I consider the translation of literary works a great service to humanity, yet the effort put into translation seldom finds the true appreciation it deserves. Hats off to those who make us rich by translating various texts and poetry from one language into another.

Speaking of poetry, some people insist that it can never be translated. They would argue that, at the very least, to translate someone such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from German into English, you need no one less than Stephen Spender, himself a major poet, essayist and dramatist. The quality of poetry in translation certainly varies, for neither is everyone Goethe, nor is a Spender available to all.

Let us suppose that there were no translations. How would we access classical and contemporary verse in languages that we are not familiar with? How poorer would we have been without reading the French, Polish, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese poets from their classical times to the contemporary age.

Who would have known Charles Baudelaire from France, Nazim Hikmet from Turkey, Pablo Neruda from Chile, Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine, Forugh Farrokhzad from Iran and Anna Akhmatova from Russia, had they not been made available to us in translation, either in English or Urdu?

In the case of prose, there is a view that it is somehow easier to translate compared to poetry. That, again, is a fallacy. To translate creative prose and its habitat is no simple undertaking either. Imagine our deprivation if the Great Russian Novel, or classics from other languages, were not translated into languages that we can read.

There has been a tradition of translating world literature in all our languages, with Urdu at the forefront, closely followed by Sindhi. The state and academic institutions — universities in particular — had Darul Tarjuma-o-Taleef [Centres of Translation and Compilation] which were active and efficient until some decades ago. That tradition began to diminish over the past few decades.

Unfortunately, even if certain texts were translated by state-sponsored institutions, they were either inaccessible or not easily available. Therefore, over the past few years, a few translations of different literary works from foreign languages were done or encouraged by motivated individuals such as Ajmal Kamal and Asif Farrukhi. But, overall, there were insufficient translations.

It is refreshing that a new wave of translating foreign literature into Urdu has emerged over the past few years. Credit for that can be accorded to both individuals, and institutions such as the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL). With all its limitations for being a state institution in an age of censorship and grossly limited freedom of expression, PAL continues to commission translations of international fiction.

PAL has done a series of books over the past five or six years, which includes translations of international writers from a number of languages. Recently, Professor Munir Fayyaz has been prolific in translating for PAL. With Zaf Syed, he’s brilliantly translated the Kyrghyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov and, along with Ziaul Mustafa Turk and Syed Kashif Raza, has also made 50 Nepalese poets available to us in Urdu. Fayyaz has also translated 20 Chinese writers, including the Nobel laureate Mo Yan. PAL has to ensure that these and many other books are made available to students and interested readers across the country.

Another important translation to have appeared earlier this year is that of The Chairs by avant-garde Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. Titling it Khaali Kursiyaan [Empty Chairs] in Urdu, translator Safdar Rasheed has also written an insightful preface on how the human condition in our part of the world resonates with the theatre of the absurd. Rasheed is one of those committed literary scholars who have the ability to look beyond the immediate while understanding the need to tackle the immediate.

Recently, at the 14th Annual World Urdu Conference at the Arts Council of Pakistan in Karachi, I found six books of quality translations. The Institute of Historical and Social Research has published Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet over the past year. Rendered into Urdu by Khalid Ahmed, the translations are so smooth that the two Shakespearean plays can be instantly staged.

Another book, one of leading Bengali fiction writer Rabisankar Bal’s novels, has been translated by Inam Nadeem, who had earlier translated Bal’s Dozakhnaama. Titled Aaina Si Zindagi [A Mirrored Life] and published by Aks, Lahore, the novel is about Maulana Rumi and Shams Tabriz. Although quite different from Dozakhnama — which was about Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Saadat Hasan Manto — Aaina Si Zindagi is a story-within-a-story weaved in a gripping narrative. It reads like an original text in Urdu.

Dr Syed Saeed Naqvi, based in the United States, is an Urdu fiction writer of definite merit. He has widely translated international — mostly English — fiction and non-fiction into Urdu. He has now come out with the Urdu translation of Memory of Departure by the 2021 Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah. Published by City Book Point, Karachi, the novel is titled Yaad-i-Mufariqat in Urdu.

Gurnah, who now lives in the United Kingdom, is a writer of Tanzanian origin. Memory of Departure is about a 15-year-old boy from East Africa whose life is surrounded by misery, oppression, corruption and poverty — a signature of most former colonies of European powers. There are some stark cultural differences but, in many ways, it is so relatable to the situation in which our own majority exists.

Naqvi has successfully transformed the language into our own idiom. I also found one of his earlier collections of translations of short stories titled Fareb-i-Nazar [Optic Illusion], brought out by the same publisher. This collection includes stories by George Orwell, Italo Calvino, Ruskin Bond, O Henry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others.

What we need now is to make the translations mentioned above, and many others that couldn’t be discussed because of paucity of space, to be made available easily — both in print and digitally — to our readers. Our literature students and budding writers must also be systematically encouraged to translate works from other languages.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 19th, 2021

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