Even the closest reading of a translation is affected by a tendency to pronounce upon the invisibility of the translator. The lens of a critic always focuses on an overlapping semantic space, where the authorial voice merges with the translator’s. Deconstructing any masterful translation is, therefore, beyond a mere judgement on fidelity, fluency and beauty. Furthermore, when there is a cultural isomorphism between source and target, the challenge becomes twofold.

The debate is far from settled but, most often in such cases, translators refuse to take a backseat and rip off their subjective straitjacket; instead, they try to assume a more active role. Often, they become a creative dissimulator, taking revenge for the fundamental invisibility of their being. Their ultimate aim: a creative coup.

Contrary to all expectations, Afzal Ahmed Syed does none of that with Khaak Hojanay Tak, his translation of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust. Being an Afzal Ahmed completest I struggled hard to find a rationale underlying this passivity.

Is it because this is a unique case, where writer and translator are conjoined in an almost dicephalic relationship and I am mistakenly considering them apart? After all, both Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Afzal Ahmed Syed have now translated each other’s works. Or is it because of a more rational, yet often misunderstood, preferential choice by the translator — namely that a good translation should essentially come across as a translation?

Those who have read Between Clay and Dust are well aware of its lyrical power and elegant simplicity. Its force lies not so much in the fact that it brings together two seemingly disjointed institutions of wrestling and courtesanship in a singular theme, but an elegiacal lament of the ideals those two protagonists ascribe to.

In other words, it’s the existential angst and individual suffering that become the instrument to incessantly amplify the crackle of crumbling and decay. On top of that, it doesn’t give away its central premise easily. There is a particular ineffability which gives a wizardly murkiness to its air.

Afzal Ahmed Syed’s Urdu translation of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust shows how to render a Pakistani English novel back into its local milieu

It is in such innumerable fleeting moments that Syed achieves an amazing transportation of the ineffable. As far as the craft of translation is mothered by the art of poetry, he demonstrates how the former cradles the latter. Urdu — when Syed wears his translator’s cap — amplifies the tension between meaning and music, body and soul, and concrete and abstract, all of these being defining characteristics of Between Clay and Dust.

It is only after reading them side by side that the mystery of subservience finally unfolds. One slowly realises that our translator chooses to let go of his creatively majestic space, and decides to whisper and speak like the author. Unlike many modern translators, he refuses to forget that the original should be seen breathing in the translation. It is as if he is seeing through the translation and trying to preserve the original, which is lurking underneath.

While we are on things sublime, there are, of course, some exceptional instances — though very few — where this careful attempt at preciseness achieves a rare puzzlement. Take, for instance, the opening sentence of the novel which speaks about a supposed attribution of “ruination of the inner city to time’s proclivity for change.” Here, the intertwining of decay and devastation with the deterministic nature of time is hard to miss. But the semantic space for the translator is still vast, and he has to ultimately discover the overriding sense that the word ‘ruination’ is intended to carry.

Is it decay, devastation, destruction or a general sense of abandonment or desolation? Whatever the case may be, it is very hard to argue against the fact that the overall import of the word is bleak. Syed’s answer is, however, ‘none of the above’. He chooses to keep it more neutral by using the compound term “taghayyur-i-haal.” It is as if he doesn’t want to paint the ruination of the inner city too brightly by using terms such as ‘barbaadi’ or ‘khasta-haali’. Would these alternatives invoke too strong colours? Not sure what his answer might be but, as they say, every literary puzzle is a gift for the reader.

Besides this metamorphosis of the inexplicable and transference of the ambiguity of the original, there is a lot more that a good translation has to capture. This is the realm of the discernible. Here, while transmuting the observable, Syed reshapes the original. These are spaces where he refuses to be subservient and speaks in his own resounding voice; at times amplifying, at times corrective.

An intriguing example of the latter is the word “nayika”, which Farooqi employs to describe trainee courtesans. Syed switches it with a more accurate word, “nochi”, since these are, in fact, trainee girls under an experienced courtesan, the experienced courtesan being the nayika.

There are, of course, other instances where translation performs its usual function of amplifying. Any reader of the original cannot miss instances such as those where a culturally foreign word — “pirouette” — when rendered by the Hindi original — “ghumri” — achieves a more rooted motif, thereby precisely picturing the technicalities of a subcontinental dance form. In such cases, translation becomes more than a simple rendering of the concrete forms, but actually makes the observable relevant to its original milieu.

Between Clay and Dust feeds on its ritualistic atmosphere, where tradition doesn’t come directly in conflict with modernity. Rather, it goes through an unfathomable, and almost deterministic, internal decay. In trying to make sense of this ambiguous amalgam of cruel historical forces, we, the readers, join hands with the characters.

But while we share their curiosity, Farooqi’s narrative keeps us at bay, as if coming too close would compromise the sense of wonderment. Syed, while trying hard to maintain that distance, achieves something original through its self-triggered transformations. We are, in fact, pushed a little closer by the sheer force of the translated narrative. And this infinitesimally small push is the magic of Syed’s translation.

The reviewer is a teacher and translator. He tweets @aasembakhshi

Khaak Hojanay Tak
Translated by Afzal Ahmed Syed
Kitab, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696160144
186pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 25th, 2021

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