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The 'Holmesian' canon in Urdu

Updated Jun 02, 2015 02:16pm

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Sherlock Holmes, the most widely known detective in the world, is perhaps also the most widely recognised fictional character in the world — at par with Hamlet, who appeared amongst us 400 years ago.

Holmes, however, made his debut more recently, in 1887, in a novella titled A Study in Scarlet. The author was a 28-year-old doctor named Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, not terribly successful in his medical practice and needing supplementary income after his marriage two years earlier.

The story, sad to say, brought him only £25. His second book with Holmes — The Sign of the Four — was a similar financial disappointment. But when, in 1891, he changed genres and set afoot "the game" in six taut tales which appeared in the newly founded but instantly popular magazine Strand, Doyle gained the success he wished for.

By 1891, English popular literature was easily available to many Indians in urban centres, through public libraries and franchised book stalls at major railway stations. Also, by then, much popular English fiction, by authors such as George W.M. Reynolds, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and H. Rider Haggard, was not only being avidly read but also translated into Urdu in some fashion.

For example, Reynolds' Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf was translated by Muhammad Ameer Hasan as Fasäna-e 'Alä'uddin va Lailä, and serialised in the Avadh Akhbar around 1890; and in 1896, translations of five of his novels were available from the journal's publishers, the pre-eminent Newal Kishore Press of Lucknow.

An illustration depicting a moment in the story, 'Teen Talib'ilm', the Urdu translation of 'The Adventure of the Three Students'.
An illustration depicting a moment in the story, 'Teen Talib'ilm', the Urdu translation of 'The Adventure of the Three Students'.

Doyle's tales must have been read by many contemporary Urdu speakers, but with no apparent impact. While tracing the development of mystery fiction in Urdu, I was not able to find any evidence of Doyle's popularity at the turn of the century. The reason, most likely, was the dominant literary taste.

Urdu speakers, fond of dastaans and similar tales of adventure, preferred even in translations from the English of what we now call 'thrillers', as opposed to the detective tales that Doyle excelled at. At the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, the other big name in crime fiction was Maurice Leblanc, whose gentleman-burglar, Arsène Lupin, rivalled Holmes in popularity.

It is telling that Lupin was the first to be made available in Urdu, through Tirath Ram Firozepuri's translations and Zafar Omar's 'transcreations' beginning in 1916. He also remained dominantly popular, even influential, for a couple of decades.

Holmes made his appearance only a few years later, but though he found due popularity he never gained an Urdu imitator. That preference for thrillers still persists. Of the more than 200 original novels that have made Ibne Safi a household name, most are thrillers and not tales of detection.

In my knowledge, the first person to translate a Holmes story into Urdu was Shaikh Firozuddin Murad, a professor of physics at the Aligarh Muslim University. A translation of A Study in Scarlet, it was titled Sharlak Homz ka Pehla Karnama, and was published in Lahore by the Dar-al-Isha'at Punjab, a prominent publisher of popular fiction at the time.

Notably, the book was published with Doyle's permission, as we learn from Murad's preface. Murad also explains why he found the book so appealing: "This tale is not made of elaborate speeches and trite subjects. Instead, a chain of events is superbly narrated to make evident to us how an intelligent man, employing needful observation and a correct line of reasoning, can accomplish anything."

In other words, Murad liked the story not because it was sensational or thrilling, but because it engaged his mind.Interestingly, when the same was translated a second time, by Amar Nath Muhsin and titled Khunnaba-e-Ishq (the bloody torrent of love) the publisher still described it on the title page as "a novel that stands victorious in the field of detection, aided by the sciences of physiognomy, anatomy, and chemistry."

Murad published two more books of Holmes stories: Hikapat-e-Sharlak Homz (1921) and Yadgar-e-Sharlak Homz. The first has 12 stories selected from the canonical four collections,the second seven. Murad thus managed to translate and publish one-third of the canonical 56 stories.

In the preface to the Hikayat, Murad described the stories as both interesting and instructive. "In the guise of a tale", he wrote, "they teach us how to use our eyes correctly, draw conclusions from what we observe, and then develop a scientific line of reasoning...Such stories can serve a useful purpose in Urdu."

Expanding on his belief in the pedagogic quality of the stories, Murad did something unusual in the Hikayat: each translated narrative was presented as if it came in three sections.

"The first section", Murad wrote, "presents the mysterious affair at hand, the second offers a detailed account of Holmes's investigation, and the final third section reveals the mystery and its solution. The reader's enjoyment should lie in his stopping at the end of the first section and trying to come up with an explanation of his own. Failing in the attempt, he should then read the second section, close the book, and endeavour to imagine what Holmes would do next." That was a noteworthy insight into Doyle's narrative structures.

Murad also did something in two stories that Doyle might have strongly disapproved of. In his translations of The Adventure of the Three Students and The Adventure of the Reigate Squire into Urdu —Teen Talib'ilm and Rai Ghat ke Ra'is, respectively — Murad made all secondary characters Indians.

The locale in the first story remained Cambridge, but the three students and their harried teachers were given Indian names; in the second, even the locale was made Indian. Both give little added pleasure, and Murad did well not to tinker with the rest of the stories. In the Hikayat, he also included some crude litho illustrations based on the etchings in Strand.

Both failures, nevertheless, indicate the earnestness and devotion that this professor of physics brought to his labour of love.

Curiously, a decade later another professor of physics similarly fell in love with Holmes. Naseer Ahmad Usmani, who taught at the Osmania University at Hyderabad, translated The Hound of the Baskervilles as Khandani Aseb, and The Valley of Fear as Wadi-e-Khauf. Usmani, too, was an earnest but clumsy translator; he was also seemingly much influenced by the Bureau of Translation at his university — he used Mufattish for 'detective', Shaikh-al-Balad for 'mayor', and Nishan-e-Abi for 'watermark'!

The two professors probably could not have gained Holmes many fans. Things changed only when that extraordinary translator, Tirath Ram Firozepuri, took up the task.

After firmly establishing Lupin's popularity among the readers of crime fiction in Urdu, he turned his attention to Lupin's archrival — probably around the same time as Usmani — and in quick succession produced extremely readable versions of The Valley of Fear (as Wadi-e-Khauf), The Hound of the Baskervilles ( as Atishi Kutta) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (as Karnamajat-e Sharlak Homz).

His translations made the name well-known in Urdu, but his numberless readers always showed greater appreciation for, and demanded more of, Lupin's adventures and other similar thrillers that Firozepuri had offered earlier and continued to offer till his death in 1954.

It's about time someone again took up the challenge and completed in Urdu the work started by these pioneers. Urdu speakers never cease to claim greatness for their language. But surely no language can be considered great unless it has available in it most of the revered 'Holmesian' canon of 56 stories and four novels? The effort may even enhance logical thinking among Urdu speakers, and prove Murad right.

C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus in the Department of South Asian Languages & Civilisations at the University of Chicago. His two most recent books of essays, A killing in Ferozewala and The Muslim League in Barabanki were published in 2013 by the City Press, Karachi. A third book, The Hijab and I is expected this year. He blogs at http://cmnaim.com

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Comments (1) Closed



Kabir Babar May 25, 2015 04:33am

An informative and thought-provoking article. One hopes that modern publishers and translators will pick up the batton and introduce sorely needed Holmesian methods of inference into the country via Urdu - or any language, for that matter.