Of Tongues and Languages: The Tao of Translation

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Toheed Ahmad [*]


(Pakistan does not seem to have grasped the meaning or significance of translation. A close nexus exists between translation skills and national development. The promotion of a translation culture is also important to foster values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence among faiths, races and countries. The paradigm of Dialogue/Clash of Civilizations is best tackled through book translations rather than leaving the field open for the media which are in a hurry to sell their daily and hourly products in an increasingly noisy marketplace of ideas. Author).

The fish swims in the water but they don’t realize ‘the water.’
The birds fly riding the wind but they don’t realize ‘the wind.’
The man exists inside The Tao but they don’t realize ‘The Tao.’
The Tao is formless.
The Tao exists since the beginning.
The Tao have no beginning and ending.
The meaning is very complex and difficult to understand. The meaning is too wide, so it is very difficult to be explained by the word clearly.
The simplest meaning of The Tao is “The Way” or can be said too as “The Law,” “The Rule” and others

Lao Zi, the grand Prophet of Taoism
In Pakistan we don’t seem to have grasped the meaning or significance of translation. Yet we are a multilingual society where people use Translation (or its oral equivalent of Interpretation) daily. Imagine a Sindhi speaker reading the English newspaper Dawn or the Urdu Jang, a Punjabi speaker reading The News or Nawa-e-Waqt, a Balochi or a Brahvi speaker watching the news bulletin of Aaj TV, or a Pashto speaker tuning in to PTV’s Khabarnama. They are all translators. Its time we wake up to the importance of this subject and study the process of Translation rather than solely consuming its products – whether in the literary or education fields or for commercial, legal, scientific texts and documents, or in the burgeoning media world (film sub-titles, television voice-overs, radio broadcasts) newspaper/magazine content, book publishing industry, computer literacy and software localisation or in international marketing and brand promotion. A close nexus thus exists between translation skills and national development.

Though ancient as the hills, Translation has emerged as an academic discipline only in the last thirty years or so. In the late 1970s, the subject began to be taken seriously, and was no longer seen as an unscientific field of enquiry of secondary importance. Throughout the1980s interest in the theory and practice of Translation grew steadily. (In that decade we were one with the world when in the early December of 1985 the first National Seminar on the Issues in Translation was held in Islamabad. In the same decade the National Language Authority issued several books on the subject). In the 1990s, Translation Studies finally came into its own for this proved to be the decade of its global expansion. Today interest in this field has never been stronger and the study of Translation is taking place alongside an increase in its practice all over the world. But in Pakistan we have neither formal education in this area nor any mentionable training programme for translators. The biggest casualty of this gap is the Urdu-English-Urdu area, which is ironically the most common area of our nation’s use of translation and interpretation. (For example, in a recent conversation with me, the Vice Chancellor of the Government College University, Lahore, lamented that people of his English Department did not liking talking to the people of the University’s Urdu Department). Barring a few gifted and brave individuals, quackery rules this profession much like we saw in architecture during the first four decades after independence, and in photography and film making even in the seventh decade of our national existence.

We have all heard of the great Translation enterprises of Abbasside Baghdad and Muslim Andalusia, and yet are content to believe that those Muslim translators were salvaging ancient knowledge in science, medicine, philosophy and the arts to serve the cause of European Renaissance, implying thereby that these Muslims had no intrinsic use for this artful skill. George Saliba, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science, Columbia University, notes that: “No civilization has experienced a renaissance in its history in one form or another without that renaissance being preceded or coming contemporaneously with a translation movement. Whether it was the ninth century Baghdad or in Europe’s Renaissance age, the translation movements ushered in remarkable periods of cultural upsurge.” Later we shall examine this unparalleled translation enterprise of human history. In our own times, the evolution the European Union is the biggest translation project in the world. Working in over 20 languages, the EU is the single largest employer of translators and interpreters followed by the UN which deploys these skills only in its six official languages. What are we missing here?

“The first step towards an examination of the processes of translation must be to accept that although translation has a central core of linguistic activity, it belongs most properly to semiotics, the science that studies sign systems or structures, sign processes and sign functions” writes Prof Susan Bassnett of University of Warwick in her famous book, “Translation Studies,” (latest edition 2002). She goes on to say: “Beyond the notion stressed by the narrowly linguistic approach, that translation involves the transfer of ’meaning’ contained in one set of language signs into another set of language signs through competent use of the dictionary and grammar, the process involves a whole set of extra-linguistic criteria also.”

“Language is a guide to social reality…human beings are at the mercy of the language that has become the medium of expression for their society. Experience is largely determined by the language habits of the community, and each separate structure represents a separate reality. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.. and no language can exist unless it is steeped in the context of culture, and no culture can exist which does not have at its centre the structure of natural language. Language, then, is the heart within the body of culture, and it is the interaction between the two that results in the continuation of life-energy. In the same way that the surgeon, operating on the heart cannot neglect the body that surrounds it, so the translator treats the text in isolation from the culture at his peril.”

