“Translation for me stems from two different but interrelated impulses: a good text matures for the reader with every reading, reveals itself gradually—call it literary striptease. I can delve into it only through extended togetherness. Translation makes it possible to tease out all I can through this prolonged intimacy. The other insatiable impulse is to uncover my own potential.”
Muhammad Umar Memon is a translator, editor of the Annual of Urdu Studies and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Indefatigable, irascible, dapper and demonstrative, Memon Sahib is a well known and hard to miss figure in South Asian literary circles in the US. He is also easily the single most productive translator of Urdu literature into English. His translations include the recent collection of Urdu short stories from Pakistan, Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind?, two collections of short stories by the great Indian author Naiyer Masud, a collection of short stories relating to the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, and many, many more. Most recently, Memon Sahib guest edited the September issue of Words Without Borders, offering us a rich selection of Indian Urdu writing. If I were a writer for the New Yorker, I would have flown out to Madison to interview Memon Sahib. The interview would include a leisurely description of his attire, his demeanor and perhaps even his facial hair. Alas, as a poor blogger, we must content ourselves with an email interview, and hope that the interviewee’s enthusiasm for his craft comes across despite my failure to describe his socks and shoes.
Lapata: When and why did you first start translating literature?
Memon Sahib: Following Indian partition in 1947 some writers—Surendar Parkash and Balraj Manra in India, Enver Sajjad and also, to a degree, myself in Pakistan—were experimenting with starkly unconventional forms of fictional narrative. I liked my friend Balraj’s stories quite a bit. He had crammed tons of Sartre and Camus and inclined heavily toward the philosophy of the “absurd.” I decided to translate a few of his stories, among them “The Match Box,” which was later reprinted in Short Story International (New York) [also published in Balraj Manra, The Altar, (Delhi: Writers Forum, 1966), 9–16]. And that was that. Years later, a practical necessity drove me to translate extensively from modern Urdu fiction. It was 1970, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin and curricular needs prompted me to translate since I could find few good translations of Urdu fiction.
Lapata: How do you choose what to translate? Do you just pick stories with which you have an affinity, or do you choose works that you feel should be seen by a wider public? Is there any difference?
Memon Sahib: I guess both: affinity and motivation to share. A piece of writing that appeals to me brings, almost at the same time, a compelling desire to expose its wealth to others. My only regret is that I have one life and there is so much good writing I want to translate. There are exceptions though, for instance, when the relevance of a story’s subject matter overrides the propitious conjunction of affinity and desire. I have been lately preoccupied with fiction that addresses the blight of terrorism. I have translated some stories by Middle Eastern and North-West African writers and one story from Urdu. I have found North-West African writers to be more subtle, nuanced, and accomplished in their treatment, from a strictly literary point of view—writers such as Alaa al-Aswani, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Dib, Anouar Benmalek. But the Urdu story, despite my serious reservations, I translated because it is still an honest, though technically somewhat amateurish, attempt by an Urdu writer to come to grips with a grave problem of our times.
Lapata: Are there stories you have come across that you would like to translate but you feel would simply not ‘work’ in English?
Memon Sahib: Sure. This happens all the time. Much of Asad Muhammad Khan’s* work falls in this category. It is so culture and language specific that it fails to glow in English. The story, minus the language wouldn’t wash, because the story is organically implicated in the language and derives its power and its entire kinetic charge from it.
Lapata: You have written a book of short stories in Urdu yourself. Tell us a little about that collection.
Memon Sahib: I have spent less time writing stories than I have dispelling the impression that I’m a writer. When I was young, it took so little to write, for I knew so little. With the onset of wisdom, I quickly realized that the travails of good writing required a commitment I could scarcely afford with my university career. I gave up writing almost as soon as I started teaching. Later, as a tribute—why not?—to my youthful follies, the wrongheadedness of adolescence, I selected 5 or 6 stories and published them in a collection, Tareek Galee (The Dark Alley), which was consigned to well-deserved oblivion. Yes, there is regret, because, as I look at it, a thwarted writer still lurks inside me. Basically, I have a writer’s temperament, if not a writer’s perseverance.
