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COLUMN: The nonpareil translator

Updated Oct 26, 2015 01:43pm
C.M Naim
C.M Naim

LET’S begin by invoking Saadat Hasan Manto. Presently his name is much in the air and an endorsement from him should count for a lot with many readers, particularly those who are still short of 40. Here is what Manto wrote in a sketch of Agha Hashr Kashmiri, the ‘Shakespeare of Urdu’, in his wonderful book Ganjay Farishtay. “I had never seen any of Agha Sahib’s plays, for I was absolutely not allowed to go out of the house at night. Nor had I read his plays, for at the time I only enjoyed reading books like The Mysteries of the Court of London and English mystery novels translated by Tirath Ram Ferozepuri.”

Manto was born in 1912, and so he must have been speaking of his reading habits in the early-to-middle 1920s, the time when he also began to learn how Urdu prose could effectively be turned into a vehicle for imagined lives. And the book he mentioned by its English title must have been also its multivolume Urdu version done by the same translator. In the 1920s and continuing till the end of the 1950s, it had to be a truly phlegmatic Urdu reader who had not read a few translations done by Ferozepuri.

Munshi Sahib, as I shall henceforward call him, was born in 1885, though I cannot confirm it; he died in 1954, and that too, sadly, I cannot confirm. I can only offer surmises. However, concerning his achievements, I stand on very firm ground: during a working life of less than 40 years, Munshi Sahib produced more than 60,000 pages of translated prose fiction spread over more than 155 books.

That he always added Ferozepuri to his name clearly indicates that Munshi Sahib considered Ferozepur, Punjab, his place of origin. His command of Persian, and even some Arabic, also tells us that he had studied in some local madressah. Ferozepur, a small trading centre at the time but gradually becoming better known as a military cantonment, had several madressahs and one government high school. It is safe to assume that Munshi Sahib learned English and got a taste for fiction during the time he did his matriculation, and that the school’s library and the local railway bookstall were the places where he discovered the books he admired and translated when he grew up.

There is no evidence that Munshi Sahib went to college, for he made his debut in print only as Ferozepuri unlike Zafar Ali Khan or Zafar Omar and many more, who themselves, or their publisher, always wrote ‘B.A.’ after their names in the initial stages of their careers. Later, when some editors and publishers added ‘Munshi’ to his name, that too indicated that he was not a college graduate but, nevertheless, a man of some learning.

After matriculation around 1902 or 1903, Munshi Sahib moved to Lahore, which was then the most attractive place to be for any budding writer or journalist. It had many publishing houses and printing presses, and the colonial programme for school textbooks was located there. Anyone desirous of earning a living with his pen could expect to do well in Lahore. We have no knowledge of Munshi Sahib’s early years in the city, and it is quite possible that he did some anonymous work as a translator at one of the flourishing presses.

The earliest mention of him that I have found occurs in the May 1910 issue of the respected journal Adib (Allahabad), where he appears as the author of an essay entitled ‘Qutub Minar’. The essay fairly dispassionately presents all the conflicting arguments about the origins of the tower, and then concludes that the evidence favoured a Hindu origin. Incidentally, the subsequent issue of the journal carried an equally dispassionate essay by Khwaja Latifuddin Chishti in support of the Muslim claim. Both authors, however, insisted that it was a monument that all Indians should equally be proud of.

Between 1910 and 1913, Adib published several more articles by Munshi Sahib: ‘Akhbar-navisi ki ibtida’ (‘The origins of journalism’); ‘Alat-e parvaz’ (‘Flying machines’); ‘Yunaniyon aur Romiyon ka qadim tariqa-e ta’lim’ (‘Education in ancient Greece and Rome’); ‘Qadim Hindu farmanrava’on ke huquq aur fara’iz’ (‘The privileges and duties of ancient Hindu rulers’); ‘Qadim Hindustan main kashtkaron ki halat’ (‘The condition of farmers in ancient India’); and ‘Qadim Hindustan main fann-i-hava-bazi’ (‘The science of flying in ancient India’).

