Striving to keep originality in literary translation

The Urdu language, despite its rich literary tradition, has been severely impacted by the politics of the last century-especially by the scourge of nationalism. I must admit that, initially, my interest in translating “Burial Shroud” was related to my irritation with and desire to combat the post-partition disruption that the language has faced.

Yet, when I actually began to translate, I fell in love with Premchand’s style of writing and the significant societal message of “Burial Shroud” largely became what we wanted to share with others.

Moreover, while translating, I realised that the Indianisation of English, which is an idea of some post-colonial Indian translators that we have attached ourselves to, is something that we could attempt here. This, in turn, made “Burial Shroud” an even more attractive work to translate.

Nevertheless, I would like to remind readers that our theories of translation are not radical enough to preclude entirely the notion of fidelity to the text, which was originally propagated by the Romantics and is still prevalent amongst many translation circles today.

In the remainder of this article, I will walk you through our translation of “Burial Shroud” and offer further comments on how the various ideas of translation mentioned above apply. This exercise, I feel, will more fully explicate our conception of translation and more importantly, it will illustrate what exactly I learned from translating this wonderful story by Premchand.

When I assert that translation is a form of cannibalism, what I mean is that the meat and bones (content and form) from the original text will enter somewhere into the constitution of a new text that is developing. Surely, the process does not result in a clone of the original but a fresh organism with its own features and perhaps, a wholly distinct appearance. For instance, in the original Urdu short story, Premchand sparsely employs transitions, which is probably because that language does not as frequently demand them.

In contrast, as we were translating the large paragraph, it became obvious that without the insertion of at least four transitional phrases before certain sentences, the English paragraph would sound terribly choppy. Similarly, in the process of translating this particular paragraph, we noticed that the original Urdu sentences are, at times, much longer than an average sentence in English. In order that our translation may be properly understood, we made the decision to split up many of the “run-ons” into a series of concise and effectual sentences.

As a matter of fact, in the Premchand text, Ghisu says, “Now, what can I say about how much flavour I received from that food?” While this sentence adequately expresses that the experience was an overwhelming one for Ghisu, we contend that this emotion could be even better articulated if the flavours are allowed more of an agency in the description.

To that end, we employed personification (a type of metaphor) in my translation of the sentence: “Now, how can I relate what flavours had crossed my tongue?”  Indeed, there are more instances of our cannibalism of Premchand’s text that result in interesting personifications, yet, on account of time, we must proceed to examine other types of cannibalism in our translation.

Urdu culture

Now, only because we are familiar with the Urdu culture do we understand why the men are attempting to grab their livers. The original image or phrase means that they are especially bothered by what is happening. If you read the whole translation, you will know that their gesture here speaks volumes, since Ghisu and Madhoo are not usually the sort of characters to be disturbed.

Regardless, had we translated the Urdu literally, the idea would have been totally foreign for the English reader. Thus, I made the necessary change and the sentence now reads: “[…] from her mouth, such a heart-rending sigh would emanate that both men would clutch their chests.”

At this point, I would like to turn to other notions of translation that are present in our version of “Burial Shroud”. As mentioned earlier, one of our reasons for translating Premchand included an impulse to Indianise English.

Although some might argue that to Indianise English in the translation, we may also have hindered a full cannibalisation of the source text. It may be a fair criticism, though, in light of the current political climate, we maintain that it is imperative to retain some sense of the origin culture of a text.

Hence, the reader can witness our desire to “Indianise” English in a number of ways with respect to the translation. For instance, we have not changed the Indian names of any of the characters and we have also kept the original names of the majority of food that Premchand details. Likewise, we have not changed things like “bazaar” into “market” nor have we renamed “saadhus” or the “fakir” into “mystics” or something equally general.

One final way in which I have striven to Indianise English is by the retention of Premchand’s wonderful similes and metaphors. While these decisions may seem overly political on our part, I want to emphasise that every choice to retain something from the source language is potentially a net gain of words and concepts for the target language and hence, English culture.

Whatever it is that you think of our translation, we would prefer that you read the whole of it and then speak up. Perhaps, you will decide to translate Premchand’s “Burial Shroud” yourself, afterwards. Maybe if you do so, you will re-title it “Coffin”. Even if you choose to keep the same name, know that a world of possibilities awaits you and the stage of translation always craves a new performance.

(The writer, a linguist, teaches at Washington University in St Louis, USA)

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