Why is Urdu more lyrical than Hindi
Great little Urdu language
How did you learn Urdu?
When I enrolled at the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1971 to study Indology, in addition to Sanskrit lessons, intensive training in Hindi was offered. In the second year of study, a Urdu course for students with previous knowledge of Hindi began. Since I was immediately fascinated by the aesthetically appealing Urdu script, derived from the Arabic alphabet, I switched from the Hindi to the Urdu course and was quickly impressed by the elegance of the language. Urdu, a New Indian language, has a colorful mix of vocabulary - a linguistic basis that it shares with Hindi, but also far more Persian and Arabic loanwords than Hindi. This fact can be explained by the fact that the development of the New Indo-Aryan languages after the turn of the millennium coincided with the establishment of Muslim dynasties from northern India to the Deccan and the advance of Islam in South Asia. Persian, with its numerous Arabic loanwords, became the dominant language of administration and scholarship in large parts of India, and Persian poetry became the model for classical Urdu poetry. With Islam, religious Arabic terminology also spread. To this day, Persian and Arabic are the sources for linguistic new formations in Urdu, while Hindi uses Sanskrit for this. This explains the differences in all areas of terminology, whereas in everyday language Hindi and Urdu are still mutually understandable.
The Hindi and Urdu have in common the numerous English borrowings, some of which can no longer be recognized as such. B. off report the word rapat, out lantern was old and from towel the word tauliya. A word like taim can no longer be ignored from everyday vocabulary even by people without any school education. In the past few decades, the use of English words that have not changed so much in terms of sound has increased rapidly. All in all, the result is a sonorous, extremely nuanced mixture that has a great effect, especially in the lyric.
What does the Indian and Pakistani literary scene look like?
So diverse that they cannot be summed up in a few words. The Urdu originated in the northern half of today's India, but developed in the 16th – 17th centuries. Century literary centers in the Dekkhan, that is in the area of today's states of Karnataka, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. In the 19th century, however, Lahore in what is now Pakistan emerged as a center of Urdu literature. Urdu has always been a language of urban centers and is therefore to be understood as a supra-regional language. From the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, Urdu was one of the most important administrative and literary languages in northern India. After independence and the partition of British India in 1947, the importance of Urdu as a functional language in India steadily declined, while it was declared the national language in Pakistan. Although it is only the mother tongue of a minority there, it is still the most important literary language and the most important national colloquial language. In India, the audience for Urdu prose has fallen sharply. Urdu poetry, however, enjoys unbroken and for some time even growing popularity, as it can be enjoyed in the oral tradition, which is still alive, even without knowledge of the script. Urdu poetry readings can be mass events with thousands of listeners, and the Rekhta Association's Urdu Festival, which has been held regularly in Delhi for several years, attracts tens of thousands, and the number is rising.
In both India and Pakistan there is an abundance of regional languages and literatures which, unfortunately, are far less noticed outside the subcontinent than English-language literature, as can be seen from the number of translations. In both countries, English is the language of the elite and the emerging middle class, whose members attend English-speaking schools and are sometimes even proud of not knowing a native language. English-language literature has access to the international market and can count on more solvent domestic demand.
Publications in the South Asian languages usually appear in smaller editions and are mainly received in literary circles. However, just like Hindi, there is a stable market for popular literature in Urdu. In Pakistan, the digests, which are produced in large numbers and read and passed on to families or friends, are of great importance, so they really reach a mass audience. With their thematic specialization - thrillers, horror stories, religious edification and advisory literature as well as Islamic historical narratives - they each serve certain segments of the market. Several digests are specifically tailored to a female audience. In addition to love stories, some with socially critical elements, they contain articles on religious and contemporary issues, household and health tips and of course poetry.
What do you have to read?