Lapata: Have these ever been translated into English? If not, would you consider translating them yourself, or are you of the opinion that authors should not translate their own work (cf. River of Fire).
Memon Sahib: Some of the stories of this collection have already been translated, one or two by my friend Faruq Hassan and a couple also by me.**
Qurratulain Hyder was not the only one. Abdullah Hussein and, much earlier, even Aziz Ahmad of The Shore and the Wave fame couldn’t resist the temptation to drastically revise and lob off giant-size chunks of their original Urdu work in its English translation. Personally, I don’t think this is fair. One should own up to one’s imperfections and, importantly, have some faith in the reader that the latter will have the wisdom to be charitable: like everyone else, writers too grow out of their ideas. But I do understand the desire to clean up and redo some of the rough edges of one’s earlier work that only now, later on in life, have begun to impinge on the consciousness. God knows I may have been guilty of that myself.
Lapata: Your output of translation is quite large. Do you translate very fast, or does it just seem that way because there are few other people translating South Asian languages with as much regularity as you?
Memon Sahib: Actually, I do not translate “very fast.” It only appears that way, because I translate quite a bit. In the last 12 months I must have translated over 1000 pages from English, Urdu, and Arabic. But this is because I spend 8 to 9 hours every day in this thankless—though, I must admit, hugely uplifting—job. There are many reasons why it takes so long: my Arabic has become rusty from disuse; I have lost my active vocabulary in Urdu as I no longer have any living contact with the language, and English is not my mother-tongue. Then there is this desire to capture all the nuances and resonances of the original English or Urdu phrase, the frustration that comes with it, partly because of my dwindling facility with Urdu, partly because of a lack of proper words in Urdu to adequately capture the delightfully dizzying shades of meaning created by the experience of modern life, but most of all, because of the peculiar syntactical structure of Urdu, which was devised for the ear, not the eye. So, with all these crippling handicaps, shouldn’t I perhaps have my head examined? Good question. Indeed, I should. But, ah, the sheer inebriation, the ecstasy of grappling with a text, to tame it in a different language!
Lapata: Tell us a little bit about how you view the act of translation. Is this a creative process for you? How do you view the role of the translator in the realm of literary production?
Memon Sahib: Translation for me stems from two different but interrelated impulses: a good text matures for the reader with every reading, reveals itself gradually—call it literary striptease. I can delve into it only through extended togetherness. Translation makes it possible to tease out all I can through this prolonged intimacy. The other insatiable impulse is to uncover my own potential.
Is translation a creative process? Yes. How? Its workings are mysterious. Not easy to comprehend, even less to describe. Well, once you have translated something, it is never an exact analog of its former self; it disengages from its sources and assumes a life of its own. Something of you inevitably gets mixed in. The verbal choices that are made, the way a feeling or thought is understood and articulated, eventually confer upon it an independent—though, curiously but understandably, a contingent or derivative—existence. You cannot call the resulting work your own. Then again, “process” suggests “duration.” As you grapple with a text you are, at the same time, grappling with yourself, your potentialities, investing a part of yourself. This engagement resembles something in the nature of birth pangs. You grow, you change, see things differently. All this may radiate out, but it is essentially centripetal, where the center is inexorably your own self.
While all languages profit from translation, Urdu is in dire need of it for its own literary production. It is not only words or the thoughts and ideas, but also the narrative structure—the otherwise prosaic business of constructing a story—that can shine the way for Urdu writers. Translation of good literature can tell us a lot about the mechanics of good writing. Urdu contemporary fiction exhibits, largely, two salient tendencies: a potted linearity or mind-boggling abstraction. What about the spatial form? A deft use of punctuation that becomes an organic part of the story, rising above its mechanical function to assume the story’s life? Ellipses can be quite vocal in their silence. I’m here reminded of Anouar Benmalek’s “The Penalty,” the story of an amnesiac suicide bomber. Its concision is breathtaking. Its power devastating. And all achieved with a rare economy of words, each of which is weighted down with an enormous semantic charge, with the crushing power of allusions and carefully deployed silences. Good models can only help reveal ways in which the latent could be more powerfully actualized.
