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The art and craft of translation

Published Nov 13, 2016 06:36am

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H.M. Naqvi *is the award-winning author of Home Boy. Published by Random House in 2009, the debut was translated into German, Italian, and Portuguese, and awarded the DSC Prize at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Naqvi has worked in the financial services industry, taught creative writing at Boston University and written for* Caravan, Forbes, *and* Freeman’s. *His second novel is expected from HarperCollins in the coming year.*
H.M. Naqvi is the award-winning author of Home Boy. Published by Random House in 2009, the debut was translated into German, Italian, and Portuguese, and awarded the DSC Prize at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Naqvi has worked in the financial services industry, taught creative writing at Boston University and written for Caravan, Forbes, and Freeman’s. His second novel is expected from HarperCollins in the coming year.

Among the bewildering selection of titles one has come across on display on still Sunday afternoons at the once sprawling Sunday Bazaar on the periphery of the city, or the roadside book bazaar in and around Regal Chowk, or the weekly book fair on the grounds of Frere Hall (which was, for years, suspended due to its proximity to the old American consulate) — Come Fly with Me (Captain Johnny Sadiq), The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World (Lynne McTaggart), The Literary Companion to Sex (Fiona Pitt-Kethley), The Art of War (Sun Tzu), Introduction to Modern Pilipino Literature (E. San Juan Jr.), Racing Against Time: The Actor’s Handbook for Working in Film and Television (Danielle Carter), Creating with Polymer Clay (Steven Ford and Leslie Dierks), The Mountains of Serbia: Travels Through Inland Yugoslavia (Anne Kindersley), Winds of Change, Srimad Bhagavatam (A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada), and 10,000 Dreams Interpreted (Gustavus Hindman Miller) — the most pirated literary fiction in English for the good part of the last decade has included My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk), Immortality (Milan Kundera), and of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez). Inevitably, much of the popular pirated literary literature — a proxy, if you like, for popularity — found at stalls across the city are translations.1

Translation is not a craft but an art, a vital one, one that allows us to participate in each other’s experiences, in each other’s stories. Imagine if we had remained cloistered like our fur-swathed forefathers — far-flung tribes wrapped up in ourselves. Imagine the world without the Mahabharata, Iliad, A Thousand and One Nights, Rumi’s musings, Cervantes’s epic. Without Flaubert, Proust, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Imagine learning Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, and Russian. And what of Chinese?

In a wonderfully thought-provoking piece titled ‘The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel’2 Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, describes his experience teaching Chinese to American students: “The most anguishing question I get is ‘Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ­___?’ I am tempted to say that the question makes no sense … [for in] languages as far apart as English and Chinese, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.” Elucidating, he offers the example of a word as corporeal, as tangible as ‘book’. Apparently, the closest approximation of book is the word shu. But shu might mean writing or letter or calligraphy or, intriguingly, book-ness. If you were to ask for a book at a Chinese bookstore, you would ask for “a volume of book-ness”.


Is the dearth of talented translators marginalising Urdu literature works from the global literary landscape?


Although there is an equivalent for the word ‘book’ in Urdu, our language poses its own suite of problems. Victor Kiernan, one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s earlier translators, writes, “Urdu might almost be made up by poets for their own benefit.” Indeed, translating Urdu verse, characterised by its strict regime of metre, rhyme, refrain, alliterative infrastructure, and laden with Persian allusions, is an endeavour that poses multifarious challenges — a project for the bold, the foolhardy.

Recall, for instance, the greatest opening lines in our canon: “Naqsh faryadi hai kis ki shokhi-i-tahrir ka, kaghazi hai pairahan har paikar-i-tasvir ka.” In translation, the couplet is reduced to: “the drawing/picture is a plaintiff — about whose mischievousness of writing?/ Of paper is the robe of every figure of the picture.”

It is, unfortunately, almost nonsensical; for starters, the metaphors just do not transfer. But there is no doubt that Francis Pritchett’s noble, indeed Herculean, web-based rendition of Ghalib’s Diwan is an important achievement. And Ghalib is famously demanding, a league of his own.3

All, however, is not lost in translation: although classical Urdu poetry might be a particularly difficult medium to negotiate, modern poetry — whether Faiz or Zafar Iqbal, Afzal Ahmed Syed or Azra Abbas — does lend itself more easily to the exercises of interpretation. Kiernan’s attempt at deciphering Faiz, for instance, is worth surveying. And while I might prefer Naomi Lazard’s looser, lyrical The True Subject, there are those who will swear by Agha Shahid Ali’s Rebel’s Silhouette. Obviously, each translator brings a different sensibility, a different process to the table.

