Composed Feb. 1996; provided by the author for this website.

Ghalib: A Review of Translations

by C. M. Naim

Mirza Asadullah Khan, by far the most widely admired Urdu poet, was born in Agra in 1797, and died in 1869 in Delhi. He adopted Ghalib (‘Dominant’) for his takhallus or literary name, and wrote poetry in both Persian and Urdu. A certain intellectual edge—a combination of a delightful wit and a questioning mind that favors paradoxes—and the kinetic energy of his images mark his verse, and make it so attractive even now.

Ghalib’s fame is due to his ghazals in Persian and Urdu, and ghazal is an extremely difficult genre to translate into English. It consists of a certain number of distichs, all in the same meter and conforming to the same scheme (aa, ba, ca, da, etc.) of single or double rhymes. Usually, each distich is a complete semantic unit, independent of other distichs, and each line in a distich is grammatically self-contained. These restrictions combine to produce a remarkably compact, almost terse, poetic statement, demanding that the reader bring to it much from his life as well as literary experience. The ghazal’s symbolic language, its manifold cultural references and allusions, the music created by the choice and placement of words, all must be recognized and responded to—a difficult task for any translator.

Perhaps the first full-length book to make the attempt was J. L. Kaul’s Interpretations of Ghalib (1957). As the title indicates, Kaul sought to communicate to the reader all that the original two lines in Urdu communicated to him, often in English lines several times over in number. He also chose to ‘interpret’ some three hundred or so selected verses, rather than entire ghazals—a common practice in Urdu in the context of ghazals. An Urdu ghazal is most often a collection of discrete couplets—‘pearls at random strung’—which the poet need not always publish or orally present in entirety, or even in some fixed order. Kaul’s interpretative mode was also employed by Daud Kamal and B. N. Raina, but on a smaller scale. Other translators, however, have tried to match the two lines of the Urdu with two to four short lines in English—focusing on the exact words of Ghalib, and leaving interpretation to the imagination and literary experience of the reader.

Ghalib’s death centenary in 1969 brought forth a spate of books, including some translations. Ahmed Ali’s Ghalib: Selected Poems (1973) contains a short but succinct introduction and some eighty selections of varying length in elegant and lucid translation. Often employing four or five short lines for each distich, Ali maintained the verbal economy of Ghalib’s verse, while accurately communicating its ideational impulse. Aijaz Ahmad’s Ghazals of Ghalib (1971), on the other hand, was an unusual enterprise. Ahmad prepared prose translations of thirty-seven ghazals, each reduced to only five distichs each. These he gave, with a minimum of explanatory comments, to seven American poets—W.S.Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, David Ray, Thomas Fitzsimmons, Mark Strand, and William Hunt. The latter then prepared their own ‘versions’ of the ghazals they felt closer to, these ranging from close approximations to free-wheeling riffs. The book makes for exciting reading, not for what it makes available of Ghalib, but for the fascinating creative engagement of seven modern poets of one tradition with the high classical verse of another, quite different tradition. Here is an example; first Ahmad’s literal version, then three poetic versions:

In my night of loneliness, owing to the ferocity/grief of the fire in my heart,
The shadow eluded me like a waft of smoke.
    (Aijaz Ahmad)

In the lonely night because of the anguish
of the fire in my heart
the shadow slipped from me like smoke
    (W. S. Merwin)

Through the bonfire my grief lit in that darkness
the shadow went past me like a wisp of smoke
    (Adrienne Rich)

That lonely night fire inhabited my heart
And my shadow drifted from me in a thin cloud of smoke.
    (Mark Strand)

And here is Ali’s translation of that verse:

With the savagery of the fire
Of thought on lonely nights
My shadow abhorred my presence
And avoided me like smoke.

Ghalib built his couplet around a nominal construct [tarkib]—“the vahshat of heart’s fire”—and through the witty process of providing a cause where none was needed: “[All shadows disappear in the dark of a night, but] my shadow stayed away from me because . . .” By particularising night as “the night of loneliness”—when the poet-lover’s heart is conventionally ‘afire’—Ghalib makes a shadow theoretically possible. Next he gives that fire an attribute: vahshat—a word which allows for ‘intensity’—as in the case of the three ‘versions’—and ‘ferocity’—as in Ali’s translation. But it also contains a third sense: ‘avoidance of human contact like a wild animal.’ In other words, there were both qualitative and quantitative ‘reasons’ for the shadow to flee from its ‘reality’—whom it (shadow) also defined, for only spirits, not humankind, don’t cast shadows or reflections.

Since then many other selections have appeared, mostly of a hundred or so verses each. These are all of indifferent quality as translations. One, however, is more ambitious in scope. Yusuf Husain’s Urdu Ghazals of Ghalib (1977) translates in entirety not only the 234 ghazals and fragments that Ghalib himself chose to publish, but also selected verses from the ghazals that were discovered in manuscripts later. It contains a learned introduction to Ghalib’s thought, but the translations—though accurate—lack something in charm. Here is the above verse in his translation:

In the night of loneliness, my own shadow
Takes fright at the frenzied fire of my heart,
And runs away from me
Like smoke drifting from the flames.

Ghalib’s importance in Urdu literature also lies in the letters he wrote to his friends and the younger poets who sought his advice in poetry. Most were published in his lifetime, and influenced the development of modern Urdu prose. Free of conventional artifice, they contain vivid descriptions and witty dialogues, literary and lexicographical insights, political commentary and more—all in a simple and supple language. There are two translations in English. The more comprehensive and useful is Ghalib: Life and Letters (1969) by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, who have pieced together a biography of the poet by translating portions of an Urdu biography by Altaf Husain Hali and extensive selections from Ghalib’s own Persian and Urdu letters and his Persian diary of the revolt of 1857. A delightfully readable book, it is an autobiography as much as a biography. Russell and Islam have also finished a comprehensive translation of Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian ghazals, but it has not yet been published.

Daud Rahbar’s Urdu Letters of Mirza Asad’ullah Khan Ghalib (1987) is an annotated translation of 170 selected Urdu letters in their entirety; thus the contents are more diverse. Particularly interesting are various literary and lexicographical opinions that Ghalib offered to his correspondents. Rahbar’s translation is also quite literal; his English tries to retain much of what may seem quaint now even in Urdu. While Russell and Islam try to communicate only the spirit in which Ghalib wrote his words, Rahbar tries to offer us the surface quality of those words too.

Selected Bibliography

Aijaz Ahmad (Ed.). Ghazals of Ghalib. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1971.
Ahmed Ali. Ghalib: Selected Poems. Roma: Is.M.E.O., 1969.  These translations are also included in his The Golden Tradition (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1973).
Yusuf Husain. Urdu Ghazals of Ghalib. New Delhi: Ghalib Institute, 1977.
Daud Kamal. Ghalib: Reverberations. Karachi: ?, 1970.
J. L. Kaul. Interpretations of Ghalib. Delhi: Atma Ram, 1957.
P. L. Lakhanpal. Ghalib: The Man and His Verse. Delhi: International Books, 1960.
M. Mujeeb. Ghalib. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1969.
Daud Rahbar. Urdu Letters of Mirza Asad’ullah Khan Ghalib. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.
B. N. Raina. Raina’s Ghalib. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1984.
Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam. Ghalib: Life and Letters. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1969.
Sufia Sadullah. Hundred Verses of Mirza Ghalib. Ed. by Suraiya Nazar. Karachi: A. Sadullah, 1975.
Mohammed Zakir. Distracting Words. Delhi: Idara-e Amini, 1976.

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