According to Prof. Bassnett, “the purpose of translation theory is to reach an understanding of the processes undertaken in the act of translation, and not as is commonly misunderstood, to provide a set of norms for effecting the perfect translation.” She then goes on to pose the question whether there can be a science of translation or is translation a secondary activity. Believing that any debate about the existence of a science of translation is out of date, she says that “there already exists, with Translation Studies, a serious discipline investigating the process of translation, attempting to clarify the question of equivalence, and to examine what constitutes meaning within that process. But nowhere is there a theory that pretends to be normative, and (we are) a long way from suggesting that the purpose of translation theory is to be proscriptive.”

Here she gives the last word to Octavio Paz, the 1990 Noble Laureate for Literature, who made a case for Translation Studies, and translation itself. All texts, Paz claims, being part of a literary system descended from and related to other systems, are ‘translations of translation of translations,’” and she quotes him saying: “Every text is unique and at the same time, it is the translation of another text. No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the non-verbal world, and secondly, since every sign and phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase. However, this argument can be turned around without losing any of its validity: all texts are original because every translation is distinctive. Every translation, up to a certain point, is an invention and as such it constitutes a unique text.”

I would like to tell you about this latest Translation initiative in the Arab world. Kalima, a non-profit company is based in Abu Dhabi and funded by the Emirate’s Authority for Culture and Heritage. While its aim is to “address a thousand year old problem” principally by getting 100 books of knowledge translated into Arabic and published every year – an awesome ambition indeed.  Its driving philosophy is that “Translation is not just some base skill but a key to a glorious treasure of thinking, ideas and invention from all around the world that can provide a platform for more advances.” Its website (www.kalima.ae) lists the following four objectives that they wish to achieve:

(i)                To fund the translation and publication of books from other languages into Arabic.

(ii)              To support marketing and distribution initiatives.

(iii)           To support and promote the Arabic book industry on the international stage, like International Book Fairs.

(iv)           To invest in translation as a profession, to encourage more and better quality translators

There are 250 million Arabic speakers in the world, but only a very small proportion of translated foreign material available to read. To put this into context:

  • Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1000 years and
  • For every one million Arabs only one book is translated into Arabic each year
    (Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, 2003)

Add to this inconsistent product quality, poor distribution and piracy and it’s no wonder that interest in books has suffered in the Arabic world.

What is this “thousand year old problem” that Kalima aims to address?  What was happening in Baghdad, a thousand and more years ago, on the translation front? The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has recently issued a book of Prof George Saliba under the title “Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance” which takes an in-depth look at the enabling socio-economic factors for the rise of world beating science and technology in the Islamic lands. He postulates that “scientific and philosophical ideas flourish through open discussion.” Language mediation or translation played a crucial role in the emergence of pioneers of astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, geography etc. Translation of Greek, Persian, Syriac and Sanskrit texts into Arabic enabled the Muslim scholars to converse freely with the great minds of these civilisations and thus while preserving the jewels of the ancients through translations into Arabic, they also created new knowledge. The great philosopher Al-Farabi once wrote that philosophy was finally freed (of persecution at the hands of Byzantine emperors and Christian Church) when it reached the lands of Islam.

Many of the Baghdad scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers were also translators. Two of the most sophisticated Greek scientific texts – the Almagest of Ptolemy and Elements of Euclid – were translated into Arabic by al-Hallaj. The language of these translations, says Saliba, is impeccably good, Arabic technical terms and all and the Arabic translation even corrects the mistakes of the original Almagest. Who taught al-Hallaj the technical terms and who taught him how to correct the mistakes of the original asks Saliba. “Early translations usually struggle with technical terminology and usually do not go beyond the letter of the text and would never have corrected its mistakes, if they could understand the text in the first place,” he observes.

“Furthermore we know that al-Hallaj’s translation of those scientific works was not the first. In fact, we are told by some sources that those two books were already translated (into Arabic in Baghdad)…. and thus we must allow for a longer period of translation so that more than one generation of translators would create enough output to produce technical terminology and teach the sophisticated mathematics and linguistic skills that were required to render Almagest, the Elements, and similar books into the kind of coherent Arabic in which they are preserved.”

Let’s take a look at the genesis of astronomy and algebra and the role played by translation as narrated by Saliba. “During the reign of al-Ma’mun, we also witness the creation of the new discipline of Algebra by Musa al-Khwarizmi (circa 830 AD), already in a mature format – treating, for example, the field of second-degree equations in its most general form. This happened before the translation of the work of Diophantus and other Greek sources. This does not mean that classical Greek sources, or for that matter ancient Babylonian sources, did not include algebraic problems, but the coinage of the new terms for algebra (al-jabr), and the statement of the discipline in general as different from arithmetic, required a kind of maturity that could not have come with the first generation of translators.

