Translating Iqbal ’s Poetry
By Dr. Zafar M. Iqbal
TCCI, Chicago, IL  


Were it not for translation, the English-speaking world would not have heard of Homer and Ovid, Puskin and Tolstoy ,  Goethe and Nietzsche, Dante and Petrarch , or Khayyam and Rumi , and a vast number of other writers.  With each effort at translation, English literature gets richer.

Various efforts have been made over the years to translate Iqbal’s poetry into English, starting notably with R. A. Nicholson, famous Cambridge professor and ‘Orientalist’, who in ‘ The Secrets of the Self ’ (1920) translated Asrar-e-Khudi (in Persian), published some five years earlier.  This was also perhaps the first time that Iqbal’s poetry and philosophy appeared on the Western and English literary radar. 

What received most attention then from English critics was not his poetry, as translated or the difficulties in such a venture across a wide linguistic and cultural gulf, but Iqbal’s philosophy on Khudi. The critics thought they saw in Iqbal’s concept of Khudi glimpses of Nietzsche’s ubermensch  or superman, presented about 30 years earlier.  Iqbal addressed the criticism in a detailed letter to the translator (Nicholson), and its copy later appeared in some Indian magazines.  But since it was not published in the British press where the criticism first appeared, Iqbal’s response did not get proper level of notice within a reasonable time in the West.

The very idea of translation, however, has never been free of controversy. Frost once remarked, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” I would go a step farther; ‘Poetry is what gets murdered in translation’— sometimes.

Apart from a wide philological gulf that exists between Urdu and English, these languages represent entirely different cultures .  The lack of idiomatic affinity, together with prosodic differences between Urdu and English and Urdu’s unique vocabulary of  symbols and allusions,  cultural metaphors,  and rhythmic patterns and allegories,  present a complex challenge to the translator – more so if the translator is interested in developing some enjoyable form of poetic rhythm in English while trying to remain faithful to the original.  In a literal translation , what makes Urdu poetry lyrically soar high would turn into some driest bunch of words thrown together.  This is emphasized, in a rather interesting way, by Frances Pritchett and Khaliq Ahmed Khaliq in their 1987 book, Urdu Meter: A Practical Handbook:  “Urdu meter [Ba-her] is not like English meter! …. English metrical theory is retrospective fancy icing on the cake. By contrast, Urdu meter is a large part of the cake itself.”

Some notable figures who translated Iqbal’s poetry include Victor Kiernan , A. J. Arberry, Annemarie Schimmel and Frances Pritchett, in addition to various South Asian writers.  

With the reservations noted above, I first translated Iqbal’s  Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, which appeared, each in two parts, in Pakistan Link, August through October, 2009):  and  & .

This has since turned into another project, in which I have so far completed the translation of over 130 poems from his four Urdu books and Payam-e-Mashriq (in Persian), as part of my forthcoming book (‘Iqbal in English’, tentative title),  due in Spring / Summer, 2011.  

Here, I present my translation of a poem from Payam-e-Mashriq, followed by the Romanized Persian original:


Jalal and Goethe   

When in Heaven, the German sage

happened to meet the Eastern visionary --

both poets; neither a prophet --

the German talked to the Persian

about his book on the pact  [1]

a wise Doctor made with the Devil

to sell his soul for knowledge

and slavish obedience, life-long.


Rumi replied, you make the words

come alive, and search for angels and

yes, God himself. Your thoughts live

in the deep recesses of heart 

and make a new world.

You see the soul, both at peace and restless

in the same body at the same time;

you see a pearl born in a shell,

and more -- the secrets of  love

not everyone knows or

comes close to knowing.


Those blessed know:

“The devil can give you wisdom;

love comes only from humans.” [2]


[1]  Faust by Goethe  [2]  Quoting Rumi


[‘Jalal’ is Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273, the Persian Sufi poet.   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), a German philosopher-poet, author of the famous classic, Faust. Iqbal long admired Goethe, and wrote Payam-e-Mashriq in response to Goethe’s ‘West-Ostichler Diwan ’ , or ‘West-Eastern Diwan’, which is composed of 12 books of poems, inspired by the Persian poet,  Hafiz.  To emphasize the influence, even the titles of these books are in Persian: Moganni Nameh,  Hafiz Nameh, Ishq Nameh, Tefkir Nameh, Hikmath Nameh, Timur Nameh, Zuleikha Nameh, Saqi Nameh, Parsi Nameh, Khuld Nameh.

Iqbal respected Goethe as deeply as he did Ghalib. In his poem, ‘ Mirza Ghalib ’ (Baang-e-Dara, part 1 written before 1905 and before he went to England), Iqbal recalls both poets: “Ah! tho ujri ho-wee Dilli mayn aarameeda hai / Gulshan-e-Weimar mayn thera hum-nawa khwabeeda hai” ("Alas, you lie in devastated Delhi; /  In a Weimar garden,  rests your comrade.")

Goethe lived most of his adult life in Weimar, Germany, and died there. Goethe and Friedrich Schiller , another German poet, were key figures in the famous German literary movement, Weimar Classicism of 18 th and early 19 th centuries.]


Jalal  wo  Goethe  ( original in Persian, from Payam-e-Mashriq)

 Nuktha dan-e-al-manay ra der arum

Sohbathay aftaad ba peer-e-Ajam

Shairay ko humchoo-aan aali janaab

Neesth payghumber wodarad kithaab


Kwa-nood bar danaa-e-israar-e-khadeem

Khissa-e-paymaan-e-Iblees wo hakeem

Gufth-rawi aye sukhun ra jaan nigaar

Thoo mulk sayed-usthi wo yazdaan shikaar


Shukr-e-thooder kunj di khilwuth guzeed

Ayn jahan kuhna ra baz aafareed

Soz wo saaz-e-jaan ba payker deeda

Der saduf thaameer gohur deeda

Her kisay uzumz-e-ishq aagaa neesth

Her kiay sha-yan-e-ayn durga neesth


“Danid-aan ko nayk bukhth wo mohrum usth

Zayr ki za Iblees wo ishq uz adam usth.” (Rumi)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.