On Translating Ghalib
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On Translating Ghalib
Translated by M. Shahid Alam (bio)

I was in grade ten when I chanced upon an old high-school textbook on Urdu poetry—its yellowed pages partly lost to termites—that contained selected ghazals from the greatest Urdu poets: Mir, Sauda, Dard, Ghalib, Zauq, Momin, Iqbal, and Daagh. Until then I had only read English poets: Lear, Wordsworth, Blake, Carroll, Clough, Housman, and Kipling. The Urdu ghazals took me by storm. Very little have I read of English poetry since that has competed with these ghazals for my affection. Among the Urdu poets, Ghalib quickly rose to the top of my chart and never came down a notch.

I first tried my hand at translating Ghalib when I was in college. Following Selected Verses of Mirza Ghalib Rendered into English by Sufia Sadullah, I began translating a few of Ghalib's best-loved esh'aar (plural of she'r, couplet) into a form that may loosely be called quatrains. It seemed much easier then, since I was only beginning to discover Ghalib's beauty and richness.

After nearly a quarter century, I was again seized by an unshakable urge to translate Ghalib. This was more than a bit foolish since, in the meanwhile, I had been preceded by two teams of accomplished translators. I convinced myself, though, that I had one small advantage over these translators: I had access to Ghalib in the original Urdu.

When I began work on the translations, my putative advantage began to look like a handicap. My familiarity with the culture and art of Urdu ghazals hobbled my efforts. I felt constrained by the formal and literary conventions of the Urdu ghazal. It would be "treachery" if I could not convey some of the ghazal's literary conventions, complexities, music, insinuations, multiple meanings, absence of gendered pronouns, and deliberate use of ambiguity. In particular, Ghalib often endowed his ghazals with additional layers of humor, wit, irony, playfulness, ambiguity, intricate wordplay, petulance, and even tomfoolery. I had to try to capture the flavor of Ghalib's style.

Could any "translation" deliver this rich cargo of words, music, and fragrances when the ports of origin and destination are as different as Urdu and English? Place [End Page 236] the corpus of Urdu ghazals against English poetry and you have two different worlds, each with its own prosody, symbols, images, history, culture, and sensibility: the two worlds as different as one can imagine. Consider only the form of the ghazal. It consists of five or more paired lines (she'r), each standing entirely on its own, but linked to others by meter, line length, and a pattern of rhymes and refrains. In addition, each she'r often consists of two movements. The first line proposes a question, enigma, paradox, or general thesis; and the manner in which this is delivered creates an expectation, even suspense. The poet reciting his ghazal before an audience or vocalists singing the ghazal will often heighten this suspense by repeating the first line. The second line, then, comes as a denouement, resolving the tension created by the first line. Meeting these conditions—and some others— in an original ghazal written in English is difficult enough. Translating ghazals into English that observes all these rules can be more than a little daunting. Perhaps the hardest requirements are the common rhymes and line-ending refrain in both lines of the matla (the first she'r) and the second line of all the other esh'aar. Like most translators, I chose to keep the paired lines, but could only retain either the rhyme or the refrain, not both, and sometimes chose to dispense with both. Unable to catch Ghalib's multiple meanings in one translation, lately I have been leaning toward doing multiple translations of the same ghazal.

The literary conventions of the ghazal belong to a world that is nearly lost. The living tradition of the ghazal, at least the Urdu ghazal, enables its present-day aficionados to enter into this vanished world as if it were still their own. With every she'r, they immerse themselves in this lost world, relive and relish its culture and ceremonies, aesthetics and...

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