Few languages can perhaps match the spirit of the United Nations International Translation Day (September 30) like Punjabi does.
Since the UN recognizes the role of translators in “bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation”, the Punjabi language, the mother tongue of millions of people on both sides of the Indo-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 recently translated into Urdu script by a Karachi-based publisher, with the original Punjabi flavor remaining intact. It is the same cultural bridge that caused the murder of Sidhu Moose Wala to be mourned by Pakistani Punjabis. The history of Punjabi then becomes a legend of the subcontinent. And yet, the language is always looking for translators and interlocutors capable of making it travel around the world.
Part of this story began centuries ago, when the Sikh kingdom had not yet fallen to British East India Company troops. 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 female poet in a prostitute named Peero Preman. But once she emerged from the Hira Mandi in Lahore, where she had been sold to a brothel, the applause from the audience had almost ceased. As his verses challenged religious orthodoxies and religious identities, Peero broke every law to achieve self-actualization. She proudly called herself “Randi” and “Kanjari” in her fiery poems. After her death, she was buried alongside her guru partner, Gulab Das at Chathian Wala, in a single grave, which became a shrine for followers of the Gulabdasi sect. After the partition, the entire sect fled from Sindh and West Punjab to India and settled in Haryana. A spiritual icon of Gulabdasis, Peero continues to evoke both reverence and contempt to this day.
Any publisher would easily have agreed to publish Peero’s collection of poetry in English, but it’s not easy with Punjabi literature. For more than three years, Neeti Singh, who translated Peero’s poetry, has struggled to get the book published. “Finally, Speaking Tiger has shown some interest,” Neeti, an associate professor of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, told Outlook, stressing that Peero is not an isolated case. Even though the translation of Punjabi literature has gradually accelerated in recent years, with the exception of religious texts, finding a global publisher in English is still quite difficult.
“One of the reasons for the delay seems to be that Peero continues to be an outcast or dismissed with silent contempt due to his revolutionary ideas,” Neeti says. “Publishers generally prefer celebrities as content writers.”
A chapter of her manuscript recounts the life of the mystical poetess. “Peero is a wonderful woman. Her status was forcibly reduced to that of a sex object by a conservative society. But Peero refused to accept patriarchal standards. She lived her life on her own terms. Together with Gulab Das, who was no ordinary man, she has helped many other prostitutes to regain control of their lives,” says Neeti, who has written and translated five books so far.
Neeti has also published Desraj Kali’s acclaimed novel Shanti Parav (Treatise on Peace, 2020) in Blackswan Eastern English. Set in the heart of Punjab, it dissects the status of Dalits in the postcolonial caste-religion-political matrix through the prism of conflicting narratives around the struggle for freedom, terrorism, state violence, capitalism and democracy.
Commenting on the International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s novel, Desraj told Outlook, “Punjabi writing can also gain international recognition. But the tragedy is that our work is not translated into English. The Punjabi novel has a 100-year history, but except for some writers like Amrita Pritam, Punjabi fiction has not been sufficiently translated into English, let alone an international publisher, he says.
Punjabi poetry shares fate. Lately, some local publishers have started translating Punjabi literature and history from Shahmukhi to Gurmukhi and vice versa. But lamenting the unavailability of books released by Pakistani publishers in India, Desraj said: “Do you know where I got copies of my translated books from? England. Publishers could not send them to me directly. Similarly, he informs, some publishing houses in Indian Punjab have also started printing the works of Pakistani Punjabi poets and authors in Gurmukhi. “It’s really a nice trend that is growing in the Punjabi literary world,” he says. “Culturally, Punjab is one!
In 2014, a C$25,000 Dhahan Prize—an annual award instituted by a Canada-India education society for excellence in Punjabi fiction—provided a much-needed international stage for the language.
Last year, Lahore-based writer Nain Sukh won the award for his book of short stories written in the Shahmukhi script. And finalists included Amritsar-based writer Sarghi Jammu for a collection of short stories, Apnea Apnea Marseia and Balbir Madhopuri from Delhi for his novel Mitti Bol Peye. Both write in Gurmukhi script.
Beyond linguistics, the award offered shared joy to people on both sides of the border when diplomatic relations between the two countries were at their lowest after the Pulwama crisis.
But Paul Kaur, a leading Ambala-based literary and feminist voice in Punjabi, points out that with few exceptions, publishers on both sides of the border remain largely hesitant to publish translated works on either side for obvious reasons. Paul has nine collections of poetry to his credit. His latest collection of poetry, Hun Nahi Tuesday Nirmalawas published in 2020. She has also edited several volumes of poetry, including, Balde Khatan Of Sirnavenwhich was written in the 1980s when Punjab was plagued by militancy in addition to translating selected poems by Octavio Paz into Punjabi and a book on the 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 protest poetry was one of the driving forces behind the movement. “At least three volumes of poetry on farmer unrest have been published in Punjabi so far,” she says, adding, “Apart from Indian languages, this poetry needs to be translated into all major languages of the world.”
When a work receives the Sahitya Akademi award, it is translated into various Indian languages, but many writers feel that institutions such as the Punjabi Academy, Punjab Art Council and Punjabi Sahit Academy should make the translation work more seriously.
Nirupama Dutt, a prominent author, translator and journalist, believes that translations undertaken by underfunded government institutions do not meet expected literary standards. “Although Punjabi translation has picked up over the past 2-3 decades, it is lagging far behind in comparison to Bengali, Malayalam and even Hindi,” she told Outlook.
In the literary circle of Punjab, many complain that books written by eminent Punjabi writers like Balwant Gargi are not available in any language other than Punjabi. “Translation work has never been gratifying in terms of credit and remuneration,” Nirupama says, while calling the majority of Punjabi translations “vanity translations.”
“There are a few people who do good work out of sincere love for the language,” she adds, praising the English translation of award-winning Jnanpith Gurdial Singh Rahi’s work by Rana Nayar, a retired English teacher from the University. University of Punjab. She hopes Punjabi will also benefit from institutions like Indian Novels Collective and New India Foundation.
Incidentally, Rahi 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 won him the Sahitya Akademi Prize, was translated into English as Night of the Half Moon by Macmillan while Parsa was translated into English by the National Book Trust. The books describe the plight of the Dalit Sikhs and the peasantry of Punjab.
Known for her outstanding contribution to Dalit literature, Nirupama has translated the memoirs and poetry of the Punjabi Dalit revolutionary poet Lal Singh Dil and written The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage (2016). A commentary on the landless Mazhabi Sikhs in Punjab, the book details the struggles of the singer-activist, who lost his forearms and a leg after being attacked for waging a legal battle against upper caste men who had gang-raped his underage daughter. . “This is the age of Dalit literature. My next book will be the English translation of Punjabi stories about Dalits,” she says. “The best writing comes from the place of the fight.”