This July, in a café in a Bloomsbury courtyard, Aamer read aloud 'Knotted Tongue' to me, translating directly from his Urdu script. I was enchanted by the jewel-like story, shaped, I believe, by his knowledge of Persian poetry. I urged him to go ahead with an English version, though I had enjoyed the fact that his immediate translation displayed so much of the vernacular. He suggested, as the story is set in London, that I might like to co-operate with him to arrive at a very English result. I was delighted to have the opportunity to play around with such lyrical words. My background is in editing in a more formal context (parliamentary speeches) but I also write poetry and fiction.
The theme of 'Knotted Tongue' is a poet's 'knots in her tongue' as she struggles to cope with the destabilising effects of the war on terror in her own country and also its consequences world-wide. The narrator tells of Zohra's wandering, ultimately tragic life, but he expresses no opinion of his own on the disasters that have silenced her.
The narration is also about language, Zohra's own native tongue and that of her adopted country; and parallels Aamer's writing of the story in Urdu and then translating it into English, achieving a slightly different effect for a different readership.
While retaining the cadence of the poetic voice, I have tried to pin down the actuality of the story, which meant almost mind-reading the intention behind each word; bearing in mind also that editing, and definitely translating, inevitably becomes a critical process, and Aamer's writing has left room for the reader to make his or her own interpretation beyond its reticence and ambiguity.
I have used the lightest of touches, choosing here and there a more precise verb and also altering the order of words and phrases to point up the story line; for instance, Stanza 9 begins with the description, 'In a glass hall on the banks of the river,' to emphasise the openness and universality of Zohra's experience.
The final tragedy of this tale of a much loved friend is that Zohra is killed by a hit-and-run driver, showing again how callously human beings can behave, not only in wartime, and mirroring the horror that has caused her voicelessness. However, music, recordings of ragas played on the sarod and the veena, another form of communication, is her legacy to her friend when words can no longer be formed.
Aamer Hussein is a Contributing Editor at Asymptote. He was born in Karachi in 1955 and has lived in London since the '70s. A graduate of SOAS University of London, he has been publishing fiction and criticism since the mid-1980s. He is the author of five collections of short fiction, including Insomnia (2007), and two novels, Another Gulmohar Tree (2009) and The Cloud Messenger (2011). He has also edited an anthology of writing from Pakistan called Kahani (2005). His first selection of an essay and four fictions in Urdu, from which this story is taken, will appear in the journal Dunyazad (Karachi) later this year. He is Professorial Writing Fellow at Southampton University.
Carole Smith had had poems and articles published before applying to study creative writing with Aamer Hussein at Southampton University. Five years later, she is about to submit as part of her PhD thesis a novel examining, through the lives of its four protagonists, how greatly the expectations of and pressures on young women in England have changed since the 1920s.
She was born in Southampton, then as a teenager lived in Cyprus and Germany, where her father served with the army. She continued to travel after her marriage, living and working in Kuala Lumpur and Washington DC. In 1978 she returned to England to join Hansard as a reporter; and retired as Editor of Debates, House of Lords, in 2003, when she and her husband moved to The New Forest. This gave her time initially to complete a degree in art history, her other great interest apart from literature.
Julia Sanches is Brazilian by birth but has lived in New York, Mexico City, Lausanne, Edinburgh and Barcelona. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and a Masters in Comparative Literature and Literary Translation from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She was runner-up in MPT's poetry in translation competition and has translated work from Spanish that has been published in Suelta. She works as a freelance translator, private teacher of English and Portuguese, and as a reader for Random House Mondadori. She is currently learning her sixth language and living in her sixth country.