The House of Fear by Ibn-e-Safi

The place: Allahabad. The year: 1948. Twenty-year old Abrar Narvi was a fairly well-known Urdu poet, a sometimes writer of short stories and satires, and with a wish to write in other genres as well. One day, someone told him that Urdu novels “would not sell without an element of sex in them”. When Narvi said that no one had ever tried, the same someone retorted that until this was tried no one would know, would they?

Narvi took this remark very seriously, changing the course of his life and that of a whole legion of his readers. In 1952, under the pseudonym of Ibn-e-Safi, he produced his first novel in Urdu without an element of sex and with an emphasis on originality and newness. This novel, in the crime fiction genre, was the first of a series that came to be known as “Jasoosi Duniya”. And in 1953, when Narvi migrated to Karachi in Pakistan, another series was created in the same genre that came to be known as the Imran Series.

Ibn-e-Safi was a prolific writer and wrote 3–4 novels a month at the peak of his productive period. When he passed away in 1980, he had written about 245 novels across both the series. Published simultaneously in India and Pakistan, his novels were hugely popular as they were the type that everyone in a family could read. In fact, Ibn-e-Safi’s publishers (on both sides of the border) claim that no writer of Urdu crime fiction has broken his sales record till date!

It is this popularity which prompted an attempt at translating Ibn-e-Safi’s novels into English to enable a larger number of readers to become acquainted with his works.

The House of Fear (Random House India, 2009, Rs.195/-, pp.228) comprises two novels — “The House of Fear” and “Shootout at the Rocks”— which has been translated by Bilal Tanweer, an author himself. Both the novels are from the Imran series, with the former being the very first one written in the series. The novels are preceded by an “Introduction”, which is a biographical sketch of Ibn-e-Safi written by his son, Ahmed Safi.

“The House of Fear” revolves around the mystery of dead bodies, with identical dagger marks exactly 5 inches apart, in an abandoned house. “Shootout at the Rocks” is a classic mystery full of drug trade, a 200-year old Chinese gang, secret papers, spies, intrigue, threats and what not. While the plot of the former novel is rather convoluted and far-fetched, in the case of the latter it is rather simple and straightforward — I was able to correctly guess the “villain”. The novels are set in the 1950s, which was a time of no mobile phones, no fancy electronic gadgets, and a time when solving mysteries meant the detective using their grey cells.

The detective-protagonist is Ali Imran, a highly qualified criminologist, who solves the mystery in both the novels. Imran takes centre stage as the principal character, rather than the plots—all other characters only exist to showcase Imran, a deliberately irritating personality who talks absolute nonsense and gibberish at times.

Imran returned to the bike, but sat in the opposite direction: with his back leaning against Fayyaz’s back.

Fayyaz said, annoyed, “You want me to look like an idiot? Sit straight.”

“Straight? Am I sitting on my head now?”…

“Imran, why do you consider me a fool? You shouldn’t act like a madman…”

“Madman? You are the madman,” Imran retorted…

Fayyaz did not reply. The bike was running at full throttle.

“Hain?” Imran said suddenly. “Why is this bike going the other way? And oh, where is the handle?” He started shouting, “Help ! Save me ! I cannot look backwards.”

Fayyaz stopped the bike and looked around embarrassedly at the pedestrians.

(Extract from “The House of Fear”, pp.10-11)

Imran loves to quote poetry and philosophy and has mannerisms make him the butt of jokes and ridicule of peers and family alike.

“Confucius has said…”

“Don’t mention Confucius as long as I’m here, you understand?” Dickson grew angrier.

“Okay,” Imran nodded his head like a dutiful and obedient child, and tore open a pack of chewing gum. Martha cracked up again.

(Extract from “Shootout at the Rocks”, p. 160)

This behaviour hides an extremely sharp mind and the fact that Imran is also the Chief of the Secret Service.

For someone who knew nothing about Ibn-e-Safi, his biographical sketch at the beginning of the book was a perfect introduction to his life and work. Therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that I began reading the first of the two novels, “The House of Fear”. By the time I reached page 5, the familiar sinking feeling crept in and the next 50-odd pages only confirmed my suspicion—this book was lost in translation. Literally.

“You don’t have any shame do you? Bringing disgrace to your father’s good name, knocking around his turban…” Surayya said. [italics mine] (pg. 55)

Knocking around his turban is the literal translation for the Hindi/Urdu phrase, “pagri ucchalna”, which means to disgrace or dishonor. There are many other literal translation gems as well. Like this one.

“If there is some mischief then…”

“Punish me by making me stand like a hen …” [italics mine] (pg. 103)

I could not believe my eyes. The Urdu/Hindi phrase “murga banana” has been literally translated into “making me stand like a hen” !

While I admit that translating is never an easy job, bloopers like this do nothing to add to the value of the translation. Instead, they end up caricaturing the context, the poem, the original language even. Take this translation of a Ghalib verse, which left me totally perplexed:

A lament, the wealth of a whole world; and the whole world,
a handful of dust the sky appears as the egg of a turtledove,
to me. (pg. 45)

I wish the book had retained the original shers and muhavraas in the English translation with the corresponding explanation given as a footnote or endnote. It would also have been a good idea to give a chronological listing of all of Ibn-e-Safi’s books. There are 8 blank pages at the end of the book that could have been used for this purpose by the publishers.

