The complete works of Shakespeare have been translated into Punjabi

Forget the disparaging remarks that inevitably follow any reference to the Punjabi literary scene. Forget also the limited vocabulary that this relatively young language holds; its most popular expressions being expletives popularized by the Hindi film industry. For, Punjabi now has the distinction of having the complete works of Shakespeare translated into it by the reclusive scholar poet Surjit Hans. It has taken him 20 years to do so and this January, when he finally finished the last book, a collection of poetry called, The Poems, Hans was bewildered at the response that his effort evoked from far and wide.

Sunning himself in the backyard of his house in Mohali, the 82-years-old former professor of History and English had to be persuaded by his daughter to put on a pugri for a photograph.  “I take after my teacher in college, who once told me that if there is something worthwhile and no one is doing it, then one can do it. I have done it for myself and my prospective readers and also because I feel that Punjabis for all their lack of interest in the letters, deserve to read Shakespeare,” says Hans.

Hans, who as a penniless immigrant in England in the mid-sixties worked a series of jobs as a postman, a bus conductor, as a factory hand, returned in 1975 to re-join his life of letters as a professor in the Guru Nank Dev University. But while in England, Hans was a member of the Shakespeare club that provided members exclusive previews of all Shakespeare stage shows for a nominal fee. He soaked up the Shakespearean world during these performances, more so because, a few years earlier, as a student in Hoshiarpur doing post graduation, he had developed a fascination for the Bard. He not only participated in several plays, but also tried his hand at translating Macbeth back then.

Even as a young student, Hans realized the worth of learning the English language from the right teachers and chose to study in a college in Hoshiarpur from an English lady. “There is no point in learning English from Indians as the teaching of English is in shambles here,” he says. And, even as he admits that given the average Punjabi’s disinterest in literature, his efforts may not find ready readers in Punjab, he has more hope from the Sikh diaspora in the English speaking world who he hopes will read at least some of them.

And though the project is of the Patiala based Punjabi university, he saw it as something that would improve his own writing. “It is similar to the copying of old masters by painters, who try to get every little detail right. Yes, the Punjabi language does not have such an extended vocabulary that can do complete justice to Shakepearean verse, but it is still a job worth doing,” he says.

“Ideally every translation is an intervention in literature. Just like when Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were translated into English, it was to remind the English novelists that something was lacking in their work, similarly, my translation might just help elevate the Punjabi writing.” He has deliberately avoided the popular form of the language, preferring to use a more formal style, because as he puts it, “my primary consideration is to improve the expression of my fellow Punjabis and I have avoided the temptation to make it easily comprehensible. You do not do the old Masters at the popular level.”

Translating Henry the VIII into Punjabi proved to be the most challenging for Hans, mainly because, “Rhetoric in which the meaning is fixated in the language, is somewhat alien to Indian languages because historically we have mostly had autocratic monarchies here. The more democratic traditions of the Roman, Greek and later borrowed by the English, developed the vocabulary of the rhetoric in their languages. Henry the VIII with its rhetorical oratory was a challenge and also a joy to translate.”

Hans has translated all 37 plays of Shakespeare and two volumes of poems. He does not know if any of his earlier translations are being read by students of literature in Punjab, or if copies of the more recent ones are available, but takes heart from Milton’s lines, “Fit audience find though few.” Somewhat predictably, Hans’ labour of love has not found much resonance in the Punjabi literary community so far, but it does not bother him much.  He was amused though to find that a gurudwara in the UK where he worked for several years, distributed photocopies of a newspaper article about him recently. Translating Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ into Punjabi is next on the table.

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