Translating peripheral voices from Pakistan

The way superiority of English was imposed upon locals by colonial powers, Pakistan too faced bias against regional languages and identities

Translating from local languages into English not just depends on learning the translation skills but also the commitment towards giving voice to the marginalised languages in a country. In Pakistan, the colonial legacy of language hierarchies has undermined the significance of local languages and their literature. The reality is that colonial policies influence the state of affairs despite the fact that we enjoy the status of an independent state.

The expansion of the colonial empire in the 19th century thrived on the politics of language. A key document reflecting such policies is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (1800-1859) “Minute on Education” (1835). In this document, Macaulay boasts about the superiority of English languages over all the “vernacular” languages spoken in the colonial India. His famous words express the bias of a colonial official towards the language and culture of the local and well-established languages with a rich literary heritage.

Macaulay wrote, “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”

Macaulay’s expression is a clear reflection of the colonial acceptance of the glorious past of India yet its dissatisfaction with it. His document sheds light on the colonial strategy of turning English into a symbol of superiority, a passport for jobs offered to locals, introduction to the modern and foreign ethos, and creation of a neutral intellectual space irrespective of religious binaries.

Bernard Cohn has discussed how the colonial process invaded the “epistemological space” of the locals. By this term Cohn meant how in the disguise of educating Indians, the colonials had converted the local Indian form of language into European objects, transforming the local languages and social world into categories, and establishing the discourse of “Orientalism.” The political strategy employed here was to create a circle of educated elites of sahibs, babus and sepoys who became “allied dependencies” for the colonial rulers.

Much of their effort may also be interpreted as a “mistranslation” (Vincent Rafael’s term) of colonised cultures. The British, thus, produced a pedagogical and scholarly “apparatus” for colonising through publications of dictionaries, anthologies, translations, and textbooks. The language signified two different things in the colonial India: on the one hand, for the British powers it was a means of correspondence, politics, financial benefits and creating hierarchies. On the other hand, for the locals their languages reflected their context, culture, origins, history, relationships, and most importantly, their identities. This gap created in the understanding of languages as a reflection of identities persists to date.

After the traumatic partition in 1947, there was a hope for owning the diverse local languages and identities spoken in the newly created Pakistan. On the contrary, the way the superiority of English was imposed upon the locals by the colonial powers, Pakistan too faced a bias against regional languages and identities where certain languages dominated the scene. Nevertheless, the superiority of English language and translation, which was also used as a political strategy by the colonials for the anglicising of a certain class and maintaining peace and understanding between cultures continued through the assertion of national and international languages in Pakistan.

This seems to be an ongoing dilemma evident not just through the second-grade treatment of many local languages but also the lack of investment in establishing literary bodies to support the propagation and translation of literature produced in regional languages. The provincial authorities may have taken an initiative in this regard in some cases, as for instance, in Sindh for promoting Sindhi culture and language, no such official support is available for many other languages in Pakistan.

Translation of local literature could be seen as a means of redefining the local identities, cultures and philosophies carrying local literature beyond local boundaries despite the reality that English may not be able to entirely capture the meaning of native languages (Ngugi). Lack of official support for the literature representing local cultures and identities has forced many local writers to self-publish and self-translate, but their readership remains limited within their local public sphere.

The elitist literary circles and festivals may just be busy promoting mainstream writers like Manto, and the inclusion of local writers is only with the perspective of garnishing such events. There is no genuine effort made towards preserving the local identities reflected through their languages, and hence a lack of acknowledgement in a so-called democracy.