NYRB Brings Back Pakistani Partition Novel Basti, A Tricky Translation

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

On it website, New York Review Books, in discussing its goal of publishing a “designedly and determinedly exploratory mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times of various sorts,” states that “Inevitably literature in translation constitutes a major part of the NYRB Classics series, simply because so much great literature has been left untranslated into English, or translated poorly, or deserves to be translated again, much as any outstanding book asks to be read again.”

One such book is Basti by Pakistani novelist Intizar Husain, described by The Hindu as “arguably the finest novel on Partition,” and whose publication is hailed by Pankaj Mishra, saying, “This brilliant novel from Intizar Husain, one of South Asia’s greatest living writers, should finally end the scandal of his relative obscurity in the West.”

The Asia Society hailed the book’s publication as well, noting that “No summary of Basti can do justice to its originality,” while adding that “Dramatizing ‘how the merciless present pushes us back toward our history,’ the narrative weaves hypnotically between first and third person as Zakir’s [the book’s protagonist and occasional narrator] aimless day-to-day existence meshes with a kind of collective dream life centered on earlier historical traumas like the failed rebellion against British rule in 1857 and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 680.”

In an interview, the book’s translator, Columbia University South Asian Scholar Frances Pritchett, spoke about the challenge of translating this Urdu classic into English (along with the challenges of translation in general) and the most difficult aspect of the text that she had to contend with:

…the changes in register. Their full range can’t be captured in English. All I could do was mention the problem in my introduction. However, in general, I was very faithful, sentence by sentence, to the text. Sometimes I had to resist the urge to transcreate, but I did resist it. The translation is so close to the original that it can be used as a real tool by Urdu language learners, which was always part of my purpose in making it…

My own view is that there can and should be many styles of translation, for many different purposes and audiences. What the translator owes the reader is no more than (but also no less than) ‘truth in labeling.’ Any serious translation should tell the reader in a note or preface something about the process of translation. Where did the text come from, and were there any complexities or choices involved in selecting it? What special difficulties came up during the translation process, and how were they resolved? And in particular, did the translator decide to omit things, or add things, or alter things? In my view the translator has the perfect right to do so, provided that he or she then tells the reader what has been done. It’s unethical to leave the reader liable to think that a whole text has been translated when in fact it’s been abridged, or transcreated to some degree, or transformed in some other way.

To read an article by Frances Pritchett on translation, using a poem of Faiz Ahmed as an example, click here (PDF).

To read the entire article from the Asia Society, click here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.