Faiz – 2: Bangladesh – An Apriplum

By Anjum Altaf

Remembering is one thing; not forgetting another. One of the dates we should not forget is December 16, 1971.

My contribution to not forgetting is an attempt to capture the spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Dhaka se Waapsii par, a poem Faiz wrote a few years after the event.

As I have written before (Faiz – 1: The City), I am not attempting a translation, something virtually impossible to manage from Urdu into English. Faiz Sahib’s words in this regard provide the best counsel (in Faiz Ahmed Faiz on Daud Kamal):

“Translating poetry, even when confined to a cognate language with some formal and idiomatic affinities with the original compositions, is an exacting task, but this task is obviously far more formidable when the languages involved are far removed from each other in cultural background, rhythmic and formal patterns, and the vocabulary of symbol and allusion as Urdu and English.”

I lean more towards the sentiment expressed by the John Washington, a translator from Spanish (here). Do keep in mind that he is saying this about prose, not poetry:

“Translating is an act of decontextualization, of deracinating a work and attempting to replant it in foreign soil. The act leads to crossbreeding, to mutation, and to the exposure of unintended or unrecognized aspects of the original—to apriplums and other strange flowerings.”

My own test of a credible translation is very simple: It has to stand on its own as a poem in the translated language – whether it is good or bad is secondary.

An example that should make this clear is the Faiz poem Nazim Hikmet: ZindaaN se Ek Khat which is a translation into Urdu of a poem in Turkish by Nazim Hikmet. If you give just the text of the Urdu version to a reader he or she would consider it an original poem in Urdu without any inkling that it was translation from a foreign language. The critical judgement as to its literary merit as an Urdu poem remains a separate issue.

Going from Urdu to English, as Faiz had warned, is virtually impossible – the cultural background, the rhythmic and formal patterns, the vocabulary of symbol and allusion are all alien to each other. Just the structure of the sentence (Subject-Object-Verb in Urdu versus Subject-Verb-Object in English) presents a major hurdle. Consider the rhythm of the following lines from Faiz’s Aaj Baazaar MeiN Pa ba JaulaaN Chalo:

dast afshaaN chalo, mast-o-raqsaaN chalo
khaak barsar chalo, khuuN badaamaN chalo
rah takta hai sab sheher-e jannaN chalo

It seems impossible to reproduce the rhythm that relies so heavily on the repeated verb ending in a language in which a sentence ends with the object, not the verb.

The one thing I would stay away from is to attempt a line-by-line translation but that seems to the norm in almost all translations of Faiz I have seen.

Take Daud Kamal, for example, regarded highly as a poet in English. Some of his translations (in O City of Lights: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Selected Poetry and Biographical Notes edited by Khalid Hasan. Incidentally, the volume includes a translation of Dhaka se Waapsii par by Khalid Hasan) reflect that strength but there are others where he too gives in to the problem I had mentioned in the earlier post – translating as if Urdu speakers were looking over the shoulder and sitting in judgement.

Consider these lines from Faiz’s celebrated Subh-e Azaadi:

kahiiN to ho ga shab-e sust mauj ka saahil
kahiin to ja ke ruke ga safeena-e dil

Now consider the translation:

Surely, the night’s turgid sea will breathe its last
On the inevitable shore.

Surely, the boat of the heart’s agony will somewhere
Come to a stop.

These lines only become meaningful if one knows the original. For an English reader not familiar with Urdu/Persian/Hindi, “the boat of the heart’s agony will somewhere/ Come to a stop” would convey some literal sense but I doubt if it would pass for moving verse.

Consider this from Tum Apni Karnii kar Guzro:

ab kyuuN us din ka zikr karo
jab dil tukRe ho jaaye ga

And the translation:

Why talk about that day
When the heart will be broken into pieces

The Urdu ‘dil tukRe ho jaana’ conveys a different sense than ‘breaking the heart into pieces’ which is also quite unpoetic in English.

Given these pitfalls that even established poets in English fail to negotiate, it seems prudent to write a poem in English conveying the spirit of the original than to attempt a literal translation that does not resonate with a non-Urdu sensibility.

This is a very long prelude to presenting my version of Dhaka se Waapsii par which appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on December 19, 2015 (here). Your critical feedback on the poem and on the travails of translation in general would be greatly appreciated.

Bangladesh

So often
I have said it to myself
I wish to say it to you
It should not be difficult
But it is

Do you sense
What I am trying to say
And
Why I cannot say it

Feelings are feelings
Words, words
So much is lost on the way

What would it take
To trust again
To feel
Without the need
To say

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