H. M. Naqvi in Dawn:
Translation is not a craft but an art, a vital one, one that allows us to participate in each other’s experiences, in each other’s stories. Imagine if we had remained cloistered like our fur-swathed forefathers — far-flung tribes wrapped up in ourselves. Imagine the world without the Mahabharata, Iliad, A Thousand and One Nights, Rumi’s musings, Cervantes’s epic. Without Flaubert, Proust, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Imagine learning Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, and Russian. And what of Chinese?
In a wonderfully thought-provoking piece titled ‘The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel’2 Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, describes his experience teaching Chinese to American students: “The most anguishing question I get is ‘Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ___?’ I am tempted to say that the question makes no sense … [for in] languages as far apart as English and Chinese, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.” Elucidating, he offers the example of a word as corporeal, as tangible as ‘book’. Apparently, the closest approximation of book is the word shu. But shu might mean writing or letter or calligraphy or, intriguingly, book-ness. If you were to ask for a book at a Chinese bookstore, you would ask for “a volume of book-ness”.