was comfort in it, too. “This was when we were locked down for the pandemic, and I was struggling, honestly, to cope with my grief.…Looking back, I think it helped me come to terms with living in a world without her.” 

It also deepened a lifelong connection to poetry that, while profound, had never been professional. Nandana is not herself a poet. After concentrating in English literature at Harvard and studying film at the University of Southern California, she became a screenwriter and actress in independent cinema around the world, including India, the United States, the UK, Italy, and South Africa. Her films and theater productions often carry social or political themes: rising religious fundamentalism, apartheid and homophobia, child sexual abuse. She also writes children’s books (2016’s Kangaroo Kisses is her best-known title for American readers) and works with international organizations as a child-rights activist, fighting to stop gender-based violence, child labor, and child-trafficking in India. “I’ve never seen myself as a poet,” she says, although growing up in Kolkata, a “city of active poets and inactive revolutionaries”—not least in her own family—“you would always be writing poetry.” Instead of zoos or amusement parks, her family attended poetry festivals and literary meets. Instead of giving birthday cards, they composed birthday poems. Songs and rhymes, especially those by legendary Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, were everywhere. “In fact, unless you wrote copious quantities of poetry, you could not call yourself a true Kolkata person,” Nandana says. “It was this very Bengali way of growing up—everything that happened to you, you make sense of it through poetry. And I still do that.” 


Published in the print edition of the September-October 2021 issue (Volume 124, Number 1), under the  headline "The Tightrope of Translation."

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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