How much of natural history is lost in translation?

By Meghadeepa Maity for the Gazette
August 31, 2023

It took Maity two-and-a-half years to complete this translation of আবার আসি ব ফি রে “Abar Ashibo Phirey,” which was written in 1934 by Jibanananda Das. COURTESY OF MEGHADEEPA MAITY

In a past column, I wrote of “a Bengali poem that I‘ve loved forever” which references several species of wildlife and plants, and “stands out for the unsaid depth of emotion— it speaks of nostalgia, grief and homesickness.” 

আবার আসিব ফিরে “Abar Ashibo Phirey” was written in 1934 by Jibanananda Das (he/him) and published posthumously in 1957. I’d recited the poem at a bird walk once, and after requests from several attendees, I determined that a translation was necessary.

I got excited when a quick Google search turned up several pre-existing translations of the poem. But I was disappointed, and grimaced at first, when I noticed that many translators don’t have an equal grasp of both languages. Translating poetry brings with it an additional set of challenges — the rhythm/cadence and the emotions the original poem elicits are rarely retained, and the translated poem often ends up sounding like prose. Bengali is a language particularly suited for verse — one that even reserves a distinctive structure and lexicon for poetry– and onomatopoeia, allegories and metaphors generously abound even in everyday conversation. Lastly, the historical and socio-political context in which the poem was written can make it difficult for contemporary translators to accurately grasp many of the allusions made by Das.

I thought — immaturely — that I could do better. It’s my favorite poem, after all, and it deserved a larger audience. I’m bilingual, and have studied classical literature in both languages. How hard could translating this poem be? As I found myself sucked into this endeavor, I discovered the most heartbreaking challenge to translating this poem — one that I hadn’t considered: It was clear none of the previous translators were naturalists.

Many familiar, endemic flora and fauna of Bengal have no equivalent in the English-speaking world. Translators are often resigned to finding a closely-related organism that’s familiar to readers whose first language is English. Still, a lack of scientific training can preclude selecting an appropriate replacement.

Chidananda Dasgupta, who translated a large body of Jibanananda Das’ work, once said, “Names of trees, plants, places or other elements incomprehensible in English have often been reduced or eliminated for fear that they should become an unpleasant burden on the poem when read in translation.” But in my eyes, the beauty and passion in আবার আসিব ফিরে “Abar ashibo phirey” is rooted in Das’ intimate insight into the natural history of pre-partitioned Bengal. As a naturalist and a writer, I was determined to share this with the world. 

It wasn’t easy. One line that stands out is the start of the second stanza, where Jibanananda writes about সুদর্শন “Sudarshan” “flying in the evening breeze”. It’s a fun word — literally translating to “a handsome face,” and more popular as a given name than a word used in conversational Bengali. I’ve never heard it used in the context of science or nature, though. I was especially taken aback when I found that most translators had written that this was a buzzard — a bird of prey — soaring in the sky. 

It just didn’t make sense from an ornithological perspective. Most raptors around the world (except for owls) are diurnal — active during the day, and asleep at night. To reduce energy expenditure, birds of prey like buzzards, eagles, falcons, kites and vultures often use thermals to soar as they search for prey or migrate. Birders keen on observing hawk migration know to plan their outings during the late morning and afternoon — the warmest part of the day — when raptors are most active. By the evening, raptor activity largely wraps up and they are hardly ever in the sky then.

I spent two days wandering the interwebs, desperate for a clue as to what species the poet observed in the evening. Besides in translations of this poem, I couldn’t find any reference to a bird of prey locally referred to as সুদর্শন “Sudarshan.” The sense of familiarity exuded by the poet’s words made me wonder if I should pass on other nocturnal or crepuscular birds, like nightjars, because these bird families are so uncommon in Bengal. But that raised the question — how drastically has the biodiversity and distribution of bird species in Bengal changed over the last 100 years?

Three of the birds the author considered in their translation of আবার আসি ব ফি রে “Abar Ashibo Phirey,” which was written in 1934 by Jibanananda Das. COURTESY MEGHADEEPA MAITY

Eventually, I began contemplating how, in Hindu mythology, সুদর্শন “Sudarshan” is also the name given to a weapon — a whirring disk — wielded by the god of creation, Vishnu. Could Das have been referring to a species known for its dizzying flight?

Several kinds of trees, ones that blossom at nightfall, also came to mind. I perused a dozen scientific journals trying to find a plant that sheds flowers or leaves with a spinning motion. I cross-referenced dozens of common names with scientific names. I hit a dead end when I found myself looking up a plant with a name remarkably similar to “COVID”, which as you can imagine led to thousands of irrelevant search results. It was all fascinating, but incredibly frustrating and taxing. Eventually, I turned my attention to insects — my least favorite type of wildlife — and the tide finally turned. I found a reference to the গুবরে-পোকা “Gubare poka” —a species of beetle, most similar to a ladybug — that’s ubiquitous in Bengal at dusk. Their characteristic whirring flight is so obvious in its familiarity that I laughed out loud. The sense of relief and gratification was immediate, and it seemed silly that it had eluded me for so long. But the euro-centric philosophy of science has a hold on so many of us, that the discourse on a bug’s colloquial name rooted in ancient folklore has been relegated to an obscure corner of the internet.

