When some weeks back I wrote a commentary on Schmidle’s New Yorker article and Fair’s criticism of it, many jumped at one sentence, which I didn’t mean to be very central to this specific debate, but is an issue that I wanted to look at since some time – foreigners’ language proficiency in Pakistan and the way the country is thereby portrayed.
I think reporters and especially scholars who report on the area extensively (like Schmidle and Fair) should be oblidged to state in their papers ‘that I actually don’t even understand the local population without a translator’.
A reader has commented that Fair’s proficiency in not only Urdu is actually quite well advanced. That may be so and I believe Schmidle can speak Urdu as well – I didn’t mean to point the finger at these two, who, as I have stated, I respect for much of the work and writing they have done. However, many journalists and scholars who have a great influence in shaping the image of Pakistan in the media abroad have extremely poor language skills. There is of course no prerequisite for immediate language skills of the country you report on – interpreters do the job to get a story together. When however you step up the ladder to being a commonly acknowledged ‘expert’ on the region (in Manan Ahmed’s definition of the word) and you still are dependent on English sources and an interpreter for the vernacular, I am becoming sceptical (and for the Pashto speaking drone impact area, Fair is such an example!). It’s not so much for being capable of proper grammar, but rather that you get a feeling for what a communication is suggesting between the lines – something an interpreter won’t translate. It will give you the chance to actually understand what they are brawling about at Aaj KamranKeSath or Capital Talk or whatever is currently running in the TV that is placed in the restaurant where you are waiting for an interview partner. You’ll be actually able to understand what people talk about on the roadside and need not always resort to copy paste phrases like ‘the mood in the street is running high with anti-US sentiment’. Even if you are one of those journalists who base their stories basically on what the taxi driver from the airport to the hotel tells them, it would give you the chance to understand what he really has on his mind, and not just what remains when you put together the few English phrases he happily produces.
I find that issue especially valid for Pakistan, because it gets such wide, but, because of the language deficiency among other things, so shallow coverage. Few understand that Urdu may not be the ideal means to get at the core of the matter in most parts of the country, and that in some areas it’s even considered as colonial as English. Knowing Punjabi will help you understand that your chaiwallah is talking in poetry to you, knowing Pashto will make you aware that the local tribal leader is not cursing the infidel West into hell, but he is arguing reasonably and the tone of the language makes it sound crude to you, and understanding Burushaski will make you aware that the locals are complaining about other Pakistani individuals and not just the government. And the fact that so many media in the country are conveying information in English, leads to the assumption, that this gives a pretty fair and unbiased overview of what people are currently concerned with. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. It will tell you what the Urban Upper and Middle Class of the country is concerned with. Not much more.
On the other hand, it’s bemusing how languages in the area turn into vehicles of utility. Pashto you learn to get insight in the terrorist culture, Dari and Urdu because they have such a wide reach, Arabic because, well, religion and script and stuff. Of course that’s what how we learn languages at school as well – in Austria rather French than Italian because it has a more global reach, Chinese at University because that’s the new market, Spanish and South America is yours. Do learn Pashto because you always wanted to read Rahman Baba, Wakhi because you love the Pamir, Seraiki because of a good friend. It will give you the motivation to understand the language as a conveyor of history and culture that you could otherwise hardly grasp or just make you appreciate it’s sound and not just acknowledge it as a code that passes along information that may be geopolitically relevant. In the long run the understanding of culture through language will prove more relevant than what some Waziri checkpointwallah passed through in his Pashto dialect on the whereabouts of some cook of the third cousin of Sirajuddin Haqqani.
If foreign writers and journalists would be able to read something aside of English, we would have been spared all the recent articles on the ’emerging literature scene’ in Pakistan which, in these accounts, basically comprises just half a dozen young writers who brought the whole Pakistani literature landscape into being.
I even find many Pakistanis unaware of the fact that the country has an extremely diverse linguistic map which is not represented well in the media coverage even inside the country – reporting in Punjab or Sindh on areas outside their linguistic reach is often limited also because they have no knowledge of the language spoken there or are ignorant of their significance to local issues.
Once foreigners have aquired some ever so minor language skills, it becomes fancy to drop vernacular words here and there. I have done so and having come to think over it after a comment by @salmaan_h, do agree that if it’s not necessary to convey information that could not otherwise be conveyed in English and is just inserted to add ‘local flavor’ one should cut it – I will.
Further Interesting Reading
Anjum Altaf on learning Hindi, Farsi and Pashto as an Urdu Speaker (note the language section on their page):
As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself.
U.R. Ananthamurthy on translation in India, a very short, very great read:
[W]as he influenced by the ethos into which he was translating? Wouldn’t a lot of great literature in our languages remain untranslatable if what is good is determined by the literary ethos of the language into which we are translating? I do not know what we can do about it, or honestly speaking whether we should do anything about it. […] I read Saul Bellow as literature, but Premchand is read in the universities of United States of America for sociological purposes. That is their problem not ours. But that may well become our problem, too, if we should also globalize and become prisoners of the homogenized modern world system.
A note, Arzu says, which is too often unacknowledged. “Urdu is the language of people who are usually invisible except in movies and mushairas,” he says. “For a long time, nobody cared how people lived in Madanpura or Bhendi Bazaar. Urdu newspapers specialized in learning exactly what was going on in these communities.”
The form and functions of English in Pakistan, thesis by Mubina Talaat.