The Memoirs of Aga Khan: A Translator’s Voice

By Abdulmalik Merchant

The autobiography of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, was first published in London in 1954 under the title The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time. While the English versions of the British and American editions were circulated widely in the English-speaking world, a remarkable fact is that the 48th Imam’s autobiography was translated into several languages, both eastern and western. Besides translations into Gujarati, Sindhi and Urdu, The Memoirs of Aga Khan was translated into six European languages, all of which were published during 1954 and 1955 (for more details of these books, please click on link following article).

How accurate and well done are these translations? What was each translator’s view of the project he or she undertook? What processes did the translator apply for the translation? Was the primary focus of  the translator on the task at hand or did he try to identify with the subject of the book or its original author?

Jackets of the Western translations of "The Memoirs of Aga Khan." Top Row (l to r): French, Finnish and German; Centre Row: Italian, Spanish and Norwegian; Bottom Row: English UK and USA.

Dusty old and worn out Ismaili literary journals contain a wealth of information and insights, which I call Khajana (treasure). During a trip to Vancouver earlier this year, I grabbed a few old magazines from my parent’s archives and brought them with me to Ottawa. As I started leafing through the pages of one specific magazine earlier this week  – a 1966 Kisumu publication –  I was pleasantly surprised to come across an article by the Gujarati translator of The Memoirs, the late Mr. Jyotindra Dave (1901 – 1980). Some of my concerns are well covered by his article, which is being produced below. Regrettably his name does not appear on the book cover page or on the inside title page and, then, only a passing reference is made to his spirited effort in an editorial note contributed by the President of the Ismailia Association for India.

I decided to use the internet to find out something about Mr. Dave. I learnt that during his lifetime Jyotindra Dave was acknowledged as one of the most outstanding humorists of Gujarati literature, and that he had also worked as an oriental translator with the Bombay Government. Later, he took to teaching literature and became principal of a college in Gujarat. He was also scholar of Sanskrit and English literature. The Ismailia Association for India which was commissioned to do the Gujarati translation certainly found the right person in Mr. Jyotindra Dave for the job. I am told that Mr. Dave’s skill and brilliance of the Gujarati language are reflected in this translation of The Memoirs.

In my internet research I came across a very pleasant person, Urvish Kothari, who supplied me with an older photo of Mr Dave and his wife. He has been conducting research on Jyotindra Dave for the past eight years, and informed me that this article came as a big surprise to him as he himself wasn’t aware of the translated work. Upon his delight, he then sent the following photo accompanied by a very kind note which reads, “I coudn’t find how to share my joy of finding Jyotindra Dave’s article with you. Hence, I’m sending an unpublished rare photo of Jyotindra and his staff in the oriental translator’s office. The photo also bears the signature of Jyotindra Dave.”

A rare and unique photo of members of the Oriental Translator's Office supplied to Simerg by Mr Urvish Kothari who is conducting research on Mr. Jyotindra Dave, translator of "The Memoirs of Aga Khan" into Gujarati. Mr. Dave is seated third from right. The photo also bears his signature at the bottom right, above his printed name. Photo Credit: Urvish Kothari. Copyright.

Before producing Jyotindra Dave’s reflections, may I offer a valuable piece of advice to Ismaili families. While I supported the functions of the local Jamati library in Ottawa as its project leader, many Jamati members would come and offer back issues of Ismaili magazines for the library – including some very rare and out of print journals – saying they had finished reading them and no longer needed the magazines. My response to them was plain and clear: “Unless you are donating these magazines because they are duplicate copies, I ask that you keep the magazines in your homes.” I would further urge everyone never to recycle our community magazines. Keep them. Children and grandchildren will marvel and use them as references many years down the road, learning about Imamat activities of the era gone, how the community lived before them and how Jamati institutions functioned. Nothing is as joyful as holding and reading an actual book in one’s hands. I am thankful to my parents for preserving these old issues, which are proving useful today.  And another suggestion: When loose magazines become difficult to handle and are scattered all over the place, have them bound periodically. They will remain as proud possessisons at any home library for generations.

Now, the translator’s voice from 55 years ago.



The jacket of the Gujarati edition of "The Memoirs of Aga Khan," translated by the late Jyotindra Dave, who was held in high esteem in the Indian literary circles. Photo: Zul Khoja Collection, Ottawa.