Lapata: I have found that translating can be physically taxing: sitting bended over one text while typing or writing out a new version, while examining reference volumes all the while. Describe to us your work environment and how you set up your translation space.
Memon Sahib: Indeed, very taxing and draining, not just physically but also mentally. I try to take small breaks quite often during a session to exercise my poor locked muscles. But when I’m mentally too tired, when I cannot think straight, I quit.
I have a nice, quite large study in my basement, with all my books. In the northwest corner, which I call “dar at-tarjuma” (translation niche; literally, house/abode), I have all my umpteen dictionaries and other reference books. When I’m translating into Urdu, I usually work with at least six dictionaries, 2 each of Urdu and English, and one each of Persian and Arabic. Sometimes when they fail, I have to walk over to several sets of multi-volume Urdu dictionaries.
I revise my work at least 4 or 5 times, sometimes even more. On each successive reading, I find myself improving the language. There are times I have to let a work sit long enough that its has completely exited my system (often for months) and then return to it with a fresh mind.
Lapata: How do you feel about recent pronouncements that Pakistani literature is finally coming into its own with the publication of works in English by Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif and others?
Memon Sahib: Coming into its own? They’ve got to be kidding! I think it’s been in existence for quite some time already. Like the Urdu language, which has more speakers than the combined speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, its literature has also remained unnoticed by the world. That some Pakistanis have started writing in English and the West has noticed them, admirable though this may be, says little about Pakistani literature as a whole. Not long ago a reviewer (whose name escapes me, but I remember that she was then associated with the Institute of Colonial and Post-Colonial Studies at the University of Leeds) disabused Mr. Rushdie, in a piece for the Times Literary Supplement, of a similar foolhardy notion, namely, that the only worthwhile Indian literature is the one produced by its English authors. She mentioned that some of what the English writers of the subcontinent are doing today was already accomplished by writers in the subcontinent’s regional languages. She especially cited Intizar Husain’s “An Epic Unwritten.” I believe Amit Chaudhuri also wrote something along these lines in a different issue of the TLS. In and of itself, it is good that some Pakistanis are writing in English and it should be welcomed. But to take their meager work as the sole touchstone of a nation’s identity is myopic at best, and a grievous distortion at worst. If their work is intended primarily for the Western reader, well, they have arrived, but it probably has little relevance for the majority of Pakistanis, except for a few English reading élite who live by the seashore. Their cumulative output comes nowhere close, either in conception or sweep, to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag kaa Daryaa (River of Fire). Not for nothing had the Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio paid his tribute to her work in his award acceptance speech.
Lapata: Have any of these newer Pakistani authors been translated into Urdu? Mohsin Hamid’s website lists publications of his works into ten languages, but none of them Urdu. The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been translated into Hindi, however. What do you think the reception would be to Urdu versions of these works, and would you ever consider translating them yourself?
Memon Sahib: I have read most of them in English but I doubt they have been translated into Urdu. Part of the problem is that Pakistanis who command good English are generally woefully poor in Urdu. And Urduwallahs probably regard much, though not all, of such work as coming from across the back of beyond. Personally, I think a few Pakistani English novels, and a good bit of Daniyal Mueenuddin, eminently merits translation into Urdu. I also feel that Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, the first volume of Tariq Ali’s Islamic quintet, should be translated, not because it is earthshaking as a literary production, but mainly because its subject matter is important, something that is sorely needed to help Muslims revisit a part of their own history and, equally, to help the West cut through some of the obscuring fog of its vaunted myth about human values. I wanted to translate it, but was told that he has someone else in mind. Recently, though, Bapsi Sidhwa asked me to translate her novel The Crow Eaters (an hilarious book about the Pakistani Parsi community which I had read some 30 years ago and enjoyed thoroughly). I translated the first chapter and sent it to her to see whether she likes the translation. She does. So this too is now on my plate.
Lapata: The journal you edit, The Annual of Urdu Studies, has lost its main source of funding. Tell us a little bit about what makes the AUS special, what it has to offer the non-academic reader, and how our readers can subscribe or offer their support.
