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Translation as a metaphor

Translation is not simply an act of transferring or communicating a meaning of a text from one language into another one; it is far more than that

Translation as a metaphor

Can translation of books initiate an intercultural dialogue? Can the idea of clash of civilization be defeated by accelerating the process of doing translation of literary and other works from one language to another?

These questions were raised, and discussed in details at a two-day conference held at Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU), Islamabad in the third week of August. The conference was organised by the Department of Urdu. Dr Abdul Aziz Sahir, the chairman of the department, shared excitedly with the audience that it was the 197th event being organised by AIOU in less than four years. “Universities are meant to take active part in the never-ending process of creating knowledge”, the vice chancellor Dr Shahid Siddiqui said in his welcome address. “And knowledge is not a fixed entity; fluidity is its chief characteristic”, he continued.

In simple terms, fluidity maintains that no discovery, theory, insight, or even information might be taken as final. Moreover, whatever is proffered as ‘knowledge’ should be consistently and critically scrutinised and kept engaged in dialogic relations with ever-emerging theories in other disciplines. And only through a vibrant culture of research and conferences, talks, seminars etc, can the fluidity of knowledge be retained.

In the colonial period translation itself became a metaphor to avow that Europe is Original while colonies are copies or translations of it.

The questions cited in the beginning need to be deliberated upon in some depth. Certainly the idea of cultural harmony seems captivating, optimistic and much-desired in the face of cultural wars being waged on and through the media. Cultural wars, which are sometimes dubbed simply as a clash of ideas, are squeezing the space needed to maintain diversity and plurality. But can the solemn purpose of cultural harmony be achieved through translation of literary and other works produced by one culture into the languages of other cultures? One more basic question should necessarily be asked: can language of one culture transmit the meaning conceived in the language of some other culture? Does language of one culture share similarities with other languages, as far as communicating the diverse and abruptly emerging things are concerned, or each language has its own world view, foreign to the people belonging to other languages? Are there some meanings or realities that exist in some ‘nonverbal sphere’ and are meant to be conceived by any language?

These questions emerge for simple reasons: 1) translation is basically a linguistic activity; 2) each language is steeped into its culture; 3) each language constructs both its own specific realities and a perception of realities. These reasons turn into actual problems the translators have to face, sooner or later. Anyhow, we can say the very act of translation is meant to discover how languages stretch themselves to their ultimate limits to transmit the meanings and realities that were conceived and constructed in other languages.

It might be inferred that the task of bridging the cultural gap works behind the essential rationale of translation. But it is a not-so-easy task, and in many cases it remains unachieved. Though it moves the translator to create a space where two distinct cultures can communicate with one another, he or she doesn’t have the freedom the writer usually enjoys while writing something. A translator is bound not only by the limits set by the writer but by those drawn by the times wherein the act of translation occurs.

It needs to be stressed that translation is not simply an act of transferring or communicating a meaning of a text from one language into another one; it doesn’t mean merely searching for linguistic equivalent. It is far more than that. Text doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Interestingly, translation too doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Every text is deeply rooted in the culture and history of its period of creation and into the psychology of its writer. The same might be true for the act of translation.

Translation is not merely an innocent linguistic practice of decoding and recoding. Dominant cultural preferences, political power structures and moral values of a particular period influence the overall process of translation. Although translators more or less remain invisible, their very act of translation stays vulnerable to the ostensibly invisible cultural, political and moral structures of their times. These invisible, but powerful, structures squeeze the already limited freedom of a translator. First, he or she selects those texts for translation from other cultures which seem close to the cultural or moral values of his or her times. Even the religious beliefs of a translator put a decisive influence on both selecting and translating a text.

A few months ago, I had a personal experience of this kind. A fresh university graduate visited my office. She was interested in translating scientific texts into Urdu. I suggested to her one of the famous books by a Western popular science writer. She flatly refused to translate his books on the pretext that his books deal with the theory of evolution which is against her religious beliefs. To her, translation was not an innocent, mechanical, isolated process; it was a ‘dynamic cultural activity’, defining the repelling forces of ‘our’ culture which fend the diverse, different, plural ideas of other culture off.

In simple terms, on the one hand translation has some inherent potential to initiate an intercultural dialogue; on the other it might hamper the possibility of this kind of dialogue; it is a two-edged sword.

Almost similar happenings might be traced in the history of colonial societies. It has been used both to establish and destabilise colonialism. (Engagement with either ‘establishing’ or ‘destabilising’ leaves no space for intercultural dialogue).

In the colonial period translation itself became a metaphor to avow that Europe is Original while colonies are copies or translations of it. It was also maintained that the Original as the First Principle grows to be superior while colonies being copies and translations are inferior. So it was assumed that all cultural transactions done through translating European texts established the cultural superiority of Europe, inculcating a sense of inferiority among the colonies. Translated European texts became cannons for colonies at the cost of belittling, and displacing their centuries old literary and cultural texts. Akbar Allahabadi (1845-1922), the first anti-imperialist Urdu poet, has satirically described the same in his poetry.

[As I proudly read out Saadi’s couplets, you boastfully started reciting Milton’s poem. Where melody of Spencer and Mill is being played, who will bother to listen to Ghazali and Rumi.]

This notion that colony is a mere translation of Europe has been challenged by postcolonial thinkers. Some Latin American writers have used the metaphor of cannibalism to get rid of the dilemma of being a mere copy of Europe. In the words of Susan Bassnett and Hrish Trivedi ‘‘Only by devouring Europe could the colonised break away from what was imposed upon them. And at the same time, devouring could be perceived as both a violation of European codes and an act of homage.’’ (Post-colonial Translation, Theory and Practice, P 4-5). A similar violation — but with least homage to colonies — was committed by colonisers too.   Colonisers didn’t rely on local people and were not willing to take them as interpreters. They took on themselves to translate the classical and vernacular texts of colonised people. They were not going to initiate a cultural dialogue; they were simply on a voyage to devour the cultural and literary texts of the colonised into their own power.

In order to explore the possibilities of intercultural dialogue through translation, the metaphor of devouring is required to be abandoned. Dialogue occurs only when all kinds of violence are evaded, and distinctness of other cultures is figured out and appreciated without being judgmental.

In some cases, translations are used to strengthen the values, beliefs and ideology of one’s culture or one’s political preferences. Translations act as ‘foreign cultural evidence’ to fortify one’s cultural beliefs, almost in the same way that philosophical and scientific evidences — which remain usually foreign to religion — are used by theologians to assert the truth of religion.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Dr-Nasir-Abbas-Nayyar copy
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories).

One comment

  • Dr. Nayyer always comes with modern approach in his scholarly works. By endorsing the postcolonial approach of translation ,he has rightly pointed out the implications of translation from one language to other.

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