"In a successful nation, the period of translation would precede its period of literature.”
This is a famous quote by Urdu’s seminal literary critic and translator of several literary pieces, Muhammad Hassan Askari. However, counting all the years that have passed, third and fourth generations post-Partition have a hard time perceiving whether Pakistan has advanced to the latter period.
While it is common to take pride in the shining stars of the Urdu literati who receive national awards year after year (mostly after their demise), we have also been witness to appalling scenes of dusty books toppling out of bookshelves in libraries, and street vendors calling out to sell inexpensive Urdu cookbooks.
In 2021, six big private publishing houses in Pakistan — Sang-i-Meel, Book Corner, Aks Publishers, Maktaba-i-Danyal, Atlantis Publications and Rang-i-Adab — still have Urdu translations of fiction and non-fiction as top-trending sections in their catalogues. These publishers say it is because of a result of lack of diversity in local Urdu literature.
A global trend already, translations in Urdu have become the saving grace for Urdu reading. The process began when Urdu began to be acknowledged and celebrated through poetry. For the rest of the world, the language was a subject to marvel at.
Translating world literature into Urdu, despite its social benefits, is often a thankless job. Who, then, are the passionate eccentrics who do it?
The assortment of metaphorical and symbolic expressions in Urdu poetry and the intricacy of the language was confirmed through the words of British historian Victor Kiernan, who was also one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s earliest translators. Kiernan claimed that “Urdu might almost be made up by poets for their own benefit.” An exchange of international prose and poetry soon ensued.
The early 19th century saw the first Shakespearean plays being translated into Urdu by Naushirwanji Mehrwanji, known by his pen name ‘Araam’, who rendered The Merchant of Venice as Jawaan Bakht. Later, Mehdi Hasan Lucknowi hopped on the bandwagon to produce a much simpler, colloquial and correct version of William Shakespeare’s plays. Lucknowi translated Hamlet into Khoon-i-Khaak, Romeo and Juliet into Gulnar Feroz and The Merchant of Venice into Dilfarosh.
The ship of Urdu translations truly set sail with the inception of the Taraqqi Pasand Tehreek, or the Progressive Writers’ Movement, in 1935. The then Soviet Union funded a publishing house, the Taraqqi Urdu Bureau in Delhi, to translate Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, Maxim Gorky’s autobiography and a legion of other Russian-language writings.
Partition soon followed, and the newly created Pakistan’s Urdu translations of international works were attributed to a Maktaba Franklin — also known as Maktaba Jadeed — which was set up in Lahore and funded by the United States. The Maktaba took on the responsibility of publishing Muhammad Hasan Askari’s methodical translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, as well as the historical-psychological novel The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century by the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, known by his pseudonym Stendhal.
Fascinating and new to the Urdu realm of the Subcontinent, such translations became subject to many experiments. “The books’ authenticity was taken with a grain of salt,” says Yasir Jawad, a professional translator from Lahore who has translated more than 100 titles of non-fiction and fiction into Urdu. His prominent works include Aurat, a translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
Jawad recalls ways in which translators localised Western literature, in terms of setting and environment. “George would become Jamshed. A famous street in Moscow would become Bandar Road in Karachi, or McLeod Road in Lahore.”
Twists and turns in plots were accentuated. New situations were introduced and characters were added or subtracted from scenes according to the likes of a Subcontinental, or Third World, audience. According to Jawad, the tradition of ‘Faizaan Aur Asr’ was something translators actually took pride in. “It meant you would take inspiration, grab the central idea of a story and produce a local one, calling it a ‘translation’.”
Syed Kashif Raza is a Karachi-based author of the popular novel Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa [Four Seekers and a Tortoise] and the translator of over four books. He confirms Jawad’s statement. Raza’s excitement is palpable as he lists notable Urdu titles inspired by the West. “Fasaana-i-Azad by Ratan Nath Dhar Sharshar was inspired by the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The Indian Urdu writer Inayatullah Dehlavi was also notorious for it.”
But these local renditions nullified the point of cross-border cultural and language exchange for which translations are imperative. Tallying present-day translations with source text made the situation better, but only partially. A profound study of the current Urdu translations of foreign works opens up a can of worms. Presently, independent translators are immersed in the process of ‘indirect translations’, which refers to the act of translating an already translated prose into a third language. “Direct translations of European, Arabic or Russian literature are few and far between,” confirms Jawad.
At the mention of his own translation of the English translation of Czech author Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Jawad shrugs. “Direct translations can only happen officially on a national level. We’re independent translators who work with zest, but can’t run our kitchens on it. I even switched from independent translating to working for a non-governmental organisation that made my skill worth my while.”
Dr Najamul Sahar Butt is an exception and complains about the expressions and meaning lost in the process of indirect translation. “Living in Russia, delving into the process of their literature taught me that familiarity with language is not enough for a translator. I had to personally profoundly observe the culture, habits and traditions unique to that nation.”
Dr Butt was intrigued by Russian literature during the decade he studied medicine in Moscow. He has translated two novels, one collection of short stories and President Vladimir Putin’s biography First Person. Dr Butt is also the first Pakistani recipient of The Medal of Pushkin, awarded to citizens as well as foreigners for achievements in arts and culture, education, humanities and literature.
The infrastructure and competence required for translations is missing at the national level. Upon inquiries regarding the craft of the distinguished translator Shahid Hameed — who has translated, among other books, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World into Jang Aur Aman and Sophie Ki Duniya respectively — Jawad chuckles and quips, “He was as insane as I am about this.”
This statement is a clear expression of Jawad’s admiration for Hameed. “Passionate singers in Pakistan are still composing songs, despite the conundrums of the music industry. We’re no different. It’s what we do to stay alive,” he continues.
Hameed admits the shortcomings of government institutions that have failed to set up translation programmes. “They do not work efficiently when it comes to publishing translations,” he says, “because those at the helm of affairs want to finish projects during their tenures, compromising the quality of work.”
Raza agrees with Hameed. “Translation, which is a tool of interaction between two nations, cultures and civilisations, is not being given its due importance in our country.”
A 2011 feature from the now-defunct magazine Herald was all praises for Blaft Publications in India, which translated and published selected detective fiction novels of Ibn-i-Safi, and various prominent authors of Tamil pulp fiction, into English. These sold like hotcakes.
The market response in Pakistan is not even close. “Translating popular fiction is worthless in Pakistan because it is deemed not just cheap, but also against our moral values,” says Farooq Ahmed, owner of Atlantis Publications in Karachi, which is devoted to publishing Ishtiaq Ahmed’s exciting ‘Inspector Jamshed’ series of Young Adult literature.
Translating is a physically and mentally demanding process that is always held on an independent level. Prominent Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder acknowledged in an interview that she had taken
up quite a challenge when she decided to render T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and Henry James’s novel Portrait of a Lady. Her precise words were: “The role of a translator is characterised by discipline, responsibility and creativity.” Yet, rarely do translators receive their dues.
“Whatever you see published by Book Corner, Jhelum, is not being written currently,” says Jawad. “Biographies of Tamerlane, Changez Khan, were all published by Maktaba Franklin in the 1960s, then printed again during the ’90s boom and now they are reprinting them, upgrading the quality and making the covers more attractive.” There is an abundance of profit for publishers because the late translators “can’t demand royalties.”
According to Kashif Raza, “(The late) Asif Farrukhi was instrumental in encouraging me to do translations, but he never paid us, nor did we ask for it. Hoori Noorani of Maktaba-i-Danyal is the only independent publisher who has ever paid me for a translation.”
The writer tweets @Hurriya18
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 27th, 2022