• “Urdu is my mother tongue and the love of my life”

    Remembering Muhammad Umar Memon

    Daniya Rahman

    June 14, 2018

    Image courtesy: Muhammad Umar Memon's Google site

    These were the words of Muhammad Umar Memon, a scholar, writer, and an internationally acclaimed translator who dedicated his life to Urdu. He was a pioneer in bringing Urdu literature to an international readership. If it were not for him, the non-Urdu speaking population of this world would be devoid of the beauty that Urdu literature is. Memon was aware that translation is not easy. He knew that it is difficult to capture all the semantic resonances and rhythms in a piece of work and to reproduce it with its emotional intensity and charge. Yet, he never gave up. He would spend eight to nine hours translating every day.

    Born in August 1939, Memon was the youngest of his parents’ six children. Except for a sister who was eight years older, all of Memon’s siblings had already left home by the time he was born. Memon had a lonely childhood, but this also became the reason for Memon’s vast variety of interests that included making carved candles, painting, woodworking, macramé, and gardening. His family moved to Karachi, Pakistan in 1954. It is here that Memon earned his Bachelor’s degree. In 1964, he received a Fulbright scholarship to the United States, where he earned his Master’s degree from Harvard University and eventually a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of California, L.A. In 1970, Memon joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a professor of Urdu literature and Arabic Studies. He continued in here for thirty eight years retiring in 2008.

    Memon knew he had a terminal illness, a rare form of lung cancer. It is a true testament to his strength that this did not stop him from working. “I'm frantically trying to finish two books; let's hope I get the time to accomplish this pretty arduous task”, he told the writer Githa Hariharan in an email exchange barely a month before his death on 3 June, 2018. Memon was the editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies, the only print and online journal dedicated solely to Urdu literature. He was also the general editor of the Pakistan Writers series, Oxford University Press, Karachi. He had written multiple articles that critically examined Urdu fiction and had been published in journals like Modern Asian Studies and Edebiyat. His translated work includes several anthologies like The Colour of Nothingness and An Epic Unwritten. He had translated selected works of other writers like Intizar Husain and Hasan Manzar, to name a few. Memon had also translated some of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories. Most of his works are available on the website of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He is the author of Tareek Galee, a collection of short stories published in 1989. The last story that he wrote was Jati Chizein. After this, he devoted his time entirely to translating.  Jati Chizein was never published.

    “Up until the 1970s, writing fiction seemed like what I wanted to do, without realising the enormous responsibility and seriousness it entailed… I think I can write well, but I lack the perseverance and discipline true fiction writing requires”, Memon once said in an interview.. He might not have had the perseverance to write fiction, but he surely had enough patience and dedication for translation.

    Following the Partition in 1947, writers started experimenting with unconventional forms of fictional narratives.  His earliest attempts at translation were some short stories by Balraj Manra (who also happened to be his friend) that he had really liked.. Little did he know then that he would go on to have a very long and fruitful journey as an Urdu-English translator. While teaching Urdu fiction in translation at the University of Wisconsin, Memon realised that most of the existing material was unreliable and badly translated. This, along with his love for Urdu and his desire to let the West know what Urdu literature is capable of, led Memon to take up translating in earnest.

    While talking about the difficulties of translation in an interview, Memon had said that in the act of translation, there is a desire to capture all the nuances and resonances of the original English or Urdu phrase and a frustration that comes with not being able to capture it. Memon said that he is faced with this difficulty partly because of his dwindling facility with Urdu, and 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, Urdu is, after all, an oral language that, more often than not, loses its essence in translation.  It has a peculiar syntactical structure which is devised for the ear, not the eye.  Further explaining the complexities of translating from Urdu to English and vice-versa, Memon said, “[The] syntactical structure [of Urdu] is more suited to oral presentation. A thing to be read, on the other hand, allows the writer immense freedom and also many possibilities to fully exploit the language and even integrate the very grammar and punctuation of the language to the narrative structure, to such a degree that if a given order were disturbed, the meaning of the story would inevitably suffer. Here the eye, more than the ear, is involved. Sound dies down quickly, the writing on the page stays. No matter how complicated and long a sentence may be, assuming all this satisfies the narrative need of the piece at the hand, the eye can scan and rescan it until all the embedded meaning has emerged. The ear can’t reproduce more than a few spoken words in the same exact sequence, so the sentences have to be kept fairly short and free of syntactical complexity. So now if you want to translate such forms as the novel and short story, Urdu’s existing syntactical structure, devised for oral presentation, becomes a handicap, to a degree. Once can break up a long English sentence into small independent sentences in Urdu, but there is no way to translate it in its fullness into Urdu, which results in a woeful loss of intensity and richness. Add to this the arbitrary manner in which punctuation is used, rather misused. There are no fixed rules for it in Urdu.” This problem of translation, so to say, sometimes compelled Memon to settle for something less, something that did not quite capture the essence of the original work. This made him immensely unhappy, but there wasn’t much that he could do, such is the limitation of translation. Memon believed that this limitation is also compounded by the absence of a good and user-friendly Urdu dictionary. He was quite keen about there being an attempt to devise a vocabulary that is better suited to express newer experiences.

    A translated piece, Memon believed, was a different “version” of the original work. He knew that once something is translated, “it is never an exact analog of its former self; it disengages from its source and assumes a life of its own. Something of [the translator] 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.”

    He knew that “the story, minus the language, wouldn’t wash, because the story is organically implicated in the language and derives its power and its kinetic charge from it.” Translation is a complicated process. In an attempt to understand this complexity better, Memon gave an example. He said, “Ask someone to translate Mir's: ‘Kahte to ho yun kahte, yun kahte jo voh aata / sab kahne ki baatein hain, kuch bhi na kaha jaata’. If you try to translate it into English literally, it will fail to glow; it might even sound terribly pedestrian. You’ll have to find an expression that embodies the situation of the lover more closely, something that feels natural in English, even if what you eventually come up with is literally at variance with the original.” In the act of translation, what may need an entire sentence in the source language might perhaps be conveyed in a single word in the target language or vice-versa. A translator’s reading of the text also impacts the translation to a great extent. The translator is constantly faced with the problem of how to interpret — is a certain word, phrase, or sentence a simple description, or a complex one, or perhaps a metaphor or a simile? It is on these micro decisions that a translation rests on. Memon understood this. He understood that there is usually no one-to-one equivalence between the vocabulary of two languages, and more importantly, between how the speakers of those languages experience the world.

    He once said, “What is one life after all, in the immensity of universe?” But his was a life that did and will continue to matter. His works will continue to matter. He believed that translated works were different “versions” of the original pieces and Muhammad Umar Memon has many different versions of a number of stories in his name.


    Daniya Rahman is a member of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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