By Jyotindra Dave


On behalf of the Ismailia Association, Mr. Sultan, accompanied by the late Shri Mastafakir [another contemporary humorist, senior to Jyotindra Dave – ed.], came to see me with the English edition of His Highness the Aga Khan’s Memoirs. I was requested to suggest names of persons who might be able to translate the book into Gujarati within a short time. I recommended a few persons, but the representative was not enthusiastic about my feedback, and ultimately insisted that I should undertake that task. I told him that I could not decide until I saw the book. I looked quickly through the pages of the copy that he provided me, and at first glance it appeared a very simple undertaking. My visitor then insisted I do the translation of the book, with the help of two gentlemen from the Ismailia Association.

I translated the first chapter of the book quite easily and I thought to myself that I was set to complete the whole book in a short time. But the difficulty started when I came to the second chapter of the book dealing with the principles of Islam. As I proceeded further, I was convinced that the task I had undertaken was going to be much more difficult than I had anticipated earlier.

The difficulty was not one of the English language. By and large, the language of the book is simple. His Highness the Aga Khan had no great love for high sounding words or unfamiliar expressions. His style was mature and simple and his language fluent, serious and easily intelligible to a reader. The reason for the difficulty in translation was quite different. His composition strewn with apt adjectives and having parenthetic sentences within the body of main sentences reminded us of Victorian prose. The adjectives he has used are so accurate and apt that their exact equivalents in Gujarati are often hard to find. And it is not very easy to arrange parenthetic clauses in Gujarati construction in the proper places, in a way that would preserve not only the original sense but the original stress as well.

However, the much greater difficulty was of a different nature altogether. This was the multicoloured personality of His Highness the Aga Khan and numerous facets covered by the book. The subjects His Highness talks about in his book range from the essence of the religious spirit of Islam to the Derbys; one then passes from highest realm of serious thoughts to the intricacies of politics, and from there on to the plains of races and thence to the palatial theatres. Along the route you find men and women reputed in these fields all over the world, and you have to wait for their acquaintance. It would not be surprising therefore for a person who embarks on such a long and arduous journey of translating to feel fatigued. Only one who is initiated in these subjects can get on with the task with interest. Even if a translator cultivates an interest and proceeds with the work, he has to strain his brain to the utmost to find the equivalents of technical terms of that subject in his own language. No authentic person had even written on these subjects in our language. The translator such as myself, therefore, has to search out for these unexplored field terms, and specially the technical terms, which are intelligible and yet convey the original connotation.


We all know the Aga Khan as the chief of a large denomination of Islam. He himself has claimed that his work in that connection, as their Imam, forms the most important part of his life. But he has made very little mention of that work in his Memoirs. As the leader of a religious sect, his purpose is not restricted merely to the spiritual uplift of his followers. He has made all possible efforts to promote their educational, economic and social progress. His followers are spread far and wide in many countries of the world and he has journeyed all over the globe to look after their welfare.

But unlike other religious heads his mission of life is not confined to his community alone. The part that be played in world politics of the past generation is well known to the students of history. Lovers of horse racing still remember his horses and the races they won. As the owner of horses he was not content with putting them in races or himself being a winner. He was equally interested in selection and breeding of the best horses and their training.

The late Jyotindra Dave, translator of "The Memoirs of Aga Khan", pictured with his surviving wife, Karsukh, who celebrated her 100th birthday recently. Photo Credit: Urvish Kothari,

This book is in many ways different from other autobiographical works of this type. On the first page of the book the Aga Khan has inscribed this maxim, “World Enough and Time.” The earth for him has really been wide, and his journey into the realms of his interest and work are wide. It has been said in the Mahabharat, “Have no doubts whether a king is the maker of time or the time is the maker of the king. Certainly the king is the maker of the time.”

This then means that the time is as good or bad as the king. Making a timely alteration, we can now say that instead of the king it is politics that is the maker of the time. In politics, which is thus the maker of the time, the Aga Khan played a prominent part and became not only a witness to the history but became its component part. He has given an account of all this in this book. Giving the raison d’etre of this book, he himself says:

“Since I have witnessed this rapid and all developing process of change in every domain of human interest and experience – the technical and mechanical revolution of our time, man’s developing mastery of natural forces, the recognition of the importance of the subconscious. the vast increase in longevity, the rise of new moral standards and the corresponding profound changes in outlook, and great political changes undreamed of in my youth – I hope in these coming chapters to give some picture of each epoch as it unfolded before the eyes and the mind and heart of one who was usually an onlooker but sometimes actively a participant.”

This picture of a whole epoch – this picture of various changes in so many spheres of life at that time – has been depicted by him in a way that fills the reader’s eyes and mind, but at the same time a faint yet distinct and distinguishable picture of his own personality is also revealed incidentally.