Since the selection of translations from Urdu is not very large, I am listing almost all titles that are currently available, some of them only antiquarian. It is best to start chronologically with the novel The courtesan of Lucknow by Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa (1858–1931), wonderfully translated by Ursula Rothen-Dubs (Manesse 1971). This is followed by the narrator Ismat Chughtai (1915–1991) with the selection volume The Wedding dress (2017) and the author Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) with the prose texts Black notes (2006). For more recent literature, I recommend the Bombay novel by Rahman Abbas (born 1972) The city, the sea, love (2018), translated by Almuth Degener. If you want to get an overview of Urdu authors and texts from four centuries, you will find a good selection in the Urdu reader translated and published by Ursula Rothen-Dubs Allah's Indian garden (Waldgut 1989).
In the area of lyric poetry, there are some formally strict, pictorial, classical poems by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797–1869) by Annemarie Schimmel, who handled the texts very freely in order to achieve a rhyming German version: Wave of the rose, wave of the wine (Arche 1971) and texts by Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), venerated as a national poet in Pakistan: Steppe in the dust grain. Texts from the Urdu poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, translated by Johann Christoph Bürgel (University Press Freiburg im Üechtland 1982). The German translation of the selection volume is an example of modern poetry Jan Muhammad Khan and other poems by the poet Saqi Faruqi (1936–218) before (Draupadi 2008).
What is not translated yet?
Almost everything! There are great novels that in their literary quality surpass a number of rather mediocre novels translated from English and offer access to South Asian realities that was not intended for a Western audience from the outset. In addition to socially critical, realistic works there is everything that modern postmodern literature has to offer: a broad spectrum of experimental literature, magical realism, surrealism, symbolism, montage techniques, etc. There would also be numerous treasures to be found in the field of sophisticated entertainment literature, if ours were to be found larger publishers took the entrepreneurial risk and did not wait for a commercial success of English translations.
What are the main difficulties translating from Urdu? How do you deal with that?
The main problem is the different cultural context. Many terms, everyday objects, social and religious practices, etc. are unknown to a German reading public. The decision as to how much that is foreign can be left without explanation and how any necessary explanations can be introduced without impairing the literary nature of the text must be made again and again and ultimately remains a compromise. The use of different languages or dialects in the original text is also partially lost in the German translation. I am currently working on the translation of a 2008 Pakistani novel that contains numerous English expressions. Even if I keep this in the translation, it does not necessarily produce the same, often ironic, effect as in the original. It is also difficult to find adequate equivalents for the numerous word games, in some cases the only option is to leave them out. So it doesn't go off without losses overall. On the other hand, it would be a much greater loss to withhold the text entirely from a German-speaking readership.
The most problematic are translations of lyric texts. Not only the rhythm and the sound are lost, with translations of classical poetry there is also the risk of getting close to kitsch according to our current feeling. Poems in free rhythms that gained momentum in the 20th century are easier to translate.
What can Urdu do that German cannot?
A special feature of Urdu is the very detailed, yet short and concise differentiation of activities through certain verb constructions. In this respect, the German language is poorer. Some things are neglected in the translation, some can be roughly reproduced using other linguistic means such as adverbs, prefixes or subordinate clauses. Since the Urdu vocabulary was drawn from several sources, the language is also very rich in quasi-synonyms, which allows for finer nuances and a varied style. On the other hand, word repetitions are not as frowned upon in Urdu as in German, and any number of sentences can be introduced one after the other with "and". In such cases, deletions are appropriate.
The biggest difference to German lies in the use of poetry. The Urdu culture still has a very lively approach to poetry from the 18th century to the present day. Poetry readings are very popular in public as well as in private circles, verses are learned by heart and quoted in conversation or in official speeches. There is an overwhelming abundance of recordings of recitations and vocal performances of Urdu poetry on the Internet. Urdu poems, often set to music, were and are also an important means of political protest, satire and agitation, as was the case in Germany to a similar extent only in earlier times. German no longer has this ubiquitous presence of lyrical language.
Christina Oesterheld completed her master's degree in Indology (with Urdu as first language, Hindi and Sanskrit) at the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1975, where she received her doctorate in Urdu literature in 1986. From 1990 to 2018 she was Urdu lecturer at the University of Heidelberg, with a research focus on: Urdu prose from the 19th century to the present day, Muslim reform movements of the 19th century and the literary design of Muslim identities in South Asia.In particular, she translates short stories and poetry from Urdu.
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