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Translating Faiz


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Potrait by Bashir Mirza, courtesy of Karachi Press Club – Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

When a friend once told Faiz that another friend, and well known economist, was planning to translate Faiz’s poetry into English, Faiz just smiled and clucked and said nothing. We insisted that he express an opinion, and eventually succeeded in extracting the kind of gem of wisdom that only comes from a lifetime of learning and patience, “Before you set out to translate poetry from one language to another...” Faiz said, “you should make sure that you know... at least one of the bloody languages”!

Which is my way of saying that I have no claims, nor even pretenses to knowing either language! I learnt my English from comic books, from Superman and The Lone Ranger, maybe even Tonto; and I was never formally taught Urdu, perhaps because there were no comic books. And yet herewith around 50 of Faiz’s poems in English, by me, for whatever they are worth.

I suppose the motive was what it always is with such endeavours: You come upon something which gives you immense pleasure, and there is the irresistible urge to share it with others, and to share it by somehow putting in your own two bits worth. That is why poetry is set to music, and people dance to it; and if they can neither sing nor dance they render it into English.

These were done over many years, piecemeal, whenever fancy struck, and put away in a bottom drawer, until kind friends came upon some of them and encouraged me to think of publishing them, “You may waste a bit of paper but no permanent harm will ensue.” Fortunately, they were also able to talk Salima into trying her hand at creating visuals to go along.

Fortunate because one has always felt that the very nature of Faiz’s verse is so amorphous that the usual way of illustrating poetry — taking up a single verse and creating an image of it – will simply not work, as it hasn’t when it has been tried. Really, the only thing to do is somehow to catch and capture the hue that pervades a poem – and the first requisite of that is to be convinced that that is the way to do it.

The bottom line, I guess, at least for my part of this is that it is an act of self-indulgence; happily for you that absolves you of a few responsibilities. It absolves you of the necessity of reading the translations, or of liking them. Certainly it absolves you of the responsibility, if you don’t like them, of telling me.

Likewise, it absolves me of a few responsibilities. The first is any responsibility for transitional accuracy. These are not translations for a textbook, and I have admitted the indulgence involved, and so many times if an English phrase appealed to me which did not accurately match the Urdu words, I have used it. Second, it absolves me of any responsibility for the choice of works. It you do not find your own particular favourite among the poems selected by me, too bad!

…The… very well known poem, Mujh Se Pehli Si Muhabbat presents… difficulties, as it…says it all in the first line. I was roped into translating it for a Conference at Columbia University. Fortunately, it is different from the first in that the first line is more a summation of what comes after than an anticipation, and so there was the opportunity to neatly side-step it.

Faiz never said so, but I have always felt that somewhere deep down in his unconscious he knew that he was going to be the last of the practitioners of classical Urdu poetry — and so in many instances when he writes on a subject, I read an attempt to sum up and round off and say the final word on what has been said before. There is, for instance, Bahaar Aaee. If you look for it you will find that it seems to be saying this is what our poetry has had to say of Spring. Perhaps Dasht-i-Tanhaee too is like that...

Excerpted from ‘Foreword — A disclaimer’ from the following book Aaj ke Naam: A Song For This Day; 52 Poems by  Faiz Ahmed Faiz - Translated by Shoaib Hashmi

Comments (1) Closed

Jalaludin S. Hussain Feb 14, 2011 01:01am
Hashmi Sahib, as-Salaam Alaikum, Please kindly inform me where can I buy your book,"Aaj ke Naam.. in Montreal or Toronto. My e-mail address Thanks.