Monday, October 02, 2023

A first attempt at translating prose

Shakeela Akhtar was one of the earliest women writers of Urdu fiction in the twentieth century. Born and buried in Bihar, she was obviously deeply rooted in the local landscape, local dialects and, if we are to use this story as any indication, in the texture of its social relations.

I do not claim to know the body of her work, and I am but a fledgling translator. However, I chanced upon ‘Dain’ in the course of my current research on representations of witch bodies in South Asian literature. Since it wasn’t yet available in English translation, I decided to undertake the task myself.

Shakeela Akhtar was born into a zamindar family in Ardal, near the river Son in Bihar. The river features prominently in this short story and the author was evidently well-acquainted with the vicissitudes in the lives of fishing communities in the region. While I have not read Akhtar’s own memoir, I have read Balmiki Ram’s Shakeela Akhtar Bahaisiyat Fiction-nigaar (Kitabi Duniya, Dehli, 2014). Ram was a Junior Research Fellow at Patna University when he wrote this analysis of Akhtar’s fiction, and it includes basic biographic details about the author.

Akhtar’s date of birth is uncertain. Ram’s book suggests that different scholars have mentioned the years 1912, 1914, 1919 and 1921 while 1916 has been mentioned on the website Her first story ‘Rehmat’ was published in 1939 in the journal Adab Latif, Lahore. Elsewhere, Ram mentions that her first story ‘Mothers’ was published in Adab Latif. There are disputes too over the claim that her first collection was first published by Maktaba Urdu, Lahore, when she was just eighteen. However, it is known that she was married to Dr Akhtar Urainvi in 1933 and that her literary life began soon thereafter. According to Ram, her first published book was Darpan (likely published in 1940), the second was Aankh Micholi (1948), third collection was Dain aur Doosre Afsane (1952); fourth was Aag aur Paththar (1962); the fifth book was a set of three novelettes, published as Tinke ka Sahara (1975) and the sixth was Lahu ke Mol (1978) for which she received an Urdu Akademi award. Her last book was Aakhri Salaam (1982). Shakeela Akhtar died on 10th February, 1994.

Read 'dain' in English translation here:

A brief note on the translation: This story, 'Dain' was hard to translate partly because it made significant use of local dialects, spoken in the region around the river Son in Bihar. It is set in a time when zamindars or landlords were treated as local kings or rulers. The workers, agricultural or otherwise, were ‘rayyat,’ which literally means people and, in this story, is used in the sense of subjects or workers. However, in order to avoid confusion for readers in English, I have used the word tenant since it is a more accurate description of their status. In Urdu, the fisher-women address the landlord and his family as ‘maalik,’ which literally means ‘master’ and I have translated it as such. The relationship is essentially feudal but it is not that of owner and slave as ‘master’ might suggest in the western (especially American) context.

The original text had very erratic punctuation with quotation marks often missing or placed incorrectly. I have added these where required, but have stuck to the original tenses and first/third person speech as in the original.

I must profusely thank Musharraf Farooqi who was instrumental not only in my learning to read and write the Urdu script but who has also offered valuable feedback on this, my first attempt at translating Urdu prose. I must also thank Prof Abdur Rehman for helping with a sentence in Bhojpuri or Magahi that I was struggling with.

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