What is Urdu for “fiddle dee dee”, or English for “Sarra rara rara”? Are these words really English or Urdu?

Obviously, translation is not substitution; practical experience tells us that even if there was a word-for-word list between two languages, it would be redundant because of the syntactic arrangements. The original’s idiom, tone, style, flavor, wit, and nuance produce a stubbornness that makes it difficult to render words from one language to another. It is said that no translation can ever be correct or exact.

Our concern is the translation of literary texts. A literary text can be reduced to the essentials of its genre and meaning. The meaning lies in the rhetorical level, imagery and schematic associative use of sound models in language. Generally speaking, genre implies form, especially verse forms. Poetry internalizes music in the sounds and textures of its verses. Meaning and form form an organic whole. The problems of translating poetry are a model in the hopeless difficulties, if not the pitfalls, of translation.

Translation exists because we speak different languages. Critic, philosopher and mathematician George Steiner asked, “Why should human beings speak thousands of different, mutually incomprehensible languages?” It is only when we reflect on it that the possible strangeness, the possible unnaturalness of human linguistic order strikes us.

Why don’t we use a common language? It is believed that 6,000-7,000 languages ​​are currently in use. Each year, so-called rare languages ​​spoken by dying ethnic communities die out. White spaces and question marks dot the linguistic geography of remote regions.

The linguistic catalog begins with Aba, spoken by the Tatars, and ends with Zyrene, a Finno-Ugaritic speech in use between the Urals and the Arctic coast. It conveys an image of man as a speech animal of incredible variety and waste. Human substance is linked to language. The mystery of the word characterizes our being. Nonetheless, linguistic separation has created areas of silence or isolation throughout human history.

In the philosophy of language, two radically opposed points have been asserted. First, that the underlying structure of language is universal and common to all humans. The dissimilarities are on the surface. Translation is possible because deeply rooted universals – from which all grammars are derived – can be localized and recognized as operative in every human idiom. To translate is to go below the exterior of disparities and bring into play their common principles of being. Second, this translation is impossible because the idioms cannot be reproduced.

Translation is both possible and impossible. “Pure language” is not contained in any single idiom, it is like a hidden source seeking to find its way through the silted canals of our different languages. A translation from language A to language B will make a third active presence tangible. A bad translation misses the connection of meaning. The translator enriches his language by allowing the source language to enter and modify.

As a translator, I have tried different strategies – line for line, literal, group of words, trope or idiom, and strength of association – and have never been satisfied. In most cases, the boundaries and boundaries of the language, the transition from one language to another, even carefully negotiated, leads to an enlargement or reduction of the meaning.

The discrimination between the deep structures of meaning – structures buried by time or masked by colloquialism – and the surface structures of the spoken idiom has a modern sounding effect. There is a keen understanding, essential to any treatment of communication between languages, of the ways in which a text can hide more than it conveys.

To illustrate with an example: I am editing an English translation of the 14th century Sufi masnavi [long narrative poem] Chandayan. Written by Maulana Daud, the language may be Awadhi and the writing is Perso-Arabic.

The text presents formidable translation challenges. The script is not entirely in tune with Awadhi phonology but, more importantly, the deep structures of meaning and colloquialisms of distant times present a task no less daunting than that of the poem’s protagonist, Lorik.

Chandayan’s translator Richard J. Cohen has, for very good reason, preceded the translation with a “Meditation on Translation.” Cohen rightly paraphrases the wisdom of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: “Does the nature of the original text allow translation? The distance in cultural, linguistic and literary “time” certainly complicates the task of the translator in the case of Chandayan. But texts like the Chandayan have been ignored or remained unknown for too long, leaving a gaping hole in our understanding of the cultural life of the subcontinent in medieval times and the formation of its composite culture to the present day.

Maulana Daud recognized the allegorical potential of the folk tale in her day, known as Chandayani or Lorikaayan. Versions of these folk tales are still recited by specialist narrators of the Ahir pastoral caste, mainly for the entertainment of villagers and residents of small towns in northern India.

It is a story of heroism and illicit love, motivated by passion and contempt for social norms. However, in the hands of a 14th-century Sufi poet, who clearly had sufficient encouragement from his mentor and patrons, the plot was broadened to encompass the dual relationship of worldly love and the mystical love of God. Thus, in the Sufi interpretation, Lorik’s love for Chanda represents mankind’s desire for a personal relationship with God who in Chandayan takes the form of the heroine Chanda, the beloved.

Cohen’s translation of the stanza on the birth of Chanda is:

“Chanda was born in the house of Rao Mahar Sahadev – the earth and the heavens shone. / She was born on the first night’s vigil, so the world thought there were two nights. / The Pleiades were twinkling. in her parted hair, it seemed as if the sun was shining on her body. / She became full on the 14th night – Sahadev’s daughter, Chanda, was a padmini / Rahu and Ketu both served her, Venus and Saturn protected her. / Other constellations came to serve her and stood by her door, Chanda’s radiance illuminating the world, fascinating the travelers.

Translations aim to provide readers with a version of the text, a communication of the original. Nevertheless, translation enriches its recipients.

The columnist is an associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages ​​and Cultures at the University of Virginia.

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 14, 2021


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