Pakistan is a country where translation is not a profession. Informed by the country’s Islamic ideology and the national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s works, Pakistan’s mainstream literature memorialises the golden days of Arab history when libraries were considered powerhouses of wisdom. For the country’s institutions and individuals working in this framework, Baghdad’s Daar-ul-Hikmah [House of Wisdom] — where all the best books in Greek and many in Persian and Chinese were translated into Arabic — should have been a source of inspiration to realise the needs and dreams of translation. But today’s Pakistan is a country that has almost completely banished its translators from its academic and non-academic spaces, as here, translation earns one neither money nor any recognition.

At our universities, the minimum qualification for professorship — as directed and monitored by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) — is a PhD degree, 15 years of teaching and/or research experience, and 15 research papers. And, in the words of one of the directors of the HEC’s Quality Assurance Agency to my query at a high-level meeting, “research paper means research paper; not translation work, nor creative writing.” This means that any kind of translation work or creative writing done by an academic from any discipline, including the humanities and social sciences, goes completely unacknowledged by the system.

Pakistan is in dire need of engaging in a dialogue with the world, but the means to do so is neither supported nor promoted

A few Pakistani universities (including the University of Gujrat, the International Islamic University, Islamabad and the National University of Modern Languages) do actually have translation departments. But in order to seek promotion, a teacher in a translation department has to write ‘research papers’. Perhaps that is why we now have a bigger body of work on or about translation than there is of actual translation. Similarly, graduate students in the language (English, Urdu, etc) departments of the universities are also not allowed to submit translations as their dissertations. “The HEC strictly wants our graduates to add to the existing body of knowledge, not merely translate it from one language into another,” was the reason given by one of the senior members of a policymaking body at a large-scale university in the country in response to a request to allow masters-level students in the Urdu department to do translations as their theses. Thus, there is no academic incentive to promote translation in the country.

As for financial incentives, corpus-planning institutions such as the Urdu Science Board and the National Language Promotion Department (NLPD) — that were primarily established to translate works of value into Urdu — do ask translators to do what they call ‘paid translation’. However, the total budget given to the NLPD for publications last year was just Rs2.5 million, of which only Rs500,000 — or half a million — could be allocated to translation. And for a translator’s services, institutions such as the NLPD pay just half a rupee per word. No competent translator is willing to take on such low-paying projects, more so because the job also lacks recognition. Therefore, the institutions end up getting poor quality work or no work at all. Perhaps that is why the NLPD could get only three new books translated and published during the last year. As for translation from indigenous languages into Urdu, or from indigenous languages and Urdu into English, we have only one government institution to do the job — the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL). To date, the most that PAL has paid for translation work is a rupee a word, but because of financial limitations, it could not publish a single book-length translation during the last couple of years.

For a translator’s services, institutions such as the NLPD pay just half a rupee per word. No competent translator is willing to take on such low-paying projects, more so because the job also lacks recognition. Therefore, the institutions end up getting poor quality work or no work at all. To date, the most that the Pakistan Academy of Letters has paid for translation work is a rupee a word.

Translation is literally being treated as an outcast in Pakistan, and this is happening in a country in dire need of engaging in a dialogue with the world. A country suffering from a severe narrative scarcity. A country from where no writer has won a Nobel or Booker Prize. A country whose best creative writers are often found hopelessly searching for translators. A country whose national language could not be implemented as the ‘official language’, despite constitutionally being so since 1988, just because there are not enough corpora available in the language. Is it because the country’s elite want to maintain the strict linguistic barrier between themselves and the teeming millions? Whatever the reason, having no translators in the country is a tragedy and so, to deal with this, it requires declaring a translation emergency.

The writer is Chair, Department of English at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and author of the Urdu-language novel, Sasa

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 22nd, 2020