Abu Dhabi-based translator S.A. Qudsi has translated a wide range of Arab authors — Nawal al-Saadawi, Ghada Samman, Naguib Mahfouz, Salwa Bakr, Ghassan Kanafani, Najwa Barakat — into Malayalam. He also translates from English, Indonesian, and Farsi. He answered a few questions about the Arabic-Malayalam relationship for our Arabic Literature, World Readers series:
ArabLit: How does the relationship between post-nahda Arabic literature/s & Malayalam literature/s open? For instance, were early nahda writers like Jurji Zaidan translated into Malayalam?
S.A. Qudsi: Trade relations between Kerala and Arabs began even before emergence of Islam in India. After that, Islam became the second-largest religion in this overpopulated southern Indian coastal state. There are over 10,000 primary Arabic madrassas, or religious schools, more than 500 Arabic parallel colleges and four universities that have Arabic departments, through which thousands of Arabic graduates and post-graduates are coming out every year.
However, surprisingly, their activities and contribution to Arabic literature is limited to religiously based books. Turning back, we — generally speaking — can’t see any remarkable creative efforts from their side. Of course, there were exceptional cases like Prof. P. Mohammed Kuttasseri, a respected Islamic scholar and ex-principal of Rawlathul Uloom Arabic Collage. He translated Call of the Curlew by Taha Hussein and serialized it in a Malayalam weekly magazine years back.
Moreover, B.M.Zuhara, the first Muslim woman novelist in Kerala, translated Tayeb Salih’s Wedding of Zein and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk into Malayalam. The Malayalam readers from Kerala, Lakshadweep, and Mahe were already well acquainted with Khalil Gibran through Malayalam books and periodicals. Dr.M.M.Basheer, a famous literary critic, translated Khalil Gibran’s Broken Wings and K.P.Sudheera, a writer, and the late Nithya Chaithanya Yati, a renowned philosopher and psychologist, did some studies on Gibran. Dr.Basheer introduced Fate of a Cockroach, Tree Climber, Donkey Market and Sultan’s Dilemma, by Tawfik Al Hakim. Prof.Satchitanandan, master poet and scholar, translated poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and Shihab Ghanem.
In addition to this, Yasmina Khadra, Nawal El Saadawi and 40 other modern women writers from various Arab countries were introduced along with their stories by my translation. Apart from this, I have translated single stories of many writers like Tawfik Al Hakim, Mohammed Idris, Naguib Mahfouz, Mohamed Abdul Waly, Mohammed Shukri, Ghassan Kanafani, and others.
AL: What have the landmarks or game-changers been in interest in Arabic literature among Malayalam readers? For European langauges, Mahfouz’s Nobel, Palestinian solidarity, and 9/11 have changed interest in Arabic literature. What about for readers in Kerala, Lakshadweep, Mahe?
Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize played a major role in turning attention of the secular Malayalam readers to Arabic literature. It was a turning point, of course!
SAQ: Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize played a major role in turning attention of the secular Malayalam readers to Arabic literature. It was a turning point, of course! It encouraged our literary translators and made the readers eager to the Arabic stories and poems. 9/11 and Palestinian issues are there actively, but Mahfouz’s nobel achievement is the main reason.
AL: Have there been particular best sellers among Arabic books in Malayalam? What sort of books have most interested the reading public?
SAQ: Translations have always good market in Indian generally, Kerala in particular. Once it was that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other post-modern Latin American writers had dominated Kerala’s book markets. There was a time when Marquez was more acceptable than native writers among young Malayalam readers! Our translators excited a wide readership with Prophet and other works of Gibran. Almost all his works are available in the Malayalam market.
AL: Are most of the books brought out by smaller publishers?
SAQ: No, that’s not true. Now it is the trend of translations — both big and small publishers are at the racetrack. The vanity publishers are also watchful to squeeze out new authors.
AL: How is the translation of Arabic literature into Malayalam different from Arabic literature translated into Kannada, Oriya, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, or other regional languages? How is it affected by Kerala’s strong history of reading?
SAQ: As I mentioned above, this state, which has the highest literacy rates, dominates other states in Arabic education. The past leftist reformation movements, political awareness, number of libraries (grandhasalas) — all have influenced their reading culture. Even reading of a newspaper piece by a street beggar while begging is a common view in Kerala.
AL: English-language readers — and those from a number of other European languages — sometimes approach Arabic literature because they have a “sociological” or “political” interest, but not a literary one. Is this also true of Malayalam readers? What are the most common reasons a Malayalam reader will pick up a literary translation from Arabic?
SAQ: It is not perfectly true in the case of Malayalam and other Indian readers. There are several factors to consider in this respect. They are also curious to know more and more about the closed and controlled individual life in those undemocratic Arab countries, of course. At the same time, we can not ignore their reading efficiency and willingness to accept and enjoy rare environments and life and thoughts of the Arab countries.
AL: Do Arab authors often visit Kerala and surrounding areas in order to talk about their books?
Bilateral literature meetings or a genuine India-Arab Literature Seminar is a part of my everyday dreams, but unfortunately I doubt it can be fulfilled until Arab literature is freed from the religious educational system in our country.
SAQ: Not notably. Past years, two Arab writers visited Kerala: UAE poet Dr. Shihab Ghanem and UAE scholar and story writer Dr. Asma Al Katbi, but their visits were related either to tourism or lecture, but not to talk about their books. They were well received by literary houses. There have not been such attempts from the Arabic sectors of Kerala. Bilateral literature meetings or a genuine India-Arab Literature Seminar is a part of my everyday dreams, but unfortunately I doubt it can be fulfilled until Arab literature is freed from the religious educational system in our country.
AL: How many Arabic-Malayalam literary translators are now working? How many books do you think come out a year?
Very few translators, very few books, and the lion’s share is from non-Arabic educated individuals. Maybe because of their religiously based Arabic education and such kind of lifestyle, Arabic students, teachers and scholars are reluctant to engage with creative talent. I have initiated a forum or centre to attract them to the literature field, but I knew my path would not be a flowerbed. I can’t predict a crop.
AL: What do you think are the major distinctions between Arabic literature moving into Malayalam v. Arabic literature moving into English? In its production, its reception, the way the authors are understood and greeted?
SAQ: I repeat that almost all of the modern Arabic literature moved into Malayalam through the non-Arabic translators, based on English translations. The books come out with fantabulous production, reception is very good, original Arab authors are received and greeted excellently.
More about S.A.Qudsi’s work and forthcomingn translations can be found at www.qudsi.com.
Also from this series:
Arabic Literature, Spanish Readers
Arabic Literature, French Readers
Arabic Literature, Italian Readers