Thoughts: Basti, by Intizar Husain, translated by Frances W. Pritchett

Oh man. I’m warning you now that this is going to be a big rant about translation, but I promise I will get some thoughts on the book in there as well.

I thought I’d read some difficult books this year, but Basti has been one of the most difficult, for many and varied reasons. Or just a couple of really big reasons.

Firstly, I’m not very familiar with the history of Partition, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is terrible and I have no excuse.

Sort of related to this is the fact that Husain seems to write sometimes in long chains of historical and literary references that I had no chance of getting without help (and some that I wouldn’t get anyway, as I lack the cultural touchstones and language to glean the between-the-lines meaning of some of those references – I am not the “target audience” for this book and that’s fine).

And related to that is the fact that the translator left in all those references with zero comments.

OK fine, she did put in footnotes for some of the poetry references, even including the sort of meta information about what emotion was being expressed through the quote that I needed, but her footnoting was few and far between, and very erratic. I have no idea how she chose what to bother informing me about and what not to. I was given all the poetry quotations, but rarely any information on the people who were named.

This stretched to the main character’s family, as I found out at the end of the book. What I thought were names (and what were presented as names) were actually family titles and honorifics, making it harder to keep track of characters when they were referred to by different people. This wasn’t explained until a glossary at the end, which in a Kindle book is nigh on unusable – you can’t just flick back and forth like in a paper book. The translator’s note also explains that she didn’t want to use too many notes as it would be distracting, but I believe in a Kindle book this would have been much less intrusive than in a paper book, as you can go from notes to main text with a touch (if the glossary had been integrated into the main text this way, it would have been much easier).

So, bearing in mind that the translator chose not to put in too many footnotes for fear of distracting the reader, you’d think she’d make the text stand alone as much as possible, right? You’d reasonably assume that she would try to make it so the English-speaking reader would understand as much as possible, and you’d be so, so wrong. She goes out of her way, freely admitted in the translator’s note, to preserve the Urdu word order (!) and the frequency of direct address to remind the reader that the action is taking place in a foreign country. The direct address, used much more frequently and in different places in the sentence than in English, was often denoted by “yar”, an Urdu word explained only in the glossary, which means “pal”. There may not be any American English way to really say this without sacrificing the tone of the text (the English “mate” struck me as a good translation, but I know zero Urdu and this is just from the context in which it appeared and the way it was used, which is frankly not something anyone should be thinking about when reading a translated novel) but I spent half the book wondering whether it meant something or was a phonetic transcription of a sound (as “ai” was) until I googled it.

Pritchett seems to want to have her cake and eat it, producing a text that retains every nuance of the Urdu but is also somehow a perfect transparent window to the reader into the world of the novel, and I’d say she fails at this, honestly. The problem with retaining the exact words of the original is that the nuance is almost by definition lost. I, the ignorant anglophone reader, cannot tell what is a normal Urdu turn of phrase and what is Husain using language in a particularly beautiful or unusual way, and that’s a betrayal of his work. Pritchett’s wariness over footnotes means that I lose the nuance of the literary references, the historical references, the political references, and in a strongly symbolic novel, that is a betrayal. The book is meant to be tangled and difficult and dreamlike, and it doesn’t require Pritchett’s overly literal translation to overcomplicate things. The reader shouldn’t be wondering about the seeming strict hierarchy of direct address when someone gets offended at being called “fellow” (instead of what? Who knows???), they should be immersed in the story, in the history, in Pakistan.

Another telling remark in Pritchett’s translator’s note is that she was writing specifically for the reader familiar with South Asia as well as the complete novice, and didn’t want the footnotes to distract someone already familiar with South Asian cultures, and she had her students read parts of her translation.

I’d really like to talk more about Husain’s writing, but those passages where the words flow and images unfurl dreamlike in smoky rows are very much despite the translation, not because of it. If not an updated translation, then an alternate translation of this interesting, difficult book would be hugely welcome.

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