“Similarly, a few years later, or even contemporaneously with Khwarizmi, we witness the creation of the discipline of Hay’a (astronomy), as ‘ilm al-hay’a, which also did not have a Greek parallel. And that too could not have come about, as it did in the work of Qusta bin Luqa (e.g. translation of Arithmetica of Diophantus, still preserved in an Oxford manuscript), during the first generation of translators. Moreover, it is remarkable to note that Qusta himself, like other accomplished translators of his time, was already composing his own new scientific books, like his book of Hay’a just mentioned, while he was still translating older, more common Greek scientific texts. Hunain bin Ishaq (outstanding physician and translator) did the same, and so did many others in this period.

“All that could not have come about at the hands of people who were translating for the first time, and needing to create the new technical terminology for their translations as well as their original compositions. In Qusta bin Luqa’s Arabic translation of Arithmetica of Diophantus there is a clear adoption of the algebraic language that was developed by the Arabic-writing algebraists of Qusta’s time, as is evident in from Qusta’s reference to the title of Diophantus’s work as sina’at al-jabr (Art of Algebra), a term that does not exist in Greek. This kind of liberty with the translation clearly demonstrates the dynamic nature of the translation process of the early ninth century. Classical Greek scientific texts could easily be acclimatized within the current Arabic sciences of the time, thus transforming the translation process into a simultaneous creative process as well. Furthermore, the remarkable advances that were made by Habash al-Hasib (circa 850 AD) in the field of trigonometry and mathematical projection go far beyond what was known from the Indian and Greek sources, and they could not have been accomplished by someone who was only a beneficiary of an early stage of translation.”

Let us examine the coinage of scientific terms carried out in the early decades of the last century at Osmania University, Hyderabad Deccan (established 1917), where medical, science, and engineering education was imparted in Urdu. Although I have not seen any analytical study of their translation process, I have seen the two volume dictionary of these terms published by the National Language Authority. While we can see the quaintness of these terms, I suspect that these translators were not of the category of al-Hallaj, Qusta and Hunain mentioned above. The Deccan translators were just that and did not produce any original work in Urdu in any of the scientific fields for which they established voluminous books of terminology. As first generation translators of terminology (though some work had been accomplished at Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Scientific Society) we salute their achievement but first it was not the kind of work that had gone in Abbasside Baghdad, nor was it followed up by a second and third generation of translators to affect refinement and improvement. May be the abolition of the Nizamate and the Urdu-Hindi controversy in the Freedom Movement was the undoing of this ‘experiment.’

For did not Marshal Hodgson, the influential author of The Venture of Islam (published 1975) note: “It is hardly accurate, despite certain West Pakistani claims, to call Urdu an Islamic language, in the strict sense. It was the insistence of some Muslims on treating it that way, and opening a meeting on fostering Urdu with Qur’an readings, that drove Urdu-loving Hindus away from it and may, in the end, have meant the ruin of Urdu in its motherland.” Hodgson chose not to talk about the other side of the debate when the Hindu culture chauvinists denounced Urdu as the brainchild of the British imperialism, specifically William Gilchrist, Principal of the Fort William College, Calcutta, for having produced hundreds of translations and manuals and dictionaries, with the aim to divide and rule in colonial India.  I dare say that Urdu was ruined in Pakistan too, where ironically it was upheld as the national language. While Teaching of English is being offered as a specialised subject at post-graduate level in many universities of Pakistan, teaching of Urdu, to my knowledge, exists as a subject for elementary level teaching only. Here we don’t even need to mention the highly developed British export industry of Teaching of English to Foreigners. Do we have anything comparable for spreading Urdu at least among the six million overseas Pakistanis – we should not then wonder why our diaspora’s cultural connection with the homeland is limited to observance of the rituals of Islam (Imagine the cultural alienation of the non-Muslim Pakistanis abroad).

Meanwhile the world has moved on. In the last 30 years, Translation Studies has come to be accepted as an academic discipline and is being increasingly taught at many universities. In fact the drive to create knowledge-based economies has led many countries to actively promote Translation Studies. As per the World Competitiveness Report 2006, just one Arab country, Jordan, ranks among the top 60 countries.  It is directly related to the much lamented fact that the total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1000 years is less than the number of books translated into Spanish in one year. The other three Muslim countries in this list are Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia – all three countries with active state-sponsored translation programmes. Malaysia is the only Muslim country to have its universities ranked among the top 200 in the world today. Significant books produced in major languages, and important journals, are reproduced in Bhasha and Turkish almost instantaneously. Iran is doing something similar – there people are thus kept abreast of what the world is thinking. Our elites, while maintaining a strict knowledge censorship for the masses, restrict themselves to the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Small wonder then that Pakistan is yet to find a mentionable place on this Competitiveness Scoreboard.