Normally the chief of a religious sect can hardly see beyond the limits of his own sect. He and his followers take those who believe in another faith for heretics. They emphatically propound that there is no place for these heretics in Heaven. There is no dearth of Muslims who believe that there is no place in Heaven for a kafir howsoever pious; of Hindus who say that if a yavan pollutes even with his mouth in this world, there is no place for him in Heaven: and of Christians who declare that however noble a life you lead the gates of Heaven will forever remain closed to you until you accept Jesus Christ. But the religious views of  His Highness the Aga Khan was not restricted. It was very liberal. For example, he writes in his Memoirs:

“….I further pray that all who truly and sincerely believe in God, be they Christian, Jew, Budhist or Brahmin, who strive to do good and avoid evil, who are gentle and kind, will be joined in Heaven and be granted final pardon of peace.”

Fanaticism was alien to His Highness Aga Khan’s nature. The maulavi who came to teach him Islam in his childhood was a fanatic, and he was disgusted to hear what the maulavi said. He writes:

“….Perhaps it was this early experience which for the rest of my life have given me certain prejudice against professional men of religion – be they mullahs or maulavis, curates, vicars or bishops.”

Somerset Maugham, the writer of the Preface to the book, has rightly said that His Highness the Aga Khan was a generous hearted man, and for him to say anything bad about others was contrary to his nature. In The Memoirs, His Highness the Aga Khan has given brief outlines of many people who came in contact with him. About all of them he has unequivocally said whatever he felt about them. Yet, while drawing the outlines of those with whom he had differences of opinion he has never allowed any bitterness to creep in. He has also exposed the shortcomings that be found. But, generally, he has tried to show their merits and he has done all this with the minimum of words, and with the help of one or two appropriate adjectives or bringing to light some special quality hidden in the nature of the person concerned, with the dexterity of an artist who creates a picture with a few bold strokes of his brush.

That he possessed a lofty religious spirit and a philosophic mind is revealed when he provides the sum-total of human life. He writes:

“Life in the ultimate analysis has taught me one enduring lesson. The subject should always disappear in the object. In our ordinary affections one for another, in our daily work with hand or brain, most of us discover soon enough that any lasting satisfaction, any contentment that we can achieve, is the result of forgetting self, of merging subject with object in a harmony that is of body, mind and spirit. And in the highest realms of consciousness all who believe in a Higher Being are liberated from all the clogging and hampering bonds of the subjective self in prayer, in rapt meditation upon and in the face of the glorious radiance of eternity, in which all temporal and earthy consciousness is swallowed up and itself becomes the eternal.”

And he continues:

“Never in my long life – I may say with complete honesty – have I for an instant been bored. Every day has been so short, every hour so fleeting, every minute so filled with the life I love that time for me has fled on far too swift a wing.”

How many people can say this like His Highness the Aga Khan? And the life of those who can say this should undoubtedly be called successful.

Publication date: November 19, 2010.
Last updated: September 6, 2011.


Please see related article “The Memoirs of Aga Khan” – 1st Editions in Seven Languages.

Jyotindra Dave’s piece produced above originally appeared in Waezin Digest, Volume 1 Number 1, 1955. Subsequently, it was adapted  and published by the Literary Section of  the Ismailia Association for Kenya, Kisumu Committee, in its magazine Mission Digest, Issue # 2 (9th April, 1966).  The version published on this Web site above is an edited piece of the latter’s adaptation.

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4 thoughts on “The Memoirs of Aga Khan: A Translator’s Voice

  1. As always, Simerg you do such a great job.The translators insightful comments are indeed thought provoking. I shall indeed begin to re-read the Memoirs in English at first and then attempt the Gujarati version.

    • Thank you, Zul. I sincerely thank you for taking the time so very early in the morning, and scanning the jacket of the book in time for the article’s release the same morning. It made Jyotindra’s article all the more interesting. I have quite a few inquiries about the Gujarati translation, and would be able to get you a great price for your extremely fine copy!

  2. Thank you Simerg for providing this insight. I agree…a good book in one’s hands is satisfying with a cup of tea at one’s side. But the current generation leads a life in the fast lane, with children now NOT going to be used to having books in their hands, may be a feeling which is unknown to them. But perhaps, like your venture for us, a resource, they might be able to access them here?

    Perhaps we need to involve our institutions and institutional capacity to transform these rare gems into electronic versions….this is something which would proceed with the times.

    The last paragraph is a propos with the Eid we have just celebrated…Eid al Adha, the Eid of sacrifice. “To be Godcentric and not egocentric,” is a phrase I recently heard.

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