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Nadeem Khan, the translator of Vishwas Patil’s ‘Panipat’ talks on difficulties in literary translation

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No doubt Vishwas Patil has carved a niche for his great history writing, especially his luminous work ‘Panipat’ has become a cult book among history buffs. However, his book could not have become so much popular had it not been translated into English language. The original book was written in Marathi language by Vishwas Patil, a retired IAS officer who has been known for other literary works as well. However, this book is a wonderful read and comes with so many nuances and untouched aspects on Panipat battle that shook the India.

In an interview with the Indian Express just a couple of days ago Nadeem Khan talked about the literary translation and why it is important to convey ideas, themes with probity while translating history books. Going through the interview one can understand that Khan, whose last worked on the translation of Patil’s Panipat, a voluminous Marathi language classic published in 1988, is definitely a great translator. He not just translated the masterpiece but also contributed heavily in the learning of the great history of India’s most talked about battle ‘Panipat’.

When Nadeem Khan says that translating into English from any of the Indian languages is like moving into a different culture as idioms, emotional framework and cultural resonances change with language, it is well understood that he put a lot of efforts on the job. At the same time as literary translation is significantly different from any other kind of translation for it needs a lot of application of mind and comprehensive research, it takes a lot of time as well. It is not so easy to translate a voluminous work on history as it not just takes linguistic skills but also extensive research on the history and politics of the history.

According to various sources the author has sold more than 250,000 copies so far and since it has been translated into several languages including of English, the popularity is still going up. With English version Vishwas Patil’s ‘Panipat’ is all set to attract readers from around the world as it is a global language.

Knowing the History through Translated Content

Though there is no dearth of history books on the famous; rather, infamous battle of Panipat that was fought between great Marathas and Afghans in 1761, the new book translated from Marathi to English is quite revealing. For instance, it is well known that the third battle of Panipat which also happens to be the final one, the bloodiest of them all as well sealed the fate of India for forever as after this Marathas could not remain as strong as they earlier were and could not fight British later on. Although the battle was for who was going to rule Delhi, it had several implications for India.

For instance, after this war Sikh kingdoms came up in Punjab, Rohillas became stronger in western Uttar Pradesh as British were expanding from Bengal and moving towards west. Nonetheless, the face-off between Marathas and Afghans stretched on for months and then culminated into a full-fledged war it as at Panipat where the actual conflict took place on 14 January 1761. Just in a day’s battle more than 150,000 soldiers lost their lives and 80,000 horses, bullocks and elephants were slaughtered.

The book ‘Panipat’ has been quite popular as it tells the gory details of the most horrific battle that has dazzled generations of historians. There are only a few books that talk in elaborate manner about the tactics, ingenious battle formations and fortifications from both sides. The battle fought by flesh-and-blood people with feelings and motivations big and small, has become a proverb in Marathi as when something goes wrong they say ‘Panipat Jhala’. The original book by Vishwas Patil shows his ability to weave gargantuan research into effortless storytelling and make history a great story.

Being true to the word and spirit of the original work

In his interview to the Indian Express Nadeem Khan is quite specific when talks about literary translation. For instance, he says that being true to the words and spirit of the original work is quite important. However, as he says it is not so easy to do the tight rope walking as English language readers have their own set of understanding of terms that are alien in other languages including of Marathi. Interestingly enough Nadeem Khan is quite experienced in translation as he has also works of celebrated Marathi authors such as Prabhakar Narayan and other writings of Vishwas Patil.

In his discussion on the translation of ‘Panipat’, Nadeem Khan says that translating the classical work on the historic battle was like moving into a different culture as idioms, emotional framework and cultural resonances change with language. Interestingly enough the original Marathi version of ‘Panipat’ was published in 1988 and soon after the publication it became a popular book among the history readers. Translating the book as popular as ‘Panipat’ had to be a great task for any translator and even Nadeem Khan admits it. Additionally, it is not just about the translation but about doing it fine and in justified manner.

Nadeem Khan says that as a translator his job is only to convey those ideas and themes in another language with the greatest probity and as attractively as possible. He also says that though authors use different dialects of the language to describe their characters, it is tricky to transform something that has word-play involved, like in the case of another celebrated Marathi writer Avadhoot Dongare. However, since he has grown up reading great works of translation of Tagore, Ismat Chughtai, Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Vijay Tendulkar, etc. amongst others it has helped him find the right strategy for his work.

Learning Translation as an Art

Since, Nadeem Khan admits he learned the translation skills reading the translated works of great writers, he has used all those trade tricks and tribulations while translating ‘Panipat’ and other books. For instance, in 2018, Khan translated two novels of Dongare. At times differences also appear with the original writers; however, this does not stop him from doing the quality translation. For instance, he understands the fundamental purpose of the book and moves according to the original intention and orientation of the author.

Needless to say he clearly knew that a verbatim translation would take it nowhere among the English readers and this is where his own creativity comes to play. Though the original book is written in Marathi language which has its own style and expressions, the translator says that he was able to do justice to the work since he took his liberties. He says that the novel was a thrilling historical narrative, well-researched; however, it appealed to the self-regard of the Marathi readers. Therefore, for him the challenge was to retain all its epic qualities and at the same time keep its thrill and yet ensure that it targeted the universal admiration for integrity and courage.

As it is quite evident that the translator wanted ‘Panipat’ to stand apart as an original historical-thriller in English without losing the essence doing literal translation, he worked on the translation so that it carries the aroma of the soil in which it was located. While translating ‘Panipat’ the translator had several challenges as he says that the texture of their language is very different, their readership is different, their well-springs and motivations are different as well to great extent. To make things easier he says that he tweaked the original writing to make it more English-reader-friendly.

However, at the same time he did take consent from the original author as they have the last word when it comes to translation. Nadeem Khan admits that he never allows himself to forget that the original work is theirs, the ideas are theirs, the themes are theirs, and the messages are theirs.

What Makes a Good Translator?

Reading the whole interview it can definitely be concluded that Nadeem Khan indeed knows the secrets of translation skills. His great translated works including of ‘Panipat’ are the fine example of the skills that he has acquired over the decades and proving that he knows his skills well. He knows it well that context and the use of ‘terms’ is quite important for literary translation and misunderstanding the context of a word should be avoided. Similarly, if the translator misunderstands the context that a word is used in, he will translate it differently which can alter the original meaning.

Additionally, as it appears getting the tone wrong could also be an issue with translation job; therefore, it should be avoided. According to Nadeem Khan it is most times very difficult to accurately convey the tone used in the source text as it can change constantly; however, with practice and a lot of reading everything becomes smooth and literary translation becomes a quality work. Since cultural differences are also important when one literary work is being translated from original language to the target language, a research on cultural history and practices becomes important.

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