Meet the Translator

From Urdu to English: Translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi chronicles his journey

‘My first foray into translation was because I was conceited.’

The interview began with an extended conversation at Mocca café in Lahore, upstairs where clients often work or conduct informal meetings, and continued and expanded over several phone and email sessions. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is tall and slim with salt and pepper hair and a youthful face, and eyes that are at once mischievous and quizzical. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he emphasises the importance for translators to read humour in the source language; he feels that while it is necessary to read widely on all subjects, humour is subtle and not always easily understood.

Referring to his first forays into translation, which began with the work of Afzaal Ahmed Syed, he says, “I did it because I am conceited.” In reality, as evinced by our conversation, he approaches his work with humility and commitment, which emanate from his deep love and respect for literature, particularly Urdu literature. As a translator, and as a novelist in English – (Between Clay and Dust, A Widow’s Tale, Rabbit Rap) – his expression is faultless, formal, occasionally careful. These qualities may stem from his growing up predominantly with Urdu; but, like other authors who write in a second language, it has made him all the more conscious of how to use words to their maximum power.

What brought you to translation?
I was in my early twenties when I first read Afzal Ahmed Syed’s poetry. When I asked friends whether it had been translated into English, I was told that it was considered difficult to translate. I think it was equal parts interest in the work, and the vanity of translating something considered difficult by others, that first drew me into undertaking the work.

Did you begin with poetry or prose?
The first thing I translated from Afzal Ahmed Syed was Zarmeena, a prose poem. It was in the form of one long paragraph. It had two terms ­– sihr al masharik (canon of nature’s mimicry), and subhe nakhasten (the first morn) – about whose meanings I had no clue. I could not ask Afzal himself because, for one, the translation was supposed to be a surprise, a birthday gift for him; and secondly, because conceit would not let me ask him or anyone in the circle of friends who had warned me about the difficulty of translating Afzal, to whom I wished to smugly present my translation. So I took help from my octogenarian friend and colleague Kamal Habib, a scientist and scholar. He was a retiree who worked part-time as a proof-reader to fill his days, and we worked together in the same newspaper office. He suggested the terminology for translating these two terms. Afzal often wondered how I translated those two difficult phrases.

So that was how it all began, and Afzal’s poetry is all I have translated from modern Urdu poetry. It does not cover his entire work. He writes in both ghazal and nazm genres. His ghazal comes from an abstract, semi-classical world, portrayed in imagery unique in the Urdu language to Afzal. I cannot translate it because I will not be able to pull it off, but reading it helped me to understand and translate Afzal’s nazm poetry. I think it is very necessary for a poet’s translator to read his or her various writings in order to understand the poet’s mind, how a particular poet looks at the world; how he or she articulates this vision. I had an advantage because Afzal and I were close friends and we spent a lot of time together. I could perhaps say that I understand Afzal’s poetic vision better because I know the person, know something of his imagination, and how he looks at life in general. All this helped me to become a better translator of his poetry.

Suppose the poet whose work you are translating is dead?
It’s an advantage to know the poet, but it isn’t imperative. If you have absorbed the poet’s vision, then you know the poet and could, still, translate well. Even with poets you have translated, there’s always room for improvement. My translation of Afzal Syed’s poetry improved with suggestions by the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who read the translation that was to be published by Arpita Das from Yoda Press and kindly wrote a blurb. He suggested I get rid of the rather heavy punctuation, such as semi-colons, which I had seen in other classical translations. He also suggested better words than those I had chosen in some places. All these revisions made the translation better and more fluid.

Do you find poetry more difficult to translate or prose, from the point of view of form, syntax, etc.?
It depends on the kind of language used in a work, its genre and the period. The work of translation is also complicated by the fact that we don’t have many good Urdu-English translations from a variety of genres, idioms and historical periods, which we can look at to learn how a particular idiom must be translated into its equivalent English language idiom.

I have avoided translating from the ghazal genre because it has a tendency to offer a plurality of meaning because of its characteristic maaniafreeni – plurality of meaning – in a particular word or phrase. The poetic tradition in which the source text is composed is semantically complex, and that complexity is a source of pride for that poetic tradition. A poet’s mastery is expressed in how well he strings these multiple meanings in a line. And this applies to almost every ghazal poet in the Urdu canon. Another problem with ghazal poetry is that it’s impossible to replicate the way the meter in Urdu emphasises certain things by creating a musical effect with the arrangement of words. It makes it impossible to pull it off in English.

