As good as the original

In translating Kundera’s Immortality into Urdu, Arshad Waheed has made a serious attempt to introduce a modern global sensibility to the Urdu reader.

The Urdu version of Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality has arrived on the literary scene and it has been published after the official approval of Kundera’s literary agents. First things first: Baqa e Dawam is not a translation of the original Czech version or the French version but a translation of the English translation. It does not mean the Urdu version should be considered twice removed from the ideal version. The publisher and the translator have been quite diligent in following the norms and laws of intellectual property in acquiring the rights to translate and publish the book from Milan Kundera (through his agents).

The literary agents asked for a representative sample of the Urdu version. After that, they had the translation reviewed by some experts who could read the submitted part of this translation and the translator was given the approval to publish it in Pakistan. The literary agent also sent the image that is on the cover of the book. So, the question that this is a translation of a translation becomes irrelevant because this is the only Urdu version that has been approved by Milan Kundera, directly or indirectly. It means the publication of the book creates some unique philosophical problems. There is an original text in Czech which the translator cannot read. There is an Urdu text which the creator of the original text cannot read. The Urdu text has been approved as the only authentic translation through some intermediary but highly standardised industrial/ professional procedures. Moreover, this reviewer, like the translator, cannot read the original version. This reviewer, however, can read the English version (a translation in itself) which the translator used and try to review the Urdu version (another translation) and compare the two. But this exercise appears futile. When the original is not accessible, why should we compare a copy with another copy? This is where the whole question of authenticity and originality becomes irrelevant. This copy has been blessed by the creator of the original text. It is a scandal in the idealist universe of Plato in which only the original was the real thing. Poets should be banished, argued Plato, because they create copies of copies, which are twice removed from reality. Here, we have the copy of a copy approved by the creator of the original.

Kundera is an extremely difficult genre-bending type of a novelist as well as a theorist of the novel. He creates his novels as narrativised essays which are brimming with ideas elaborated by his narrators.

This book, other than being a translation of a major novel of the twentieth century, is a postmodern reversal of the whole issue of the original and the derivative. Parenthetical Remark: Those readers who are interested in exploring the scenarios in which the derivative is more important than the original should look at the work of Vilas Sarang, a Marathi writer who declared his original English work to be translated from the Marathi versions even when there existed no original/Marathi version. He wanted his original work to be considered translated work (Sarang, Confessions of a Marathi Writer, 1994).

Now let’s compare the English translation (the source text of the translated text under review) with the Urdu version. The English version reads like a work of fiction that has not been translated but trans-created. In Urdu, this effect is rarely achieved by translators. This effect has been achieved by Sagheer Malal in his book titled Beesveen Sadi ke Shahkar Afsaanay (The Best Short Stories of the 20th Century). The book contains excellent commentary by the translator on every short story. These commentaries are works of art in themselves because they produce highly synthesised and lucid summaries of the lives and literary visions of Tolstoy, Kafka, Genet, Sartre, and Jerome Weidman, among many others. Among the handful translators of world literature into Urdu, Sagheer Malal remains unsurpassed so far and is likely to remain so for many decades to come. The task of the Urdu translator is not to make the work appear faithful to the original, especially when a lot of Urdu translators cannot read the original Russian, French, Czech, and Spanish texts and rely on the English versions. The task then is to recreate the literary experience that grabs the reader by the jugular, like an original creative force, so that the Urdu reader, especially those who cannot read the English versions, can enjoy the masterpieces of world literature with their unique sensibility.

In this sense, the present work of translation appears not as good as the work of Sagheer Malal as a translator but still worthy of admiration because of its faithfulness to the English version and because of its translation of almost every sentence in a devotional manner. What Arshad Waheed has handled better than many other translators of world literature into Urdu is that he has been able to handle the sheer expanse of Kundera’s thematic canvas as a fiction writer himself. Arshad Waheed’s experience as an original novel writer in Urdu, titled Gumaan or Surmise in English, must have proven useful to him while handling the audacity of Kundera’s work.

Kundera is an extremely difficult genre-bending type of a novelist as well as a theorist of the novel. He creates his novels as narrativised essays which are brimming with ideas elaborated by his narrators. This essayist side of Kundera has yielded very well to the Urdu version but the names of the characters and the places in the narrative, in the translated version, appear non-localised and therefore remain slightly alien. This aspect of the translation should have been handled as skilfully as the abstract and the essayistic side of the work. Despite these minor quibbles, both the author and the publisher deserve accolades for bringing a major work of the 20th century to thousands of Urdu readers. The job of a translator who translates from a major world language into Urdu is a thankless job. A translator has to show a great capacity for this stubborn pursuit. The enormity of the challenge and the task should bring Arshad Waheed some rewards because he has made a serious attempt to introduce a modern global sensibility to the Urdu reader.

Baqa e Dawam

(A translation of Nesmrtelnost (the Czech title) and

L’Immortalité (the French title) and

Immortality (the English title) by Milan Kundera)

Translator: Arshad Waheed

Publisher: Jumhoori Publications, Lahore, 2015

Pages: 357

Price: Rs700

Published on September 20, 2015