I met Swapna Dutta Ji at Publishing Next Conference last year and loved spending time with her. I am so happy that she agreed to do this interview as reading it was knowing not just her but probably a whole generation of authors and readers. So, sit back and enjoy it.
Interview with Veteran Author Swapna Dutta
Tell us something about yourself. Where were you born, where did you study and what do you do apart from writing beautiful stories.
Swapna Dutta: I was born in Patna where my grandfather was in Bihar Civil Service. After retirement, he moved to Hazaribagh where I had my schooling. Mount Carmel was my first and only school. I moved to Calcutta after school, graduating from Lady Brabourne College with Honours in English. I did my Masters in English literature from Presidency College and Calcutta University (which means, we attended all the classes in the University but had some special classes in Presidency College in addition to those).
Apart from writing stories I also write nonfiction for the general reader – short pieces on art and crafts, travel, well being, nature, humor, cookery and so on. They are mostly for newspapers and magazines. And I love to read and listen to music
When did you start writing?
While in school I wrote for the children’s page in The Statesman and children’s magazines like Sunshine (published from Pune), Treasure Chest (published from Kerala, possibly Kottayam ) and some others. While in college I wrote in both English and Bengali for newspapers and student magazines. During our university days a group of friends edited a magazine. We called it Ripples. After I got married I continued to write literary articles and short stories until I got into writing for children. I realized then that this was what I really wanted to do and have remained in the field ever since. I write mainly in English. But I also write in Hindi and Bengali off and on.
You write a lot of books for children. How easy or difficult it is for you to calibrate your story telling for children?
Writing for children comes to me very easily and naturally. I can see their point of view and share their wavelength and have never felt the need to speak down to them. When I write for them, I am one of them telling the story.
What are your best-received children’s books?
My Juneli and Teddy books were very popular when they were being serialized in Children’s World. In fact I was asked to write sequels because the young readers wanted them. After they were published as books they continued to remain popular until they went out of print. This happened mainly because Harper Collins was no longer a part of Rupa and the Indus Peacock series was scrapped. The Tinku stories which appeared in The Telegraph were popular too. The first lot of 15 stories was published as a book by Orient Longman. There was a second series of another 15 stories. My Story of Red Fort was also well received. Two of my picture books The Sun fairies and Tyltyl’s Adventure have been reprinted several times. I have contributed stories to 47 collections to date, brought out by Children’s Book Trust, Tulika, Katha, Puffin, Wisdom Tree and Hachette, among others.
How did you get into translation?
Translation has been one of my favourite hobbies. I used to translate bits and scraps, mostly poems from our syllabus, during my college days. I took it seriously because of two persons. The first was Prof. Manoj Das, then editor of Heritage, a literary magazine. He asked me to translate some of the well known Bengali stories and poems into English. I was not sure if I could do it but Manojda insisted and that’s when I translated stories of Parasuram, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Ashapurna Debi and poems of Premendra Mitra, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shrikant Varma and others. The other one was Mr. Balu Rao, then editor of Indian Literature.
He asked me to translate a bunch of poems by famous Bengali poets for a special issue asking me to choose only those poets who were still around so that he could send them the translations for approval. I was understandably nervous but took on the challenge. The poets were Amiya Chakrabarty, Samar Sen, Premendra Mitra, Sankha Ghosh, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Nirendranath Chakrabarty, Naresh Guha, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, among others.
Fortunately, all of them responded positively and the poems were published in Indian Literature. I then translated poems from Bengali to Hindi for Samkaleen Bharatiya Sahitya. That was the beginning. Since then I have also translated poems and an occasional story for The Little Magazine edited by Antara Dev Sen and some stories of Premchand for a collection.
How did the idea to translate Sunil Gangopadhyay’s book happen? Did you pick the book to translate or you were commissioned to translate it?
I don’t normally translate novels as it is very time consuming. I picked up The Lonely Monarch quite accidentally, not knowing what to expect. And I am not particularly interested in theatre and knew nothing about Sisir Bhaduri except his name. But I was so engrossed and enthralled by the novel that I felt that I must translate it in order to share it with those who cannot read Bengali. I asked Sunil da if I might do it. And he told me he would be very happy if I did. I had already translated some of his articles, stories and poems before and he knew my style of writing. Then I sent a book proposal to Hachette which was accepted by the editor Poulomi Chatterjee.