One of the most important literary figures of our time, Gregory Rabassa, quietly passed away over the summer at the venerable age of 94. Although the Cuban-American WWII code-breaker was known for his translations of Márquez, he also worked on the oeuvre of Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, National Book Award-winning Argentinean Julio Cortázar and Brazilian pulp novelist Jorge Amado. Indeed, Rabassa introduced modern South American literature to the world. What a monumental achievement!


Although there might be an equivalent for the word ‘book’ in Urdu, Urdu poses its own suite of problems. Victor Kiernan, one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s earlier translators, writes, “Urdu might almost be made up by poets for their own benefit.” Indeed, translating Urdu verse, characterised by its strict regime of metre, rhyme, refrain, alliterative infrastructure, and laden with Persian allusions, is an endeavour that poses multifarious challenges — a project for the bold, the foolhardy.


One wonders what made Rabassa Rabassa? One wonders what makes a good translator, a good translation? According to Prof Link, “The most fundamental dilemma is between how much to pull the reader into the original language, preserving its literal meanings … and how much to pull back, be more ‘free,’ and try … to offer a comparable experience.”

Lazard characterises the process somewhat differently: “I have learned what my own language can and cannot do … I have learned that it doesn’t matter … how many transformations a poem must be brought through, until the English works in the same way as a poem I have written myself … It must move with its own spirit, with the same feeling and tone. It must have the same music, the same direction, and above all, it must mean the same thing in English that it means in Urdu.”4

Rabassa worked in a dramatically different mode. He famously translated as he went. “I used the excuse that it gave the translation the freshness that a first reading would have and which ought to make others’ reading of the translation be endowed with the first feeling.” Consequently, perhaps, Márquez maintained that, “The impression one gets is that the translator read the book and then rewrote it from his recollections … I think that my work has been completely recreated in English.”5 I must agree — a text has to work in the translated language. Consequently, strict fidelity to the original is not critical.

There are, however, dangers to this modus operandi. Qurratulain Hyder, for instance, the greatest of Urdu novelists,6 also famously attempted to recreate her magnum opus Aag Ka Darya. The original begins with great alliterative élan, great rhythm and flow:

Gautum Nilamber ne chaltay chaltay thittak kar peechay dekha. Rastay ki dhool barish ki vaja se kum ho chuki thi. Go uss ke apnay paoun mitti se attay parray thay. Barsaat ki vaja se ghaas aur darakht zamarud ke rang ke dikhlai parr rahay thay.

The River of Fire begins: “It was the first beerbahuti of the season that Gautum had seen. The prettiest of rain-insects, clothed in God’s own red velvet, the beerbahuti was called the bride of Indra, Lord of the Clouds. This one was crawling upon a blade of grass. A gust of easterly wind brought it rolling down onto the sodden earth.”

One might take exception to the overall flatness of the prose, to the abrupt transitions from sentence to sentence, to the choice of not translating beerbahuti to ‘ladybird’. One might wonder whether Hyder should have left the translation to somebody else. Abdullah Hussein did not; he felt compelled to translate Udas Naslain to The Weary Generations himself. Ditto for Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Although we have some fine translators working from English to Urdu — Shahid Hameed, Asif Farrukhi at Dunyazad and Ajmal Kamal at Aaj Publications come to mind — translators from Urdu to English are few and far between.7 The old guard — Muhammad Umar Memon, C.M. Naim, Khalid Hasan — has dwindled; the next generation seems mostly incapable.8 As a result, contemporary Urdu literature largely languishes in global discourse.

According to British betting company Ladbrokes, an Albanian and a Kenyan, Ismail Kadare and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, were favourites for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature before Bob Dylan bagged it. But why hasn’t an Urdu writer been a serious consideration9 today, yesterday, or in the past century for that matter? Where is our Gregory Rabassa?


1.) There are exceptions to the rule, notably Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, though both fall into a somewhat different category.

2.) Said piece can be found in the New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015.

3.) Pritchett’s work can be found at www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/ghazal_index.html. For the brave and curious, one might suggest Ralph Russell’s, Aijaz Ahmad’s, Azra Raza’s and Sara Suleri’s translations of the inimitable Ghalib.

4.) Naomi Lazard, The True Subject (Princeton University Press).

5.) From The Guardian’s June 22, 2016 obituary of Rabassa.

6.) In a way, I am who I am because of Hyder: she arranged my grandparents’ wedding.

7.) In the old days, of course, there was Hasan Askari and Saghir Malal.

8.) There are a handful of exceptions to the rule, notably Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation of Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead, Bilal Tanweer’s work on Ibn Safi, and one is excited by Durdana Soomro’s forthcoming translation of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Ay Ghazaal-e-Shab.

9.) One understands Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a dark horse candidate once upon a time, though the Nobel Committee does not disclose long or shortlists.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016


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