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Translating 'Zafarnama' was difficult: Navtej Sarna

Tuesday March 08, 2011 07:46:41 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

New Delhi: 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 around 1705.

"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," Sarna said.

The writer is planning to return to the creative groove for his next project, away from translation.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at







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