In Search of Spiraling Time
I. In the Manner of Swann
“I cherish my work, and I won’t have it ruined by an Englishman.”
--Marcel Proust, to his publisher, on learning that the English translation of his novel would be called Remembrance of Things Past.
Marcel Proust, whose English was poor, was not at all convinced by the work of his translator. The translator, C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, had pledged to dedicate his life to the translation of Proust’s immense novel. Proust misunderstood the title of the first volume, Swann’s Way, and, thinking that it meant "in the manner of Swann," proposed that it should be changed to "To Swann’s Way." He disliked the title for the book as a whole, Remembrance of Things Past, as it was not a literal translation of the French À la recherche du temps perdu, not appreciating the fact that it was a line from a sonnet by Shakespeare. Brittle exchanges marked the relationship between the translator and translatee. Scott-Moncrieff, while expressing absolute devotion to the novel, exhibited to visitors to his translation lair in Rome “a sarcastic want of respect” for the author. According to Proust’s biographer George D. Painter, one friend of the translator’s remarked, “He generally received me with some strong abuse of Albertine, whose moods and vices were at that time keeping him very busy.”
The relationship between the author of a book and his or her translator must always resemble that of the master and the servant. No matter how positive the interaction is, the highest praise a translator may hope to hear is that she has been "faithful" and "true" to the text. Her work is an act of service to the author, to the literature and to Literature. Her creativity must reside in the artful rendering of the "truth" of the underlying text. Of course this relationship can change with the death of the author, and even more so with the death of the copyright, but even so, a bad translation is always considered "unfaithful." A bad translator rides "rough-shod" over the true intentions of the text and "takes liberties." It is hard not to imagine in these descriptions a slave, on the death of his master, trying on his master’s boots, clumsily smashing his china and misusing his horses.
But what happens when the author himself is the translator? Years ago, when the Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk asked me to work on a translation of a collection of his short stories, he handed me a sheaf of existing short story translations. He wanted me to see if any of them were salvageable. Slowly, as I made my way through the pile, I started to realize that they had been translated by all different people, some of them known to me. And some were translated by Ashk himself. Ashk kept meticulous records. The packet included both the original, published translation (usually from some journal or other), and a newly typed up copy. The original translations had all been edited in Ashk’s own hand, and the new copies incorporated these edits and removed the names of the translators. “They never asked me for permission,” he snapped, “so there’s no reason to acknowledge them now.”
This put me in a quandary with regard to acknowledging the work of people whom I considered senior colleagues. I was more nonplussed when I began to review a translation by Ashk of his own work. A story about a man who spends time convalescing in a sanatorium for TB patients had not only been translated by Ashk, but also altered considerably in mysterious ways. Ashk, who had himself suffered from TB, had a preoccupation with medical details. In his English translation of the story, he had added in numerous such details, including footnotes and explanations of the evolution of the treatment of TB. By the time I made this discovery, Ashk had passed away. I consulted his son: what should we do? In those days I was deeply devoted to my role of faithful vassal to the text, but up until that time it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be plunged into a chalk circle scenario and have to make a choice. Should I be faithful to the original Hindi story? Or to the intentions of the author, who did not apparently feel so obligated himself. Who was the master? The story, or the author? I stuck to my role as servant to the written word: the author was dead and I stuck with the story.
II. Where there is no Translator
“Attach a thread to the worm, or roll it round a thin stick, and pull gently, a little more each day. This may take a week or more. The worm can be more than a meter long! Try not to break it, because this can cause severe infection.”
--from the directions on how to treat Guinea Worm in the book Where There is No Doctor
A popular book among Western travelers to India is the DIY medical text Where There is No Doctor. There are of course many doctors in India, but the combination of frequent illnesses and an enticing over-the-counter availability of medicines often proves too tempting for many travelers. Hours can be spent perusing chapters on worms and gastro-intestinal ailments, and the reader quickly discovers in herself an endless capacity to self diagnose and slip into hypochondria. As a gift for a friend who reads Hindi and does not have access to particularly good medical care, I once purchased the Hindi version of the book. The Hindi title, Jahan Doctor na ho, differs ever so slightly from the English version, in that it uses the subjunctive. Thus, "where there is no doctor" becomes "where there may be no doctor." The difference is subtle, but it captures nicely the fact that often there actually is a doctor, but will he be available? Will he be a good doctor? When you cannot depend on a positive answer to these questions, this is the book for you.
The world of translation and South Asian literature can be considered in a similar vein. It is not so much that there is no one to translate, say, a novel from Urdu into English, but is such a person willing to do it? Will they do a good job? Can they afford to do it for free, or close to free? It is perhaps through a combination of this uncertainty and a linguistic ability to do the job one’s self that some authors in India and Pakistan have chosen to translate their own work. It is also possible that they feel that as the bilingual author of the work, they would in any case be the best person for the job. One of the most famous self-translators in the world of South Asian letters is the Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007). Hyder translated two of her novels into English in the 1990s, River of Fire (1959) and Fireflies in the Mist (1968), both of which have recently been brought out in the US by New Directions.
For years, I have avoided reading these two translations, promising myself I will read the original novels in Urdu. But I always got tripped up trying to sound out the Urdu spellings of Buddhist terminology in River of Fire, and put the book aside in frustration. My main reason for avoiding the translations, however, was the strong dissatisfaction with the English versions on the part of fans of the original novels. Hyder had "taken liberties" with her own novels. She’d "ridden roughshod" over the original texts, especially River of Fire, so much so that the English version is billed as a "transcreation," rather than a translation. After recently acquiring copies of these two books in their handsome New Directions editions, I sat down and made a pact with myself. I would read them both in good faith. I would respect Hyder’s translations, even if they were not "faithful" to the original texts. For, after all, what does it mean to be faithful to one’s own writing? Can the roles of feudal master and faithful vassal be combined in the same person? Should we expect the author, after completing her text, and, in Barthes’ formulation, "dying," to turn around and treat that text as a sacred tome that must be protected from desecration? For Hyder, it is clear, as long as she continued to breathe, the text did as well, and in her translations, she continued to author them. Not all translations are "faithful," even those that claim to be, and fidelity, of course, can mean so many things.