Memon Sahib: Ah, the AUS! When the American Institute of Pakistan Studies found it necessary to drastically cut back its support (which had been the half-time salary for an assistant editor), I tried to approach the South Asian community. There were some surprises, no doubt, as some contributed generously and from unsuspected quarters, but the overall response was disappointing. We need close to $22,000 a year for an assistant editor’s salary and benefits, and we were nowhere close to that targeted amount. Somehow we managed this year’s issue and I will probably have to dig deep into my own pockets (mind you, I’m retired now) to get the next issue out, but after that, de Gaulle’s proverbial “le déluge.” Let’s just hope that we sail into the sunset with as little pain as possible.
*Born in Bhopal (India) in 1932, Asad Muhammad Khan now lives in Karachi. He is a significant fiction writer of Pakistan with several collections of short stories to his credit. His stories so far have been collected in a single, 764-page volume, Jo Kahaaniyaan Likheen (Karachi: Akaadamee Baazyaaft, 2006). Some of his poems and short fiction has appeared in the Urdu section of the AUS, and three translations of stories: “Ma’i Dada” (AUS #13; “Turrets and Peacocks” (AUS #15),” and “Anger’s Fresh Crop” (ibid.). These and a selection of his stories for the Pakistan Writers Series, The Harvest of Anger and Other Stories for the (Karachi: Oxford University Press), to which I serve as General Editor, will amply demonstrate the difficulty of translating his best fiction which falls outside these translations.
**Muhammad Umar Memon, “The Dark Alley,” tr. by Faruq Hassan, in Muhammad Umar Memon, ed., The Tale of the Old Fisherman: Contemporary Urdu Short Stories (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, Inc, 1991), 139–156; also (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1992), 139–156; also (New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers, India), 128–151); Muhammad Umar Memon, “The Worm and the Sunflower,” tr. by the author, in The Colour of Nothingness: Modern Urdu Short Stories (Delhi: Penguin Books, 1991), 122–137; also (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 151–168.
Memon Sahib includes the following information about the Annual of Urdu Studies. We encourage you to support this publication, and purchase a subscription:
The AUS is the only publication of its kind in a Western language anywhere in the world. It aims to provide individuals working on Urdu humanities in the broadest sense a forum in which to publish articles, translations, and views. The AUS also publishes reviews of books, an annual inventory of significant Western publications in the field, reports of events, reprints of interesting columns that would appeal to our readers, and so on.
Each issue features a wealth of choice Urdu fiction and poetry in crisp translation, which would particularly interest the non-academic reader. And for South Asian expatriates, who would rather “drink their Scotch neat,” each issue of the AUS includes a section in the Urdu script that features old and new writing.
Material from the AUS is frequently quoted in other publications and it is known to South Asian scholars throughout the world. Most of the major university libraries of Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Asia, and the U.S. subscribe to it, and its contributors include well-known Urdu scholars from the Universities of Heidelberg (Germany), Sorbonne (France), Rome (Italy), Macquarie (Australia) Leiden (Netherlands), SOAS, London (U.K.), McGill (Canada) and, of course, a number from the major universities in the U.S. and South Asia. It is also indexed by the Bibliography of Asian Studies, EBSCO Database Services (Current Abstracts, TOC Premier EBSCO, Humanities International Complete and Humanities International Index), the IBZ (Internationale Bibliographie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Zeitschriftenliteratur), the Internationale Bibliographie der Rezensionen Wissenschaftlicher Literatur, MLA Abstracts of Articles in Scholarly Journals, and the MLA International Bibliography of Books and Articles on the Modern Languages and Literatures. The Annual is edited by me along with Jane Shum as half-time assistant editor and includes Professors Christina Oesterheld (University of Heidelberg), Aamir Mufti (UCLA), and Elena Bashir (University of Chicago) on its editorial advisory board.
To subscribe, send a check for ($25.00 USA; $35 Overseas) payable to The Annual of Urdu Studies. Gift contributions should be payable to The University of Wisconsin/ Board of Regents and mailed to:
Prof. Muhammad Umar Memon
Dept. of Languages & Cultures of Asia
University of Wisconsin
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