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February 10, 2019


Much has been said about the difficulties one faces in translating poetry. Yes, it is a daunting task, particularly in the case of good poetry. In the case of great poetry, it is ultimately a frustrating task. The reasons are obvious: great poets take upon themselves the onus of exhausting the possibilities of the medium in which they work — colour, brush and pencil for a Picasso or a Michelangelo; words and their history, metaphors and symbolism, rhythm and balance for a Shakespeare or a Ghalib. Their works resist and militate any attempt at transferring them from their own medium into another. Intriguingly, it is precisely this demurral to dislocation that happens to be the testimonial flag of their greatness.

Translating classical Urdu poetry has its own peculiar, in fact unique, challenges. Here is a tradition that arises from the bosom of an indelibly and irreversibly language-bound milieu. Linguistic usages, idioms, turns of phrase, phonetics, mixing of the metaphorical with the real, semantic ranges and the multivalence of verbal expressions — sometimes Urdu poetry is an embodiment of all this. Remove it from its linguistic soil and it wilts, or else it changes its looks. How have our English translators struggled throughout with the word jigar (literally ‘liver’) in Urdu poetry, or the word naaz (often translated as ‘coquetry’), or adaa (‘style’), or khamyaaza (literally, ‘yawning’), or pindaar (rendered generally as ‘conceit’)! The trouble is that all these words have a whole range of meanings, and they are drenched in Urdu poetic formulary: how can this be carried over into the poetic form of another language?

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, master craftsman that he is, exploits in his verse a pretty wide range of meanings and usages of a given word or phrase at once, so skilfully that all of them make sense at the same time. As a matter of fact, there is a standard poetic device called ihaam (literally, ‘to put into deception’), a praiseworthy artifice (san‘at) whereby a word is used such that it has a plain/well-known meaning and a distant/obscure meaning or meanings, and either both the former and the latter work equally well, or it is the latter that is intended, and thereby the reader is ‘deceived’. Ghalib has employed this device frequently — for example, he uses the word shikast, at once meaning both ‘defeat’ and ‘breakage’, and they both work simultaneously:

[What is the echo/sound of the breaking of the value/price of a heart]

Another word which functions in its dual meaning in a verse is shor — ‘noise’ as well as ‘salt’. So,

[The outcry/uproar of the counsel of the Adviser sprinkled salt on the wound]

In fact, the same plurality of meaning is exploited in the second half of this verse in which the word maza appears, both in the literal sense of ‘taste’ as well as metaphorical sense of ‘fun’ or ‘joy’. This is Ghalib’s superb craft. But more, in his fascinating visuality, this poetic giant makes use even of the shape of letters as they are actually scribed in the Urdu script. It seems to me, albeit tentatively, that this visual technique is unique to Ghalib in the whole history of Urdu poetry.

So how does one translate Ghalib, say, into English? Some people say this is not possible at all, and so, alas, the treasure of the Urdu ghazal must remain hidden from the world audience. And yet, the ingenuity of some people has found ways of getting round the challenge so as not to surrender completely. One way is that of Frances Pritchett. Indeed, the Urdu world ought to be forever grateful to this indefatigable scholar for her Columbia site ‘A Desertful of Roses’, a work on which she has practically invested a lifetime. What Pritchett has done is a strictly literal and accurate English translation of Ghalib, eschewing all consideration of the elegance/inelegance of her literal translations and supporting every single verse with copious notes and references, along with commentaries, both her own and by other modern and classical scholars. And there is more to the Pritchett bouquet, more by way of indices, glossaries, lists and the like. This is some feat! Among other things, the Pritchett method is an invaluable tool for teaching Ghalib to students of Urdu poetry.

But then, some poetically adventurous translators have found other methods of handling the challenge. What we see among these is the method, not of translating Ghalib into English directly, but of transcending him in verse. What does this mean? This means several things. One is to construct one’s own verse inspired by the words of Ghalib, so what we get is not Ghalib, but rather, shadow Ghalib. In my view, this is what Jane Hirshfield has done in her beautiful casting of the ‘shadow’ in English. Strictly speaking, here Ghalib serves as the point of departure, a taxiing runway, an anchor.

But transcending Ghalib also means rendering him into English freely and, instead of providing notes and explanations, constructing more than one version of the rendering. A remarkable pioneering example of this method is the recent work of Shahid Alam, Intimations of Ghalib, published by Orison Books. What we find here is the identification of particular central themes in the original ghazals, a considered liberty on the part of the author. He gives titles to Ghalib’s ghazals — note that traditionally the ghazal genre does not carry any titles; there is a variegated multiplicity of subjects in a ghazal such that each verse is an independent poem in itself.

But what is novel in this method of bringing Ghalib into English is the construction of more than one version. This is an acknowledgement that the original cannot be rendered into English in any exhaustive single manner. Thus, by providing several possibilities, and doing so in verse, saves the author from having to interrupt his line’s poetic flow by interposing notes and annotations. This is highly ingenious. But why didn’t I call this act ‘transcreation’? Because Ghalib will not allow us to create him in any way other than his own.

The columnist is Professor of Comparative Liberal Studies at Habib University and Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania

Translations of verses taken from Frances Pritchett’s website ‘A Desertful of Roses’

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 10th, 2019