COLUMN: Homer’s The Odyssey, in Urdu
Thanks to Mohammad Salim-ur-Rahman’s translation of The Odyssey, Homer is partly available to us in our own language. It was in the early 1960s that this translation came out under the title Jahangusht Ki Wapsi. Of course it was hailed as a great literary event. Till then two of Homer’s epics were available to Urdu readers, but now, after about 50 years, Ilqa Publications has brought out its third edition.
Mohammad Salim-ur-Rahman is also known to have compiled a tazkara of greats of the ancient period of Greek literature. This volume was published in 1992 under the title Mashahir-i-Adab Unani and the book highlights the writer’s interest in the ancient Greeks with particular reference to their literature. So it is for reasons best known to him that he has not attempted to undertake the translation of Homer’s The Iliad.
The Odyssey may in fact seem as an offshoot of The Iliad. The central character, Odysseus, formed part of the galaxy of those heroes who were in the forefront of the war waged against Troy. Among them were great warriors such as Achilles and Agamemnon. They were extraordinarily brave soldiers. But Odysseus had an edge over them because of an additional quality other than bravery; he was a cunning man too. Salim-ur-Rahman has aptly compared Odysseus to the epic heroes, Amir Hamza and Umar Ayyar from Dastan-i-Amir Hamza. He thinks that in the person of Odysseus we find a combination of Amir Hamza and Umar Ayyar. We see the demonstration of such qualities on his part during the Trojan War, when he conceived of the Trojan horse. It was through this machination that the fall of Troy was achieved.
With the fall of Troy, the ten-year long war came to an end. The Greek heroes then embarked on their return journey. The most testing is the return journey of Odysseus. He is in a hurry, speedily sailing back to his country Ithaca, where his queen, Penelope and his son, Telemachus are eagerly awaiting him. But fate had something else in store for him. Strange troubles and unimagined calamities came his way throughout the course of his voyage. Returning safe from the battleground of Troy he, with his diminishing number of companions, was in the thick of a new battle. The vast ocean transformed into a battleground where the
hostile forces of nature seemed arrayed against him.
Salim-ur-Rahman has, in the foreword, tried to decipher the significance of this tortuous journey in different ways. In the first instance, it appears to him an allegorical narrative of the state of exile, which in general is the fate of the survivors of a war. So often at the end of the war they find themselves as lost souls, uprooted people wandering in search of their roots.
But in his second thought he feels that though this may seemingly be a journey in the outer world, it may also be interpreted as a man’s journey in his inner world. The Cyclops Cave, the island of Circe, the sorceress, the Scylla and Charybdis may be interpreted as different stages of the inner journey traditionally called Haft-Khwan.
But what is the significance of this epic in the history of literature? The Iliad and The Odyssey taken together have been considered by western scholars as the first expression of the western mind in a literary form. Let me quote directly from E.V. Rieu, who in his preface to his English translation, says that “The Odyssey with its well-knit plot, its psychological interest and its interplay of characters, is the true ancestor of the long line of novels that have followed it. And though it is the first, I am not sure it is not still the best.”
According to Salim-ur-Rahman, The Odyssey is an amalgamation of a novel and a travelogue. But what we see in dastans, katha kahani, and in old tales in general is something different from a travelogue. In a travelogue the traveller is seen narrating his observations in a realistic way, an account of actual happenings, while in a dastan travel comes as a starting point of the story.
Once the adventurer embarks on a journey, things start happening in strange ways. The whole is an imaginatively conceived adventure. That is what a dastan is. One may say that The Odyssey too is a dastan developing in this way. With this passage of time it became modernised and developed into a form of expression now known as the novel.
Homer had conceived this epic in verse form. If Salim-ur-Rahman has chosen to translate it in prose he has a justification for it.
He argues that as western critics like to call The Odyssey a novel, he thought fit to translate it in prose.
After careful pondering, he decided to translate it in simple and easy prose. And of course it goes well with the translated English version as well as with the reader. We feel comfortable with the prose style employed here.