শংখচিল শালিক “Shankhachil shalik” was another term I found myself stuck on at the start of the poem, which begins with a desire to reincarnate as several species of birds. শংখচিল “Shankhachil”— which literally translates to “conchshell-white kite” — is a commonly-used name for the Brahminy Kite — a white-capped bird of prey. But the next word — শালিক “shalik” — refers to a starling or mynah. There weren’t any conjunctions between the two words, leading me to believe that this was a compound word (or that one of these was used as an adjective), but translators had taken the liberty to write that the author wanted to be resurrected as “a kite or a starling”.  But I remembered that Brahminy Starlings are also found in Bengal, so I squeezed that piece into the puzzle.

As I write this essay, a tiny voice keeps nudging me though. Would the poet — in early 20th century South Asia — have known about the common English names — Brahminy Kite and Brahminy Starling — that we use today? I search the poem for clues, until I hover over শংখচিল “Shankhachil” and conjure the image of the raptor with a bright white head on a chestnut body. I remember an unremarkable bird I’ve only seen a few times — the Chestnut-tailed Starling, with their glistening coppery bodies and pale hoods. I realized the Brahminy Kite and Chestnut-tailed Starling share the same color palette. It’s dawning on me that Jibanananda Das — with discerning and elaborate observations of nature defining his poetry — would have noticed their characteristic plumage.

It’s been 2.5 years since I first started translating this poem. And as a perfectionist, it’s difficult to consider that I may still be having revelations about the poem’s meaning, 2.5 years from now.

Is it ever really possible to know what was going through a poet’s mind when he produced the words I’m reading a century later? Isn’t it characteristic of poetry to carry that ambiguity?

I suppose art in any form has to invoke our imagination in order to be impactful. I’m beginning to realize that my translation of আবার আসিব ফিরে “Abar ashibo phirey” is in itself a work of art — one that’ll always be incomplete, personal, and open to interpretation. My translation is defined by my bilingual and bicultural journey, my wondrous connection to nature, the whimsy of being a logophile, the agnosticism I’ve cultivated as a scientist and artist, my homesickness, and the intensity of emotion I absorb as an empath. I’m driven by my deep, deep yearning to walk the misty shores of Bengal’s riverscape again, amidst the dawn chorus — a reality that may be impossible for an asylum seeker like me — in an effort to see the birds through the eyes of my favorite poet. This translation — which I’d expected to take an hour — has magically come to represent so much more. It has helped me amalgamate disparate, intersectional parts of my identity, and introspect my role as a naturalist.

But there’s a more immediate and expansive lesson here. Even as I can’t quite grasp how much of science and natural history is routinely lost in translation, I hope that my story leaves you with a sense of curiosity about how we understand and curate information about the earth’s biodiversity. There’s precedent in the immense power of culture to drive conservation, and perhaps it can help us rethink how we can work together, across languages and geographical barriers, to preserve nature for future generations.

One such success story is that of the Greater Adjutant, a rare, massive stork that vanished from Bengal in the early 1900s, which is now experiencing a resurgence less than a couple hundred miles away, in Assam. Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist and conservationist, recognized the role that folklore played in decimating the population of these carrion-eating storks, considered bad omens and known locally as হাড়গিলা “Hargila” or “bone-swallower”. Locals routinely attacked the birds and destroyed nesting sites in an effort to drive them from their villages. Dr. Barman was only able to gain traction in her efforts to raise awareness about how unique this endangered species is, when her team began incorporating the হাড়গিলা “hargila” into the locals’ rituals and cultural programming. The Greater Adjutant stork found its way into folk songs, religious customs and hymns, Assam’s traditional woven fabrics, and finally into the hearts of the people who once sought to eradicate these birds from their backyards.

Today, over 250 communal nests of Greater Adjutants exist in the Kamrup district of Assam— up from the 15 sites Barman found in 2008, when she began her conservation efforts.

An intimate appreciation of wildlife, and the paths to conserve their futures, can look and sound different in parts of the world that are unfamiliar to the average American. At this moment in time, when experts believe that the Earth is headed into another mass extinction era, the 10,000 species of birds in the world are counting on just one critical species—humans—to survive. And perhaps the key to innovative conservation lies in diversity, humility, and our willingness to pay closer attention to cultural aspects that we’ve considered antithetical to scientific knowledge for far too long.

Meghadeepa Maity (they/them) grew up birding in India and now lives in so-called western Massachusetts where they continually navigate the challenges of exploring the outdoors as a neurodivergent, disabled, Bengali, queer immigrant, and a trauma survivor. They have been a persistent voice championing safety, accessibility and belonging in birding spaces across North America for over three years. Meghadeepa is currently the co-chair of the Feminist Bird Club. You can follow Meghadeepa’s work via their

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