How do you see the increasing presence of political sessions and discussions in a literature festival? Or if I were to rephrase the question, what is your view of the foreign and local media’s assertion that literary activities in Pakistan serve a higher symbolic purpose of battling extremism. I am referring to headlines such as “Making Art Despite Crises” or “Pakistan, Under Cultural Siege, Is Buoyed by Book Festivals” that are commonly seen in newspapers covering such festivals.
These are two separate questions, or perhaps more than two. Every watershed age, period, or generation brings with it a new dimension of consciousness. Once and wherever this is introduced, it leaves an indelible mark on the discourse and, thereafter, obligates attention to and engagement with its implications. There was a time when it was one of the inalterable assumptions of literary study that a literary text was independent of all external factors—a complete, self-referential, object of art—and it spawned the formalist approach called “New Criticism” in the 1930s, focused essentially on “close reading” and textual analysis, while ignoring socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts, variations in reader response, encoded biases against race, class, gender, and the like.
“Political sessions,” then, to take it a step further, should be out of place entirely in such settings, in that it would be paradoxical to expect serious discussions on vital issues of human rights, social and economic problems, sectarianism and religious intolerance, international diplomacy, war, and terrorism in a “festive” (read also, here, “a celebratory creative”) environment. But one may also argue that a “political session” negates the idea of literature’s pluralistic engagement with various forms of knowledge and attempts to circumscribe it into a strictly disciplinary mold. Literature routinely utilizes and deploys insights, themes, and materials from a variety of disciplines, and other disciplines too may sometimes use literature (fiction, poetry, creative essay, drama) to supplement, or illustrate, a point, but no one claims that the physical or social sciences, for instance, are literature in the sense of a literary product, or a work of art. Disciplinary boundaries are porous and diffuse between literature and other forms of learning and discourse, but there still are core differences that set it apart from other forms of engagement with life, its materials, and its processes and brings it in the realm of Art—imaginative recreation, for instance, the innovative use of language, the concern with style and form, deployment of literary devices, and so on.
Nonetheless, literature festivals themselves remain intensely political in what they represent and the “statement” they make (or are expected) to the society at large. This is obvious from the protocols of inclusions (and exclusions, it follows), but also from the kind of headlines you mention, which are examples of little else than sensational journalism. Tall claims to justify and endorse the structures and hierarchies of power in the country, to gratify the privileged, and to reassure the donors and credit masters in the West that work of enlightenment of the masses continues.
Historically, compelling art, however, has often been produced in times of crisis, and one may legitimately ask, “When has the world not been in a state of crisis?” People paint and write, compose music, and make films no matter what the conditions. And writers worth their salt write in the spoken language or languages of the people among whom they live and work and bring up for reflection that which is hidden, or swept under the carpet, things their society doesn’t wish to see. For what would be the point of affirming only the obvious and the acceptable?
But that doesn’t make the writers “heroes.” They speak to us and invite reflection and conversation, create beauty and let us decide whether we see it as such or not. Just make the world a little different each time, a little more beautiful, a little more intriguing, perhaps even enticing. They don’t change the world in any physical sense. They don’t have the power, thank goodness, to formulate laws, to implement policies, to dispense punishments, to indulge in actual social engineering. They just exist, and sing, or sigh, read, or recite, and go about their ways. But they also, sometimes, more frequently than one imagines, end up supporting the establishment, the existing structures of inclusion and exclusion. And literary festivals of the kind we see in Pakistan, I am afraid, go a little in that direction–witness, once again, the marginalization of the local languages and the local-language writers. So, politics is not ever far from literature, or literary festivals, but bringing in “political sessions,” with agendas of social restructuring and narcissistic self-praise for what is being done, is quite another matter. That is laying it on with a trowel!
You said something in your ILF session (“New Words, New Worlds: The Art of Translations”) that stuck with me. You said that you work on the premise that translation is impossible. How do you reconcile this impossibility with your craft as a translator who has successfully translated several works of poetry?
That something is impossible (to perfect) doesn’t mean that one does not attempt doing it. In my introduction to Modern Poetry of Pakistan, which includes translations of nearly a hundred-and-fifty poems from seven Pakistani language traditions, I discuss in detail why it is so, and how poet translators attempt to overcome it. It is difficult enough to convey the rasa, or flavor, of the original poem even when it is translated from a cognate or closely-related language-and-culture system, as, for instance, from French into English, and vice versa, or from Urdu into Persian, or the other way around. But when the language-and-culture systems are widely divergent, this becomes virtually impossible.
Poetry, and literature, for that matter, thrives on allusion, symbolism, the connotative charge, peculiar linguistic expressions, puns, and the like. To think that this can be conveyed exactly as it is the original text, and exactly as it would be received and processed by a native reader, is not just a delusion. It shows an appalling lack of appreciation for the special means, ways, and possibilities of perceiving the world and formulating expression that may be peculiar to a language. Often, translators may know only one of the languages well enough to express themselves with cultural nuance, tact, and pertinence. Sometimes, even this may be lacking.
But, let us say, that language is the text’s original language of composition. When translation, then, is attempted into a target language, of which one has only passing and passable understanding, they translator may end up choosing words that may outwardly seem appropriate but have cultural and literary connotations that undercut the intended purpose, or take the text in quite another direction. You can go through any number of permutations and combinations of awareness, knowledge, and tact, in one language or the other, to see the complex kinds of difficulties that the act of translation throws up for the hapless translator.
And, keep in mind, the translations are not meant for readers of the text’s original language. Their purpose is to convey the aesthetic effect of a poem, or a work of literature, in the target language, to the speakers and readers of that language. So it’s like transplanting a whole cultural experience with all its nuances within another rich and vibrant, but largely or entirely different, culture. Some ways of seeing and feeling will go well with one culture, but not so well with the other. They may even appear as trivial, jejune, or sapless in their new home and environment.
It is not something I am making up to have translation work appear more difficult than it is. Seasoned and highly-regarded translators across the world face this problem and talk about it. Some of these I quote on this theme in my introduction. Partly because not much emphasis is placed in Pakistan in learning a range of foreign languages, people here, aspiring writers, let us say, but also some well established ones, read their world literature in English translation, and fall into the assumption that the translation actually reflects the literary and aesthetic features of the original.
Now this is not necessarily true, but, a good bit of “creative” work is produced based on this misconception. If this work, then, is translated, or encounters an informed reader, it will immediately be found out to be secondhand. So Pakistan and Pakistani languages need a cadre of trained and imaginative literary theorists and critics, who, by examining literary productions in an informed and rigorous way, may dissuade writers from taking the easy way out and provoke or inspire them to deliver at a higher, more original, level.