Restless waters of the Ichamati

A couple of weeks ago I started to read the Bengali novel “Restless waters of the Ichhamati” by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I made slow progress to start with, overwhelmed by the number of characters and special vocabulary. But the more I got into the novel, the more impressed I became.

The main topic is the indigo revolt in Bengal (ca 1859). Less well known than the Indian rebellion a couple of years earlier, the production of indigo, used as blue dye in the European textile industry, caused very considerable hardship to the local population, forced to grow indigo on their land instead of foodstuffs. Bandyopadhyay describes the process of how the British entrepreneur chose and measured up the land for indigo (land they didn’t own), backed up by local thugs, who didn’t hesitate to wound or even kill those who resisted (and burnt down houses). The planting of indigo was not a voluntary process neither was it profitable for the farmers. The farmers were lent money to plant indigo but at very high rates of interest, making it practically impossible for them or their inheriting children to ever escape the financial control of the lenders.

In 1859, a revolt broke out and the farmers refused to plant more indigo, much of the action taking place in what is now Bangla Desh. Tactics varied from place to place – in some places, violence was used against the entrepreneurs and their henchmen, in other places, the protests were more peaceful. And I am convinced that atrocities were committed against the farmers in this process but the scale of the protests made the customary resort to repression less effective. I’ve seen speculation that the fact that the struggle was aimed at the entrepreneurs and not against governmental forces played a part in its relative success.

I should like to know more about this and especially how the struggle in the indigo revolt related to the the suppression of the sepoy rebellion. This was the period when rule by the East India Company was replaced by ultimate control by the British government, probably a form of government preferred by large English companies in, for example, the textile industry, which needed laws to protect their access to sources and to brake (and reverse) Indian development rather than simple protection of the framework for pre-imperialist exploitation through trade of goods produced in India.  

In my reading of Bandyopadhyay’s novel, the indigo revolt is present but it feels somewhat off stage. It seems to come to an end not as a result of successful struggle but in response to the invention of synthetic indigo by German scientists at a fraction of the price for which it could be produced in India.

From the little I have read of Bengali history, this telescopes development. That was indeed the coup de grace for exploitation by the indigo companies but I believe (tentatively) that some years elapsed between the break out of the indigo revolt and the collapse of the Bengali indigo industry. In between, there was a government commission which examined conditions in the indigo industry and (according to the source on the net) drew some conclusions unfavourable to the entrepreneurs on the unsustainability of their exploitation (I have associations here with the history of the crofters in the Outer Hebrides after the First World War). I am suspicious of happy endings, of history served with honey, and want to know more about what actually happened during this period.

The greatness of Bandyopadhyay’s novel is not just  his social realism but his cast of characters reflecting rural Bengali society as it was at that time and his description of the attitudes of the people, the complicated rules affecting relations between castes and above all village women, whose behaviour was not just regulated before marriage. I haven’t read as much Balzac as I would like but that was my association.

Bandyopadhyay’s name is derived from Sanskrit meaning (I believe) friend of the teacher. It is also referred to as  Banerjee. I thought that this abbreviation was the work of the Brits but (as far as I understand) it is common among the Bengali themselves. In fact, Bandyopadhyay is not as fearsome to pronounce as it looks, if you remember that  the first “y” is not clearly pronounced but affects the quality of the preceding “d” and that the “h” after the second d indicates aspiration.

I am going to read this novel again and also to make myself a reading list on the nineteenth century history of Bengal.

Golden goose becomes a lame duck

To a translator’s conference at the weekend, at least one day of it. The agenda was probably attractive for those new or relatively new to the professions of translator and interpreter but of less interest to me approaching the end of my career. I’d hoped to meet some of the translator acquaintances I’ve made over the past 30 years but there were very few familiar faces. I’m not sure why – the translation organisation is recovering now from a turbulent period, which I believe has caused some people to leave or at least become more passive. And, of course, I’m over a decade beyond the formal retirement age so that many of the people I knew are now doing other things  (perhaps a message I should listen to…).

I did go to the session organised by a trade union, not with any intention of joining but out of curiosity to see how aware they were of conditions in the industry and what kind of response they received. It’s undoubtedly the case that conditions for the independent translator have deteriorated over the past 20 years. There has been a pronounced downward pressure on prices; unlike many of my colleagues, I haven’t lowered my prices but I’ve not raised them either for a very long time so in real terms I’m charging less than I used to. And I have largely priced myself out of the agency market. Working conditions have deteriorated too with translation agencies attempting to compete with very short deadlines (without express surcharges). Prices are at times very low bearing in mind that independent translators often work through their own firms and pay their own social security contributions. The additional premium once made to independent translators to cover the risk of running a company has in many cases become thin. Some translators are in or perilously close to a gig economy situation, where agencies collar the premium but shoulder little of the risk, having no commitment to the translators they use beyond the current project they are engaged in. If the benefits of being an independent contractor become too thin, posts as employed translators could become more attractive.  And perhaps some agencies will experience pressure to employ more translators. We’re still a long way from that situation, however.

