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Hurdles of translation

The experience of translating a poem by Nasreen Anjum Bhatti exposes the challenges inherent in the process

Hurdles of translation
Punjabi poet Nasreen Anjum Bhatti.

A friend approached me recently via email and requested that a Punjabi poem by Nasreen Anjum Bhatti be translated into Urdu within two weeks. Along with the email came scanned pages of the poem Shamlat printed in shahmukhi in a Punjabi Adabi Board publication, plus a video recording of Bhatti’s own earthy voice accompanied by a rather irritating background sitar plucking.

I have not read much of this important Punjabi poet, just a poem here and there. I was intrigued, though I had been warned by a younger poet friend that Bhatti’s verse could be difficult.

Despite being busy, I agreed to do the ‘translation’ but after clarifying that this was going to be a literal and not literary translation. Otherwise, translating even a single verse in two weeks is nothing short of blasphemy. (Professor Umar Memon can sometimes take a week just wrestling with one word).

Anyway, while playing around with the title of the poem and what others might have written about Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, I did some casual online research. Since she has recently passed away, there are several write-ups on her. I was hoping to find a few good articles and there were some, but the gem that fell into my hands was an English translation of her poem shamlat published in an official gyration by the government of Pakistan to which I myself had contributed several times in the past. Precisely, Pakistani Literature — Vol. 16, No 1 (Pakistan Academy of Letters).

I once had the honour of hosting a beloved Urdu fiction writer in San Francisco. In my excitement, I tried to share with him an African American writer I had discovered recently. Henry Dumas was gunned down by a cop while riding a subway in New York in the 1960s. He is not as widely known on a commercial scale but his influence on younger generation of African American writers continues to grow. So I was eager to share his writing with my guest. I opened my favourite story Strike and Fade for him and he began to read:

The word was out. Cool it. We on the street, see. Me and Big Skin. We watch the cops. They watch us . . .

From spoken to written to translated, there are so many errors and omissions that one needs an entire essay to elaborate on them.

But my friend never went past the sentence Cool it. The slang used here stymied him. The words literally translated as thanDa kar! made no sense. I had to read it aloud for him, the way it should be spoken. His love affair with the writer ended right there and he closed the book, uninterested.

One of the reasons I had been eager to meet up with this writer, who became a dear friend of mine for many years and remains so, was because he had translated a modern classic of English literature by a major African writer. When I tried to engage him about his process of translation, he simply waived it off saying he did it because he needed money the publishing house was offering.

For that very reason, it was heartening to read the latest issue (#97) of Aaj. Arjumand Ara has translated into Urdu Tayeb Saleh’s classic Season of Migration to the North. Apart from using Johnson-Davies’ English translation, she has consulted the original Arabic text sentence by sentence, thus minimising the possibility of mistranslation that could’ve occurred by relying solely on the English version. This leads to two speculations: First, that Arjumand Ara has some command of Arabic in which modern literature is being written. If that’s the case, then, why even use the English translation as the basis for the Urdu translation? Second, it is possible that my friend Ajmal Kamal did the matching of the Urdu text against the Arabic original.

In the past, Kamal and I have argued over issues of translation and the ability to consult the work in the original language. I may be misrepresenting him here but he once made his point by bringing up an example where he found the translation of a particular German literary work into Urdu from an English version better than (or superior) to the one done by another person directly from German.

That might have been the case but the ability within any literary and academic culture where access to original exists cannot be overestimated. Now we return to the translation of Shamlat by Attiya Shirazi, which is nothing less than ‘a stroke of genius’. It is possible that the editors have misspelled her name. Anyway, I began detecting error in the Punjabi text. Bhatti opens the poem with the words dada baba, then somewhere down the road addresses the reader as baba, and finally as baba dada. In the printed version dada baba is daad baba, as if saying “Wow, baba!”

The second error appears soon after. The text reads: baba, maeN rizk ya thaali na’iN jay umraaN da hisaab dasaN. But Bhatti reads it differently: baba, maeN rizk haaN, thaali na’iN jay. The translator takes the misprinted text and translates it as such. Earlier in the poem, the text reads correctly: daaNgaN manjhi haiTh na’iN rakhi di’yaN, hathaaN vich phaRi di’yaN neN. This gets translated as: “So, no need for lances hidden under beds/ Or held in hands”. This is exactly the opposite of what the poem intended.

From spoken to written to translated, there are so many errors and omissions that one needs an entire essay to elaborate on them. The most curious case, however, is the word kanjri which Bhatti uses in her recitation towards the end but Punjabi Adabi board’s Victorian impulses noblised it as jhalli; yet Attiya Shirazi manages to use the word prostitute. This makes me wonder which version she might have used.

Nevertheless putting her translation against Bhatti’s recitation one notices too much mistranslation, several omissions and unwarranted poetic license. I hope she is more professional next time.

Now imagine someone somewhere in this world who can read English chances upon Shirazi’s translation and takes fancy to translate it into Portugese or Hebrew without having the knowledge of Punjabi and access to the original text! I can only imagine the horror! Can you?

Moazzam Sheikh

Moazzam Sheikh
The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com

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