Most of the above articles mention English-language sources, and indicate his increasing command of the language for reading purposes. Another article, ‘Nazzara-e bahisht va dozakh: Dante ki nazm par tabsara’ (‘A view of paradise and hell: a review of Dante’s poem’) is explicitly marked as a translation, though the original author is not named. And a story entitled ‘Chup ki dad’ (‘The reward of silence’) is nothing but an Indianised version of some English story. It also indicates his early interest in tales of mystery. Many of the above titles suggest that he was also sympathetic to the revivalist-reformist movement of the Arya Samaj that had then caught the imagination of many North Indian Hindus, particularly in Punjab. An interest in Bengal is evident too, though we don’t know if he read or spoke Bengali. However, in 1913 — before Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize — Munshi Sahib translated a collection of eight Bengali short stories, followed later by two separate volumes of short stories by the Nobel laureate.

The December 1912 issue of Adib contains a commendatory review of three non-fiction books by Munshi Sahib, and describes him as a frequent contributor of literary and learned writings to Urdu journals. One book, Fann-e Gharisazi (‘The Craft of Watchmaking’), explains how to repair clocks and watches, while another, Ilaj bila Daktar (‘Curing Without a Doctor’), offers home remedies for common illnesses. Both books extensively use translated material. The third book, Angrezi Muhavarat (‘English Idioms’), is entirely original, and seeks to teach idiomatic English to Urdu readers through translation exercises. In fact, Munshi Sahib may have had in mind people like himself who wished to translate English fiction into Urdu, for the advanced exercises in the book are exactly of that nature; some of them have sentences that read like excerpts from mysteries. The two-part book clearly shows that by then he was comfortably conversant with written English.

The big moment of professional recognition in Munshi Sahib’s life, and the start of his long and sustained career as a translator, came in 1915, when his publishers, Lall Bros. of Naulakha, Lahore, started Tarjuman, “a monthly journal of philosophy, science, and literature”, with Munshi Sahib as its editor. Besides editing the journal, his responsibilities included translating and serialising in its pages George W.M. Reynolds’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of London. And when, in 1916, Zafar Omar’s Neeli Chhatri, an Urdu adaptation of Maurice Leblanc’s The Hollow Needle, became an immediate hit, Munshi Sahib also began serialising in Tarjuman his own translation of Leblanc’s other major book, 813. He called it Inqilab-e Yorap, and it was an instant success. That encouraged him to translate more books by Leblanc, and subsequently also by other authors, all thrillers and mysteries. The translations were first serialised in Tarjuman, and when it stopped publication after a few years, they became a popular series to which people could subscribe to obtain regularly at a discount. These were straight translations, and not adaptations in the manner of Omar.

An advertisement by the Lall Bros. in an undated fascicle of Ghurur-e Husn — Reynolds’s Agnes; or Beauty and Pleasure — gives us a good idea of his taste in popular fiction, and, more impor-tantly, of the incredible pace he worked at. The ad lists four major works by Reynolds, and 40 individual novels by others, all translated by Munshi Sahib. The four novels by Reynolds come to almost 12,000 pages, while the 40 diverse novels add another 12,000 pages. According to my estimate, Ghurur-e Husn was published in full — it runs to nearly 3,200 pages — some time before 1939. Putting it all together, we would be right to conclude that within 20 years or so Munshi Sahib had published over 27,000 pages of translated fiction in Urdu! How many pages he had read in English before deciding what to translate is anybody’s guess. For someone who was only a matriculate, it suggests an astounding devotion to what was clearly a passion for him and not merely a vocation.

