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52: From lockdown to 'Lightning': a translator's story

Mahdee Sanglakhee
Behind the scenes at Afghanistan Today, a small and dedicated group of Afghans sustains the project with a constant flow of texts translated from Dari and Pashtu. Mahdee Sanglakhee remembers how he was first drawn…
14.09.2013  |  New York
AT translator Mahdee Sanglakhee tackles a new text. (Photos: Private)
AT translator Mahdee Sanglakhee tackles a new text. (Photos: Private)

When the northern Balkh Province, where I used to live, fell to the Taliban in 1998, I was a fourteen-year-old in ninth grade. Fearing for my life, I had no choice but confine myself with the walls of the family home for almost three months, not daring to venture outside.  

That the north had fallen to the Taliban was shock enough, but this sudden confinement was tough too. I am a very sociable person, and loved to hang out with my friends, just like teenagers the world over. Now I found myself trapped in a house where I could not watch TV, listen to music, or laugh and talk loudly. This could have brought Taliban crashing through our door at any time, which would have been the end of the story for my elder brothers and I. Thankfully, our home was never invaded.     

Enter the wolf 

But I still had to do something to cope with the psychological pressure and preserve my sanity. By the time I had finished sixth grade I was already fluent in English, so I picked up one of my old history textbooks in Persian, or Dari as the Afghan variant is called, and translated it into English.

I also decided to entertain my younger siblings by reading and interpreting an English language novel about a white wolf, the title of which I have long forgotten. They loved it and could hardly wait for evening time when I would read again for them. I was the only member of my family who could speak English, and this gave them a taste of a different culture at a time when the country was receding ever further into isolation from the outside world.          

One fateful day

Finally the situation eased in Balkh and the random killings abated, so I decided to emerge from my state of lockdown. I was admittedly terrified, paranoid that people were looking at me, and even for me. But fate dealt me an unexpected stroke of luck that day.

On my way to school, I learned that a private English language center had re-opened. Encouraged by my new language-sharing experience, I went in and applied to work as a teacher. They snapped me up and immediately assigned me a class with 30 students aged up to 40.

"Colourful images used in one language can breathe new life into another."

I took on various jobs over the next years, but also continued to teach English until June 2009 when I left Afghanistan for the United States. I taught hundreds if not thousands of pupils, and I am still proud that many of my students went on to master English, some became teachers themselves, and others received prestigious scholarships.        

After graduation from the School of Law and Political Science at Balkh University, I briefly worked as a language consultant for the Afghanistan Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission. I later joined the US government-sponsored Justice Sector Support Program to strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan, also working in the field of specialized language. And today, 15 years after I started to read out loud for my brothers, I work with Afghanistan Today, using my language skills on a project that I could never have imagined while hiding in the family home.

The nuts and bolts

My love of language acquisition means I can now break down any English sentence and exhaustively explain its workings - even if I still cannot shake that slight Afghan accent. I also dream in both Persian and in English, depending on the content. If it is something related to the US it unfolds in English, and if it is about Afghanistan, I dream in Persian.

American friends ask me what it’s like to translate from Persian to English. To some, the transformation from our seemingly impenetrable script to the Latin alphabet is almost magical in effect. But the secret is application, year after year, to the point when it becomes instinctive.

I do not initially read word by word and even sentence by sentence. I skim paragraph by paragraph to quickly get the sense of the content and the major issues in each chunk. Then I switch into English thought mode so that I can then translate as if it had never been in Persian.

Plumber's tap or potter's mug..?

But for all the chosen methodology, one always has to consider how any languages are drawn from very different contexts, cultures, literary traditions and history. You cannot simply translate word for word and even sentence by sentence - a literal rendition will often confuse the reader. A typical example of the need to find English equivalents is a Persian expression that features in many an argument, "Your hand is free from here to old London!”, meaning "Do what you like, see if I care."

The translator’s job is to first understand the text and then recreate it as naturally as possible. I may delete and replace words from the original to help achieve this. But often, instead of resorting to stock equivalents, colourful images found in one language can breathe new life into another.

In English, "A plumber's tap always drips" can be used to express an inherent flaw that should really not be there. If the text is about Afghanistan, the original image better reflects the context - not to mention a lack in many places of plumbing and plumbers: “A potter’s mug is always cracked.”         

Bring on the novels

But this switching of mindsets isn’t as taxing as it might seem. Without giving away too many of my trade secrets, the process of translation became so deeply ingrained that I can happily multi-task while I do it, talk simultaneously with my family on speaker phone, or still be rubbing the sleep from my eyes when I get an early morning assignment.

My now formidable translating speed, which I’m told earned me the nickname “Lightning” among AT editors, depends not just on the quality and subject of a text, but also my mood. Whether I’ve got a touch of the blues or am exceedingly happy, extremes will detract from my speed. I need to be somewhere at the happy medium of temperament to hit my best translating tempo. 

For me, translation is a passion, one of my hobbies. Today, I increasingly come across English novels that I feel should be made available in translation to Afghans and other Persian-speaking audiences. And what started as a diversion in fearful conditions looks to become a life's work, more than than the white wolf and I would ever have suspected all those years ago