Friday, July 9, 2010

Soldier Translators

Soldiering is one way to see the world, meet people of other cultures and learn other languages. My own father was posted to Egypt during the First World War as a fledgling pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane crashed and he was injured, so they put him in charge of a refugee camp. He learnt some Arabic and made friends among the Cairenes. Ultimately, some 30 years later, he made it possible for me to go and study in Cairo.

One famous soldier-translator was Richard Francis Burton, a great British 19th-century orientalist, explorer and Native Translator (see portrait above by Frederic Leighton). His translation of The One Thousand Nights and a Night from Arabic was mentioned in my December 24 post. His father was an army officer who travelled around Europe with the family. He learnt French, Italian and Latin at school age. He began his highly adventurous career as a junior officer in the army of the East India Company in colonial British India. It’s true that he didn’t serve long enough to rise above the rank of Captain, but he didn’t resign his commission, and during that time he learnt Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Persian and Arabic. While on active service, he even kept a large menagerie of tame monkeys in the hopes of learning their language. It’s said that in total he knew 30 languages. One of his literary achievements was to bring the Hindu erotic classic Kama Sutra into Western awareness by publishing the translation from Sanskrit that he made in collaboration with Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot of the Indian Civil Service. In order to get around the censorship imposed by the obscenity laws in Britain, he and Arbuthnot founded a private, subscription-only book club, the Kama Shastra Society, which they also used in order to publish The One Thousand Nights and One Night.

But now times have changed, the tables have been turned, and it’s the officers of armies of the Indian subcontinent who learn English. Earlier this week, in connection with the tragic bombing of a shrine in Pakistan, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog mentioned an English translation from Persian of a classic of Sufi mysticism, the Kashf al-Mahjûb (Revelation of Mystery) written by Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri in the late eleventh century: “the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism“. The translation is by a retired Pakistani army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Ashraf Javed, who is openly a Sufi believer. He declares,
Cognitional gnosis [direct conscious acquaintance with God] is the foundation of all blessings in this world and in the next, for the most important thing for a man at all times and under all circumstances is knowledge of Allah.
Cole laments that this translation by a Native Translator – Cole calls it an “amateur translation” – is the one available on the internet rather than the famous one by an Expert Translator, R. A. Nicholson, "regarded as one of the best achievements of the European orientalist scholarship of its time." It's far from being an easy work to translate. Nicholson himself said, "There are, I confess, many places in which a considerable effort is required in order to grasp the author’s meaning and follow his argument." I can’t judge the translations; for a learned review of Nicholson's by Muhammed Sultan Shah, see the reference below. However, I was struck by how clear and correct Muhammed Ashraf Javed’s English is.

In his Translator‘s Note, Muhammed Ashraf Javed mentions a translation into Urdu by Captain Wajid Baksh Syal Chishti Sabri (or Rabbani), who, I take it from his rank, is or was likewise an army officer. Muhammed Sultan Shah also reviews an English translation by him:
The English translation by Rabbani has its merits – some of which are lacking in Nicholson’s translation. The translator has been very careful throughout the whole work because he was a Muslim and a sufi as well. Therefore, he was able to understand this sufi treatise in a better way.

James Gifford (ed.). The Sir Richard Francis Burton Project.

The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana. Translated by R. F. Burton [and F. F. Arbuthnot], London and Benares: Kama Shastra Society, 1883.

Juan Cole. Fundamentalist bombings of Lahore mystical Shrine leave 42 Dead, 175 Wounded. Informed Comment,, July 2, 2010.

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. Revelation of Mystery / Kashf Al-Mahjub: The Earliest Persian Treatise on Sufism. Translated by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Muhammad Ashraf Javed. Lahore: Zahid Javed Rana and Abid Javed Rana, n.d.

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. Kashf Al-Mahjub: The Earliest Persian Treatise on Sufism. Translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. London, 1911. Later edition still in print at Amazon.

Muhammed Sultan Shah. A study of the English translations of Kashf al-Mahjub. Oriental College Magazine (University of the Punjab).

Ali b. Uthman Al-Jullabi Al-Hujwiri. The Kashful Mahjub. Translation with commentary by Wahid Bkahsh Rabbani. Lahore: al-Faisal, 2001.


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