‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation’, the American poet Robert Frost is quoted as saying. So how do you translate literature effectively? The British Council’s Ted Hodgkinson spoke to Daniel Hahn, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, and Urdu language translator Fahmida Riaz, during a literary translation workshop taking place in Karachi on 13-17 October.
Daniel Hahn, should a good translation faithfully capture the original text, or make something with a distinctive life of its own?
Unfortunately, both. Assuming the faithfulness you’re aiming for is fidelity to something more than just literal meaning, then any attempt at being faithful to the original piece of writing should entail making something that lives. It should have just the same pulse as the original did. Taking something living and fresh and transforming it into something dull and dead in another language doesn’t seem like genuine faithfulness to me.
Can a translation add something to the original?
Sure, in translation, everything changes. Every word or phrase; every syllable, for that matter, will be different from the original text. This means there will be additions, of course, but it will also draw attention to certain things in the original.
Every translation is an interpretative act, as well as a creative one. Translators read the original piece and try to work out what it’s doing, what’s important that’s going on. They are constantly making choices about which elements of a text to preserve and foreground, and which to sacrifice.
People talk about ‘loss’ in translation, which seems to me to be missing the point mostly, though one thing that does seem to me to be a particular, frequent loss is ambiguity. We have to take an original word with two or three possible simultaneous meanings and plump for an English word which only covers one or two of those — but there’s a gain that comes with that sharp focus, too.
García Márquez has been misquoted often as saying the translation of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was better than the original — I think he actually said it was more accurate than the original. That distinction, I believe, is very telling.
What linguistic qualities are the hardest to translate?
Oh, all of it. Translation is impossible! And I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible. There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language — whether it’s idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different. There are congruences between languages that are more closely related, of course, but those relationships are very much in the minority.
What are the particular virtues of teaching translation in a workshop with the author present?
I guess there are two things — the first is, simply, the insight the author can bring to the translators’ reading of the text, to their understanding of it and consequently to the translation decisions this understanding will inform. Then of course the very fact of having that conversation forces the translators themselves to articulate their own thinking, to formulate questions and suggestions. This is itself useful — just having to articulate an interpretative and creative process that normally happens (a) not necessarily consciously, and (b) between languages, not set clearly within an articulated language, is a valuable prompt to learning, even if the learning itself happens kind of without anyone noticing.
You’re renowned for moving slowly through a text and weighing up each individual word choice. What’s your record for focusing on a single word? And what are the advantages of working this way?
Yes, I’m quite proud of my ability to fail to make any progress at all. I’m not sure what the slowest has ever been, but I feel I’ve been set a challenge now so I’ll keep an eye on the clock from now on!
The advantages? Well, translation is two things: it’s very close and careful and thoughtful reading. Then, it’s precise and careful and thoughtful writing. Focusing on the detail makes you aware of this better than anything. If the writer has used word x, we need to know why that was the word he chose of all the options (what exactly does it mean, but also what’s it doing in the sentence, in the rhythm of the sentence and to the sound and register), and then we need to find a way of replicating that in English, again with the greatest precision possible.
The next sentence is an example of how a translator thinks when they work. Talking the questions through (or talking through the questions), and expressing/articulating the thought processes that go into them / make them up / determine them can be a significant asset (or just a big help? – note this register shift) in getting people to be sensitive and alert (do we need both of these? – shades of meaning overlapping?) to what the process entails, and thereby sharpen the way they then work on their own. (Maybe without that last comma? Or with? Or without?)
Is it a good time to be a literary translator?
I think it’s a really good time to be a literary translator into English, specially working in the UK or at least with UK publishers, but it varies. Some markets are more responsive to translation, some publishing worlds treat translators better than others, there are some places where there’s an excitement and a dynamism to the profession and to the whole sector that makes a huge difference (that’s the UK today, I think) — but yes, overall, it’s really good. More and more literature is travelling, which is great news for us, and of course for readers, too.
Fahmida Riaz, what are the particular joys and challenges of translating Urdu?
I have translated works of poetry and fiction from Persian, Sindhi, and English. Every piece you translate comes from the pen of an individual, so you have to give it an individual treatment. I try to retain the ambience of the original culture, rather than the language, as it is reflected in the text.
While translating the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Nagib Mahfouz‘s ‘Afrah Ul Qubba’ into Urdu from an English translation of the text, I also kept the original Arabic novel before me. In Pakistan, we have an interesting and paradoxical relationship with Arabic. As children, we are all taught the Quran and can therefore more or less read Arabic. But we do not understand the language. Despite this, referring to the original Arabic text of Mahfouz’s book helped me learn how the characters addressed one another, and sometimes there was a word that could be used in Urdu and had the same meaning. I did not want these Egyptians to sound as if they are Karachites.
