"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Translations

posted by Noor

We recently posted Mohammad Umer Memon's interview conducted by chapatimystery.com on the DWL forums. I was particularly intrigued by the quality of work he has translated from Urdu to English. I have always felt that literature in Urdu is overwhelmingly rich - like the arable lands of the country it originates from.

I grew up reading books and short stories in Urdu - literature that was perhaps more suited for an adult than a child. My parents, both writers by profession, maintained an overbearing library - a room with an imposing desk, carefully decorated with fountain pen holders and crystal paperweights, rocking chairs, floor pillows, sketches of writers, my parents' awards, and wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with books and magazines. From a very early age, I began to know names like Bano Qudsia, Nazir Ahmad, Ishfaq Ahmad, Qurat-ul-ain Haider, Imtiaz Ali Taj, and the like. I devoured these books just like I ate up every last word of Dickens, Shakespeare, and Eliot.

I remember, I was in the library once, and my father came in and saw me with one of Manto's anthologies. "Perhaps this is better suited to a young lady's tastes," he said and extended a copy of Mira'at-ul-Uroos towards me. "After you're done with this one," he said pointing to the book I was holding. Manto is nothing if not controversial. But so layered is his work that I find something new and rather chilling every time I read one of his stories. So rich with metaphors - there was this one story in which a man collects empty cans and bottles and ends up marrying someone who looks like an empty bottle after getting rid of his collection. Sigh! I have butchered it. If you have not read Manto, READ MANTO! His work contains perhaps the most powerful social commentary that I have ever read. Alas! I digress.

I slowly discovered poetry in Urdu, too. I cannot claim to fully understand Ghalib and Iqbal, but took a particular liking to Mir Dard and Mir Taqi Mir. Contemporary Urdu poetry opened up to me like a ball of yarn running loose around the house. The romance in Parveen Shakir's work took me through my angst ridden adolescence. I found thehrao, control, clam (how would I translate this?!) particularly in Mansoora Ahmad's work. Gulzar's "Chand Pakhraj Ka" remains a favorite to this day.

There is such a wealth of Urdu literature in our country - both classic and contemporary - and it's tragic that many in our generation are not familiar with it. In a time when Urdu is no longer the fashionable or cultured language to speak, Mohammad Umer Memon is translating books and short stories from Urdu to English to introduce the depth of human emotion, understanding, and wisdom contained in them.

It's unfortunate that I, too, living in a world where Urdu is seldom recognized as a language in existence, let alone spoken or read, am losing my command over it. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how a word is spelled - if it uses "tay" or "tuaein." Small, everyday battles to keep a little bit of my roots alive. For people who are not familiar with the richness that is in the works of authors who write in Urdu, Memon comes as a fresh breeze, a rescuer of the ignorant. More importantly, he is an ambassador of literature written in Urdu and is a voice that reaches everyone in the world and proclaims: "This is how we do it!"

Currently reading: Harper Collins Book of Urdu Short Stories by Mohammad Umer Memon.

Get a copy!