Translation is a tricky business, especially if it is of poetry and fiction. In other cases too, it can be seen to be hazardous but when it comes to literature the greatest challenge is not the theme or idea but language itself. In literature, it is impossible to separate what is being said from language itself.
But in languages as close as Punjabi and Urdu, the transition can be life-sapping. Many in Punjab, sensitive and concerned about their language, have tried to translate Punjabi poetry into Urdu for the purposes of making readers familiar with it.
The spoken language is Punjabi in the length and breadth of Punjab. But the last one hundred and fifty years have seen the province switch to Urdu, the challenge has been to link the spoken to the written word.
It has been experienced that what seems an ordeal in the beginning surrenders as familiarity in the end. But this effort has been partially successful if one looks at the attempts that have been made in this regard.
I only speak of Punjabi because I have lived only in Punjab and, with a smattering of the spoken idiom and passing acquaintance with language, am more aware of the problem than let us say of Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and other languages that are spoken all across the country.
It is questionable whether what translators like Abdul Majeed Bhatti,a poet himself and a translator of Shah Hussain, did was actually translation or paraphrasing. Called manzoom turjuma, the intention must have been for the readers to get a handle on the poetic idiom and its diction and then to make an effort egged on by their passion, commitment and curiosity. It was as if only to give an opening to the readers and for them to negotiate their way through their own effort and interest.
But the paraphrasing, if it can be called so, is like killing poetry itself. Many of the texts of the classics give a kind of glossary of the Punjabi words with their meaning so that the reader is facilitated but the translation is kind of literal and does not aspire to have any exalted intention.
The question of Punjabi and Urdu is being raised and assessed because many think that the languages are very similar. Some scholars and linguistics have gone to the extent that Urdu grew out of the womb of Punjabi and that the real birthplace of the language is not Hyderabad Deccan or areas around Delhi but actually the Punjab. But then we see that the languages have a temper and a feel that is very different.
The overdose of Persian literature and its impact seemed to have highjacked Urdu but Punjabi itself has retained more links with the land and other dialects that were/are spoken and written here. The mizaj (mood) of the languages is very different and that has posed a difficulty in translation. If the purpose is to paraphrase and turn it into a corpse, then it may have been well served in death; but if it is to transfer a living throbbing body of text then it lacks the spark of vitality and dynamism.
It seems the Pakistan Academy of Letters has made serious attempts at translation within Pakistani languages, and minus the quality which can only be a debatable literary value, it exists in bulk. It has also made attempts to translate Allama Iqbal into Pakistani languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Hindko, Brahvi, Saraiki and Balti.
Similarly, some attempts have also been made by the Academies in the various provinces. Pashto Academy was probably set up in 1955 with the express purpose of promoting Pashto literature and language, and one way of doing so was to translate into Pashto the works of other languages of the country. It has done more for Pashto than it has for translation.
Similarly, the Sindhi Adabi Board, too, set up in 1951 has been very active in publishing Sindhi literature but it has been slack where the question of translation is concerned.
The Punjabi Adabi Board set up during the first Pakistan People’s Party government in the 1970s has been more intent on publishing Punjabi books rather than focus on translation.
In the last ten-fifteen years, Muzaffar Ghaffar took up the huge task of translating Punjabi classics into other languages like English, and also ended up by scripting the main body of the text in Gurmukhi. He extended an explanation of the text but not really in poetry but closer to what can be called paraphrasing. He did work on Shah Hussain, Damodar’s Heer, Bulleh Shah, and Fareed/Nanak.
We all know that Punjabi was written by Muslims in Persian script but the Sikhs, after the language assumed a liturgical status, crafted a script ascribed to the gurus as Gurmukhi.
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Most of the Muslims could not read Gurmukhi script during the colonial period and so were cut off from the written side of the language. It was also that the medium of instruction became Urdu, and familiarity with Urdu script derived from Persian assumed more significance. Later, this script in which Punjabi was written in the Persian script was called Shahmukhi.
But there is a great need to transfer and translate literatures from one language of the country to the other and it should be done with care and sensitivity. By just throwing approximate words together can do more harm to the translation than it may appear on the surface. The reader just might dismiss it not as bad translation but as a condemnation of the entire body of literature being of low quality as many Punjabis do.