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Muhammad Umar Memon remembered

Updated June 13, 2019

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ALI Akbar Natiq speaks at the event on Tuesday.—Faysal Mujeeb/White Star
ALI Akbar Natiq speaks at the event on Tuesday.—Faysal Mujeeb/White Star

KARACHI: Scholars shared their views on the life and work of writer and translator Muhammad Umar Memon, who passed away last year, at an event held in his honour at T2F on Tuesday evening.

Zahra Sabri said Mr Memon was a top-notch translator, who introduced many writers of Urdu fiction to the rest of the world, including fictionists such as Intizar Husain and Nayyar Masud. Some people called his job a thankless one because when readers read a work of translation, they didn’t remember the name of the translator, and it’s the author who takes centre stage.

He was born in Aligarh in 1939. He obtained his master’s degree in Arabic from Sindh University in 1961. His father was a scholar of Arabic, so that’s the kind of environment he grew up in. Subsequently, he did his PhD in Islamic Studies. As a translator he not only translated works of writers from the subcontinent into English, but also novels and stories of internationally acclaimed novelists such as Milan Kundera and Orhan Pamuk into Urdu.

‘A top-notch translator, who introduced many writers of Urdu fiction to the rest of the world’

Poet Ali Akbar Natiq said Mr Memon worked a lot in his life. He was a iztirabi person. He first met the writer/translator in Islamabad where he [Natiq] used to work at the Academy of Letters headed by Iftikhar Arif. There Mr Natiq set up a bookshop where people could get books at cheaper prices. Once Mr Memon came to visit the shop and asked him if he had his books. To that Mr Natiq inquired about who he was. This got Mr Memon upset and he went to Mr Arif saying this man didn’t know him. When Mr Arif told Mr Natiq that he was M. Umar Memon, the young poet said he hadn’t seen his face but had read all his books.

After that, Mr Natiq started talking about a short story writer in relation to Mr Memon rather disparagingly for a long stretch of time, which one felt wasn’t needed. He should’ve stuck to highlighting Mr Memon’s achievements.

Publisher Hoori Noorani said she was happy that a programme on Mr Memon was being held because it had been a year since he passed away. She said the eminent translator used to complain about the fact that his work was not acknowledged in Pakistan the way it merited.

Ms Noorani said she first met Mr Memon in 2014 at a gathering, which the late writer felt happy about. On that occasion she gently asked him what [book] he was giving to her for publishing. He did not immediately respond to the query but later replied to her after reaching the US [where he lived] that he liked the way she sought to publish his work. This led to a series of communication through email and Skype, eventually getting the two of them to work together. Ms Noorani published his translations. During their communication Mr Memon’s personality unfolded, especially his ideas about book publishing. He once told her that he was “particular about the quality of printing”.

After the three speakers, short bits of a video containing Mr Memon’s interview were shown.

Writer Irfan Javed said while reading translations done by Mr Memon made him think about literary stalwarts such as Quratulain Hyder and Abdullah Husain, who did not have a quality translator working for them, and had to translate their own books. Mr Memon was a complex character. He didn’t study Urdu and had a degree in Islamic Studies but taught Urdu at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Underlining his mercurial nature, Mr Javed said Mr Memon introduced Intizar Husain to the world with his English translations and Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera to the Urdu-speaking world with his Urdu translations, but at the twilight of his career he became indifferent to both of them.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2019