Posts Tagged ‘Translation’

Faiz – 3: A Twist in the Tail

December 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here).

Why

Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence

Why

What myth is it
That keeps you
Divided
Amongst yourselves
That keeps you
Blind
To your strength

The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here.

Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound.

Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and Tanhai – retain a particular association because my son knew them by heart around the age of two. It was a party-stopper of the time when, leaning innocently over the shoulder of one of the parents, he would startle an unwary guest with an imperious ye galiyoN ke awaara bekaar kuttey or bol ke lab azaad hain terey. Our doubts as to whether he was a typical hafiz or knew what he was talking about were set to rest when, on one such occasion, he pointed to a departing friend with an unforgettable woh ja raha hai Bundu bhaii shab-e gham guzaar ke.

My fondness for Kuttey, for this and other reasons, notwithstanding, I continued to rethink the poem over time. For one, I did not feel it had been entirely fair to dogs. For another, and more seriously, I tossed around the issue of agency. This was not a well-articulated concern at the time Faiz was writing but since then we had been introduced to the notion by the growing critique of post-colonial theory. Early accounts in the theory conveyed the impression that the colonized were like putty to be pushed this way or that entirely at the whims and machinations of the colonists. The evolving critiques had challenged this depiction arguing that the colonized too were endowed with passions and interests and acted in their own welfare as they saw best – in a word, they also had agency in the vocabulary of the theory.

The final couplet of kuttey ran headlong into this issue. After asserting that the downtrodden could own the world (yeh mazluum makhluuq gar sar uthaye/to insaan sab sarkashii bhuul jaye) the poem concludes with koii in ko ehsaas-e zillat dilaa de/koii in kii soii huii dum hila de. This external koii, emblematic of the early Marxist vanguard, had become problematic towards the end of the twentieth century – it was the issue of agency.

My rendering of the poem frames this issue of agency in perspective and asks what it might be that keeps the wretched of the earth from acting in their interest. Among the possibilities in this regard are the various powerful myths that shape our lives and convince us that we are living in the best possible world. As one example, it is quite remarkable that only now has economic inequality even begun to be talked about as an issue of any importance in mainstream economic theory and public policy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz continues to inspire. It remains for us to take that inspiration forward into our own times. I am convinced that is how Faiz would have liked us to honor his legacy.

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Faiz – 2: Bangladesh – An Apriplum

December 19, 2015

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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Faiz – 1: The City

November 30, 2015

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.

The City

Look
My city bedecks itself in fetters

The carefree walk
The careless talk

No more

The head held high
The feet unbound

No more

No more
I trust

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

(an owl is perched on every branch
what will be the fate of the garden)

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.)

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Time, the World and the Word

March 30, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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