In his own inimitable diction, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi made one of his characters equate the act of translation with the act of “chewing a bite already chewed by someone else”. However, when Aab-i-Gumm, in many ways his magnum opus, was translated into English in India by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad as Mirages of the Mind, he gave it his blessings, even though the text was set in a certain era and entrenched so deeply in a certain social milieu that it was just impossible to communicate the entire fun of that prose – with all its delicate linguistic tones and subtle twists – into any language other than Urdu.

Despite the limitations, Yousufi for the non-Urdu audience is better than no Yousufi at all. Can the same be said about Mohammad Hanif’s identity project, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, for the non-English reader? You bet! The novel, originally in English, has been around for a dozen years, during which it has never really gone out of conversational currency and that, on its own, is indicative of the strength of the story and the zestful twinkle of the narrative.

It is to the credit of Syed Kashif Raza that the translated Urdu version has done no harm to the original. That Raza himself is a novelist of some repute is something that seems to have done the translation a world of good. While keeping true to the story and the narrative, Raza has done the kind of value addition to the text that is just impossible to put a finger on. The text flows. It really does. He is clearly comfortable in his own skin as the translator while being simultaneously clear about the responsibility of the translator.

The very act of translation is a path riddled with potholes, and those who walk the path have to put up with a devil-and-the-deep-sea conundrum. It is tough to “chew the chewed” and then there is hardly any acknowledgement for their efforts. But the truth be told, the world does owe much to the translators. Though often relegated to the position of also-rans, translators worldwide have their own significance both in historical and contemporary perspectives, as well as literary and academic contexts. Raza is in good company really.

The nitty gritty

Let us the touch the historical and the academic part first. In the West, Abu Nasr Al Farabi is known among academics as “the second teacher” behind Aristotle, for it was his translation and interpretation of Aristotle that ensured historical permanence for the master Greek. And Al Farabi, as you may well guess, would have been beyond comprehension for the Western world had his work not been translated into English by the likes of Charles Butterworth.

And then there is the case of Ibn Khaldun, whose original contribution to human political and social progress has been paid tribute to by Antony Black who called it “a privilege to walk the same earth as such a man.” But Black could talk about Ibn Khaldun’s work basically because Franz Rosenthal had translated the Muqqadimah into English.

Moving on to the literary element in the equation, it is somewhat more complex than the academic text. Though a time-honoured tradition, the translation of foreign literary works, by the very nature of it, is a sensitive affair, for much is lost on the way in terms of style, diction and content, depriving the original piece of its potency. By way of an example, the case of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam can be quoted, which is a classic in its own right but, according to critics round the world, it has little to do with the original. In comparison, Khayyam’s translation done by Saba Akbarabadi is not just closer to the original, but also keeps in mind the taste of the Urdu literary reader.

Reynold Nicholson overcame the barrier by doing extensive commentaries on the Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi – so extensive that they are published in separate volumes. In certain ways, Ralph Russell was to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib what Fitzgerald and Nicholson were to Khayyam and Rumi. Unlike the two, however, Russell did spend a lot of time understanding not just the language, but also the culture behind Ghalib’s poetry, and, yet, his translation of Ghalib’s Persian poetry is rather wooden compared to that done by Iftikhar Ahmed Adani.

Translation of culture

It was so probably because both Urdu and Persian draw from the same source of social thought patterns and metaphorical expressions. The translation of European literature – German, French, Italian, Spanish and so on – into English does not have that specific problem because of their shared history and heritage, but oriental languages do suffer on this count.

But what needs to be acknowledged is the obvious, but often ignored, fact that the likes of Fitzgerald, Nicholson and Russell were not translating for the locals; they had a different audience to cater to. The same is true of Dr Natalia Pregarina, an orientalist who has translated not only Ghalib, but also Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Hafiz Shirazi and Amir Khusro into Russian. More than the enjoyment of diction, it is about enjoying the thought process behind the high-definition creativity of the master poets.

Raza Ali Abidi stressed the point rather forcefully in one of his many books. He has argued more than once that, while it is possible to translate a phrase, it is impossible to always do justice to the soul and style of that phrase. To the naysayer, Abidi offers a simple challenge: “Translate just one poetic verse by Mir Anis in any language of the world,” he says, before offering a verse as an example: “Aaj Shabbir pe kya aalam-i-tanhaee hai.” Smart choice, one must say, for it has wonderfully encapsulated a whole historical episode in a mere seven words which would take hundreds of words in explanatory prose to get communicated to a foreign audience.

The debate that skirts the matter is multifarious and questions its very acceptance as an art form, but Anwer Sen Roy seems to have struck the middle ground rather well with his translation into Urdu of the verses of Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. He took care of the element of cross-cultural transition in a single swipe at the outset: “In my view, translation is impossible...I consider them to have been adapted rather than translated...adaptations in the sense that they convey what I felt while going through them...for me, these are my poems...I will be pleased if they remind anyone of Darwish for it would mean that my effort has reached somewhere close to the original.”

This recreated creativity is a literary treat simply because Roy kept the audience in mind while bringing Darwish to our doorsteps.

Matters of prose

When it comes to prose, however, things get slightly easier to handle, especially when it relates to the domain of non-fiction, like, say, autobiographies. Amjad Ali Bhatti’s Aitrafat, an Urdu translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions of a Genius, and Durdana Soomro’s A Bad Woman’s Story, the English version of Kishwar Naheed’s Buri Aurat Ki Katha, come to mind straightaway.

And while we are still discussing biographies, one would do well to recall Dr Mahmudur Rahman’s translation into Urdu of Lt Gen Gul Hassan’s The Last Commander-in-Chief. It should be compulsory reading for anyone setting out to undertake linguistic conversion, so that they may know how not, repeat not, to do it. There is nothing wrong with the effort except for the fact that the learned translator tried to be faithful to every word so literally that it’s a word-perfect conversion which, at times, is not sense-perfect.

And, finally, we are down to works of fiction. The ideal scenario here is apparently that of The Weary Generations, which is the English version of Udaas Naslain, a masterpiece by Abdullah Hussain, who was both the author and the translator. No wonder both versions match each other in terms of flow and texture alike.

But there have been other decent efforts both in the past and in the present. They range from Maulana Inayatullah Dehlavi translating Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy to Sajjad Zaheer managing Voltaire’s Candide, and from Saadat Hasan Manto enabling Urdu readers to enjoy Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man down to Kashif Raza translating Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. They are all decent efforts, indeed, alongside thousands of others.

Now you see how good a company Raza is in. If anything, he is a step above in one critical area. The Urdu version of Hanif’s novel is a curious case not just of “exploding mangoes”, but also of a translation that had no cross-cultural barrier to handle, as both the original and the translation owed their origin to the same society. Indeed, the audience was pretty much the same except for their linguistic ability, or preferences. And yet it seemingly put off a few people, which – come to think of it – is the most relevant argument about the relevance and significance of the act of translation. No? Think again!

This article first appeared on Dawn.