On the whole Munshi Sahib’s translations can be described as fairly accurate; they never caused any damage to the intentions of the original author. In one of the prefaces that he habitually added to his books, Munshi Sahib calls himself a sahih-nigar (‘correct-writing’) translator, then adds, “I have restricted myself to presenting the learned author’s ideas and words in their exact form. I am not one of those people who consider their qabiliyat (‘talent’) superior to the author’s, and start correcting his thinking.” In the case of the rambling sagas that Reynolds produced and liberally littered with lengthy political and social commentaries, Munshi Sahib practiced liberal editing, excluding the bulk of such digressions while making sure that the central narrative flowed smoothly. In fact, in the case of some of the many side- stories that Reynolds habitually introduced in his biggest sagas, The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London, Munshi Sahib turned them into separate short books. As for the mysteries and thrillers of a normal length, he did not abridge them in any significant manner, and only avoided being too literal.

It would be fair to say that his main goal was to create an easy-flowing narrative that retained all that was essential in the original concerning its characters and action. Towards that end he was judicious in using idioms and proverbs, eschewing the more colourful ones, unlike his predecessors such as Mirza Ruswa and Amir Hasan Kakoravi who relished doing just the opposite. Munshi Sahib preferred to translate novels that were written in plain standard English and were not overly burdened with colourful slang or special turns of phrases — one reason, perhaps, why he did not translate any book by such American noir writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane, and limited himself to only one book by Leslie Charteris. Among his favorite authors were American and British masters of the ‘Classical’ period: J. S. Fletcher, Jacques Futrelle, Guy Boothby, Sax Rohmer, William Le Queux, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Valentine Williams.

In 1947, Munshi Sahib had no intentions of moving to India, but circumstances forced him to leave Lahore, together with his publisher, Narain Dutt Sehgal. The two settled in Jalandhar, and soon started a new series of publications. Munshi Sahib regained his momentum quickly, and began to produce four to five new translations annually. But the shock of leaving his beloved Lahore — in many post-1947 books he signed himself as ‘Avara-e Vatan’ or ‘Be-Aram Tirath Ram’ — and losing his lovingly put together library of hundreds of old and rare mystery books did not let him live for long. He is said to have died in 1954, perhaps in Delhi. Obituaries must have appeared in many journals, but I have not yet found any. The only notice of his death, together with a kind of tribute written by a Daya Krishna Gardish, can be found in his last translation, Klabfut ki Vapsi — Williams’s The Man with the Clubfoot. A brief quotation would throw some light on how many of Munshi Sahib’s fans looked at his work:

“Richardson and Fielding wrote so much about domestic life, human character and society that those who came after them had to turn to sex to make their works appear new and interesting. French writers still do it. But in America and England some people rejected that destructive trend, and found new heights for their imagination’s flights. Thus was born the art of the detective story. That innovation became extremely popular, and now hundreds of new masterpieces of that genre appear annually, and are readily purchased by eager readers.

And so it was that at a time when Indian writers, imitating the 18th-century literatures of Europe, were bent upon making sex the core of human character and consequently setting afire every Indian household, Munshi Tirath Ram made an effort to protect [the] public mind from filth, and took up the challenge to present in Urdu masterpieces of English mystery fiction.”

That such a view was not rare is attested by what Ijazul Haq Quddusi, the author of several learned books on the Sufis of Pakistan and a tome on Iqbal and the ulema of India and Pakistan, wrote in his memoirs, Meri Zindagi ke Pachattar Sal: “Sharar’s novels and Munshi Tirath Ram Ferozepuri’s translations gave me an understanding of Urdu. I call them my ustad-e ma’navi — [my real teachers]. Sharar’s novels taught me a new style of writing, and [Munshi Sahib’s] translations informed me about the ugly and festering cancer in European society.”

Be that as it may, time passes, fashions change. Munshi Sahib’s publishers too passed away soon after, and no one in India made any effort to keep his wonderful translations in print. In Pakistan, pirated editions continued for a while, then stopped. But now a new effort seems to be on in Lahore to reprint his translations. Let us see if they can still have the instantly gripping effect they had on several earlier generations of readers, for whom Munshi Sahib’s name on a book guaranteed that it was a raaton ki neend ura dene vala navil.

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