Tagore and Ghalib in Translation

South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith have just won the Man Booker International Prize. The Guardian report on the news also adds, “Last week, research conducted on behalf of the prize revealed that the sales of translated fiction in the UK have grown from 1.3m copies in 2001 to 2.5m in 2015 against a falling market. It also showed an “outstanding” increase in sales of translated Korean fiction, up from 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015.”

This stirred in my mind some thought about translation of Indian works which I have been nursing in my head for quite some time. In this post I would like to talk specifically about translations of Tagore and Ghalib.

I have often heard complaints that Tagore’s English translations don’t do justice to his work. But my experience has been otherwise. I discovered Tagore when I was around twelve as I picked up a copy of The Crescent Moon, which was a translation of ‘Shishu’. I was instantly moved and became a lifelong devotee. I read the original version later. And very recently, on the day of Tagore’s birth anniversary, I read a few poems from the collection, both in the original and in translation. My enjoyment of the English translation was no less than in the Bengali original. In some cases, the English version moved me more, shorn as it was of the distractions and traditional, and therefore predictable, devices like rhyming. The starkness of the thought shone through sharply in the English prose translation.

Rabindranath Tagore

Around the same time as I discovered The Crescent Moon, I was introduced to ‘Where the mind is without fear’ in our school assembly session. I was impressed by the thought immediately. Much later I read “Chitta jetha bhoyshunyo”, the Bengali original, and even heard the AR Rahman’s rousing composition of the song. But what really reverberates in my mind is “Where the mind is without fear” and I haven’t got an iota of extra meaning or emotion from reading the original. Of course translating poetry is a difficult enterprise and there are poems which can be better enjoyed in the original. But by and large people all over the world have enjoyed Tagore in translation, and have got a sense of Tagore’s greatness as a poet.  We should not forget how YB Yeats was visibly moved by reading the Tagore’s own translation of his poems and recommended him for the Noble Prize.

I discovered Ghalib at the same time as I read The Crescent Moon, courtesy our Physics teacher who used to do pretty crazy things including reciting couplets of Ghalib before start of a class.  I liked the sound of the couplets. But to be honest, it took me many years, and a lot more experience in life and a better grasp of Urdu before I could fully appreciate Ghalib. Once I did, he spoke to me like no other poet did. Gulzar’s biopic n TV with Naseer in the title role and Jagjit and Chitra’s rendering of the ghazals made a wide swathe of Ghalib instantly accessible. It was much later that I started looking at translations of Ghalib’s ghazals. I have with me about five different volumes of translations of Ghalib, and I have read a dozen more on the Internet. But none of them come anywhere close to having the effect of the original.

Ghalib 1

Take one of my most favorite couplets: Hazaron khwaishein aisi ki har khwaish pe dum nikle I Bahut nikle mere armaan phi bhi kum nikle. One translation goes like this: Thousands of desires, each worth dying for…Many of them I have realized…yet I yearn for more… Baazicha-e-atafaal hai duniya mere aage I Hota hain shab-o-roz tamasha mere aage…is translated by Andrew McCord thus: A trifle for children is creation to me I Night and day at the races:  existence to me.

You can see how ineffective the efforts are. I don’t think it is me alone. I doubt anyone in the world has come to love Ghalib by reading him in translation first. Why is to so? One can say ghazals and Urdu/Persian poetry in general  are difficult to translate. Which is partly true. But not entirely.

Take this qita or quatrain from Faiz :

Raat yun dil mein teri, khoyi hui yaad aayi

Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye

Jaise sahraon mein haule se chale baad-ae-naseem

Jaise bimaar ko be-wajaah quraar aa jaaye

The translation by Vikram Seth reads thus:

Last night your faded memory came to me

As in the wilderness spring comes quietly,

As, slowly, in the desert, moves the breeze,

As, to a sick man, without cause, comes peace.

The translation at least manages to get the essence across if not the full beauty. Someone like Rumi is a household name in the west, known entirely through translation. So is Tagore. It is so because these poems are meaning-heavy. Tagore’s poetry especially are crystal clear in thought with very little ambiguity. Of course there are poems which can be thought of as addresses to one’s worldly lover or the supreme divine. But once the parallel has been drawn, the poetry is pretty linear, saying exactly what it means. Of course the language  is very sophisticated and used with supreme intelligence and consummate craft. But the real strength of the poetry is the thought.

But Ghalib is a different animal. By his own declaration: Hain aur bhi duniya mein sukhanwar bahut achhay….Kehatay hain ke Ghalib ka andaaz-e-bayan aur…(There are many good poets in the world, but they say Ghalib’s mode of expression  is something else). In case of Ghalib, more than the meaning, it is the ‘ andaaz-e-bayan’ or mode of expression that defines his signature. And this mode of expression is closely linked to the language, and is made up of a certain degree of opacity, irony and self-deprecating humour. Therefore the difficulty in translation. Take: “Hui muddat ke Ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai // Woh har ik baat par kehna ke yun hota to kya hota” Or “Ghalib’-e-khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band hain ? Roiye zaar-zaar kya, keejiye haay-haay kyon ?” Or “Aage aati thi haal-e-dil pe hasi, Ab kisi baat par nahin aati…”

How does one try to translate lines like these? One does not. I have tried hard for years, then given up. The only way to enjoy Ghalib is to learn Urdu and read the ghazals in the original. That is one favour Ghalib has done to Urdu language, paying back for all that the Urdu language has given him.


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