The JCB Prize for Literature announced its 2022 shortlist on 21 October. This is perhaps the first time that an Indian award, not earmarked for translated work, has picked only translations from various Indian languages into English for its shortlist. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner later this month, Lounge will run free-flowing conversations between the shortlisted author-translator duos, on the very act of translation, being translated, and what happens to a sense of place and idiom when they move languages.
The second in this series is a conversation between Khalid Jawed and Baran Farooqui. Jawed’s 2015 Urdu book Ne’mat Khana was translated into English by Farooqui as The Paradise of Food. It tells the story of a middle-class Muslim family over half a century, using food as well as the grotesque to explore memory, fantasy, and reality.
Khalid Jawed: I’m really satisfied with the way you have translated Ne’mat Khana. Can I say that you have done a creative job, nothing short of being the author?
Baran Farooqi: Thank you for your kind words, but I’m afraid I won’t agree with your extravagant praise. A translation which is creative doesn’t deserve to be called a good translation. It has to respect the source text and try and find equivalents which are closest in meaning and at the same time doesn’t sound clunky or outdated. As my father used to say, a translation conceals as much as it reveals. Nevertheless, he also said that the idea that “translation is impossible” is also incorrect. All languages, though that may not be apparent, have at least a very small percentage of affinity with each other, hinting at the idea that there may have been a primeval language from which all languages have evolved.
KJ: You have thus proved that translating my work too is not such a difficult proposition as the average reader makes it out to be, I’m referring to ideas like ‘oh, translating Khalid Jawed’s Novels is not everyone’s cup of tea; he is a difficult if not obscure writer; any translator would be hard put to translate him’, etc. Your translation makes it all seem so simple, the Urdu has slid into the English smoothly, like a fish takes to water. Which are the parts/scenes of the book that you enjoyed translating the most?
BF: Let me start by commenting on the first observation that you make — that the translation seems unhindered and fluent and that you are not aware of any obfuscation that may have happened due to the act of translation. I have a feeling you are being too kind. One must remember that kinship terms, which are present in plenty in The Paradise of Food, have not been translated. These may seem very familiar to us, but may not be so for the outsider, read someone who doesn’t speak Urdu or Hindi at all.
But the world of translation has opened up and expanded. There’s much more breathing space available to the translator after we have finally agreed that a translation can, and in fact, should, read like a translation and not feel apologetic about it at all. After all, why is the reader approaching a text which emanates from not just another language but also the culture of the language? Why would the reader rather pick up something from her own language to read?
Obviously, there is a curiosity to know what’s being written in other languages or cultures, spaces. So there might be a small price to pay, allowing new terms of address or new (to the reader) instances of lived experience to register themselves in your living self but enriching your mind and your understanding of life forever. Don’t we say that reading a book is like like having a new experience? The bottom line is that a book creates a new version of you which is absolute, in a sense.
I’m sure many a reader will say, after reading the book that she has begun understanding the act of eating differently now, she can see the connection between all life processes and eating. Humans do not desist from feasting at births, deaths and marriages alike. They offer food to the dead and partake of it hungrily themselves, they make all kinds of edible offerings to the divine, in fact they even worship food! Is all this not a subterfuge for feeding the everlasting fire of hunger burning in human beings? Ne’mat Khana is…an exposé of the world of food and eating.
KJ: (I agree.) Of all that I have written till date, Ne’mat Khana is a text I hold very close to my heart. It is also slightly different from what I generally write about, though not very different. Ne’mat Khana or The Paradise of Food is…not as fundamental to my entire corpus, but extremely well imagined and hair raising, I can call it my best example at self loathing. The protagonist and the reader suffer at similar levels, the suffering of victimhood, of being prisoners of the hungry self.
In it, the issue at hand is complicated; it’s not just a description of filth, disease or helplessness, there is a kind of a court-case going on in the mind of the protagonist. He is looking for his own court of law, a court where his petition can be placed, but who is he and where does he reside, is he dead or alive, or is he something neither dead nor alive…these are questions I have left open. The best part is that by the time the “petition” is complete, the world and the actions of the protagonist in it are placed before you — the harsh unsentimental tone of the protagonist, not just towards himself, but also towards each character would have left you disturbed and bewildered, if not disgusted.