III. River of Fire and Fireflies in the Mist
"My concern for civilizational values about which I continue writing may sound naive, wooly-headed and simplistic. But then, perhaps, I am like that little bird which foolishly puts up its claws, hoping that it will stop the sky from falling."
-- Qurratulain Hyder (quoted by CM Naim)
Qurratulain Hyder was a major figure in Urdu literature and her impressive oeuvre of novels and short stories spans many decades. Her River of Fire begins in 400 B.C. on the Gangetic plain of India, and follows a set of characters living at the height of several different civilizations as they grow, thrive, and then shrivel and fade away. Though reincarnation is never specifically mentioned, the main characters from the various eras have the same names and many of the same qualities. The beautiful and willful Champa and the dillettantish student Gautam Nilambar, for example, go through the same fraught and ultimately fruitless flirtation epoch after epoch. Hyder’s novels share Proust’s preoccupation with time, and it wouldn’t be surprising, given her immense erudition, if she had written both Fireflies in the Mist and River of Fire in dialogue with Remembrance of Things Past. Hyder’s explorations of the nature of time, however, are underwritten by the special urgency of someone who has had the misfortune to watch civilization as she knew it crumble suddenly and turn to dust.
Qurratulain Hyder was born in pre-Independence India, and migrated to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition of India when she was twenty years old. Under the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan, Hyder struggled with censorship of her work, particularly River of Fire, and eventually moved back to India in 1967. In her two major novels, Fireflies in the Mist and River of Fire, she tries to make sense of the Partition and especially the violence it did to shared Hindu-Muslim culture. While River of Fire explores the rise and fall of a number of civilizations in north India, the bulk of the novel takes place in the twentieth century, focusing a group of upper middle class Hindu and Muslim friends growing up in Lucknow. When Partition comes, their comfortable, idyllic lives are upended and they move, variously, to England, to France, to the United States. Some eventually return to India or to Pakistan. The friendships are fractured, places do not remain the same, and ultimately, many of them feel permanently shattered by the Partition. The purpose that is served by exploring the previous incarnations of their lives, however, is to show this shattering occurring again and again, as armies invade, governments fall, and populations are forced to migrate from place to place in the Subcontinent. Each epoch ends with a civilizational fall. Each new epoch finds our characters reborn in a new era. Thus, as Urdu scholar CM Naim has observed, for Hyder “the linearity of time seems to curve into a spiral, urging us to recognize a past that never quite disappears.”
Fireflies in the Mist shares many themes with River of Fire: Partition, the devastating march of time, the fracturing of shared religious and ethnic cultures, the crumbling of cultural artifacts and customs. Set in the Bengali city of Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) over the period of about forty years, Fireflies in the Mist does not attempt the same epochal sweep of River of Fire. The result is, in many ways, a tighter and more precise novel. One of the most evocative moments in the novel is a description of an old album of photographs discovered in 1890 by the grandfather of one of the central characters. The album was full of photographs of members of the zamindari, or land-owning, classes. Romesh Babu, who discovers the album, is amazed by the glittering world the photographs reveal to him:
He scrutinized each picture and was fascinated. Embossed cameos of charming damsels and fair maidens. Little girls. Young women. Matrons. Gorgeous gowns. Jaunty hats. Fantastic hairdos. All so poised and glamorous. Elegant English and European men. Calcutta nawabs in full regalia.
Romesh Babu, on returning the album to its owner, is swept into this high society, cementing friendships that survive generations. The people he meets are Muslim and Hindu zamindars and British officials. The central characters in the novel are the grandchildren of these brilliant characters from the past. As young people they are firmly attached to communism, and as they grow older, they betray their intellectual roots with their increasingly bourgeois lives. But all of this is part of the ebb and flow of the composite culture of India, in general, and Bengal, in particular. It is this composite culture that is dealt a crippling blow by Partition, and further by the civil war of 1971 that led to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Institutions, cultural forms and social structures that seemed to possess the permanence of monuments carved from rock are suddenly washed away as though they nothing but dust.
Hyder’s treatment of her characters can be peculiarly dispassionate. She does not play favorites with her creations, and thus, in Fireflies, none of her three major characters gets particularly preferential treatment. Instead, she moves methodically between the three at first, and later jumps from perspective to perspective as the action of the novel makes sometimes dizzying leaps through time. The characters age, suddenly, a narration is picked up by a child, a fourth friend of the original three women gains importance and takes over the narrative thread for a time. Elements of the narration that one had supposed important, a love story, for example, prove irrelevant.
Ultimately, as with River of Fire, this is because the plot is not comprised of the events, loves and losses of the characters’ lives, as one might have supposed. The plot is in fact the passage of time itself. And time drags on as characters grow up, migrate, marry and divorce, wither and die. In the final scene of the novel, one of the original principal characters, Deepali, flies out of Tokyo on her way back from a visit to India and Bangladesh to Trinidad, where she has settled. As she gazes out the window of the airplane, she watches the sun rise:
The waves of the South China Sea glimmered like liquid silver. Morning light fanned out far and wide. With his golden Noh mask on, the Sun God was slowly appearing over the misty islands of Japan.
For millions of years the sun has been rising and going down and rising again and going down again and rising...
In that final moment, as Deepali watches the sunrise from the plane, we understand that this is all that we can expect to remain of a civilization: the endless sunrises and the relentless passage of time.