That day someone wanted me to translate the term "Killer instinct" into Bengali. I could not. Whatever I came up with, was forced, stilted or off-the-mark. I noted that this is not like translating Artichoke or Stroganoff; Bengalees today understand the concept of killer instinct, have it in plenty and sure enough, use it in their everyday conversations. Then? I blamed it initially on my inadequate knowledge of Bangla, but then I asked around and did not get anything satisfactory. That set me to the task of checking whether there are other such words that are not satisfactorily translatable by at least me, a well-bred Bengalee who grew up on the staple fare of Rabindranath and Bibhutibhushan and Jibanananda and an occasional Kamalkumar or Binoy, and I realized that there was a whole vocabulary of them. In fact, I cannot speak a whole sentence that involves abstract concepts and does not contain English words. I realized that I grew from primarily a Bengali speaker to a bilingual person to primarily an English speaker over time, whenever matters outside the routine things of the daily life are concerned. And so have most of my friends. I feel scared, desperate.
One can be bilingual in two ways. The sentence structure may be English but the concept used is Bengali: We had great adda
, or the other way round: Sachin’er dwara test jetano hobe na, kono
killer instinct nei
. All the conversation that educated Bengalees have in Bengali is of the second kind. And, not only do we use English for words untranslatable in Bangla, we are increasingly substituting English words for Bengali for abstract concepts: or hasi’ta bhishon
artificial lage, ekta
reasonable daam bolun na dada
…Using words like “kritrim
” or “juktipurno
” here sound artificial, stilted, affected and unreasonable or even archaic.
After the nineteenth century when there was Bengali was developed and polished with an active effort by the Renaissance intellectuals, there was no conscious effort in the twentieth to nurture it and develop it further. I am not disparaging literature or Bengali writing in the twentieth century. While the literary movements in the west indeed influenced us (think of Kallol
), what did not happen was development of a Bengali vocabulary that took new words and ideas from the west and translated them. So, outside the arena of literature, all the new concepts that came through English words remained in English – till date we use those concepts in the form of the English word. The reason is simply that the Bengalee intellectual is always English educated, and if he is not writing literature, he does not care to express himself in Bengali. Actually, the foremost Bengalee scientists of this century, Satyen Bose was well aware of this problem and tried to develop a Bengali scientific parlance, but due to the lack of a more broadbased awareness, there never was a concerted effort and words like Draghimangsho
(longitude and latitude) remained confined to textbooks. Or even very common words like “motivation” which came into wide coinage only in the last century have never been translated into Bengali (I am told that in Bangladesh, they use “Preshona
” – but you get the picture.) Even if some words were invented and used in writing, they never got unanimous acceptance – so they never came into coinage. Bengali thus remained divided into two distinct flows with less than desirable exchange: one the written language (not necessarily shadhubhasa
, but the language of academic writing) and the other, the spoken vernacular. The problem remained two pronged: on the one hand, new ideas were not translated into Bengali words, and on the other, even many ideas that were not new and had Bengali expressions, were expressed in English in the spoken language, and in Bengali only in the written language. Today even simple words like “kritrim
” and “juktipurno
” are not spoken by the urban Bengalee, these are confined to the written language. And English has permeated the spoken language so much that we have developed our own English words for very homegrown concepts: "smart" and "homely" for example.
So we are left with a moribund written language that is at a loss for words when ideas like "killer instinct" or "survival instinct" have to be expressed and an increasingly distanced urban spoken language, which is evolving for sure, but mostly as a mishmash of Hindi, English and slang. Nothing wrong with that, per se. The urban, spoken language is evolving, absorbing new ideas, and growing organically. But the coins being alien, they are in limited circulation. Since Bengali cannot act as a vehicle of these new concepts, they are not percolating to the vast multitudes uncomfortable with English. As a result, the urban educated milieu is speaking a language that is increasingly different from that of the others, and we end up with a society with increasingly alienated vertical strata with a low level of osmosis of ideas between the strata. We become, as a whole, a poorer society as a result.
Yes, that affects me as a social being. But why do I, as an individual (evidently belonging to the privileged stratum), care?
Because I feel a tug at my roots. Along the process of my education, imperceptibly the coins of my thought started changing – I started thinking in a mixed language. Over time, the mix shifted more and more towards English. With that, the colours of imagination, the shades of feeling, and the metaphors I use to interpret my world – all changed. I feel too far from my home and hearth today. The Boro tip
, the lalpar shada sari
, the tulsipradeep
, the sandhya’r shankh
– all that I once used as coins for romance, seem to belong to a world which is still very evocative, but which is no longer mine. I feel like a tourist in that world.
My world of coffee cups and cigarettes is intellectually satisfying – but they still do not evoke poetry in me. I miss writing poetry. I hang between two worlds.