Pakistan: How politics spurred interest in German literature

12 Nov



Due to Pakistan's British colonial past, English literature has always been popular in the South Asian country. German writers come in second, but they made their mark for reasons more political than literary.


One of the enduring legacies of British rule over the Indian subcontinent is the English language. It's been 77 years since Pakistan gained independence and parted ways with undivided India, but English literature and language still play a big role in the country's cultural landscape.


This colonial legacy meant that writers and poets from other European countries, such as Germany and France, didn't receive as much recognition in Pakistan as their British counterparts, at least on the public level. "Colonial rule had its impact on South Asia. Since the region was ruled by the British, the intellectual traditions that were established here had to do with the English language, as was the case in French colonies where French literature had an influence. 

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The German language didn't have a major say in this part of the world," Iftikhar Arif, a prominent Urdu poet, told DW. "Two of the greatest minds — Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud — had a huge role to play, but that were in the domains of politics and psychology. Hence, German writers and poets weren't as well-known in Pakistan as William Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy," he added.


Politics and literature

German writers caught the attention of Pakistan's litterateurs due to political reasons, starting in the 1930s and continuing until the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Marxist ideology was in vogue during that period in India and Pakistan, with many writers drawing inspiration from Russian and German thinkers, philosophers, poets and fiction writers.

During the Cold War, Pakistan was closely allied to the United States and helped Washington in defeating communism. This meant that writers and activists that were influenced by Marxism faced a crackdown from the state. However, Russian writers such as Maxim Gorky, and German storytellers such as Bertolt Brecht, continued to inspire Pakistan's left-leaning intellectuals.

In 1986, broadcaster Aslam Azhar directed the Urdu version of Brecht's Life of Galileo in a theatrical production to mark the 50th anniversary of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), a literary society inspired by socialism. The staging of the play was a considered a bold effort because military dictator General Ziaul Haq was at the helm of the country.

Haq, who seized power in 1977 by ousting Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a democratically elected prime minister, and helped Washington counter the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan, had put curbs on freedom of expression. Only writers that toed Haq's Islamist line were favored by the state, while liberal and socialist intellectuals faced the dictator's wrath. Despite that, Urdu poets like Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib continued to pen verse that focused on the plight of the working class people during that time.


Role of translations

Translations, obviously, played a key role in making German literature accessible in Pakistan. "After Pakistan's independence, works of Brecht were translated into Urdu. When I was heading the National Language Authority in Islamabad, I published those translations. Goethe, Rilke and Annemarie Schimmel were also translated," poet Arif said.

Over the years, and as socialist influences on Pakistani culture dwindled, interest in translating German books into Urdu also declined. According to Manuel Negwer, who was director of the Goethe-Institut in Karachi from 2012 to 2015, there is still some interest in German literature in Pakistan, albeit not a strong one. "It is reflected in the number of books borrowed from our library at the institute. There was mainly an interest in the Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Böll, Herta Müller and Günter Grass. I invited the two novelists Yassin Musharbash and Thomas Brussig to a literature festival, and their readings were very well received by the audience," Negwer told DW.


Dwindling interest in German literature

Stefan Winkler, who succeeded Negwer at Goethe-Institut in Karachi and remained its head until 2020, said there is now a lack of interest in German literature in Pakistan. "Unfortunately, we could not do much because of a lack of translators. We had a poetry project whose website is still on," he said, referring to a project that was launched in 2014 by the Goethe-Institut in Mumbai in collaboration with Literaturwerkstatt, Berlin. Its objective was to provide a platform for poets from South Asia and Germany to translate each other's works. 

Those who are interested in German literature in Pakistan prefer to read it in English, as its readership is largely restricted to intelligentsia. "I remember a book of poetry by Faiz that was translated into German. I don't remember any works being translated from German into Urdu, at least not sponsored by the Goethe-Institut," Negwer said. "Normally, the local publishers formulate a need to translate a certain work into the local language. Since most important works of German literature have been translated into English, there was no demand for an additional translation into Urdu during my time," Negwer said.

Literary analysts say there are several factors to a decreasing interest in German literature in Pakistan, varying from political to cultural. "The fundamental factor is our negligible relationship with [other] foreign languages and our friendship with English. The friendship with English is beneficial because it's a repository of all literatures in the world. The other factor is our alienation from new ideas, new concepts and dwindling reading habits," journalist Ghazi Salahuddin told DW.


Author Mohammad Salman in Karachi

Edited by: Shamil Shams

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