Crime and mystery fiction is one of my favourite genres and I never let go of an opportunity to read a book in this category. I started reading the Ibn-e-Safi with the hope of discovering a writer from the Indian subcontinent and drooling over a whole new series just waiting to be read. I did discover a “new” writer, but I am not so sure if I want to read more of his books. At least not the English translations. I would, however, love to read them if they are available in Hindi or if the English translations are better.

Nostalgia is a powerful motivator to resurrect long-forgotten stuff or to bring them out of the woodwork in a contemporary, new avatar. But nostalgia alone is not enough and this translation of Ibn-e-Safi’s novels is a good example.

PS: This book was sent to me for review by Random House India and the views expressed here are my own.

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31 thoughts on “The House of Fear by Ibn-e-Safi

  1. this is one of the reasons i avoid translations… when i can :D that said, there are translations i have loved to read, such as one series of poems of Rabindranath Tagore.. but such beautiful translations are rare indeed!

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    • And I love translations and actively seek them out. :-) I would have lost out on the wealth of literature in Indian languages had there been no translations.

      Translations are difficult and tricky are actually need to be transliterations rather than word-to-word translations. Publishing translations needs a discerning editor with a feel for multiple languages, and of course a committed publisher. Some of the best translations have come out of Sahitya Akademi and Katha.

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    • Urdu is tough to translate into English as is Persian, but not impossible. And you are right when you say that we would have lost out on so many literary gems if not for their English translations.

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    • If you don’t mind the poor translation, then you could enjoy the book. It does have its good points in a racy plot and a glimpse of an era and a place that we do not know anything about.

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  2. Wow! I’m definitely adding this to my list of reading.
    Translations do fail with respect to the nuances of language and subtleties that the writer in the original language conveys; but they are still the best and quickest option to glimpse into a foreign world. I’ve experienced this in books, songs, poems. But hey, something is definitely better than nothing.

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    • I love translations too, and am ever ready to read one. I may not always figure out a bad translation if it is from a language that I don’t know. But if the translation is from a language that I know then it is that much easier to pick out. I really wanted this one to work, but that did not happen… :-(

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  3. “Stand like a hen”. Seriously, Doesn’t Random have a copy editor, a proof reader? Do they employ people in India that are aware of the Hindi or Urdu language? Who in their right mind lets a book be published like this. Aiyyo!!

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      • Isn’t it the publishing house’s job to employ said people? Surely, there cannot be an excuse for putting out such a shoddy product. Not only does it sour the reader on the translation, there is also the risk of the reader thinking the original is terrible too. As far as your translations are concerned, Sudha, I’m sure you wouldn’t translate murga banna as “Stand like a hen” :)

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      • Welcome here, Deepali and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

        Some things are untranslatable into other languages, as they are typical to the idiom and culture of that language. “Murga banao” is one such word.

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        • Thanks for ur kind words. i was wondering it can be translated..since when i was very little, we had a english teacher..she used to tell the naughty kids to “become a murga”, and we had a music teacher who used to say “cock bano”.

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  4. Ohh reminded me of all the Feluda I’ve read… crimes without sex…but unlike the translation issues you mentioned for Ibn-e-safi’s works… Gopa Majjumdar did a fantastic justice to Satyajit Ray’s Feluda. :)

    Do let me know if you find some better translations of Ibn-e-safi’s works though, would love to read.

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    • Gopa Majumdar’s translation of Feluda is indeed very good, and itremains one of my favuorites in translation, as a book in the genre of crime fiction and also as a good piece of writing.

      I saw another book by Ibn-e-Safi on Random House India’s website called The Dangerous Man. It has a different translator — Taimoor Shahid. I have no no idea how this one is.

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    • I’ve read a couple of the translated Feluda books, too- and loved them!

      I like to read translations. Perhaps a Hindi translation from the original Urdu of Ibn-e-Safi would be a better read, instead of English?

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      • In my opinion, Urdu is difficult to translate; its lyrical idiom does not lend itself very well to English. But Ibn-e-Safi’s works in Hindi would be the closest to reading it in Urdu. As I said in the post, I will read Ibn-e-Safi in Hindi, but not in English.

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  5. Oh No… when I started to read your review I had the same feeling when I discovered Feluda by Satyajit Ray. But you are right, if the translation is not good then it spoils everything. Although the pice of the book isn’t that much so someday I just might try it, but I do hope that maybe future translations are a little better. Cheers!

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    • This is definitely an opportunity lost to introduce a home-grown whodunit, if you know what I mean. Another Ibn-e-Safi’s book has been published, this time translated by a different person. I wonder how that is.

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  6. I am reminded of that hilarious translation, “Fence-going chameleon, ear-putting, umbrellaing umbrellaing” (Veliyoda pora Onaanai kaadil vittundu kodaiyuthe kodaiyuthennanam – in Tamil). While these translations do not rise to those heights of mixed translation they seem to be as bad. :)

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    • I laughed so much after reading your comment that I had to wait for a full day before I could respond to it. It made my day. The funniest one I have come across during the course of my work is “Full Moon of The Teacher” for Guru Purnima. That was only one of the many interesting translations in a manuscript submitted by an overzealous translator. It was a nightmare then, but today I can look back and laugh at it. :-)

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