Where translation is a science

Updated: May 02, 2020, 09:17 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

On Satyajit Ray's 99th birth anniversary, check out a new translated work of his creation Professor Shonku.

Professor Shonku was an inventor
Professor Shonku was an inventor

The 21st century is infatuated with concepts like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and colonising Mars. This isn't something new. Even before the year 2000 we had movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Total Recall that explored these themes. In fact, Steven Spielberg's ET even visualised for us what an alien might look like way back in 1982, with its oversized head and childlike eyes. But here's a little-known fact: there is a theory that ET isn't Spielberg's creation. It was Satyajit Ray who had sown the seeds of the character with the screenplay for an unfinished movie called The Alien, which the Bengali auteur and writer had based on his short story Bankubabur Bandhu.

Either way, the point is that Ray had been a life-long fan of science fiction and nowhere is this evidenced more than in his creation of Professor Shonku. The genial 50-plus inventor has been a literary companion for generations of kids, stretching their imagination into a world where time travel is possible in the blink of an eye. Adults, too, have enjoyed Professor Shonku's exploits. And it's thus good news even for them that on Ray's 99th birth anniversary today, a new book of translations called The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku (Penguin India) will be launched, offering readers nine new stories, one of which Ray translated by himself.

Indrani Majumdar; Satyajit Ray
Indrani Majumdar; Satyajit Ray

Indrani Majumdar, who translated the rest, says that it was a bit of a challenge since the Bengali in the Professor Shonku series was less colloquial than that in, say, Feluda, Ray's other timeless character. Majumdar says, "I was about 10 when I first began to read Shonku. I was one of those anti-science kids. But Shonku unfolded the fear and the mystery all in one ago. It's not easy to define him. He's both the next-door neighbour and a hardcore man of science. But that's where his magic lies."

She adds that the stories also have an underlying moral compass that helps young minds distinguish between right and wrong. Shonku was also far ahead of his time, with stories like Tellus predating 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Stanley Kubrick film that warns against implanting machines with AI. It speaks of how Ray carried forward his family legacy of scientific innovations in the literary space, and no one can take that away from him regardless of whether ET was influenced by Bankubabur Bandhu or not. Why? Just look at how Shonku endures even 60 years on.

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