It was difficult to translate an 18th century text addressed by
Sikh Guru Gobind Singh to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, says
diplomat-writer Navtej Sarna who tried not to deviate from the
original for the sake of the verse.
"The most important thing in
translating Persian verse into English is that you cannot do a
very literal translation," says Sarna, the Indian envoy to Israel
who has transcreated "Zafarnama: The Epistle of Victory".
The text was written by Guru Gobind Singh and addressed to Mughal
emperor Aurangzeb to criticise his "oppressive ways" some time
"There are conflicting views and conflicting interpretations. I
had to the get the right text of the original from among the
different versions, the Sikh chronicles and commentaries on the
translations. I could not stray very much but had to stay close to
the text without deviating too much from the literal text for the
sake of the verse," Sarna told IANS.
A special hardback of "Zafarnama" was launched at the Penguin
India's 10-day literary festival, Spring Fever, here March 4. It
is priced at Rs.295.
"I worked on it for two years," Sarna said. According to him, "at
least two sets of difficulties compounded the difficulties".
"The first were the problems caused by the transcription of the
text of 'Zafarnama', preserved in the 'Dasam Granth' (holy book of
the Sikhs) into Gurmukhi.
"The transcriptions were often accompanied by the introduction of
material changes by scribes, sometimes to reflect a particular
historical viewpoint, but equally often because of difficulties in
interpreting the text or desire to amend existing readings to ones
that seemed to make more sense to the copyist.
"These Gurmukhi texts, already at variance with the original and
with each other, in turn became the basis for further
interpretations and commentary," Sarna said.
The second difficulty was that "Indian-Persian, which had diverged
significantly by the late Mughal period from classical Persian,
both in literary terms as well as in pronunciation, could only be
reproduced imperfectly in the Gurmukhi script, thus adding another
layer of variations".
"Therefore, I was confronted with several choices even before
coming to the actual process of translation. Primarily, I had to
decide which particular text to rely on.
"Then I had to choose how to depict the transliteration - in
Indian-Persian or in Persian as it is spoken today, or in a
generally accepted form which is as close to the Indian-Persian as
the Gurmukhi script will allow. I decided in favour of the last
option," Sarna said.
"Zafarnama", a Persian text composed by the last Sikh guru, an
accomplished linguist and writer, is an "indictment of Aurangzeb's
rule which the guru said was marked by the spiritual and moral
bankruptcy of the empire".
The 10th guru was a challenge to Aurangzeb because the former
opposed the Mughal emperor's "oppressive ways". The opposition led
to several wars between the two.
The epistle, written in 111 stanzas, is a powerful call to "the
rule of law, code of morality and compassion", stirring passions
with brief homily-like sonnets that the guru hurls at his
formidable adversary: "I have no faith at all/In the oath that you
swear/That is the god who is one/Your witness does bear....
"I worked in between my job, mostly on weekends. Saturdays were
the days I worked the most. It took me several attempts for I kept
playing with the text," Sarna said.
Guru Gobind Singh was the most influential guru because he was a
"brilliant scholar, poet and master of several languages," Sarna
said. "He knew Persian, Arabic, Avadhi, Braj Bhasa and Sanskrit.
He wrote extensively in Punjabi and Persian."
The guru was also the founder of the legion of the saint-warrior.
"He moulded the Sikh community in such a way that it got an image.
He built on the spiritual inheritance of all the previous gurus,"
The writer is planning to return to the creative groove for his
next project, away from translation.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)