The Competitiveness criteria relevant to our discussion of translation, language skills and culture are as follows;

1. University Education: Whether University Education meets the needs of A Competitive Economy

2. Economic literacy: Is economic literacy generally high among the population

3. Education in Finance: Does education in Finance meet the needs of enterprises

4. Language Skills: Are Language Skills meeting the needs of enterprises

5. Knowledge Transfer: Is Knowledge transfer between companies and universities highly developed

6. Attitudes towards Globalization: Whether attitudes towards Globalization are generally positive in the country

7. National Culture: Is the national culture open to foreign ideas

If you are not an entrepreneur, put the above questions to any factory owner, banker, university student/lecturer, media person, a bureaucrat or any labour leader in Pakistan. The answer will be a resounding no. Our competitiveness gurus are missing this whole point. The truth is there is no place to hide anymore.

It is said that ambition is fundamental to competitiveness. The conclusion of the World Competitiveness Report 2006 is that: “Successful nations and firms have the ability to raise the general level of ambition everywhere and for everybody. Such an attitude may very well be the ultimate engine for competitiveness.” And this is further borne out by a truism in Translation Studies that most of the work done in translation is in the area of scientific, technical, commercial, legal and administrative or institutional translation. Despite this our literati think of translation as primarily a literary phenomenon. “The full significance of non-literary translation in cultures is drastically underestimated. This is not because, as is commonly thought, literary translation enjoys a monopoly of attention and prestige in the academy (it does not) but because the cultural and intellectual stakes of non-literary translation are rarely spelled out in any great detail and are generally referred to in only the vaguest possible terms – ‘promoting understanding,’ ‘encouraging trade’” (Prof. Michael Cronin, cited below).


According to Prof Nisar Ahmed Qureshi, the foundations of early Urdu poetry and prose appear to have been mainly laid by translation. The plots of ancient Deccan masnavis were taken from Persian and Arabic sources. The earliest known prose translator was Shah Meeranjee Khudanuma of Deccan who translated the Arabic language book “Tamheedat Hamadani” into Urdu in the early 17th century. (Turjuma: Rivayat va Fun, 1985, National Language Authority, Islamabad). The late Mughals also added translation to the court arts taught to the royalty. It was thus that the unfortunate Prince Dara Shikoh (1615-1659), elder brother of Emperor Aurangzeb, translated selections from the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian. These texts were further translated into Latin by Anquetil Duperron in 1801, which according to Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, “so deeply influenced German philosophy of the 19th century” and thus became Europe’s first introduction to Hinduism.

While Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) first translated the Quran into Persian, his sons Shah Rafiuddin and Shah Abdulqadir separately translated the Holy Book into Urdu in 1785 and 1790 respectively. The first Urdu translation of the Bible appeared in 1748. So the Bible was available to the Indian populace several decades before the Quran. All these were essentially individual projects involving translations from Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit into Urdu. The first institutional Urdu language translation was seen at the Fort William College, established in 1800 at Calcutta to train British civil servants and army personnel for service in India. According to Schimmel, “The abolition of Persian, the old language of higher instruction – (it) had been the depository of the cultural and intellectual heritage of Indian Islam and had produced a large literature, local languages possessed more or less only religious or folk poetry – opened the way for the development of Indian regional languages which started, from the scientific point of view, at Fort William, and which entailed not only a large literary output in the different local languages but brought into existence little by little the art of translation which produced adaptations of European literature and technical works” (Gabriel’s Wing, A Study into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal,  1962).

Dr. John Gilchrist, the College Principal, who had produced an English-Urdu dictionary in 1796, assembled scholars and writers from all over the country and tasked them to produce books in simple Urdu and also Urdu versions of masterpieces of other languages, this time including English. This galaxy included stalwarts like Mir Aman Dehlavi, Haider Buksh Haideri, Mir Sher Ali Afsos, and Nihal Chand Lahori who were the first generation of professional and paid translators.

Similarly, the Delhi College, established 1792, pushed Urdu translation further and produced local versions of scientific and scholarly texts between the years 1842 and 1877. According to Gail Minault’s article on Delhi College and Urdu (www.urdustudies.com), in the early 1840s, Principal Felix Boutros started the Vernacular Translation Society, which translated books in medicine, law, sciences, economics and history from English into Urdu. Teachers and students both participated in the work of translation, creating their own textbooks in the process – an interesting blending of the oral and written traditions. Individual local benefactors helped finance the first translations and publications. The sales of texts helped the effort along. The government also agreed to finance the translations of math and geometry texts in Urdu to bring western sciences to students in the oriental section of the College.

