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Rediscovering the original Premchand,lost in translation

It gives a whole new dimension to the expression “lost in translation”. Scholars say that Premchand,doyen of Hindi literature,wrote most of his stories in Urdu and that a lot has changed in the translations that readers read now

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Published: April 12, 2012 3:15:18 am

It gives a whole new dimension to the expression “lost in translation”. Scholars say that Premchand,doyen of Hindi literature,wrote most of his stories in Urdu and that a lot has changed in the translations that readers read now.

In a two-page article in Jauhar,Jamia Millia Islamia’s recently launched quarterly,the university’s Hindi department head Prof Abdul Bismillah recalls how Premchand wrote his last and signature story,Kafan,in Urdu,and especially for Risala Jamia,the Jamia magazine,which published it in its December 1935 issue. Written overnight during one of Premchand’s visits there,the Urdu original is now preserved in the university library.

It has been Bismillah’s contention that plenty has changed while translating Kafan into Hindi,something he says not everyone would perhaps know about.

Has the ending been changed? “Not really,but several other liberties have been taken,and the context has been changed,” asserts Prof Bismillah. It is argued that as Kafan’s translation appeared in a publication called Chaand in 1936,months before Premchand died,“he possibly did not look at it carefully because of his illness”.

“As I knew the late Prof Aqil,who requested Premchand to write for Risala Jamia during that visit,I know how it all came about,” Bismillah says.

Bismillah,who has been working on such distortions of Premchand’s work,now proposes to go into other big stories and the changes introduced during translation,including some names. In a book published in 2006,Prof Bismillah has detailed what he terms “anomalies” in translation,which have changed Premchand and the world he was depicting in his stories.

“In Poos ki Raat,significant changes have been made. The ending was altered. In the Hindi version,the farmers appear reconciled at the land and crop being lost. This was something that got Premchand some criticism,as the epithet of being palaayan-waadi — or escapist — stuck on.”

In the Urdu version,it is said that there are “16 additional lines,when the central character’s wife quizzes him at length on what is happening and she ends up taking an assurance from him that the farmer will continue to farm and fight his circumstances.” This,says Bismillah,is more in keeping with what makes Premchand special. “There are irony and desperate circumstances,but his characters don’t just give up.”

This is something Prof Alok Rai,an English professor who is incidentally Premchand’s grandson,recognises. He has published an edition of Premchand’s stories called Samaksha,where he has presented 20 stories in Urdu and the translations on the facing page. He says; “it appears that at least sometimes,the stories were not ‘translated’ at all,but simply rewritten for different audiences — broadly speaking,the Urdu audience,mainly male,culturally sophisticated,etc; the Hindi audience,mainly female,with significantly less cultural exposure”.

Says Hindi writer Professor Asghar Wajahat,“Translators have introduced changes of their own accord at several places,and for anyone to understand Premchand completely,just reading him in Hindi is probably not sufficient. In his early collection especially,in stories like Duniya ke Anmol Ratan,there are several differences. Premchand has been published widely in Hindi but not so much in Urdu. Maybe it is important to see him in both languages.”

The editor of the Hindi magazine founded by Premchand,Hans,Rajendra Yadav says it is not a new discovery but a well-known fact that Premchand’s translated works are sometimes quite different from what he originally wrote in Urdu. “What is important is the sense in which you want to read and understand Premchand. That can vary with how translators have changed the context and sometimes introduced changes in names and stories.”

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