I may not know the language very well, but I do know one thing – Urdu words convey so much more than a translation can ever convey.
Last night, I was reading out some of the poems written by Owais, whose translations we’ll be putting up, one by one, to a friend. He sipped on his vodka and soda, and listened attentively. Then he took the book from my hand and began reading the poems himself.
Let me clarify here that neither of us was reading the Urdu script. Owais also has the Hindi translations of these poems in the book, which is what the two of us were reading.
How can you translate this for anyone, he asked. This language doesn’t lend itself easily to English translation.
I agree with him to an extent. After all, a Ghalib sher along the lines of Naqsh faryadi hai kis ki shokhi-e-tehreer ka, Kaghazi hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka is a piece of writing par excellence – and I’m not sure I can truly convey the multiple layers of meanings of these lines through English words. They refer, fittingly, to the duplicity of words and the intranscience of meaning.
My friend said, ‘We’ll need paragraphs in English to translate Hindi and Urdu.’
However, I’d prefer not to be a purist about translations.
As an author conveys an ideology and sensibility through words, so a translator conveys her own ideology through her words. Moreover, the very act of reading itself is one of translation – a re-interpretation of the author’s words through the reader’s filters, thoughts, ideologies. There are no prizes to be won, there is no authority that sits in decision over right or wrong out here in Writers’. There is the grammar Nazi, but that’s all.
What however, is for me the more important issue, is what does a translator go through in the effort to re-form a literary text in a language that has an altogether different mental, cultural, creative and socio-political landscape?
How does indeed, a writer translate ‘chanchal chitwan’ into English (my friend’s example) and still convey the playfulness, the sensuality, the innocence and everything else that that phrase conveys?
And if, for instance, the translator does come up with a translation, is it a question of a right or a wrong translation, or one of a different structure of thought that has rushed in to replace the original quietly, without much noise?