The list of the Society’s publications includes basic textbooks such as Euclid’s Elements, and histories of England, Greece and Rome and the geography of India. Science texts included both natural philosophy and Tibb (also from Arabic).  The famous names associated with this movement were Mamluk Ali Naunatvi, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulana Mohammed Hassan Azad, Maulvi Zakaullah and Maulvi Nazir Ahmed. The Vernacular Translation Society made it possible for students of Delhi College to participate in both the revival and improvement of Urdu literature and the promotion of the knowledge of the sciences. Incidentally, the Delhi College was the precursor of two supposedly opposing centres of Indo-Muslim cultural revival and reform in the 19th century, Aligarh and Deoband.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) the great visionary of Indian Muslim culture, established the Scientific Society of Aligarh, the first scientific association of its kind in India. Modeled after the Royal Society and the Royal Asiatic Society, the Society assembled Muslim scholars from different parts of the country. The Society held annual conferences, disbursed funds for educational causes and regularly published a journal on scientific subjects in English and Urdu and translated Western works into Urdu. Sir Syed felt that the socio-economic future of Muslims was threatened by their orthodox aversions to modern science and technology.

It is interesting to make a quick comparison of these Urdu translation enterprises with that of the Bait-al-Hikma of Abbasside Baghdad. While they helped popularise western subjects, these projects, do not seem to have inaugurated any worthwhile knowledge movement. Three main points come to mind:

1. While the Bait-al-Hikma was patronised by the Caliphs of Islam and their courts, the Urdu translation enterprises were “sponsored” early on by the colonial British authorities. While Fort William College was meant to produce vernacular texts to train the colonial officials, the goal of Delhi College, Sir Syed’s Scientific Society, and Osmania University to provide the Indian Muslim community access to modern education. It was a slave-master paradigm that drove these Hindustani initiatives.

2. Though both Arabic and Urdu were in their early stages of development as prose languages when the Muslims embarked upon their great translation enterprise in Syria and Iraq and when first foreign texts were produced in Urdu, the Bait-ul-Hikma’s knowledge catchment area was vast and varied, ranging from Transoxania in the east passing through the grand Sassanian civilisation of Iran, the splendour of the Byzantine libraries and Greek and Roman treasuries of knowledge to Andalusia in the west. Urdu’s knowledge outreach, by contrast, was limited to what was available in the subcontinent in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and English. Calcutta, Delhi and Hyderabad, unlike Baghdad, had no pretence of creating new science or of devising technologies to apply them. Hindustani translation energies were mostly consumed by literary and religious texts, while only a few books, mainly teaching texts, were produced in the field of science.

3. The Urdu-Hindi controversy which burnt many a creative spirit raged on during most of the 19th century and beyond. Scholars were pushed into taking sides and, ironically, felt the safest inside their language trenches. The chorus of the slaves in Hindustan was but a whimper unlike the raging Muslim intellect that informed the Baghdad translation projects.

The translation situation in Pakistan remains a hangover of this controversy, as its early proponents had all cut their teeth in a linguistic version of the Two Nation Theory and could not shake off their minority syndrome. Though a Translation House was established in Lahore and some work was done by the Pakistani version of the Urdu Development Society in Karachi, the agenda remained the same – to produce texts for education of the ‘Muslim community.’ The predominant concern of our literati then was to get the Urdu language promulgated as the sole national and official language. There was no vision beyond the trenches in which these scholars had been born. Apparently no one had access to the details of the Baghdad translation initiative, and may be no one still bothers about analyzing it to draw lessons for us today.

The first serious attempt to examine the situation was made at a three-day seminar arranged in Islamabad by the Urdu Language Authority in December 1985. Scholars and academics from around the country examined issues in translation during three sessions, in the areas of science and technology, law, as a working language, and in media and literature. After the formal opening, the first session was devoted to Overview of the situation. The next year, the National Language Authority published the proceedings of the Seminar in Urdu, edited by Ijaz Rahi, who contributed a pithy introduction to the volume. He wrote that the participants agreeing that translation was our national requirement discussed various problems and issues around translation. The need for translation, he wrote, was felt by those nations who yearned to acquire knowledge. In history, the nations which excelled in spiritual and material fields were those who gave a high priority to learning from the knowledge of other nations. In this outreach, translation, always served as the diplomatic bridge. In the glory days of the Islamic civilization, Muslims scoured the world in search of knowledge, and through translations, empowered their scholars and scientists.

Science and technology, he further wrote, were fast changing and developing and no society could hope to progress without keeping pace with the world. It has been established that in order to benefit from world knowledge, nations have to acquire the ability to translate the new knowledge in their own languages. Ijaz Rahi goes on to make a seminal point that post-colonial societies whose languages were damaged and downgraded under foreign rule have the twin challenge of repairing and then restoring the centrality of their languages, and at the same time to keep abreast of the world in knowledge. A tough call indeed!

In its concluding session, the Seminar passed 16 resolutions. Below I reproduce texts of 10 of those resolutions with their original serial numbers to highlight the various dimension of our national translation imperative.

No 1. This Seminar recommends that a Joint Committee of National Language Authority and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting be set up which may prepare a Dictionary of words and terms used in Media and Communications giving their standard Urdu equivalents, including new words and terms, and supply it to Media Institutions. This Joint Committee may work on a permanent basis.

No 2.  In view of the importance of scientific and literary translations, this Seminar recommends that Translations be included as a category for books awards.

