At the Surrey Art Gallery in 2011, i was happy to discuss aspects of my back and forth journey between two languages while writing Skeena. Here is an updated version of it.
Surrey Art Gallery
Dislocutions: a panel discussion on art and translation
October 15, 2011
It is a wonderful location for me to share my experience of writing a novel in two languages where striking and insightful expressions of art by Brendan Fernandes, Digital Natives, Soheila K. Esfahani, Mark Neufeld, Emilio Rojas, Tony Romano, Ming Wong and Dipna Horra are happening, and, here for this discussion we have artists Lorna Brown, Emilio Rojas and Jordan Strom. Thank you for having me.
I will read to you the very first thing that Skeena, the narrator, says to us to begin her story:
My name means different things in different languages. In Arabic, it is the ‘Spirit of Tranquility’ (Sakina), in Hebrew; the ‘Indwelling Feminine Face of Divinity’ (Shekhinah); and in the languages of Native Peoples, the ‘River of Mists’ (Skeena). At this time, I don’t favor one meaning over the other. They make a lot of sense together but if I met a people who associated this sound to a meaning that does not fit my scheme, I will have to pick and choose.
In my mind, with the delivery of its main themes, one of the ‘purposes’ of my novel Skeena was to communicate across cultures and languages. In 1991, when I began writing it in Toronto, I had been in Canada for five years and already I could feel the loss of language at different levels. I cannot say that I experienced loss of culture but I did experience the presence of barriers in seeing across cultures. Barriers were of assumptions and preconceived notions, some mine and some those of others, all coming out of the prejudiced systemic structures that rule both my worlds.
For me, there is no conflict in the fact that I simultaneously own as my homelands both Pakistan and Canada. Within it, I am a Punjabi woman of Muslim family origin from Pakistani side of South Asia who has by now lived in the East and the West Coast of Canada for twenty five years, and who considers Vancouver Lower Mainland her hometown alongwith Lahore. For me, my art must reflect and reveal my evolved identity, my physical locations, my combined cultures, and my deepest thoughts. The stories I am inspired to tell come from, and satisfy, my organic communities in both Canada and Pakistan.
The draft manuscript of Skeena, begun in Toronto in 1991 and completed here in Surrey in 2004, brought together my two languages for me when all its dialogue, about 80% of the whole, was expressed in both English and (roman) Punjabi. A realistic critical literary work of fiction, it required communicating across many cultures, the thoughts and lived realities of a young Muslim Punjabi Canadian woman. In evolving this format, there was my need to reflect/reproduce in English the feel/nuance of conversations taking place in Punjabi. It was most important to do that because dialogue is one of the major ways for the reader to get into a different culture, its stories and people; and, to form our own opinions as readers while we visit and become part of various situations in a novel.
Skeena provides a vibrant context to the lives of people living in different social and cultural environments where they may know some facts about each other but where lived experiences are so different that it is hard sometimes to communicate the meaning of words. The term ‘violence against women’, for example, may not give any clear idea to a person born and raised here in Canada about the extent of violence faced by Muslim women in Pakistan. The same term when used to illustrate the situation of women in present day Canada, may also provide misleading notions to a reader in South Asia. To me, these things cannot be told; they must be experienced. So, Skeena happens in the present, and is steeped in the culture/s of its characters.
As well, there was a desire to involve Punjabi Canadian youth, the second/third/fourth generation, by using a lay-person’s form of roman for Punjabi, similar to the written communication now carried out by Punjabis on facebook, twitter and in texting. It was also geared to overcome the Gurumukhi/Shahmukhi divide in the language, and by offering the dialogue in both Punjabi and English, I was hoping to create a story that could unobtrusively become a beautiful culture-sharing, language-learning tool.
In 2004, the first draft of the novel was complete. An engaging story that begins in Pakistan, ends in Canada; uses both English and Punjabi; and, is captivating in the projection of its themes and subject matter. I felt that the manuscript fulfilled all its purposes. But my editor felt otherwise. She said that it would be tedious for the reader to go through two languages at every dialogue, and, she said that I will be ‘ghettoizing’ my writing if I did not remove the Punjabi.
It took many months of thinking while I worked on my other two novels, to come to a point in 2005 where all Punjabi sentences were removed from English manuscript, and placed in a new file. At that point, I think, I heard an actual sigh of relief from the English manuscript as it was released from the repetitive burden of about 200 pages of Punjabi. Plus, I was overjoyed to see an 80% complete Punjabi manuscript, even when in roman. What an amazing bonus! Skeena gave me the gift of two novels when I was writing one, and my mother language gave me the third, Skeena’s Gurumukhi edition via script-conversion. But that happens a little later.
After Punjabi sentences were removed, numerous Punjabi/Urdu/Arabic/Persian words and terms remained in the 2005 manuscript because I thought the reader may like some flavour of languages without being stalled by them. I sent this manuscript to a couple of friends including one in California who went ahead to read over the phone, a couple of scenes from the second section, to a mutual friend in Pakistan who happened to be a writer, editor and publisher. Zubair Ahmad, who later edited the Punjabi ms of Skeena, was taken by the passages he heard over the phone, and invited me to come to Pakistan to translate it in Punjabi for publication. I left for Pakistan in early 2006.
Zubair Ahmad asked me an important question: which language did I use to ‘perceive/imagine’ the story. My thoughtful reply to him was ‘English’ since the novel was perceived, told and written in English. But that was half the truth because all dialogue by and among Punjabi characters was mind-developed in Punjabi, written in roman on the page, and then rendered in English.
