WHEN a famous fast food chain advertised its products in China, its well-known slogan “finger-lickin’ good” was translated into the local language as “We’ll eat your fingers off”, says ‘The 11 Worst Foreign Ad Translation Fails’, an interesting article published in Business Insider.

Literal translations can be even more disastrous or hilarious or both, as the article offers many such funny examples. When cross-cultural contexts or subtle linguistic nuances are involved, it is always better to go for a free translation or to transcreate instead of running the risk of landing yourself into an embarrassing situation.

Though the word ‘transcreate’ is yet to find its way into many of the popular English dictionaries, it has been around for quite some time, especially in the domains of marketing, copywriting and academics.

The word transcreate comes in handy when you want to say that a text from a language has been reproduced in another language without changing its actual ideas, context, tone and style. It is, in a way, to recreate a text in another language and it is always better to recreate rather than translate, especially when the text is laden with cultural or lexical nuances. In fact, many good translations rendered into Urdu, or vice versa, are either free translations or transcreations.

Recently an Urdu research work has been transcreated in English and it is quite an important one. Titled Many Summers Apart and subtitled Gems from Contemporary Urdu Literature, the book is published by Hay House Publishers India. It is Khalil-ur-Rahman Aazmi’s doctoral dissertation and Huma Khalil, the author’s daughter, has transcreated it. She holds a Master’s degree in English literature from Aligarh Muslim University and has translated several Urdu short stories into English.

The original work in Urdu was first published in 1972 under the title Urdu Mein Taraqqi Pasand Adabi Tehreek, or Progressive Literary Movement in Urdu. The book is divided into six parts that include: the background and the evolution of progressive writers’ movement in the subcontinent, Urdu poetry by progressive poets, Urdu short story, Urdu novel and other genres. The last chapter evaluates the critical writings by the progressives.

Khalil-ur-Rahman Aazmi’s thesis is no doubt considered a well-researched, unbiased and balanced one. A very important aspect of this work is that a lot had been written both in favour of and against the progressive literary movement and on both sides one could find emotional and unfairly preferential treatment. Aazmi’s stance has been more academic and literary rather than political or ideological. As put by Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi in his preface included in the first edition of the Urdu version, published in the late 1950s, “before progressive literary movement, a very important literary movement was Aligarh Movement and it was a kind of Urdu literature’s renaissance or revival. ... But there is a difference: Aligarh was basically an intrinsic, literary and cultural movement but progressive movement was extraneous, political and preachy in nature”.

But what surprises one is the subtitle of the transcreation — Gems from Contemporary Urdu Literature. First, the subtitle gives the false impression that the book is a transcreation of literary works, which it is not. It is simply a PhD thesis critically evaluating the progressive writings in Urdu. It is a serious critical and research work, not an anthology. Secondly, the writers and poets discussed by Aazmi in the book were of course his contemporaries when the dissertation was penned, that is, some 60 years ago (the first Urdu edition has a foreword by the author that is dated August 1957). Most of them, in fact all of them, have departed this mortal world, many of them many decades ago. Aazmi himself left for his heavenly abode some 40 years ago.

Some of the pieces partly recreated in the book as citations or examples may be “gems”, but one feels that calling them “contemporary Urdu literature” in 2019 needs some explanation as the translated or transcreated works by these authors were originally written some 70 years ago, or even more. For example, it refers to some works by Premchand, who died in 1936. Premchand was, by no means, my contemporary.

Aside from that aspect, the book is well-written and comes in as very helpful for anyone who wants to understand progressive writers’ Urdu works, their philosophies, and their literary finesse — as well as the background of the movement in the subcontinent — in a fair and unattached perspective.

Khalil-ur-Rahman Aazmi was an academic, poet and critic. He was born on Aug 9, 1927, in a village in the district of Azamgarh, UP, in British India. Having obtained a Master’s degree in Urdu from Aligarh Muslim University in 1948, Aazmi joined the very institution as a lecturer. Later on, he did his PhD and was made professor posthumously. His other works are Aaina Khaane, Zaviya-i-Nigah, Zindagi Aye Zindagi, Fikr-o-Fan, Kaghazi Pairhan, Mazaameen-i-Nau, Maqa­ddama Kalam-i-Aatish, Naya Ahad Nama, Nava-i-Zafar and Nai Nazm Ka Safar.

Khalil-ur-Rahman Aazmi died in Aligarh on June 1, 1978.


Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2019