South Asian Literature in Translation: Hassan’s State of Affairs

Hassan’s State of Affairs by Mirza Athar Baig; translated from Urdu into English by Haider Shahbaz

Publication date: 25 December 2019
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN-13: 978-9353574727

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

HS: Mirza Athar Baig is a prominent Urdu writer. His experimental style has inspired a generation of Urdu writing in the twenty-first century that has increasingly moved away from earlier realist styles and techniques. Hassan’s State of Affairs is his third novel and the first to be translated into English. It follows an accountant, Hassan, and a group of filmmakers, Masquerade Productions, who are working on Pakistan’s first surrealist film, titled ‘This Film Cannot Be Made’. The film’s production inevitably runs into hurdles that escalate from the comic to the horrific, and the text itself explodes into multiple storylines, genres, and characters, bending language and form as it traces the rise of religious intolerance and totalitarianism and their stifling effect on life and art.

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

HS: I was interested in the ways it defied earlier narrative conventions and created new, surrealist lineages for the Urdu novel. It borrows from both high theory and popular culture to create an amalgamation of references that crisscross terrains of modernism and tradition to create a unique narrative style.

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

HS: I was surprised by the dexterity of the original Urdu prose and the multiple ways it played with language. Baig often creates neologisms and employs slang in his writing. For example, he calls his own narrative a ‘hairaniya,’ which is a combination of ‘hairat’ (wonder) and ‘baiyaniya’ (narrative). I translate ‘hairaniya’ as ‘wonderlogue’ to try and capture the inventiveness of the Urdu formulation. I enjoyed the process of translating these moments into English, trying to bend the English language to create new meanings from it.

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

HS: I am grateful that the book has found readers who appreciate its nuances and experiments. I’m not sure if my wish is for more or better readers. I believe that a book creates its own audiences and those who want to find the book will eventually find their way to it and find the meanings they want to find in it. 

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

HS: I am working on translations of the Urdu afsana writer, Khalida Hussain. I have always loved her surreal, dreamlike stories about hallucinatory experiences and body dysmorphia. Some of my translations of her work have already been published in Scroll, Almost Island, and Words Without Borders.

Author Bio: Mirza Athar Baig is one of the most important contemporary writers in the Urdu language. A veteran professor of postmodern and postcolonial philosophy at Government College, Lahore, Mirza announced his entry into fiction with avant-garde works that completely reshaped the field of contemporary Urdu fiction. He is the author of three novels, a collection of “anti-stories,” and more than a hundred plays for television. [Image Source: Haider Shahbaz]

Translator Bio: Haider Shahbaz studied History at Yale University and Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is currently doing a PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA. He was awarded a Charles Pick Fellowship in 2016. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs (HarperCollins India, 2019). His work has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Brooklyn Rail, The Caravan, and Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Lahore. [Image Source: Haider Shahbaz]

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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