And recently there has been a further rather dramatic deterioration where the volume of translation work on offer has decreased markedly, which must affect the translation agencies as well as independent translators, and make them more risk averse. The bulk of the work on offer has been low paid post-editing, reviewing translations created by various kinds of translation software/machine translation, checking and bringing them up to usable standard. The spread of knowledge about how good translation software has become, combined with a sharper focus on costs has had pronounced effects.

I see that one German translation agency is now in administration and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a major shake-out with a number of bankruptcies of organisations whose reserves are too thin to weather the storm if indeed the storm can be weathered, and individuals who leave the industry.

The trade union representatives presented what they had to offer to independent contractors – legal advice and various kinds of insurance, among other things. I’m not aware of the details but it didn’t seem superior to the customised insurance that many independent translators already have  (also with legal advice available). They also talked of being able to do more if they recruited more people in the industry. This seemed vague to me as traditional trade union activities such as wage negotiation and collective agreements don’t sit at all easily (or at all) with an industry where many of the weaker participants run their own small companies (and collective agreements would presumably  conflict with legislation on competition and risk accusations of collusion to hold up prices). It could be that their offering makes more sense for interpreters than translators.

In economic history, producers have not managed to retain all of the benefits of productivity improvements over long periods. They have had to share these benefits with customers and the same will apply/already applies to translators where the use of translation software has speeded up our work. And talk about the weaknesses of machine translation and the need for human checks, while true is fighting a losing battle against rapidly improving software and AI.

If translators are to survive, they have to find a commercial model which integrates these productivity improvements and offers the customer something more, otherwise we will go the way of the hand loom weavers, digital cameras and the yellow pages.

We have to offer an attractive level of expertise that integrates the new, to become, for example, lawyer-linguists or other specialists,  offering post-editing by legally qualified translators or specialists in particular branches (medicine, financial etc.), hoping to create a niche market with higher prices than the bulk mass market product offered by the bigger agencies.

But for me, way beyond retirement age, the time for empire building is over. Translation has served me well, rescuing me from the (for me, at least) dubious pleasures of school classrooms, and giving me over thirty years when I haven’t needed to worry much about liquidity. But now the party is over.

I’m already doing a fraction of the work I used to and have no shortage of occupations, quirky and serious, to fill my time.

But without wanting to be callous towards my younger colleagues, who are facing a tough period, I am more than a little relieved that I didn’t have to make the decision myself to kill the golden goose which has of its own volition become thin, worn and anaemic, almost a lame duck in fact.

New partners in the dance of life

Exploration of the word

archaeoastronomy self explanatory but rather fine

boondoggle, its etymology variously given as unknown, or coming from the boy scouts meaning product of simple manual labour but it has also come to denote an unnecessary wasteful or fraudulent project which continues to exist for political or extraneous reasons Also supposedly coined in the mid -1920s by Robert H. Link of Rochester, New York as a nickname for his infant son. Unclear how it made its way to the modern meaning, hopefully Robert H. Link wasn’t using it in that sense.

I’d heard this word before but swept past it.

caviste – a French word but it does exist in English in  the appropriate environments (where folk have access to professionally run wine cellars).

vintner someone who sells or makes wine.

jacked  (slang) well developed muscles. I am definitely unjacked and like it this way.

listicle a piece of writing presented wholly or partly as a list. I don’t feel attracted by this word.

nocebo effect

placebo is better known when a patient feels better despite the medicine applied having no established scientific effects.

nocebo is the opposite when someone feels worse from, for example, replacing a brand medicine with a generic medicine, despite it not being possible to identify any medical reason for this.


evasion of action or a clear-cut statement, desertion of a cause, position, party or faith

(source: Merriam Webster dictionary site). I was vaguely aware of the word.

From the Latin verb tergiversari meaning “to show reluctance” and coming from a combination of tergum meaning back and versare meaning to turn.

theodicy vindication of divine provenance in view of the existence of evil.

This sounds shaky to me and when I answer St Peter’s questionnaire in life’s quality follow-up (or the other department, mutatis mutandis), I shall state that it is highly unlikely that I recommend life to a friend.

toerag according to Collins dictionary, a despicable or contemptible person. I’d just about guessed this from the context I saw it used in.

toposcope, also known as topograph: the explanatory table or illustration at, for example, viewing points. I’m very glad to make its acquaintance and think I will use it (rather than toerag, which feels out of character)

Exploration of the world


I knew vaguely where it was and it is vaguely between Oxford St and Euston Rd on the S and N and Tottenham Court Rd and Great Portland St in the East and West. Viewed as a desirable area to live in and I wouldn’t mind at all if a flat here fell into my lap. I now also know that Rimbaud and G.B.Shaw lived there but doubt whether they met in a local tavern to play dominoes.