Then how does one approach the translation of ghazals? Is it impossible? I know that Ghalib’s ghazals in translation don’t do justice to the depth and compression of his verse: a couplet often ends up sounding long and cumbersome because the translation may exceed four lines, and as you mentioned plurality of meaning in a single word of phrase, of which Ghalib was a maestro, further complicates things.
I don’t mean to say that it is impossible to make an intelligible English translation of the ghazal poetry of someone like Mir Taqi Mir or Ghalib; it’s just that in the translation we will be limited to selecting one of the various available meanings to translate from. That is the translator’s call: if he has absorbed the poet’s vision, he will be able to access the meaning that is most relevant, the key element.

If someone wishes to read about this particular characteristic maaniafreeni in Urdu ghazal in more detail, I would refer them to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s magisterial work ShairShorAngez (four volumes), in which he has provided a commentary on Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry and explained the concept of through numerous examples.

This is also not to say that metric translations from Urdu poetry are impossible. I have played a small part in what I think is a very successful translation from metric verse. It is Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem ChoohonkaAchaar (Mouse Pickle), which I translated into straight prose. From that prose, artist and translator Michelle Farooq made a metric translation into English, which I think is miraculously wonderful. It is titled Mouse Pickle and goes:

Once more does the marketplace beckon
In a lust for mouse pickle, I reckon.
I set out my salver with mice in a row
Then pounding wee heads and paws as I go
I stir up a dish of minced rodents so nice
How simply delicious – my pickle of mice!

Mouse Pickle! What a whimsical title! Is it a contemporary poem?
It is whimsical, isn’t it? No, it isn’t contemporary, it is eighteenth century. And Mouse Pickle was based on an actual event. The poet Nazir Akbarabadi, was very fond of achaar. One day, he sent his servant to the market to buy some. When the servant returned with the merchandise, the poet discovered a mouse pickled along with the vegetables. That inspired him to write the piece.

But to return to our main theme. One of my current projects is the translation of the Urdu masnavi Sihr al Bayan (The Spell of Eloquence). Because the masnavi is a narrative genre, I thought it could be successfully translated into prose. This method has been successfully used in translations in other languages. Prose translations of Beowulf, Odyssey, and Iliad are good examples of this approach.

An excerpt from my current draft, the translation follows:

In some land, there was a king titled the Protector of the World. This king, Malak Shah of name, was angel-like in his disposition. Invested with much grandeur, prestige, lands and riches; his armies had covered him in great glory. Many a sovereign paid him vassalage; he received from Scythia and Tartary the tribute. Those who beheld his armies called them the waves of the sea of existence. Even the humblest ass in his stable was shod in red gold. All the renegades of the environs prostrated their heads before the king. His subjects were all content and unafraid, free of the fears of poverty and theft. A wondrous paradisiacal land was his that recalled to the beholders the marvels of god.

What about translating modern Urdu literature?
About ten years ago, I translated Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s Numberdaar ka Neela (The Beast), which remains one of my favourite novellas. It had a heavy narrative voice which worked well in the translation. Modern Urdu prose is generally simple to translate, with the exception of the language employed by such works as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Savar aur Doosray Afsanay (The Sun that Rose from the Earth) and Kai Chand Thay Sare Asmaan (The Mirror of Beauty). I am very glad that the author translated these himself and put it out of my thoughts! There was a time when I was thinking about translating them.

What are you currently working on?
So what we discussed before is a comprehensive report of my past and current translation projects. Most of my present and future translation interests remain restricted to classical literature in the dastan and qissa genres.

Classical Urdu texts can be a difficult territory. There are few good dictionaries available for this kind of work. And even the existing ones, such as Platts and Steingass, offer very limited help because they do not have all the words one encounters in classical Urdu prose. There is constant learning in the process, and many times defeat stares you in the face. It was this sense of helplessness that first made me think of putting together an online resource for Urdu translators. My online Urdu Thesaurus is one project in this direction.

Is there a particular method that you follow when translating?
The translation approach also depends on how a particular classical text evolved historically. In some respects, Urdu classical dastan literature is unique if we compare it to two comparable classical texts: the Persian language Shahnameh and the Arabic language Alf Laila wa Laila. These texts belong to languages and cultures which have heavily influenced our own.

The Shahnameh was meant for the court; an account of the glory of the kings of Persia.The audience necessitated a formal idiom and the narration was decorous. It was presented in a uniform, highly literary language, meant for an audience of one.

The Alf Laila wa Laila or the Arabian Nights was popular literature narrated in the streets. It is filled with bawdy tales and ribald humour. The language is vernacular. One can see its effect best in Muhsin Mahdi’s critical translation.

The most popular Urdu dastan, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, was popular from common people to royalty. Over several hundred years of its tradition in India, it accommodated the idiom and literary tastes from both streams of its audiences. It was also a narrative from the oral tradition, which was transcribed hundreds of years later by its narrators. So we encounter both high literary language and street language; both grandeur and bawdiness. It is important to be conscious of these things as one translates such a complex text.

