Few languages can perhaps match the spirit of the United Nations International Translation Day (September 30) the way Punjabi does.
Since the UN acknowledges the role of translators in “bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation”, the Punjabi language, the mother tongue of millions on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, can be read as a site for an evolving cultural dialogue. A language written in two different scripts, Shahmukhi (Pakistan) and Gurmukhi (India).
Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Desraj Kali sums it up when he explains how his novels were translated into Urdu script by a Karachi-based publisher recently, with the original flavour of the Punjabi remaining intact. It is the same cultural bridge that ensured that the killing of Sidhu Moose Wala is being mourned by Pakistani Punjabis. The tale of Punjabi, then, becomes a legend of the subcontinent. And yet, the language is still looking for translators and interlocutors who can take it across the globe.
A part of this tale began several centuries ago when the Sikh kingdom hadn’t fallen to the troops of the British East India Company yet. Undivided Punjab was under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 18th century, and the literary tradition of Punjabi Sufi poetry — which was started by Baba Farid in the 12th century — had just found its first woman poet in a prostitute named Peero Preman. But once she stepped out of Lahore’s Hira Mandi, where she had been sold to a brothel, public applause had almost ceased. While her verses challenged religious orthodoxies and religious identities, Peero transgressed all the laws to achieve self-realization. She proudly addressed herself as ‘Randi’ and ‘Kanjari’ in her fiery poems. Following her death, she was buried alongside her guru-partner, Gulab Das at Chathian Wala, in a single tomb, which became a shrine for followers of the Gulabdasi sect. After the Partition, the entire sect fled Sindh and western Punjab to India and settled in Haryana. A spiritual icon for Gulabdasis, Peero continues to evoke both reverence and contempt to date.
Any publisher would have readily agreed to publish Peero’s poetry collection in English, but it’s not easy with Punjabi literature. For over three years, Neeti Singh, who has translated Peero’s poetry, has been struggling to get the book published. “Finally, Speaking Tiger has shown some interest,” Neeti, an associate professor of English with The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, tells Outlook, pointing out that Peero is not an isolated case. Even though the translation of Punjabi literature has gradually picked up in recent years, barring religious texts, getting a global English publisher remains fairly difficult.
“One of the reasons behind the delay seems to be the fact that Peero continues to be a pariah or dismissed with a silent scorn due to her revolutionary ideas,” Neeti says. “Publishing houses usually prefer celebrities as writers over content”.
A chapter of her manuscript talks about the life of the mystic poetess. “Peero is a great woman. Her status was forcibly reduced to that of a sex object by a conservative society. But Peero refused to accept patriarchal norms. She lived life on her own terms. With Gulab Das, who was no ordinary man, she helped many other prostitutes to reclaim their lives,” says Neeti, who has authored and translated five books so far.
Neeti has also published Desraj Kali’s acclaimed novel Shanti Parav (Treatise on Peace, 2020) in English from Orient Blackswan. Set in the heartland of Punjab, it dissects the status of Dalits in the post-colonial caste-religion-politics matrix through the prism of conflicting narratives around freedom struggle, terrorism, state violence, capitalism and democracy.
About the International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s novel, Desraj tells Outlook, “Punjabi writing too can get international recognition. But the tragedy is that our work is not getting translated into English.” Punjabi novel has a history of 100 years but except for some writers like Amrita Pritam, Punjabi fiction has not been sufficiently translated into English, not to speak of an international publisher, he says.
Punjabi poetry shares fate. Of late, some local publishers have started translating Punjabi literature and history from Shahmukhi to Gurmukhi and vice-versa. But deploring the unavailability of the books brought out by Pakistani publishers in India, Desraj says, “Do you know where I got the copies of my translated books from? England. The publishers couldn’t send them to me directly.” Similarly, he informs, some publishing houses in Indian Punjab too have started printing the work of Pakistani Punjabi poets and authors in Gurmukhi. “This is really a beautiful trend building up in the Punjabi literary world,” he says. “Culturally, Punjab is one!”
In 2014, a 25,000 Canadian dollar Dhahan Prize — an annual award instituted by a Canada-India education society for excellence in Punjabi fiction — offered a much-needed international stage to the language.
Last year, Lahore-based writer Nain Sukh won the award for his book of short stories written in the Shahmukhi script. And the finalists included Amritsar-based writer Sarghi Jammu for a collection of short stories, Apne Apne Marseia and Delhi-based Balbir Madhopuri for his novel Mitti Bol Peye. Both of them write in Gurmukhi script.
Moving beyond linguistics, the award offered a shared joy to people on both sides of the border when diplomatic relations between the two countries were at the lowest ebb after the Pulwama crisis.
But Paul Kaur, an Ambala based prominent literary and feminist voice in Punjabi, stresses that barring a few exceptions publishers on both sides of the border remains largely hesitant to publish translated work from either side due to obvious reasons. Paul has nine poetry collections to her credit. Her latest poetry collection, Hun Nahi Mardi Nirmala, was published in 2020. She has also edited several volumes of poetry, including, Balde Khatan De Sirnaven, which was written during the 1980s when Punjab was in the grip of militancy besides translating selected poems of Octavio Paz in Punjabi and a book on eminent writer Amrita Pritam, Katehre Vich Aurat: Amrita Pritam De Ang Sang (2019). A retired professor of Punjabi literature, Paul describes last year’s farmers’ movement as a “historic event”, saying that protest poetry was one of the driving forces behind the movement. “At least three volumes of poetry about the farmers’ agitation have been published in Punjabi so far,” she says, adding, “Besides Indian languages, this poetry must be translated into all the major languages of the world.”
When a work gets the Sahitya Akademi award, it is translated into various Indian languages, but many writers feel that institutions such as Punjabi Academy, Punjab Art Council and Punjabi Sahit Academy need to make translation work more seriously.
Nirupama Dutt, an eminent author, translator and journalist, believes that the translations undertaken by the underfunded government institutions don’t meet the expected literary standards. “Though Punjabi translation has picked up in the past 2-3 decades, it is far behind when compared with Bangla and Malayalam and even Hindi,” she tells Outlook.
In Punjab’s literary circle, many complain that the books written by eminent Punjabi writers like Balwant Gargi are not available in a language other than Punjabi. “Translation work was never rewarding in terms of credit and remuneration,” says Nirupama, while dubbing a majority of Punjabi translations as ‘vanity translations’.
“There are a few people who are doing good work out of genuine love for the language,” she adds, lauding the English translation of Jnanpith awardee Gurdial Singh's work by Rana Nayar, a retired professor of English from Panjab University. She hopes that Punjabi too will benefit from institutions like Indian Novels Collective and New India Foundation.
Incidentally, Gurdial's novels like Marhi Da Deeva and Anhe Ghore Da Daan were adapted into acclaimed Punjabi films in 1989 and 2011 respectively. His novel, Addh Chaanani Raat, which got him the Sahitya Akademi award, has been translated into English as Night of the Half Moon by Macmillan whereas Parsa was translated into English by the National Book Trust. The books depict the plight of Punjab’s Dalit Sikhs and peasantry.
Known for her remarkable contribution to Dalit literature, Nirupama has translated the memoirs and poetry of Punjab’s Dalit revolutionary poet Lal Singh Dil and authored The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage (2016). A commentary on landless Mazhabi Sikhs in Punjab, the book details the struggles of the singer-activist, who lost both his forearms and a leg after he was attacked for fighting a legal battle against upper-caste men who had gang-raped his minor daughter. “This is the age of Dalit literature. My next book is going to be the English translation of Punjabi stories that talk about Dalits,” she says. “The best writing comes from the place of struggle.”