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NARRATIVE ARC: TRANSLATING VERSE

September 16, 2018

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It is problematic when great poets in any language are not only identified but categorised by their geographical region or their specific language to signify some variety of ethnic, linguistic or state nationalism. This is where the interests of Western academia and occidental scholarship using an oriental lens converge with those of proponents of narrow political ideologies and ethno-linguistic nationalisms in the (post)colonised world. The absence of comprehensive and accessible translations of the work of these poets and writers in other languages further facilitates this thinking.

In our case, whether it is Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Rabindranath Tagore or Allama Muhammad Iqbal, there is always an attempt by some to reduce them — directly or indirectly — to fit within or glorify certain political and nationalist narratives in Sindh, Bengal or Pakistan. Most languages we speak are limited in their cross-national outreach by virtue of being the languages of the colonised peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries. Urdu and Hindi combined is perhaps the only spoken tongue in the region where the total number of its speakers vastly outnumbers those who speak it as their mother tongue. However, it has a weak connection with contemporary global intellectual discourse and is being less and less used beyond current affairs, entertainment, music and creative literature even within South Asia. Outside, other than a limited academic interest demonstrated by international scholars, the use of Urdu-Hindi as a spoken tongue is confined to living-room chat among the first two generations of migrants in some parts of the South Asian diaspora.

Bhitai, in the opinion of many including this scribe, is one of the most accomplished and fascinating poets ever born anywhere. But he was not even properly and fully translated from Sindhi into other Pakistani or regional languages for a long time, leave alone European languages that are considered international. In Urdu, one remembers a few parts of his work translated by Ibne Insha and the whole Risalo (his compendium) translated by poet Sheikh Ayaz with the assistance of Professor Afaq Siddiqui in the middle of the 20th century. A considerably good translation by Agha Saleem also came out later. In my humble view, the genius of Bhitai is yet to be fully explored and appreciated by speakers of other languages. But that can only happen if more quality translations in other languages are made available.

One understands the difficulties faced and the pitfalls involved in translating poetry, but without debating the merits and demerits of the process itself, imagine if translations were not available: how could have any of us been introduced to the great Russian novel, the avant-garde French poets, the magic realism of Spanish fiction, the modern Arabic verse of the 20th century and so on. Therefore, as much as creating literature in our own languages is to be encouraged and rejoiced, translating from our languages into others and vice versa has to be seen as equally important.

How unfortunate that Tagore, the most celebrated writer of fiction and verse from South Asia in the 20th century with a definite universal appeal, is not read enough or critiqued properly by readers and writers of Pakistani languages. It may have been different five decades ago — of which I have little knowledge about — when Bangla-speaking East Pakistan was a part of this country. In times like these, reading the exquisite versified translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali into Urdu by Syed Zaheer Abbas is a delightful experience.

First published in India in 1982, it was reprinted in Pakistan first in 2010 and then again in 2016. Gitanjali, meaning a ‘devotional offering of songs’ if we describe it in English, was originally published in Bangla in 1910 and in English in 1912. The book, comprising more than a hundred songs, expresses the profound feeling of love for the Creator and His creation and a desire for an eternal union. This feeling employs a variety of emotions and celebrates the goodness and the splendour that the poet sees around him. Abbas’s translation is unmatched in terms of its beauty and finesse.g

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 16th, 2018