By Anjum Altaf
I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015.
The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry.
My city bedecks itself in fetters
The carefree walk
The careless talk
The head held high
The feet unbound
Light from dark
Wine from blood
Joy from mourning
Flowers in my city
Wilt into the dust
After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation.
But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar with the language of the original. (See this essay by Dick Davis on why this may be so: On Not Translating Hafez.)
A poem is not the sum of its words. It is not a vehicle to transfer meaning. Rather, a poem evokes feeling, sentiment, and mood. If I were to annotate the dictionary meaning of every word in a poem, the outcome would not be a poem. For a translation to work, it has to be a poem in its own right. And, this is what makes the task extremely difficult because the images, metaphors, idioms, and rhymes that work in one language do not carry over into another – they may for neighboring languages like Urdu, Hindi and Persian but not when the transition is from Urdu to English or Japanese. A translator must have near native proficiency in both languages to be able to find meaningful parallels. An example would be the metaphor of the owl which would make translating the following Urdu couplet into English very tricky:
har shaakh pe ulloo baitha hai
anjaam-e gulistaN kya ho ga
Going the other way, one could consider the opening lines from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by Keats:
St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl for all its feathers was acold;
The Urdu reader would certainly wonder what prompted the poet to choose the owl to open his poem with.
Recently I wrote a set of posts on Urdu (here, here, and here). In the commentary on the posts, I set out a challenge for the readers. It was to translate the following lines from Faiz into English for a reader not familiar with Urdu:
sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr
No one has responded yet but you can give it a try. Victor Kiernan has translated them as follows:
Listless and wan, green patch by patch, noonday dries up;
Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls
And Agha Shahid Ali, a very fine poet in the English language, has essayed the following translation:
On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.
Both these versions convey some of the meaning of the lines from Faiz but, in my view at least, they are literal translations and not English poems. What does ‘the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color’ convey to an English speaker who does not know Urdu? And what does ‘Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls’ call forth as an image for the same reader? The intensity of loneliness is captured powerfully by the metaphors used by Faiz but English must have its own metaphors that better reflect the aesthetic of its history and culture.
As I see it, the self-inflicted problem of most translators of Urdu poetry into English is that they seem to be doing so for readers familiar with both languages and, furthermore, as if the Urdu readers were constantly looking over their shoulders to judge their faithfulness or lack of it to the original. This predilection, in my view, has limited the appreciation of as major a poet as Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the non-Urdu speaking world.
Why would an Urdu reader need to read an Urdu poem in English when he/she has access to the much richer original? A translation is meant for those who do not know the language of the original and for them faithfulness matters relatively little. What matters is if the emotion, the spirit of the original, carries over and gives some inkling of what the poet was trying to convey in the original. In order to do so, the translation into a foreign language has to be a poem in its own right, good or bad being a secondary issue, consonant with the cultural and literary aesthetic of the target language. The venomed tongue of pale solitude licking the walls stutters on this count. It only works for those who are familiar with the lines in the original.
For myself, one without native proficiency in both languages, I wouldn’t even try and attempt to translate a poet like Faiz whose poetry is laden with context-specific images which breathe life into the emotions he so successfully evokes. Rather, I do away with as much of the imagery as possible and convey the bare-bone skeleton which remains to be dressed with the clothing of images. Hopefully, the skeleton would suggest to the non-Urdu speaking reader what the poet is trying to do and his/her own imagination would furnish the appropriate images and metaphors from his/her particular aesthetic milieu.
This is what I have attempted with ‘The City.’ I would not be so bold as to claim it a translation of Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho. ‘The City’ is a poem in English inspired by Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho for which the latter serves as a point of departure. It is for readers to say to what extent I have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original.
For those who are interested, the poem by Faiz is reproduced below in Roman script (it can be read in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts here):
YahaN se sheher ko dekho to halqa-dar-halqa
Khinchi hai jail ki soorat har ek samt faseel
Har ek rahguzar gardish-e-aseeraaN hai
Na sung-e-meel, na manzil, na mukhlisi ki sabeel
Jo koi tez chaley rah to poochta hai Khayal
Ke tokne koi lalkaar kyuN naheeN aayee
Jo koi haath hilaye to Wahem ko hai sawal
Koi chanak, koi jhankaar kyuN nahiN aayee?
YahaN se shehr ko dekho to saari khalqat meiN
Na koi sahab-e-tamkeen, na koi wali-e-hosh
Har ek mard-e-jawaN mujrim rasn ba gulu
Har ek haseena-e-raana, Kaneez-e-halqa bagosh
Jo sayay duur chiraghoN ke gird larzaaN haiN
Na janey mehfil-e-ghum hai ke bazm-e-jaam-o-saboo
Jo rung har dar-o-deewar par pareshaaN haiN
YahaN se kuch naheen khulta yeh phool haiN ke LahU
– Faiz (Karachi, 1965)
A translation into English by Naomi Lazard is as follows:
If you look at the city from here
You see it is laid out in concentric circles,
Each circle surrounded by a wall
Exactly like a prison.
Each street is a dog-run for prisoners,
No milestones, no destinations, no way out.
If anyone moves too quickly you wonder
Why he hasn’t been stopped by a shout.
If someone raises his arm
You expect to hear the jangling of chains.
If you look at the city from here
There is no one with dignity,
No one fully in control of his senses.
Every young man bears the brand of a criminal,
Every young woman the emblem of a slave.
You cannot tell whether you see
A group of revellers or mourners
In the shadows dancing around the distant lamps,
And from here you cannot tell
Whether the color streaming down the walls
Is that of blood or roses.
(Source for the transliteration and the translation by Naomi Lazard is here.)