How is Urdu different from other languages spoken in Pakistan?
Urdu is certainly different from other Pakistani languages. It developed in the cities and towns and is an urban language that lends itself well to formal expressions, as it was born and bred in and around Delhi, which was the seat of power and culture in the subcontinent for hundreds of years. I guess that the difference could be compared to the ‘Queen’s English’ and other languages in the UK, such as Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.
How do you translate Urdu words which don’t have a direct translation into English, or perhaps concepts which are particularly deeply rooted in Pakistani culture?
Sometimes, one comes across almost untranslatable words, because of cultural differences. One such word in Urdu is ‘sharmana’. A example of this word in a sentence would be a situation in which a boy approaches a girl and the girl is ‘sharma gaiee’. This cannot be simply translated into English as ‘blushed’ or ‘felt shy’ or ‘was embarrassed’. Although some girls in the West may not react in this way, in our culture, a girl’s sharmana gives a positive signal to the boy. What could be considered coquettish in the West is practised as a very subtle and dignified female expression of interest in South Asia. It is important that this is a natural response, and not contrived. In such cases, the best bet for the translator would be to tell the reader what the female character is feeling and what is actually happening at that point.
Does the Urdu alphabet present any translation challenges?
Our vowels in Urdu are different from English vowels, and this can present problems when translating names or other original Urdu words, such as royal or military titles. The ‘a’ in English, for instance, is not the same as our ‘a’, which sometimes sounds like ‘aa’. Urdu has some phonemes, like the soft ‘d’, or ‘gh’, which is pronounced a bit like the ‘r’ that one hears in French, as in ‘Paris’, and others that are common only in Arabic and Turkish, such as the guttural ‘q’ sound which we try to render with an added ‘u’, as in the name ‘Quraishi’. Perhaps a somewhat modified French keyboard could be useful for situations where proper nouns or other original Urdu words have to be retained in the English translation.
Is translating poetry different from prose?
Translating poetry is a much bigger challenge. You are faced with the task of communicating the meaning as well as the beauty of expressions that Urdu readers understand effortlessly, because of the age-old connotations of the words. For instance, Urdu similes and metaphors may have Eastern philosophical or cultural concepts behind them. The literal translation of a verse of the poet Ghalib could be: ‘Yes, O new moon, let us hear the name of that person. That you are greeting so humbly.’ But the reader in English has to be familiar with the difference between a salaam offered with a deep bow and an ordinary everyday greeting. He or she might also not know that our festivals revolve round the sighting of moon, according to the Islamic lunar calendar. And the reader might also be unfamiliar with the idea that a salaam is a salutation to something excellent, or a peerless person.
But it is still worth trying to convey these associations. What I would do in such a case is to study older poets of the English language and familiarise myself with their style and diction. This often helps. I have translated a lot of Sufi poetry lately and found that carefully studying the diction of John Donne and William Blake was inspiring for me. It allows you to get an idea of how a similar concept or feeling was expressed in the other language, even if it was a hundred years ago.
It’s not easy, but one has to keep trying. You need to bring yourself in complete agreement with the poet, to keep muttering their words in the other language. At the end of the day, translation is creative work and no one can be sure if it could not have been improved or done differently.
Could you give an example of literature in translation?
Here is my translation of the Nai Nama, ‘The Song Of the Reed’, the famous opening lines of Rumi’s Masnavi, his epic masterpiece. Most translators begin it with ‘Listen to the wailing …’. This, to me, sounds like a command, and wailing seems an absurd act. I think, maybe that this translation gets at what Mawlana Rumi meant:
The Song Of The Reed
Longingly sings the reed
Aching and pining
Listening to its call
Warm tears roll down your cheeks.
This is the song of helplessly desiring
What has been torn away from you
In every recital where the reed sings
We listen to it, holding our breath
Its notes exploring the depths of the heart
A long forgotten wound comes alive, disclosing
Your mystery, your secret that no friend ever fathomed
It was always within your easy access
Alas, your senses are not trained to find it.
Unveil your essence to your life-form, O man!
Alas this is not conventional in our world.
The song of the reed is not wind, it is fire
Giving you the warmth of existence
The reed holds your forlorn hand
When it gropes for the hand torn away from its grasp
Its notes tear apart your conceit,
Revealing you naked to your eyes.
Music wounds and heals, miraculously
Sharing every secret, it is the secret itself
It tells you the story of a blood-stained path
Disclosing the passion of Majnun to you
You are the reed, O man, having two mouths
One end is between the lips of God
So the second mouth sings to the world
And the planet resonates with His song
Yet only the knower knows the truth
It is briefly told here, goodbye!