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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Urdu & English - Sensitivity and Sensibility - Part 2

Author: Max Babi

Read more on this series: Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

The unlikely progress of Urdu from the military barracks to the court and then into the harems and boudoirs of emperors, can only be understood in light of the fact that it had been adapted very well for shayari by some mavericks, the first being Delhi’s Ustad Wali Dakkhani (from South) who chose to migrate to Gujarat, and lived in Surat city and later Ahmedabad, where he passed away. His grave was covered with a very simple unassuming mazaar which was completely dug up, destroyed and made into a plain road by the hooligans during 2002 riots in Gujarat. Thus the very first poet in Urdu, has been erased from collective memory by religious bigots. In a few generations, all the great poets like Hazrat Amir Khusraw switched from writing in Persian to writing in Urdu, with obviously a heavy slant towards Persian. One reason seems to be that the nascent Urdu didn’t have enough phrases and complex expressions that can enhance the sensitivity of an expression multi-fold, with great ease. This is a direct one-step derivation in Persian, used ditto in Urdu.

For example, how subtle are the implied meanings:

Shab means night, Firaaq means separation or the pangs of separation, thus shab-e-firaq refers to the never-ending night when the lover tosses and turns in his bed, longing for his beloved who is not going to show up. By implication, this means an entire period, not one night. Shab-e-firaq may run into months and years or decades also because true love will wait.

Now the opposite, is a tricky proposition, shab-e-vasl, and vasl means the tryst or rendezvous. Thus the obvious meaning of this pretty phrase would be the ‘night of the tryst’.  Most readers who have not yet imbibed the finesse of Urdu poetry would think of the typical Bollywood happy ending - ‘and they walked into the sunset, hand in hand, singing and warbling, to lead a happy life.’ I beg your pardon. The exact meaning of shab-e-vasl is vastly unhappy, because it means the paramours are going to meet only once, spend a night together and then part for ever. As a practising Urdu poet, I feel the weightage of this phrase is enormous, because endless number of lovers would choose to forge a suicide pact and kill themselves, or part only to spoil a couple of other people’s lives for the sake of society. Every which way there is misery, and hence it is nothing but undiluted tragedy!

This is where we see the glaring divide between English and Urdu - also, we see why most word for word translations fall flat on their faces, because English prefers simplicity, which Urdu thrives on the implied meaning or reading between the lines, as it were. It needs training.

Let’s see exactly how the translation goes flaccid, when word for word translation is used:

A ghazal by the young Kashmiri poet Waqas Bhutt:

Ye Shab-E-Firaq Ye Bebasi Hai Qadam Qadam Pe Udasiyan
Mera Sath Koi Na De Saka Meri Hasratain Hai Dhuan Dhuan
Mai Tarap Tarap Ke Jiya To Kya Mere Khwab Mujh Se Bichar Gaye
Mai Udas Ghar Ki Sada Sahi Mujhe De Na Koi Tasalliyan

Word for word translation:

This is the night of separation, helplessness and sadness every step of the way
No one could accompany me, my desires became whiffs of smoke
What if I lived longing and yearning my dreams got lost along the way
I may be the sound of a sad house, may no one give me solaces.

I know it reads clunky, even downright unpoetic and could easily put off a poetry lover. During the last 10-12 years, taking a cue from the late Prof. Purushottam Lal, better known as P.Lal of Kolkata, who successfully used the great technique of ‘transcreation’ instead of word for word translation to prepare his magnum opus  Mahabharata in English, I applied it to Urdu poetry.

Read this (the same quartrain above, now transcreated to protect the sensitivity of Urdu and the sensibility of English both):

It’s the night of separation, helplessness and melancholy crowd me
Left along, I saw my desires go up as whiffs of smoke
What if I lived longing and yearning, if my dreams left me
Let me be the echoes of a ruined house, no solace for me.

If the reader gets the gist of the English Transcreation, s/he would apparently be appalled at the wide gulf separating the hinted meaning of word for word translation vis-à-vis far more soulful and honestly communicative Transcreation. On the other hand s/he would be well advised not to keep reading the translation, which can mislead one away from the original track as proposed by the poet’s fertile imagination.

Let’s examine the next couplet (let it not be forgotten that each ghazal usually is a set of 4 or more couplets or she’rs that are basically stand-alone types, but in the end the whole ghazal may hint at ideas and suggestions that may not be easily discernible if one went on analysing individual sher’rs.

The next one:

Chali Aisi Dard Ki Andhiyan Mere Dil Ki Basti Ujar Gai
Ye Jo Rakh-Si Hai Bujhi Bujhi Hai Isi Main Meri Nishaniyan


Cyclones of agony came such, the settlements in my heart became abandoned
This seemingly burnt-out ash, they carry the proof of my existence.

Again, clunky, clumsy, funnily worded and wide off the target.

So let’s see the Transcreation aimed at poets reading this effort:


Agony cycles blew hard, ravaging the settlements in my heart
Bits of my existential proof, hide in the burnt-out ash mound.

Before signing off, let me attempt a third and fourth couplet too:

3. Ye Fiza Jo Gard-O-Gubar Hai Meri Bekasi Ka Mazar Hai
Mai Wo Phool Hoon Jo Na Khil Saka Meri Zindgi Main Wafa Kahan

WFW Translation:

This environ which is dust blowing around is the mausoleum of my lethargy
I am the flower which could not bloom, in my life where is love or affection.

Pretty obtuse as usual, lets see the the Transcreation:

My lethargy is enshrined in the dust storm here
My life is loveless, I am a flower that failed to bloom.

Analysing the situation we see that there are a number of phases and expressions in Urdu which are far shorter in length, thus word for word translation tends to be word-heavy, clunky and hence clumsy too. On the other hand, one cannot write off English as a useless language for translated poetry (to be more precise, ‘transcreated poetry’ because it is upto the poetic skills of the transcreator to use minimal effort and let the couplet take its natural course without any sort of enforcement.

From the sensibility point of view, we seem to have made some headway here, at least, but what about the sensitivity aspect? Admitted, transcreated poems will be slightly less sensitive as compared to the origin, but the WFWT would be far less sensitive, even misleading and very likely to talk apples and oranges. I have personally been horrified to see some retired IAS officer, merrily butcher the hugely complex Urdu poetry of Mirza Ghalib with the relish of a school bully hellbent on smashing every book in the library.

end of article - to be continued...

About The Author:

Mushtaque Ali Khan Babi AKA Max Babi 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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