No 4. This Seminar recommends that all fees paid to Translators of scientific, literary, technical and scholarly texts should be exempt from income tax.

No 5. Recommended that all Universities of Pakistan, which currently do not have this practice, should admit Translations of portions of any book as dissertations for Masters Degrees.

No 6. Recommended that the Translation House of the National Language Authority should be upgraded on a large scale for which necessary funds should be provided to the Authority.

No 7. Recommended that the National Language Authority should establish a specialised library of all old and new Urdu translations as part of the Library of its Translation House.

No 8. Recommended that the National Language Authority should arrange for translations of the most important books into Urdu and publish them.

No 10. Recommended that the National Language Authority should be given the authority for authentication and standardisation of terms coined by various individuals and institutions. Only such terms should be used for all Urdu books and publications.

No 11. Recommended that in view of the shortage of good translators a Translator Training Centre should be established under the aegis of the National Language Authority. Teaching of Translation should be introduced at all Universities of Pakistan.

No 16. Since use of new machine technology has facilitated translation between the national language and the regional languages, recommended that necessary measures be taken to utilise this facility.

You will see that in the year 1985, these scholars were dimly aware of the machine translation facility but had not yet heard of computer aided translation or computer literacy which were subjects, it must be said, that had just begun to surface in the west. These scholars were not yet aware of the trade related needs of translation skills, nor were the subject of translation and external promotion of Pakistan or industry-university linkage broached at the Seminar. Given the grim translation gap in Pakistan today, we can safely assume that the recommendations of this important seminar were forgotten. Its 23 years now, no follow-up event has been reported from any quarter in Pakistan. Nor has any mentionable book been produced on the subject of Translation Studies, nor is it a subject at any Pakistani university or college. And these precisely were the decades that the world woke up and adopted translation as a serious academic discipline and upgraded the profession to the highest level.

An area of particular concern in this domain is the near-total absence of the science of linguistics in the Urdu tradition. I had a phone conversation with the Vice-Chancellor of the Karachi University which once had an active Translation Centre. “No more active” was his reply to my query. To be fair to him he did ask the Dean of the University’s Arts Faculty to follow this up who called me a few days later to assure me of their interest in pursuing this conversation further in view of the importance of the subject. Recently I visited the Oriental College of the University of Punjab, where I was told that Translation was formally taught only as part of the Master of Arts courses in the Arabic language. They had no linguistics expert of any of the languages taught there. I had a conversation on this subject with Dr. Saleem Malik, Head of the Urdu Department of the College, who told me that he had earned a Masters degree in Linguistics from Karachi University which he had stowed away in his desk and never felt the need for the subject. He confessed he had earned his living off his Urdu degrees. Some years ago I had a similar conversation with the Brigadier-Rector of the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, who confidently told me that a special group of his academics were doing a translation project relating to the Chinese supplied equipment at the Heavy Mechanical Complex, Taxila. So much for the understanding of the subject from the head of the nation’s premier languages university. While the Kinnaird College showed no interest to my proposal on Translation Studies, the Beaconhouse National University and the English Department of the Punjab University seemed interested but reported no follow up. Lahore’s University of Management and Technology offers a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics which has a module on Translation. The situation is grave indeed for Translation Studies in Pakistan.

Another building block of the inter-disciplinary area of Translation Studies is Comparative Literature, which like Urdu linguistics, is another glaring gap on our academic map. No university or college in Pakistan teaches the subject of Comparative Literature. We don’t have academics trained in this area of literary studies. Not long ago I happened to see the result card of someone who had passed the examination to get a Master of Arts degree in Urdu of the Punjab University. One of the subjects he had passed was called Alami (World) Classics. Upon my asking he told me that he had read a Shakespeare play and extracts from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maupassant stories, selections from Goethe, some Chekov stories and Attar’s Conference of the Birds and some tales from Rumi’s Masnavi, all in Urdu translation. So here we have the early stirrings of Comparative Literary Studies. I doubt if any of our university’s English Departments offers a similar course.

Foreign Language education is another connected area for the promotion of Translation Studies. “Language learning, without which translation is impossible, is, if nothing, a form of prolonged interaction with another people, language and culture. It is difficult, unpredictable, occasionally humiliating and often exasperating, like all other engagements with difference. Remove language and the risk is a multicultural sweetshop of tamed, sanitized differences, the dangerous ingredient of linguistic diversity corralled off backstage in kitchens and call-centres,” writes Prof Michael Cronin (cited below).

We have a long tradition of teaching English, Persian and Arabic languages. Some degree courses are also offered in French and German, while the National University of Modern Languages also offers degree programmes in Chinese and certificate level instruction in Russian, Turkish, and Bhasha etc. It is interesting that except for Persian and Arabic, which are taught through Urdu, the medium of instruction for all other language courses is English. Why are we not teaching French and German and Chinese through Urdu? For one this is censorship by default – to deny our Urdu knowing masses access to advanced knowledge in languages other than English. Secondly, it needs hard work by scholars and academics to erect such linguistic bridges. Why should anyone bother about any other language when our ruling elite have “command” of sorts over English? A Translation Studies programme will necessitate a wholesome and rigorous foreign language education programme at the tertiary level.

