Literary Striptease

Posted on October 25, 2010


Muhammad Umar Memom

Another view of the Urdu language, this time from translator Muhammad Umar Memom in an interview Lapata of Chapati Mystery

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.

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Photo credit: Muhammad Umar Memom