It is a universally acknowledged truth that a literary tradition in possession of notable classics must be in want of good translations. The ground covered by the literary canon in any given language can be extended in two directions: classics from the world over translated into that particular language and at the same time in the opposite direction too; representative works in that language made accessible to a wider, international audience through the major languages of the world.
I will start with the assumption that translations are important, indeed vital, and they help develop and sustain the very foundations of a literary dialogue, across and through cultures. There can be no two opinions about the crucial role translations play in the world today, but I would like to begin by reiterating this. Because lip service is paid but effective measures for promoting or encouraging translations are a rather neglected area in our literary culture.
With this assumption, it would be useful to take an overview of the situation of translations related to Urdu, both in the language and from the language into others. I will focus on the latter here, recognising that a parallel analysis could be made of the former as well. I will only speak in general terms without going into the details of particular translations.
To begin with, how does Urdu literature present itself through translations into other languages? It is said that the fictions of Naiyer Masud, one of the finest contemporary writers, have been translated into the Finnish and Spanish languages. Last year in Tokyo, my attention was drawn to the selected works of Intizar Husain translated into Japanese. I can only conjecture that these books would be interesting to readers in these languages. But who can tell what they make out of the texts and the long traditions these stem from? What about other writers? Who knows if they are available in other modern European languages, and more importantly, the quality of these translations.
Since our direct connection with major world languages is limited, we are more than ever dependent upon the English language and it is translations into this language which become the world’s windows to look at us.
It used to be almost a truism that Urdu classics are next to impossible to translate into any other language, as important nuances will not carry over. Granted the difficulties of translating across very different contexts, but a new window was opened by appearance of Dastaan e Amir Hamza and the ever-enchanting Tilism e HoshRuba, in the evocative versions by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. The Hamza rendition is a one-volume abridgment and HoshRuba the beginning of an entire series.
The classic verse of Ghalib and the modern sensibility of Faiz have been rendered into English by several hands and Ghalib’s extension into cyberspace is a result of scholarly devotion by Frances Pritchett. I would say that these poets have been better served than Iqbal, but the situation with Mir is changing rapidly as Pritchett’s online explication of Mir is available and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is all set to publish his renderings in the near future.
Novelist turned poet Ahmed Ali’s volume of selections from the classical ghazal, The Golden Tradition, set the bar high for all such efforts to follow. Ralph Russell’s translations from a diverse group of writers have recently been reprinted in Delhi and are an excellent introduction to the intricacies of Urdu literature.
Contemporary fiction gets a better deal with a greater focus on Manto earlier and Intizar Husain recently. Beginning with Hamid Jalal, the writer’s nephew, to Aatish Taseer more recently, Manto became accessible to English readers much earlier than other Urdu writers. Khalid Hasan’s translations became known but later on, serious lapses were pointed out. Among the books published by Muhammad Umer Memon, the untiring translator, was the bumper edition of all of Manto’s fiction translated into English. Memon was one of the earliest translators of Intizar Husain’s short stories and did well to capture the world of Husain with its historical references and brooding mood.
Some of the best of Husain’s later fiction was translated by Alok Bhalla, collected in Leaves and A Chronicle of the Peacocks. Bhalla has also recently translated, along with Nishat Zaidi, the two novellas Din and Dastaan, published from New Delhi. Husain’s most representative novel Basti was translated by Frances Pritchett and later reprinted.
Husain’s last novel fell to the lot of Rakhshanda Jalil, one of the best-known translators of the day who has edited and contributed to several anthologies. Her translation The Sea Lies Ahead went on to receive a prize at the Karachi Literature Festival. Known for his chaste, nearly classical style, it is well worth noting how Husain has come through the hands of several translators and preserved his essence.
Beyond the sheer volume of translations, Memon’s greatest achievement was his rendering of Naiyer Masud’s collected stories. Far from uni-directional or realistic, Masud is intricate and complex, but a highly rewarding writer to delve into. Memon has succeeded well with such a unique writer, ensuring his place among the highly original masters of fiction in the modern era. Memon edited and published several anthologies.
Among individual selections, my favourite is a slim volume entitled The Naked Hens, which collects the translations of Muhammd Salim ur Rahman, an amazingly gifted poet and critic, and a worthwhile fiction writer himself. He has produced little in terms of volume but of an undisputed quality, which leaves one hankering for more.
Read also: Can poetry be translated?
The shelf is expanding but rather slowly. Worth noting are the two selections translated by Amina Azfar and Saeed Naqvi, both published by Oxford University Press. They have a companion volume in the shape of Yasmeen Hameed’s book of translations from contemporary verse. Taken together, these books offer an invaluable introduction to the contemporary scene in Urdu writing.