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Monday, June 30, 2014

From Simple To The Sublime : Transcreating in English, some complex Urdu verse

Author: Max Babi

Tamil, I believe is one of India’s oldest languages. Urdu is the youngest. There is a magnificent mausoleum of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya, who expanded the Chishtiyya order of Sufis in New Delhi. My father lived and worked in N. Delhi for 4-5 years and we kids used to go and spend two vacations a year, with him. He had a truly royal Humber car, jetblack and glossy, and this behemoth measured 18 feet long (as long as today’s mini-bus like Matador for instance), and while on the highway this bulky car could easily cruise at 150 KM/s an hour which seemed I was riding inside a rocket. Whew. Well, my mom was a great follower of the sufis, and we would often land up at this beautiful dargah, in Nizamuddin East. Just outside the main mausoleum was a smaller mausoleum, that of Hazrat Amir Kusraw, who was Khwaja Nizamuddin’s best disciple, friend and companion.

I often refer to Hazrat Amir Khusraw as a true renaissance man, who invented khayal singing, thumri singing, cut up a dhol into two and made a pair of Tablas, invented the sitar, and among hundreds of other inventions in music, he invented the wordless scat-singing he called Tarana… he composed new raags, songs, and most of all he invented Qawwalis.  But there is yet another cherry on top of the cake of his inventions, he invented Urdu. Yes, he synthesized a new language to help the highly assorted mix of soldiers from Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and other countries. The Indian army could not find a single language common for their use, so Khusraw synthesized one out of all these.

Ab'ul Hasan Yamin al-Din Khusrow (Persian: / Urdu ابوالحسن یمینالدین خسرو; Hindi: अबुल हसन यमीनुद्दीन ख़ुसरौ), better known as Amir Khusrow (or Khusrau) Dehlawi was an Indian musician, scholar and poet, apart from being a spiritual heir of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. He was born in 1253 AD and passed away in 1325. Interestingly, his year of birth and death are anagrams using the same letters. How curious.

To this newly synthesized language he gave the name Urdu -that is the Turkish word for an army camp. It implied the new language synthesized from largely from Persian and Arabic, with a good deal of Turkish words, with a base of Hindavi or khadiboli, precursor of Hindi. A language for military use, which for centuries also remained a language for justice in courts, slowly transformed itself into a language of love, of poetry and of supreme kind of music.

Coming back to Simplicity of English and complexity of Urdu, we find that the English were traders and they had to use a language as simple as possible, so that newbies didn’t tie themselves up in knots or got their tongues twisted. It flourished globally and helped a great deal when they set up an ambitious empire on which the sun never set.

Urdu in its first years, found a place among the landed gentry who also didn’t have a common language, and hence it enriched itself enormously. The art of Ghazal writing seeped into Urdu from Arabic. It is more than a 1000 years old Arabic tradition, and literally means ‘talking with women’ of dialogue (romantic) with women. Perhaps ghazal found its final home in Urdu speaking India. The first ever poet who wrote in Urdu and got published was Wali Dakkhani or Wali Gujarati who left Delhi to settle at Surat, which was famous for its music, song, dance and performing arts. He also lived at Aurangabad and later on at Ahmedabad. He is sometimes also called Wali Ahmedabadi, and his small unadorned sufi tomb is situated -or rather was situated in the posh Shahibaug area of Ahmedbad. During the month long riots in 2002 vandals dug up his mausoleum, his grave and destroyed everything, a new road was built on it. The local government painfully shot down every attempt to rebuild the mausoleum, disregarding the fact that Wali was a poet and not a religious leader. Intolerance is costing us an arm and a leg.

Why is English simple and why is Urdu so complex?

Well traders do not want to memorize nor recite poems, they deal with multilingual customers with painfully limited vocabularies. Urdu started off complex, being the only and beloved daughter of Persian, by itself a pretty complex language, and one which is highly poetic. Urdu went on acquiring more complex outwardly appearances because the speakers enriched it daily with proverbs, maxims, aphorism, phrases and expressions from a wide variety of people. I think time has come when I should juxtapose some Urdu ashaar (plural of she’r – which is typically a two line couplet) with their simplest English transcreations. Why transcreations and not translations? There is a reason.

Translations from Urdu — a highly flowery language to English, the bare-bones unadorned simplistic language, usually fall flat on their respective faces and die… because word for word translation becomes either insipid, verbose or outright funny. Usually the fragrance, the aroma and the essence of the Urdu couplet is destroyed.

To circumscribe the copyrights issues, I started writing my own Urdu couplets and transcreating them. Let’s look at a simple couplet with first a word for word translation followed up with a truly meaningful Transcreation:

Guftagoo unse kyaa kare.n jinhe.n nazre.n ladaanaa pasand ho
Zubaan hamari bhi ladkhadaa jaaye dilki tez raftaari se.

© Max Babi

Translation (word for word – hence very clumsy)
Conversation with her how to do, she is one who likes matching eyes
My tongue also slurs and stutters due to wild beating of my heart.

Impossible to converse with her, she loves making eyes
Wild beating of my heart makes my tongue trip.
© Max Babi

Let us not forget that Transcreation means taking liberties, we are likely to disregard some Urdu words or phrases and use more apt English phrases in the English Transcreation, this works well. We thus avoid making the meaning stiff, clumsy or clunky. To make the simple transplanting of the idea more authentic, more credible and more digestible, entire words or phrases would be added, so that the final result sounds ‘English’ in an English manner, not Indian manner.

Let’s examine one more sample, typifying a complex Urdu she’r: Yeh pari-chehra yeh hooro.n sa jism aur yeh sufiyani teri rooh
Yeh chakaa-chaundh meri aankhe.n yeh dhundhlaa hua dimaagh yeh khushq-si zubaan…
— lo haar gaye hum sanam, muqabla mauqoof!

This fairy-face, this body like houris and this sufi-saint like soul
These wide-open eyes of mine, this foggy mind this dry-like tongue
— take this, I give up, my idol, the contest is off!

Your face of a fairy, body of a houri, and a saintly soul,
encountering my wide-eyed wonder, a fogged up mind and a tongue gone dry
— I hand you victory, my idol, the contest is off!

The bridge between simple English and complex Urdu is the all-pervasive worshipfulness of the lover who starts off matching wits with his lady love but abandons all hope soon.

About the writer:

Mushtaque Ali Khan Babi AKA Max Babi: Max is a multilingual writer, poet who likes a wide variety of formats — whose life is full of oxymoronic shades, a polymath who went from being a specialist to a generalist to a versatilist. Mentoring by being a catalyst enthralls him, writes on serendipity and intuition, conducts workshops a range of subjects and topics. A very friendly Santa Claus.

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