It helped me that in the course of my haphazard reading of Urdu literature I had read or encountered texts from various historical periods, tastes and genres. It allowed me to develop an idiom in English for my translation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which was equivalent to the changing registers in the Urdu text.

You’re talking here about types of text. But what about methodology? Are there rules that translators should know or be mindful of?
In translation from classical prose which is unpunctuated, it works for me to break the text down into phrasal pieces, and treat them separately to cull the best possible meaning, before putting them together again in a sentence and smoothing out the expression. I think an idiomatic translation – for me, at least – becomes possible only when I look at the components of a line and imagine the best way to join them together. It has something to do with the principles of rhetoric and how a line sounds when we read it. But, still, this idiomatic translation has to conform to the general idiom of the larger text. Otherwise, a translation can be uneven because the components don’t relate to the whole.

That’s a very important point, I think, and it relates directly to your observation that a translator must read widely and absorb the oeuvre of the writer whose work he is translating…
Besides reading the work of the writer he is translating, a translator of classics must read widely, variously, and extensively. This gives you a broad understanding of the various kinds of linguistic texture, pattern and the kinds of idioms used in various texts. Besides children’s texts, history, and classical prose, reading poetic works and humour from different periods is very important, because if you can understand poetry and humour and their various hues in both languages, it means you are close to the language. And if you are dealing with a translation project, it facilitates the work of translation.

Making a translation is not merely a function of knowing the source languages well enough. One must also know the culture, from which a particular work has been published, well. As with language, so with society: one could get a sense of whether or not a translator knows the source culture well enough or not from the way he translates the source language.

Yes, I’m familiar with that idea from my readings of, for instance, Naomi Lazard’s introduction to her translations of Faiz’s poetry, which she made in correspondence with Faiz; with Brenda Walker’s translation of Iftikhar Arif’s The Twelfth Man; and with the method of the Poetry Translation Centre, which puts together a poet in the source language, a literal translator who also provides cultural references, as in the use of indigenous symbols or imagery, and the poet translator who combines these elements to create his or her own rendering – translation, that is – of the work. Now let’s turn to your translation of The Louse’s Curse which, as you mentioned, is a collaborative project with your wife, the artist Michelle Farooqi, who has also made the illustrations.

I first heard of The Louse’s Curse in India from my publicist, whose father used to recite it to her. I will not categorise it strictly as a translation. It is more of an adaptation, with Michelle Farooqi creating the translation of the refrain. I have changed the ending to make it less gory by presenting it to kids as a play in which the story’s narrated events happened.

I remember that you’ve made translations for children in the past, for instance Tot Batot
This translation is a part of my Kahani Se Kitab Tak project. It is a programme for teaching Urdu language to children through stories in a graduated reading program. The programme aims to replace the current, failed method of teaching Urdu, and introduces children to the Urdu language, its classical literature, and our folklore through engaging, age-appropriate books. It is our hope that the time spent listening to and reading these stories will forever keep alive their interest in literature.

How does the programme work?
In the primary years, children will read a new picture book every month. These picture books will help children develop a basic understanding of plot and characters.

In middle school, they will read a classical text in the form of a chapter book each month, which they had earlier read as a picture book. Upon reading the texts a second time in greater detail, the plots and characters of stories will be reinforced.

Students enrolled in the ninth and tenth grades, and GCEO and A levels, will read the annotated original text of a story they had already read in simpler versions during the primary and middle school years. By this stage, the characters and stories will already be familiar to the students.

That’s an ambitious project…to revive Urdu and make its literature accessible, attractive to children. When my son was in his teens, many English-medium schools embarked on a policy of giving pupils the option of learning easy Urdu, which taught them almost nothing, and gave them no insights, let alone grounding, in their literary heritage.
Yes. And to continue with the aim of this project, I’d like to say that there’s a graduated language proficiency programme associated with it.

Children enrolled in the first to the third grades will learn synonyms of the words used in the stories. Pupils in the fourth and fifth grades will learn antonyms of the words in the stories. In middle school, they will learn the idioms associated with the words of the story. In the next stage, which stretches from O levels and matric to undergraduate studies, students will learn the proverbs used in the text. Throughout the three stages, children’s knowledge of synonyms, antonyms, idioms and proverbs will be checked through two separate tests. This programme is already running successfully in two branches of the Lahore Grammar School, there is interest from many other schools in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad and I hope to expand it much more widely in 2018.


This interview was first published in The Aleph Review, Vol 2, edited by Mehvash Amin, published by Broken Leg Publications.

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