What is the Urdu for ‘fiddle dee dee’, or the English for ‘Sarra rara rara’? Are those words really English or Urdu?

Obviously, translation is not substitution; practical experience tells us that, even if a word-for-word list between two languages existed, it would be redundant because of syntactic arrangements. Idiom, tone, style, flavour, spirit and shade of the original produce obstinacy that makes it difficult to render words from one language to another. It is said that no translation can ever be correct or exact.

Our concern is translation of literary texts. A literary text can be pared down to its essentials of genre and meaning. Meaning resides in the rhetorical level, imagery and schematic associative use of sound patterns in language. Broadly speaking, genre implicates form, particularly verse forms. Poetry internalises music in the sounds and textures of its verse. Meaning and form are an organic whole. The problems of translating poetry are a model in the hopeless difficulties, pitfalls even, of translation.

Translation exists because we speak different languages. Critic, philosopher and polymath George Steiner asked: “Why should human beings speak thousands of different mutually incomprehensible tongues? Only when we reflect on it does the possible strangeness, possible unnaturalness of the human linguistic order strike us.”

Why do we not use one common language? Some 6,000-7,000 languages are thought to be in current use. Each year, so-called rare languages spoken by moribund ethnic communities become extinct. Blank spaces and question marks dot the linguistic geography of remote regions.

The linguistic catalogue begins with Aba, spoken by Tatars, and ends with Zyrene, a Finno-Ugaritic speech in use between the Urals and the Arctic shore. It conveys an image of humans as a language animal of implausible variety and waste. The substance of humans is bound up with language. The mystery of speech characterises our being. Nonetheless, linguistic separateness has created zones of silence or isolation throughout human history.

In the philosophy of language, two radically opposed points have been asserted. One, that the underlying structure of language is universal and common to all humans. Dissimilarities are on the surface. Translation is possible because deep-seated universals — from which all grammars derive — can be located and recognised as operative in every human idiom. To translate is to descend beneath the exterior of disparities and bring into play their common principles of being. Two, that translation is impossible because idioms cannot be replicated.

Translation is both possible and impossible. ‘Pure language’ is not contained in any single idiom, it is like a hidden spring seeking to force its way through the silted channels of our differing tongues. A translation from language A to language B will make tangible a third active presence. A poor translation misses the bond of meaning. The translator enriches his/her tongue by allowing the source language to penetrate and modify it.

As a translator, I’ve tried different strategies — line for line, literal, cluster of words, trope or idiom and force of association — and never been satisfied. In most cases, the borders and boundaries of language, the movement from one language to another, however carefully negotiated, result in some enlargement or reduction of meaning.

The discrimination between deep structures of meaning — structures buried by time or masked by colloquialism — and the surface structures of spoken idiom has a modern ring to it. There is an acute understanding, essential to any treatment of communication between languages, of the ways in which a text may conceal more than it conveys.

To illustrate with an example: I’m presently editing an English translation of the 14th century Sufi masnavi [long narrative poem] Chandayan. Penned by Maulana Daud, the language is possibly Awadhi, and the script is Perso-Arabic.

The text presents formidable challenges of translation. The script is not entirely in sync with Awadhi phonology but, more importantly, deep structures of meaning and colloquialisms from a time long past present a task no less daunting than that of the poem’s protagonist, Lorik.

Chandayan’s translator Richard J. Cohen has, for a very good reason, prefaced the translation with a “Meditation on Translating.” Cohen rightfully paraphrases German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s wisdom: “Does the nature of the original text allow for a translation? Distance in cultural, linguistic and literary ‘time’ certainly complicate the translator’s task in the case of the Chandayan. But texts as the Chandayan have been ignored, or lain undiscovered, for far too long, leaving a gaping hole in our understanding of the cultural life of the Subcontinent in medieval times and the formation of its composite culture up to the present.”

Maulana Daud recognised the allegorical potential of the folktale popular in his time, known as the Chandayani or Lorikaayan. Versions of these folktales are still recited by specialised narrators of the Ahir herding caste, mainly for the entertainment of villagers and small-town dwellers in northern India.

It is a story of heroism and illicit love, driven by passion and a disregard for social norms. However, in the hands of a 14th century Sufi poet, who clearly had enough encouragement from his mentor and patrons, the plot was expanded to encompass the dual relationship of mundane love and the mystical love of God. Thus, in the Sufi interpretation, Lorik’s love for Chanda represents humanity’s yearning for a personal relationship with God who, in the Chandayan, takes the form of the heroine Chanda, the beloved.

Cohen’s translation of the stanza on Chanda’s birth is:

“Chanda was born in the house of Rao Mahar Sahadev — the earth and heavens glowed./ She was born in the first watch of the night, so the world thought there were two nights./ The Pleiades twinkled in her parted hair, it seemed as if the sun brightened her body./ She became full on the 14th night — Sahadev’s daughter, Chanda, was a padmini/ Both Rahu and Ketu waited upon her, Venus and Saturn protected her./ Other constellations came to serve and stood at her door. Chanda’s radiance illumined the world, mesmerising travellers.”

Translations aim to provide readers a version of the text, a communication of the original. Nonetheless, translation enriches its receivers.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 14th, 2021

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