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Exploring the Place of Religion in Bengali Publications from the Franklin Book Program

(The following is a post by Bennett Comerford, Junior Fellow, Asian Division, Summer 2021.)

This summer, while working at the Library of Congress as a Junior Fellow in the Asian Division, I had the opportunity to inventory, transliterate and compile metadata for Bengali books from the Franklin Book Program (1952-1978), a U.S.-sponsored international translation and publication initiative during the Cold War. This fascinating collection of texts in over a dozen languages (e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Urdu) was donated to the Library of Congress in the late 1970s. As I began to familiarize myself with the Bengali collection and the relatively little scholarly attention it has received, my background in religious studies led me to wonder about the subtle but significant role religion seemed to play in the selection of titles. In particular, the collection’s incorporation of a handful of texts that pertain to religion, and Islam in particular, sheds light on the Franklin Book Program’s broader intentions and aims akin to cultural diplomacy.

A diagram

Bengali book stats: The subject breakdown of non-fiction titles in the collection is as follows: Science, Math, Technology: 107; Social Sciences: 61; Teaching/Instruction/How-To: 45; Biography: 43; Country/Regional Profiles: 30; Reference: 4; Other: 4. Among the Bengali books that the program produced, 37 can be classified as fiction/literature and 294 can be classified as non-fiction.

The Franklin Book Program oversaw the translation from English to Bengali of 331 books for people in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) between 1957 and 1976. The translations came from approximately 40 different publishing houses, most of which were based in the capital city of Dhaka. About ten percent of the Bengali translations are English-language titles. The other 90 percent are Bengali translations of English-language nonfiction works, a third of which are about science, mathematics and technology. Other subjects represented among the Bengali translations are the social sciences, instructional manuals, biography, country and regional profiles, and reference titles.

Given the historical backdrop of Cold War politics and the U.S. government-backed funding that underwrote the Franklin Book Program, some have interpreted the program along propagandist lines. Yet, scholarship by Louise Robbins (see the Learn More section) and archival research conducted at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin by my Junior Fellow colleague, Daniel Ng, reveal that from the very beginning there was an awareness among the Franklin Book Program leadership regarding the program’s aims. The program’s leadership even insisted that the translation work and book publication efforts were anything but propagandist. While I may not be able to offer any definitive conclusions on this longstanding debate, a look at the role of religion in the Bengali collection helps us to appreciate an important dimension of the Franklin Book Program’s translation and publication efforts for a predominately Muslim readership.

A collage of book covers.

A selection of Bengali book covers from the Franklin Book Program. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Although only a very small portion of the collection, the handful of books on religion speak to the intentions and motivations of the Franklin Book Program. For a program that sought to propagate American values, there are notably no titles that include the language of “Christian” or “Christianity.” Yet, translated works on religion are not left out. There are a handful of titles on Islam, such as “Isalāma: Aitihāsika Paryālocanā” (a translation of H.A.R. Gibbs’ “Mohammedanism; An Historical Survey”), “Isalāmera Dr̥shṭite Śānti O Yuddha” (a translation of Majid Khadduri’s “War and Peace in the Law of Islam”), and “Isalāma O Ādhunika Cintādhārā” (a translation of Kenneth W. Morgan’s “Islam, the Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims”).

In a collection that targets a primarily Muslim readership in East Pakistan, the inclusion of such works translated into Bengali is perhaps unsurprising. But these titles also raise interesting questions regarding the diplomatic or educational implications of including religiously oriented titles at all. Is the intention here to make a predominantly STEM-centered collection more palatable for Muslim readers? Does the inclusion of such titles represent the promulgation of American values, specifically values pertaining to religious pluralism? If so, what do we make of the relative absence of books dedicated to other religious traditions? These are just a few questions that could be the focus of further study.

Although there are no explicitly Christian titles, Christianity (and to a lesser extent other religious traditions) is no doubt represented in certain literary and biographical works translated into Bengali. One prominent example is “Bīrakanyā Joẏāna,” a biography of Joan of Arc. Also included are a handful of journalistic or historical treatments of religious topics and themes, such as a history of the Crusades and John Clover Monsma’s “The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe,” in which a few dozen American scientists reflect favorably on religion.

Finally, there is the example of “Āmāra Jībanadarśana,” a Bengali translation of “This I Believe,” a collection of essays based on the original CBS Radio Network broadcasts of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. The Franklin Book Program edition includes essays written by the former prime minister of Iran, Hossain Ala, and an introduction by Sheikh Abdur Rahman, a former chief justice of West Pakistan. It is noteworthy that “belief” in this anthology is firmly contrasted with dogmatic or prejudicial notions of faith. Although among only a few Bengali translations that explicitly engage issues of religion or spirituality, “Āmāra Jībanadarśana” was one of the Franklin Book Program’s most successful titles.

The Franklin Book Program’s Bengali publications, as well as its Urdu publications, are accessible in the Asian Reading Room by prior appointment. Please use Ask a Librarian to contact reference staff about this collection and other materials in the South Asian Collection. You can also view the Junior Fellow display day presentation online.

Learn More:

Robbins, Louise. “Publishing American Values: The Franklin Book Programs as Cold War Cultural Diplomacy.” Library Trends, 55(3), 638-650.

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