TAKE TWO - Mending Bridges Across Old Divides : Gitanjali Das

Seven states, myriad cultures, each culture rich in its own traditions — the Northeast is perhaps the most diverse region in a country that takes pride in her diversity. Each ethnic group is prosperous with its own priceless treasures of literature, yet only a few languages have seen the limelight, mainly owing to issues like writers’ convenience. For a population that lives geographically so close to one another, we are strangely, unfamiliar with the literature of the others’ cultures.

Translation is a path which bridges the divide between different groups. Caroline Marak, retired professor of the department of Garo in NEHU’s Tura campus says: “The role of translation is to know about different languages, literatures and cultures. However, we are isolated in our own literature.” A writer or a reader, efficient in one particular language, seldom tries to explore other languages. Translators in the Northeast usually opt for popular languages like Assamese and English while translating a literary work and Garo, Bodo, Mising, Karbi and others do not get the exposure they deserve.

"We are scared of others
because we feel they are
different and we don’t
understand them. We
complicate our problems
by not understanding
our commonalities."
-- Paresh Malakar
              President, Anwesha
Though organisations like the National Book Trust and Sahitya Akademi translate books in different regional languages, the translations are very few in number. Anwesha, a group based in Guwahati, has recently taken an initiative in collaboration with Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) to change the scenario of translation in the region and mend the linguistic divide. The project was launched on 14 December 2011 and as many as 180 books are being translated in Assamese, Bodo, Garo, Manipuri, Mizo and Khasi languages. “30 books will be translated in each of the six languages in this project,” says Paresh Malakar, president of Anwesha. The project has brought together litterateurs like Desmond Kharmawphlang, T Bijoy Kumar Singh, Harekrishna Deka, Arup Kumar Dutta, Caroline Marak and Laltluangliana Khiangte to make stories from folklore and about heroes who have done commendable work for the communities, available to different groups.

Politically, Assam is a region which has seen countless conflicts between various ethnic groups. The same can be said of her neighbours. The root cause of such problems, according to Malakar, is the ignorance of people about the literature, culture and traditions of other languages. Literature is a way to understand the psyche of people. He believes that if a thorough study of folklore, stories and cultures of the different tribes is done, one can find that we have a number of things in common. “We are scared of others because we feel they are different and we don’t understand them. We complicate our problems by not understanding our commonalities,” says Malakar.

Another endeavour along the same lines has been taken up by the Srimanta Foundation and the Assam Satra Mahasabha. They launched a programme ‘Setubandha’, literally meaning building bridges, in 2003 under which people from different ethnic groups in Assam are trained to perform bhaonas (plays), the creation of Sankardev. But even though the bhaonas are performed by different tribes, they are in Brajabuli or Assamese language. However, some of them have been translated into tribal languages recently for the first time in history. An ankiya nat, ‘Sita Haran Bali Badh’ has been compiled by Nirupama Mahanta and translated into Mising by Rameswar Madak. Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta, IGP (Training), Assam, who is associated with this project feels that though this is the land of Sankardev who had dreamt of a community where people could live with dignity and brotherhood, the various ethnic groups in Assam have been drifting apart. “The idea behind this project is to make the tribes feel comfortable and cared for. Why should Sankardev belong to only one particular group of people in Assam? He is a guru for other tribes also,” says Mahanta.

Though these organisations have been doing commendable work, there are very few writers who are driven towards translating a work into or from the lesser spoken languages. Some languages in the state like Bodo and Assamese are more developed than others and many works from other languages have been translated into them. When Bodo language received recognisation under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 2003, it was a major development towards the betterment of the group. Moreover, organisations like the Sahitya Akademi and some publishing houses have always encouraged Bodo translations. Anjali Daimary, social activist and teacher in Barama College, was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for translation in the year 2007. “Being a teacher and a student of literature, I felt that if I cannot create something, I must contribute through translation,” says Daimary. She felt that children in her community could not read Assamese and they must have access to literature in other languages. Her awareness of the responsibility as a writer led her to translate.

Another Bodo author, Maheswar Narzary, received the Bal Sahitya Puraskar from the Akademi in 2011 for his work Puranni Cholo Pithika. “It saddened me to see that Bodo children could not read in other languages of the region,” says Narzary, whose award-winning book consists of tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.
The root of the barriers between different ethnic groups in the region, along with understanding different languages is, therefore, education. If a child is taught about different cultures and languages from a very young age she will develop an interest towards the surroundings, which will in turn lead to an understanding about the neighbours. The project undertaken by Anwesha targets the children because of this reason. “When children are given exposure to something at a tender age, it tends to make a better impression on them,” says Malakar.

He also points out that one of the major problems in the area of translation is that 90% of the works that are being translated are fiction. “There are great works in the area of non-fiction available in English but not enough in regional languages,” says Malakar. Even though English has become the accepted medium of instruction in city-based schools and colleges, there are hundreds of institutions that follow local dialects. Malakar feels the picture is the same in other states as well.

Though this is just the beginning of a growing awareness of people towards getting acquainted with literary treasures through translations, a lot needs to be done if we are to stay united in a culturallydiverse region.


  1. but there is one also translated into Boro ...called HIRANYAKOSHIPU BODH...transliterated by Dr Anil Boro of Gauhati Univ from an original work of Guru Daityari Thakur of the 16th century...

    sad that you failed to mention this despite being told

  2. you failed to mention the Boro transliteration of an original script of the 16th Century called Nrixinha Yatra by Guru Daityari Thakur...this was also commissioned as a part of the Setubandha initiative and what is more, it was performed by our Boro bretheren ...thus curving a new chapter in history---of tyhe Boro tribesmen speaking classical stuff in their own language.