In about six months of full time work, a Punjabi Shahmukhi manuscript was ready for publication. Daily I translated a few pages, and worked with the editor to finalize them. It was a powerful and learning experience for me in many different ways. First, the creative space that evolved between the Writer, the Editor, and the Publisher was conducive to both fine-ness and speed. The result was a satisfying manuscript that was then published by Sanjh Publications in Lahore in 2007. Second, something i never expected or knew that could happen though Zubair Ahmad had predicted it: After 1975-76 when I had adapted from English to Punjabi Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novelette ‘The Poor Folk’ for Pakistan Television, I had not had the chance to do any major work in Punjabi except for two incomplete novels and a couple of unpublished short stories. Now suddenly, during translating Skeena in Lahore, a fountain of Punjabi words and terms began to sprout in my mind, even words that I thought I never knew. With it, a whole lot of Punjabi poems began to surface. Some of them are part of my (out-of-print) chapbook ‘Passion Fruit/Tahnget Phal’ (Surrey 2011)*.
I returned to Canada in 2007, and began to work on the English manuscript referencing it with the published Punjabi version. The detail became clearer at every step. The English manuscript became freer of all kinds of weaknesses in expression, content and style. In Lahore, as I was converting dialogue from lay-roman to Shahmukhi script, and translating narrative from English to Punjabi, I had felt that all the remaining weaknesses/gaps, the things i call the ‘lies’ of a manuscript, in concept, style, structure or expression, were revealed to me (i remember wondering if it’ll at all be ‘practical’ to run this same ‘test of translation’ on my other two English novels). I found that it’s really hard to translate an unfamiliar action or concept from one language to another, and even harder to translate an unclear one. I have examples of both.
In the first section that takes place in a village in Pakistani Punjab, a character makes a common (in Punjab) gesture of seeking forgiveness from Allah where certain fingertips are placed on the tongue and then on the lower ear tips with the word ‘tauba’ meaning ‘forgiveness’. It took many agonizing attempts before I could come to this, with the help of my editor, i presume.
‘Allah Forgiveness!’ He touches his tongue with both his first finger tips, and then touches his ears with them’.
But I was not happy with it because in Punjabi, it was effortless:
‘Allah Maafi!’ Oh unglaN de poTay jeebh te rakh ke kannaN noon laanday naiN’.
Later, back in Canada in 2007-08 when I was referencing the English manuscript with the published Punjabi version, the above English sentence also became better.
‘Allah Forgiveness!’ He places his fingertips on his tongue, and then touches his ears with them. (Skeena, Section 1, 17. Libros Libertad, Surrey 2011)
The second example is of another difficult point that benefitted from the act of translation. This is what I had in 2005 in a para, again from the first section, and with the same character:
SaeeN Jee is lying unconscious. His cheeks are blotched with surma kohl from his eyes, and his white and orange hair is sticky with sweat. But the scariest is his mouth with his dandasa-orange lips stretched over sparkling white teeth biting a light brown piece of wood.
However painful in English, it’s rendering in Punjabi flows perfectly. Later, still bumpy, it does become a bit better in English:
SayeeN Jee is unconscious. The run-down kohl from his eyes has blotched his cheeks, and his henna-coloured white and red hair is sticky with sweat. But the scariest is his mouth where his walnut-tree-barked orange lips are stretched around a jaw revealing sparkling white teeth over a brown horizontal piece of firewood. (Skeena, Section 1, 18. Libros Libertad, Surrey 2011)
The manuscript was accepted by a publisher in 2010, and the very first editorial ‘suggestion’ was to remove all non-English words. I expected it but there’s no harm in trying. I removed most of the words within a couple of days but even then so many remained. Several methods were applied; explaining the word in text, putting meaning beside it, coming up with an acceptable translation, and re-doing the sentence. It had to be done this way, and in stages, so that the manuscript did not get scratched or injured by the extraction or addition. I am grateful to its editors and publishers in Lahore, Surrey and Vancouver for their support in letting me find suitable solutions for each instance.
Going through the editing of the Gurumukhi version of Skeena with Editor/Author Surjeet Kalsey in 2010, I realized that there were a large number of Arabic/Urdu/Persian words that would be new or unclear to the Gurumukhi reader whose cultural reference is Sikhism with language influences coming from Hindi/Sansikrit. We did contemplate adding meaning of some words but the task seemed larger than the time available. Also, how some words are written differently in Shahmukhi, and, questions if they should be left as they are or changed to the prevalent Gurumukhi convention. May be these issues will be addressed when Skeena’s Gurmukhi edition actually publishes from India.
In poetry, i find that my voice changes from one language to the other. In Punjabi, it easily links to the folk, and the emotion; in English, it is a bit blunt, unwilling to express deep emotion. Mainly because, as I was saying to Jordan Strom, so far I have had many funerals in Punjabi but not many in English, so when a woman is stoned to death or buried alive, my experience of mourning and sadness will likely find expression in Punjabi, and my anger and outrage in English. This, I guess, somewhat has to do with the privilege of being a first generation immigrant who continues to own both my languages and all my chosen Pakistani Canadian cultural values.
My current projects include a translation of Madholal Hussain’s selected Punjabi poetry in English, and some of my favourite English poems to Punjabi.
Photo by Janet Kvamman 2011 (treated)
*Now in an upcoming collection of Punjabi poetry.