Waris Shah's Hir-Ranjha       

by Suzanne McMahon
(Suzanne McMahon is the South Asia Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley)

Hir-Ranjha is an ancient folk romance of Punjabi literature

The section with Ranjha and Sahiti was almost totally expunged by Charles Frederick Usborne, a member of the Indian Civil Service, who served in the Punjab, when he translated the poem at the beginning of the twentieth century. Usborne's handling of the poem raises some interesting questions about the translation in general that deserve further investigation. He skipped some of the more difficult sections of Hir and the version contains many mistranslations. A misguided Victorian fastidiousness impelled Usborne to edit out most of Varis Shah's more earthy banter, imposing an uncomfortable propriety on the poem and doing violence to both the mystical and secular themes. The cynical irony of some of Varis Shah's characterizations, contrasting the ideal with the actual, is lost.  For instance, the coarser jibes of Ranjha's exchange with the mullah are toned down. In the original, Ranjha chides the mullah, "A maid, a wife, a widow, a sheep, a she-ass, none is safe from you," which provides a caustic contrast with the original description of the mullah as erudite and noble. Usborne renders the sentence as, "You lead the village women astray; you are a bull among cows," which sounds more like a praise of the mullah's virility than a scathing denunciation of a sexually predatory rural clergy. Usborne's censorship significantly impeded the workings of oppositional elements within the poem. To capture the deeper structures of a poetic work, rather than simply to convey content, a translator needs what Coleridge calls speculative instruments, familiarity with the author, the language, and how social being left its imprint on syntax. Usborne's translation leads us to ask whether Coleridge's speculative instruments might be affected adversely when the translator is not conscious of potential dangers inherent in imbalance of linguistic power, as in the case of moving from a work from an indigenous language into a colonial one.