By K.S. Duggal
Khushwant Singh goes out shouting from the house top that he is a non-believer, and that he has no use for God. Yet a careful study of his work on Sikhism reveals it is otherwise
Translation is an art. No wonder Dr P. Lal of Writers Workshop, Kolkata, has enshrined it as `transcreation`. More, when the pen rendering a Punjabi text into English is handled by a person of Khushwant Singh`s maturity, it is certainly no mere transference from one language into another; it is ensuring that both the spirit and the diction of the original text is done fullest justice.
Born a Sikh who claims English as his mother tongue, Singh has been transcreating Gurbani from time to time for various assignments, including the one from UNESCO and his works like A History of the Sikhs in two volumes. Hymns of the Gurus (Penguin/Viking: Rs 250) is a selective compilation of his devotional endeavour towards projecting his faith for the non-Sikhs and, in no small measure, to Sikhs, particularly to those domiciled abroad.
Transcreating the sacred text is no easy task. It is more difficult in the case of Gurbani, which is not only composed in rhymed verse, but is also written to Indian classical and folk music. This inevitably reflects on the phrasing of the original, which at times can be a nightmare for the transcreator. Then, no two languages could be as far apart as English and Punjabi. And no two people could be as alien as Punjabis and English in their day-to-day life, their concepts and values.
However, with his several years of stay in the UK for his studies and work, Singh is fairly at ease. At times his transcreation reads like the original piece, with subtle nuances of the language of adoption intact:
The night is damp with drops of dew
Stars twinkle in the sky.
Those beloved of the Lord are risen
For those the Lord loves are ever awake.
Night and day His Name is on their lips
In their hearts rest His lotus feet
Their thoughts never stray from Him.
u u u
The firmament is Thy salver,
The sun and moon Thy lamps,
The galaxy of stars
Are as pearls scattered.
The woods of sandal are Thine incense,
The forests Thy flowers
u u u
Not by thought alone
Can He be known,
Tho` one think a hundred thousand times…
How then shall Truth be known?
How the veil of false illusion torn?
O Nanak, thus runneth the writ divine:
The righteous path, let it be thine.
u u u
Gurbani being sacred, it is axiomatic that one cannot deviate from the original in text even by a syllable. This creates a terribly piquant situation at times. Aware that a certain phrase or turn of expression has been necessitated, in the original because of the tyranny of rhyme, the transcreator must be faithful to the original and yet not lose sight of the adequacy of expression in his rendering. Every time he is faced with such a dilemma, the skill of his pen helps Singh:
Upon my bed I awaited His coming,
My heart leaped with joy when I heard His footsteps.
He came to me, He Who is my Lord and Master. / My desires were fulfilled, I was with joy replete.
He took me in His arms, limb to limb we lay / And my anguish was gone.
My life, my soul, my body were all refreshed. / My wishes were granted; I worshipped Him.
Blessed was the hour I met Him.
Says Nanak: I have met the Lord of Lakshmi / And joy all is mine.
More challenging than rhyme is meter. Many a time metrical necessity leads the original to be loaded with words, phrases and expressions, which, if rendered into English, may not make any sense and appear odd. This calls for the skill of the transcreator not to seem deviating from the sacred text and yet sound convincing. One can depend upon Singh surmounting such uphill tasks. `Bhai` (brother), `Pyarey` (friend), `Rama` are some of the expressions which are frequently used in order to meet the metric needs in Gurbani. This is how he uses `Rama`:
I bow low to clasp the feet of my guru,
I have vision of God Rama.
My mind meditated on Him
In my heart I saw and enshrined Him.
Utter the Name of Rama and be saved!
By the guru`s grace
The gem that is God you will find,
The darkness of ignorance will be dispelled / And your mind will be illumined.
A clever use of `Pyarey`:
Dear friend, I am like one drowned in a dyer`s vat
Brimful with delusions of maya
I have become like a cloth dyed with greed.
Dear friend, the colour of my cloak
Pleases not the Lord my Groom.
How then shall I who am His bride,
Be invited to His nuptial couch?
And the use of `Bhai.
Tell me brother, how does one find peace? / How to find the God, Rama, who is our help?
Maya has spread its net everywhere to catch us. / There is no happiness in the home of the humble
Nor in the lofty mansions of the rich.
The entire Gurbani is an inspired work in ecstatic expression. Says Guru Nanak: ‘As the Lord`s Holy Word comes I reveal it.’ More, because it was sung according to the ragas, at times the syntax seems to play hide and seek. The compulsion of remaining utterly faithful to the original, the transcreator has a tight rope to walk, so that he doesn`t give offence to the grammatical susceptibilities of his reader. An instance, how Singh handles such a situation:
Our Lord is without blemish, our Lord is untainted by illusion
He is beyond comprehension, endless and beyond reach;
All worship You, the real author of all creation;
All creatures are created by you, you are their provider and giver;
O men of God, ponder over Him! He is the remover of all sorrows;
He himself the Lord, and the servant,
Says Nanak, of what worth is a mere human?
Singh announces from the house top that he is a non-believer, and that he has no use for God. Yet a careful study of his work reveals that it is otherwise. Why should he sit and write A History of the Sikhs if he has no respect for his faith? Why should he take the first opportunity and transcreate Japji, Guru Nanak`s masterpiece, and do a creditable job of it?
Not long ago, somewhere I wrote: The so-called unclean old man is, perhaps, the cleanest person around.
The author is a well-known Punjabi writer and former (Rajya Sabha member)
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