Urdu: The Need to Translate Dying Languages


By Zeeshan Akbar Yahoo

Official Jaipur Literature Blogger


The Urdu language is arguably moving towards a state of obsolescence. It is used less and less by the diaspora that traditionally held it as staple language, irrespective of religion or geography, as they increasingly tend toward English. As with every dying language, Urdu’s script is now employed by a minority few, and there is a deficiency in the historical study of its origins and evolution. It is increasingly associated with a forgone era’s glory, rather than as a significant language in the modern world. It is a shame that so much of the literature and speech that has seeped into the cultural soul of India is being forgotten.

Today Urdu is no longer linked to livelihood, and that is fatal in today’s global economy. Urdu newspapers are on the decline because of lack of advertisements. Academia has ceased using it as a medium of instruction because of the dearth of Urdu textbooks for science and technology. Urdu medium schools lack qualified teachers. It has reached a point where there is a real fear that learning Urdu rather than Hindi or English might compromise future opportunities for employment.

So where did it all go wrong? And why did Urdu become synonymous with the language of a religious community? Urdu is now supposedly the language of Muslims, yet Muslims in Kerala don’t speak it, they speak Malayalam; Muslims in West Bengal (the second largest Muslim population in India) speak Bangla. This suggests that language relates to region as much as to religion.

Historically speaking, it is correct to say that Urdu was the language of both Hindus and Muslims, but after Partition, even political parties such as Congress began to identify Urdu with Muslims. To understand this, we must look to the aftermath of 1857 and the British ‘Divide And Rule‘ policy. It is well known that language forms and reinforces a common cultural bond. The British encouraged the use of separate Perso-Arabic and Devnagari scripts in the printing presses, to cement the division of the common language Hindustani (which combined Urdu and Hindi) into two separate, standardized languages.

The case of Urdu is a great example of how translation could prove a boon for a revival of interest, and a solution for reaching the younger demographic: people like me, who are not conversant in Urdu script, yet are enamored by its beauty. Being a Muslim, it is usually presumed that I am equipped to grasp and read Urdu, which certainly isn’t the case. Like many in India, my relationship with Urdu comes through nostalgic Bollywood songs of Kaifi and Sahir; in the food once enjoyed by Mughals and Nawabs and equally fancied by the common man today; in enduring monuments and their testimony to times past.

Websites like ‘Rekhta’ – a treasure trove of Urdu poetry, published in Roman script with translation – are a great example of how to open out the riches of Urdu beyond this. Perhaps Roman Jacobson’s term “transmutation” is relevant for how best to approach translation. Transmutation suggests retaining the “substance” of the original, even as it re-renders it; to become its own expression, in the sense of ‘pressing out’ the essence of a word or a work. Interestingly, Arabs use the same word – tarjamah – for both “translation” and “biography.” At the root, tar-ja-ma means “To translate, to explain, and to interpret.” From this, the Arabs derived the idea that when you write an account of someone’s life, you are both translating and interpreting them.

I sincerely hope that Urdu will again be made accessible to everyone through translation, and its biography as a language re-written, so that it is no longer viewed as the language of emperors, governments or religion, but as speaking for the common man. Urdu has always lived and thrived beyond a place of prayer, secularism, fundamentalism: in fact, it has long been a platform for revolution and free thinking.

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