Travertine often referred to as Travertine marble but in fact a type of limestone. Burghausen castle in Bavaria, said to be the longest castle in the world, is made from it. If this feels over the top for a study visit, it can also be seen at the old London Transport headquarters in St James Park. Travertine also has the advantage of being porous so that if you wish to weep copiously at the sad saga of TFL vacating its traditional home for Far Eastern Stratford, it shouldn’t leave a stain on the floor.

Trespa cladding

A brand name. From the net “Everything you need to know about HPL Trespa:

The HPL panels consist of a wood fibre core that is compressed under high pressure giving the core the same properties as hardwood. The outer sides of an HPL sheet are finished with a  phenolic resin top layer, which is rock hard and virtually unbreakable”.

What these scientists get up to…..

Liverpool via shrinking violets and Viareggio

Curious about the expression “You’re not exactly a shrinking violet”, I find from a reticent source on the Internet that it is believed to have first appeared in a saying from Leigh Hunt in a magazine The Indicator, published in 1820: There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.

Leigh Hunt’s name has hovered on the fringe of my attention a number of times and it was clearly time for him to take his place in my personal panorama of early nineteenth century England. He was born on my birthday (but in 1784 not 1945) and died on my mother’s birthday (1859 not 1910). He attended Christ’s Hospital school near Horsham for which I had an unsuccessful interview (possibly stymied by my lack of knowledge of Pontius Pilate).

Otherwise, according to Wiki, Leigh Hunt was an English critic, essayist and poet, who co-founded The Examiner, a leading intellectual journal expounding radical principles. He was the centre of the Hampstead-based group that included William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, known as the “Hunt circle”. He died in Putney and I hoped that he was buried in Putney Vale cemetery to give me an added reason to visit (I want to go there and see how Kerensky is getting on, who seemed to have had problems getting buried in New York where he had lived and ended up in Putney Vale). But Leigh Hunt is in Kensal Green, one of the magnificent seven (to my shame I  have only visited three of these cemeteries to date: Kensal Green, Highgate and Nunhead).

Leigh Hunt was a major cultural figure in his time and important for the introduction of Keats, Shelley, Browning and Tennyson. He also made enemies, among them Blake.

He is famous too for his appearance (with Byron) in Louis Edouard Fournier’s painting of Shelley’s funeral on the beach at Viareggio on the Tuscan coast (not on Italy’s east coast as I’d previously thought). This painting is in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, giving me another reason for a visit to Liverpool and Birkenhead (I want to visit Port Sunlight too).

And now a pile of invoices awaits me to be listed, arranged and copied for my income tax return where I shall endeavour to reduce capital gains tax to a manageable amount; these from the time when I was involved in building a mediaeval cathedral on an island in Mälaren (it was a one-room extension actually but I didn’t get the impression that the builder was a man prone to undue haste and there was surely room for a flying buttress or two in his impressive sheaf of necessities to be paid for). It’s so much more pleasant to float around on the net filling the odd gap in knowledge than grubbing around with filthy lucre but such is the way of the world.


Marzahn and Wolf Eisentraut

My days in an increasingly spring-like Berlin are coming to an end and I will soon be back in not so spring-like Uppsala. I’ve explored Marzahn in the north-east of what used to be East Berlin. I’d hardly been there before but my image of the suburb was not so flattering. I’d expected that it was now a “vulnerable suburb” of the kind we have so many of in Sweden, with the faults and deficiencies of modernism, poor integration with the surrounding landscape, and unembellished architecture in the spirit of Le Corbusier ill adapted to the human need for variation. But the part of Marzahn I saw wasn’t like this at all; there was an older village which the GDR architect(s) had preserved and green open spaces (see photographs on Facebook). Still attractive despite the demolition of important parts of the original project. And there was a museum with a lot of information about one of the main architects, Wolf Eisentraut. He became an architect in the GDR, but, unlike many professional people, survived to continue his career after its end. He had, however, the sad experience of seeing many of his buildings demolished or changed, among them the GDR parliament building, which was replaced by a semi-replica of the war-damaged Hohenzollern palace. However, he didn’t just mourn the passing of his buildings but worked to reshape and give new life to the many prefabricated apartments. I’m greatly looking forward to reading his book “Zweifach war des Bauens Lust” and finding out more about modernism in the GDR period and his later adjustment (and resistance) to reunified Germany.