What are the challenges of a translator when it comes to translating works of stalwarts?
Frankly speaking, I have only translated stalwarts so far! So far as living authors/poets are concerned, the main challenge is to satisfy them. If they feel that I have conveyed their voices successfully I don’t really care what others feel. Fortunately, that’s what my editors have felt too. So far as classics (where the authors are no longer around) are concerned, I am happy if the particular editor is satisfied with my rendering. But I know I cannot translate anything unless I really like the piece and feel totally involved in the story and can identify with the author. For me, these are the most important considerations.
How do you translate works that are immersed in the local ethos?
It is quite tough, actually. But as I don’t believe in adding long footnotes I try to explain it briefly, weaving it into the text as far as possible. It’s not difficult if I am translating from Bengali to Hindi or vice versa because the local ethos is quite similar in both. But when it comes to English, brief explanations are often necessary.
Did you know about Sisirkumar Bhaduri beyond what is written this book? Did that help or hamper your translation?
As I said, I knew nothing about Sisir Bhaduri except for the fact that he was a famous stage actor. I think this ignorance helped me because it made it much simpler for me to see the hero through the author’s eyes without my own opinion/knowledge coming in the way!
Being a veteran writer and a voracious reader, what changes do you see in Indian writing? Are writers now catering to the market demands more than catering to their inner voice?
When I first started writing for children there were just a handful of us in the field and the scope was very limited. Both books and magazines had certain slots. And we fitted our stories accordingly, experimenting in a limited way. For instance, my Juneli was the first long school story based on an Indian school and Indian characters. Mr. Rasmakrishnan, then editor Children’s World, agreed to carry it but had warned me that if the readers didn’t like it he would stop it midways! But the response was so positive that he asked me to continue and write two more sequels as well! Rosalind Wilson, then editor Target, encouraged us to write different kinds of stories. That’s when I wrote about children from broken homes, the pangs and problems of growing up and so on.
But, by and large, I think stories tended to be more or less traditional in those days. But I think Indian children’s literature has really come of age. With new writers experimenting and writing on different themes in a language very different from ours, expressing different points of view. It may not always be the same as mine. But I have great admiration for them, all the same, for being able to write in a way we never did. I accept the fact that change is an inevitable part of life. And it would be foolish to try and live in yesterday.
As for listening to his or her inner voice, I guess every writer does that. But the voice would be different in the case of different writers. If some of them feel that it is important for them to consider market demands more than anything else, they have the right to act accordingly. On the other hand, some may listen to the dictates of his/her heart when writing a story, forgetting all about the market. It takes all sorts to make the world – even the writer’s world. And everyone has the right to choose how he/she should write. At the end of the day, I think the writers’ world is big enough to hold us all. Even if those who have opted out of the race happen to be back bencher’s!
How far have these changes affected or influenced your writing?
They have certainly influenced me content wise. Prompting me to choose subjects which would interest today’s children. But there has been no change in my language or style of story telling which constitutes my individuality.
What are your all time favorite books and authors?
There are by far too many! But Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyer, Little women, All that Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, the William series, the Chalet School series, The Abbey series are some of my favorites which I enjoy re-reading.
My favorite authors are Jane Austen, Louisa M. Alcott, Enid Blyton, L.M. Montgomery, Elsie J Oxenham, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, among others.
How rewarding has your career as a writer been?
I feel amply rewarded when popular writers of today – Madhulika Liddle, Roopa Pai, Nandini Nayar, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, to name just a few – tell me that they grew up reading my books. And I have been an inspiration to them. I feel happy when I bump into successful people – journalists, lecturers, professors from language schools, government officer’s and even doctors – who seek me out to tell me how much they enjoyed my stories as children. It seems incredible that they should remember Juneli and Teddy and Tinku even after so many years! I feel really moved when people write and ask me – on email and Face Book – which of my books are still available and they’d like their children to read them.
I find it amazing that my characters should live on in their memory when many of the books themselves have been out of print for years. This, I feel is my real reward.
What are you currently working on Swapna Dutta, please share with us?
Swapna Dutta: I don’t have any major project on hand right now. But I enjoy writing stories for The Young World (Hindu) and children’s magazines. I also find time to write short pieces on art, crafts, literature, nature, travel and interesting people for newspapers and travel stories for Bengali magazines.