It is said that writers create national literature while translators create world literature. One of the reasons the world knows so little about us is that so little of our rich literature, of Urdu and other Pakistani languages, has been translated into the major world languages. Most of what has been translated into English has been done by Pakistanis with no pretension to knowledge or training in Translation Studies. The golden rule here is that translators can effectively translate only into their native languages. I witnessed a demonstration of this principle recently in the office of Mr. Shahzad Ahmad, Director, Majlis Taraqqi Adab (Board for Advancement of Literature), Lahore, when a Pakistani friend who owns a language company in London was visiting the office of the Majlis. We were talking about the standard of translation in Pakistan. He saw a book of English translation of short stories of the late Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi lying on a corner table and picked it up. Opening its first page, he offered to get its first paragraph reverse translated in to Urdu through his London office. We met up again after a fortnight and he read out the Urdu translation. Mr. Shahzad Ahmed and we all were shocked to find that the two texts had nothing in common. The Pakistani translator did not realise that his target language was not English but gibberish. Unfortunately much of what passes for English translations of Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz etc is really an unintelligible language. Though some great translations have been made into German (by Annemarie Schimmel) and French (by Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch) and Arabic (by Abdul Wahab Azzam and Ali Sawi Sha’lan), poor Iqbal has yet to find a quality English translator, of the kind that Rumi and Tagore found. Way back in 1920 Prof. R.A. Nicholson put the Secrets of Self into English followed by Prof. A. J. Arberry’s Persian Pslams (1948). Victor Kiernan’s translation effort remains a labour of love.

Mr. Amjad Islam Amjad, the famous poet-playwright, once told me that the literature produced in Urdu between the 1930s and 1960s must rank as among the highest literature produced in any world language. While he is an honourable man, there is no way this claim can be proved in the absence of world quality translations in the major world languages. To illustrate the power of translation as a medium of external projection, let me quote a paragraph from Annemarie Schimmel’s Gabriel’s Wing: “Some time after the publication of my Turkish prose translation of the Javidname, I received a letter, its very bad Turkish orthography manifesting that the writer was an unlearned man; but he expressed his admiration for Iqbal’s work, and asked for more books of his Turkish translation. He was a bearer (he wrote ‘karson’) in a restaurant in a small town of Eastern Anatolia – that seems to be sufficient proof for Iqbal’s unquestionable appeal to simple minds too, who do not grasp properly the philosophical implications of his poems but are moved just by the energy they feel, even through the medium of translation.”

Now that we are talking of the power of translation, let me tell you about one of my historic achievements relating to this field. Chachnama, the account of the Arab conquest of Sind, was translated from Arabic into Persian by Ali son of Mohammed Kufi, a resident of Uch, in 1216 A.D. It is said to be the oldest book of history of the subcontinent. The original text was lost, only its Persian translation survived in several editions and disparate parts. Mirza Kalichbeg, Deputy Collector, Naushahro, Hyderabad District pored over several texts and published the complete book for the first time in English translation, in Karachi in 1900. Later, Dr. N. A .Baloch, the celebrated scholar of Sindh, worked hard to piece together the Persian text of the Chachnama and published it as a parallel English-Persian edition titled Fatehnama Sindh. He gifted me a copy which kept lying in my books.  Once Dr. Baloch visited Syria during my posting there, and this led me to dream of getting the Fatehnama translated back into the original Arabic. I was able to secure the agreement of the Arabic translator of the Iranian Cultural office in Damascus to take on the project. This is how this great text of sub-continental history was published after it was checked and authenticated by Dr. Sohail Zakar an eminent Syrian historian.

In this information age, literacy has been redefined. If you don’t know computer operation, you are illiterate. The world now consist of knows and knows-nots. A lot is being said and written about this Digital Divide. To keep up with the world, nations face an urgent challenge – to make their populations computer literate, and fast. For this to happen societies must be wired and languages made computer compliant.  Pakistan is making commendable progress in providing the internet and telecom infrastructure. By the middle of this year, more than 50 percent of the population will be connected through mobile communications, including the first in the world nationwide roll out of the state of the art WIMAX technology. Broadband penetration is set to rise dramatically in the next three years. What is lacking is the language compliance. There is no machine translation capability in any Pakistani language. Some initial work has been done at the National Language Authority’s Centre for Urdu Informatics and at the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing at the Lahore Campus of FAST National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences. Yet it is said 90 percent of the work remains to be done. Without speedy localization, the vast majority will remain devoid of computer use. While mobile communications provides voice connectivity, data processing is all done via English. Given the present very low rate of English literacy in Pakistan, we can never hope to get our computer literacy ratio into double figures. Are we then doomed to remain a nation of knows-nots?

