South Asian Literature in Translation: Off the Beaten Track

Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life by Saeeda Bano; translated from Urdu to English by Shahana Raza

Off the Beaten Track: The Story of My Unconventional Life by Saeeda Bano

Translated from Urdu to English by Shahana Raza

Publication date: October 7, 2020
Publisher: Penguin Zubaan India
ISBN-10: 9385932993
ISBN-13: 978-9385932991

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

SR: This is the autobiography of Saeeda Bano, who was independent India’s first woman newsreader. Interspersed with lyrical Urdu and Farsi poetry, the book takes us on a delightful journey through three Indian cities: Bhopal in the early 1900s when people traveled in palanquins and houses were lit with oil lamps; Lucknow during the 1930s when purdah-parties were all the rage; New Delhi in 1947, when India was being partitioned into Pakistan and Hindustan.

Through the pages of the book, we meet Saeeda Bano, the original author. Independent-minded and extremely courageous, she gives up a life of security and privilege when she chooses to walk out of a difficult marriage and live in a working woman’s hostel instead. Despite all the hardships she experiences—communal riots, losing her 8-year-old son in a refugee camp, constant financial constraints, and severe social disapproval for falling in love with a married man—Saeeda Bano never looks back. With her trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, endearing frankness, and remarkable courage, Saeeda tells the story of her life and the road less traveled.

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

SR: More than drawn, I feel I was chosen to translate this book.

Saeeda Bano or Bibi, as we all called her, was my paternal grandmother. After Bibi published the Urdu version, she asked me if I would translate it into English. I remember telling her, “Forget translate, I can’t even read it!” She had written in a language I understand well but cannot read. Then, she got her friend to narrate and record the entire book on to analog audio cassette tapes for me—you know the kind we had “back then.” I had no clue she had been doing this! Just as I was leaving for the US to make a new life for myself, eight neatly-marked cassette tapes arrived. They traveled with me from Delhi to the US before finally settling down here in Dubai with me.

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

SR: The first hurdle was the language! Initially, I tried to transcribe the book myself by listening to the analog tapes. It was so frustrating. Every time I pressed the Pause button to stop the cassette recorder and write down a sentence, the phonetic sounds of some of the essential Urdu words would get gobbled up! Almost constantly, I would have to rewind, stop, play, write, pause, play, rewind, stop, play, write. Eventually, I found a lady here in Dubai who read the entire book out loud for me while I transcribed it.

Then, of course, there was the issue of Bibi’s Urdu vocabulary, which was so polished and erudite that it often stumped me. There were words and phrases I had never heard before. Interestingly, the lady helping me transcribe had this huge (it was almost 6-7 inches in height) lughat which had the meanings of almost every word. Truly, it felt like divine intervention. As though I had been led to her because she had this massive Urdu dictionary.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

SR: A really good question. I hope readers can imagine and understand the socio-cultural world Bibi inhabited, which is completely different from the one we live in today. Though she belonged to a privileged section of society and was well-educated, she has no idea what she was meant to do with her life or if she could even make choices for herself. She sums this up rather well in the book: “Within the socio-economic strata of society to which my family belonged, there was no question I would ever have to live independently or earn my own living; not even a vague possibility. We were counted among the liberal families of that time. But this broad-minded, socially progressive tag we had appropriated was strange in that it was a totally undecided phenomenon.

I also hope readers appreciate the fact that translating a book doesn’t simply mean converting words from one language to another, literally. Translators sieve and expand their vocabulary to find the appropriate words to express the essence of the original book as authentically as possible. A translator gets into the skin of each of the characters in the book to convey their unique personality to the reader, almost like an actor performing as a one-person show. After all, these people or characters are unknown to the translator. They are either a part of the original author’s life or have been crafted entirely from the author’s own imagination. Not every bilingual person can translate a book.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

SR: I’m not a professional translator and, as I can’t read Urdu, I’m not sure I will get another translation opportunity. But I’m open to it. I have also written a non-fiction narrative essay for the anthology, Feast on Your Life, for Speaking Tiger Books (India), which will be published in 2021.

Author Bio: Regarded as the doyenne of Urdu broadcasting, Saeeda Bano was the first woman to work as a radio newsreader in India. Her professional career began with All India Radio (AIR) in August 1947, right at the time of the great Partition when the country was being divided into India and Pakistan. For almost three decades, Saeeda was a newsreader and producer with AIR. In the words of the eminent poet and broadcaster, Rifat Sarosh, “a voice and diction of Saeeda Bano’s caliber will never be seen in this century, especially not now, since the century is almost breathing its last.” (Image Source: Shahana Raza)

Translator Bio: A liberal feminist, Shahana Raza is an independent writer and video producer who has worked in television, radio, and print media. Raza has also written a non-fiction narrative essay for the anthology, Feast On Your Life, which will be published in 2021 by Speaking Tiger Books, India. A dilettante environmentalist, Raza currently lives in Dubai with her husband and two children. (Image Source: Shahana Raza)

Saeeda Bano, the author, in the far back. Shahana Raza, the translator, in the front.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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