Mirza Ghalib in America


The Urdu poet died 150 years ago. A rich translation tradition has ensured his legacy lives on, even far away from home.

Mirza Ghalib, who died on February 15, 1869, was a powerful, eloquent and erudite poet who investigated and captured life’s experiences and occurrences with capering humour in his enigmatic ghazals.

Even though Ghalib was never fully appreciated in his own lifetime, today, his name is synonymous with Urdu poetry. His verses, which were far too advanced for his times, are not only recited in Urdu but have now transcended borders and languages, and cemented their place in American literary traditions.

Ever since English translator Edward Fitzgerald first transcreated Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat in the mid-19th century, translators from the West have constantly tried to explore the depths of Indo-Islamic traditions of poetry.

The interest in Persian ghazals was first shown by German translators and poets such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, Friedrich Ruckert and August von Platen who had started translating ghazals by poets like Hafiz into German when Ghalib was still alive.

By the 20th century, Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet had already popularised ghazals (or gacelas as he called them) in Spanish through his collection Diwan del Tamarit (1940) — a result of his Moorish heritage and background.

However, the form finally caught the attention of American poets and entered the framework of American poetry through Ghalib.

Ghalib in America

On Ghalib’s centennial death anniversary in 1969, Aijaz Ahmad — a Pakistani critic residing in New York — published Ghazals of Ghalib in order to familiarise the American audience with his timeless verses.

His aim was to place the 19th-century poet, in his own words, “across time, space and civilisations”.

According to Ahmad, rather than a simple translation project, this was translation as “an encounter of ages and histories” and a means for poets to “converse with each other, again across time, traditions and languages”.

Ahmad handed out literal translations and lexical notes to revered American translators and poets such Adrienne Rich, WS Merwin, David Ray, Mark Strand, and William Hunt, who were free to choose whatever method of translation suited them the best.

Ahmad’s aim was to take Ghalib, and not the ghazal in its lyrical capacity to the West, so the translators weren’t asked to adhere to the formal structure of ghazal and had the freedom to use free verse.

He emphasised that “translation is approximation” and that “one translation might capture what another misses”.

There was a multiplicity of responses in the book since multiple poets translated the same ghazal. Reminiscent of American translator Eliot Weinberger’s project Nineteen ways of looking at Wang Wei (1987), where he commissioned 19 translators to translate the same poem, the results were fascinating.

The three translation of Ghalib’s couplet Vahshat-e-atish-e-dil se shab-e-tanhai mein / Surat-e-dud raha saaya gurezan mujh se read:

In the lonely night because of the anguish
of the fire in my heart
the shadow slipped from me like smoke

(WS Merwin)

Through the bonfire my grief lit in that darkness
the shadow went past me like a wisp of smoke

(Adrienne Rich)

That lonely night fire inhabited my heart
And my shadow drifted from me in a thin cloud of smoke.

(Mark Strand)

Ghazals of Ghalib (1969)

The breaking of form

The translations were a manifestation of literary critic Harold Bloom’s views that “freedom, in a poem, must mean freedom of meaning, the freedom to have a meaning of one’s own”.

However, this emancipation of the essence by crushing the form was seen by many as misappropriation.

Dawn for more

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