But there is hope on the horizon. The Punjab government has recently agreed to fund a modern Translation House at the Majlis Taraqqi Adab, in Lahore to be headed by Mr. Shahzad Ahmad. At a recent meeting in his office setting up of a machine translation group was under discussion. Also present were Dr. Jamil Jalibi, the formidable scholar of Urdu and Dr. Majid Naeem, Head of the Computer Science Department at GCU. Dr. Naeem was requesting for provision of two experts of linguistics – of Urdu and English – and offered to arrange for funding and promised to provide the final machine translation capability for Urdu in three years. So the effort is on.

According to Dr. Jalibi’s magnum opus History of Urdu Literature, the first grammar of Urdu was written in Dutch language by John Kettler, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Netherlands to the Mughul court. Called Lingua Hindostanica, it was published in 1743. At that time, and for centuries to come, the Urdu discourse was dominated by religious writing. No wonder today we lack expertise in Urdu linguistics and grammar in Pakistan. Here you will also see some rationale for the comment of Marshall Hodgson on the poverty of Urdu language given above.

An area of substantial growth in the translation industry over the last two decades has been the activity of software ‘localization.’ Localization clearly relates to the translation needs generated by the informational economy in an era of global markets, states Prof Michael Cronin in his book, “Translation and Globalization.” It essentially involves taking a product that has already been designed and tailoring it to the needs of a specific local market. For 1999, the world market for software and web localization was estimated to be $ 11 billion, expecting it to rise to $ 20 billion by 2004. More than 80 percent of e-mail and data content in the world, and 91 percent of secure websites are in English language. 70 percent of the books published today are in English, French, Russian and German languages. More and more countries are seeking to provide these technologies to their people in their native languages, the biggest of them being China, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Russia and Iran. In this localization drive, Prof Cronin sees the new opportunity for English speaking Asians. For us in Pakistan the preparations will begin with foreign language competencies and Translation Studies.

Prof. Cronin, who heads the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland, begins his book by a reference to a novel The Last War, or the Triumph of the English Tongue, written by Samuel W. Odell in 1898. “The new world is now the United States of the World and the ‘English race’ has conquered the globe. The triumph of the English language is made easier by the mobilization of 1500 airships laden with bombs and an unquenchable primitive fire. Faced with certain death from the air, speakers of languages such as French, German and Chinese decide that translation is the better part of valour and they set about translating themselves into the language of the superior airpower. In Odell’s book of revelation, when the tongues of fire descend, the message is not to go out and preach in diverse languages but to stay inside and speak one.”

This is the paradigm for Cronin’s thesis on the increased significance of translation in this era of globalization, especially for the minority cultures which face extinction because of the raging might of the languages of major powers. (Here we have nothing to fear from the “language-less” India, its constitution recognises 22 spoken languages, besides the classical Sanskrit and the co-official English; the country is fast becoming an ape-civilisation of US). “Translation, and by extension translation studies,” he says, “is ideally placed to understand both the transnational movement that is globalization and the transnational movement which is anti-globalization.” He examines this aspect in some detail with a view to “showing those outside the discipline that translation engages with questions which are of real importance for the past, present and future of humanity.”

An active sense of citizenship must involve translation as a core element. While discussing translation-interpretation as vital skills for a knowledge-based foreign policy, he states that “Imperial Rome, Classical France and Romantic Germany accord translation a privileged role as a means of bolstering the position and standing of the vernacular” as well as their economies and national power. Should it surprise us that we have failed to market our export products in language rich societies like the Arab world, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, Brazil, and Spain? A customer always buys in his own language. So it is incumbent on the seller to know the language of his target markets. I don’t think that this truth has sunk in with our Trade Development Authority. Our manufacturers certainly are aware of this but lack facilitation advice or support.

“The Comparative Advantage of nations is to take the waiting out of wanting. Peripherality is no longer geographically defined, but now is chronologically defined. It is defined by the speed with which information-rich (financial products, on-line support, telemarketing of products and services) and design-rich (popular music, web design, and advertising) goods and services can be delivered to potential customers.” Again “objects created in the post-industrial world are progressively emptied of their material content. The result is the proliferation of signs rather than material objects.” This has been called ‘aestheticization.’ Taken together this highlights the fact that industrial and business creativity now increasingly depends on the translation capabilities of a society.

Promotion of a translation culture is also important to foster values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence among faiths, races and countries. The paradigm of Dialogue/Clash of civilisations is best tackled through book translations rather than leaving the field for the media which are in a hurry to sell their daily and hourly products in an increasingly noisy marketplace of ideas. “Making knowledge and information available in minority languages is not only an effective way of extending the range and usefulness of the language concerned but it also allows the regional, the national and the global to be made local in a way that is politically enabling and allows for the beginning of a recovery of control over people’s political, economic and cultural fates.”  Its the translation stupid!

[*] Toheed Ahmad is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.