A New Rendition of Iqbal’s Javed Nama into English
Review by Dr Zafar M. Iqbal
TCCI, Chicago, IL
Nearly 60% of Iqbal’s poetry is in Persian, including Javed Nama , which came out in 1932.
Why this preference for Persian over his mother tongue, Urdu? Iqbal explains this, as you may have guessed it, in Persian:
“Garche Urdu dar uzūbat shakar ast / Lék Pārsī-am ze Hindi shīrīntar ast”
My Translation:”Even though in sweetness, Urdu is sugar/Persian is sweeter than Hindi [Urdu].”
Iqbal likes the “element of obscurity and vagueness in poetry” that the Persian language offers, along with some multi-layered depth, latitude and of course the culturally-accepted “vagueness” and “obscurity” to the expression of personal emotions. Urdu has inherited some of that. Iqbal may have also noticed how the use of Persian had declined in India during his life. Some would argue that a philosophical concept needs clarity, not ambiguity. That’s a different argument.
Most of Iqbal’s Persian work, including Javed Nama, has been rendered into simple Urdu for readers not quite comfortable with Persian. But ‘rendering’ poetry in these two related languages into the philologically and culturally distant English is a serious challenge, and worse if it is to still convey the intended poetry at a level that can be appreciated and relished by the readers, for whom the original was not written. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Russian, Spanish literary works, translated into English, often leave the native speakers unimpressed. Just like a native English speaker would feel reading Shakespeare in Russian or Urdu!
Dr. Chaudhry recognizes this by recalling in his ‘Prologue’ the oft-quoted line by Robert Frost (“Poetry is what gets lost in translation”). I would go farther, as I have mentioned before in Pakistan Link and elsewhere: “Poetry is what gets murdered in translation— sometimes.” Particularly when Urdu/Persian poetry, with intricate idioms and concepts, is to be delivered intact across a vast cultural gulf !
Iqbal, who was quite comfortable in English, once tried his hands at translating two different parts of his own Javed Nama into English. That effort may not be acceptable today to translation-purists who demand and expect not only conformity with the original but also comparable poetic quality in translation. Had other translators taken same liberties as Iqbal himself did with his own poems, they would not be treated kindly in the literary world today.
Javed Nama was first translated in Italian (l952), then in German (1957) by Annemarie Schimmel, and in English by several authors, including the British orientalist, Arthur J. Arberry. Each attempt at translation brings (or supposed to) some additional clarity and insight. I had this in mind reviewing Dr. Chaudhry’s ‘rendition’, and I can say I was not disappointed.
Iqbal wrote three long poems in Persian: Asrar-e-Khudi (1915), which R. A. Nicholson translated in 1920, as The Secrets of the Self, thus introducing Iqbal to the Western world, then Rumuz-e-Bekhudi (1918), which was translated as The Mysteries of Selflessness by Arthur J. Arberry in 1953. Javed Nama was the third long poem, also rendered by Arberry into blank verse. Unlike Asrar-e-Khudi and Rumuz-e-Bekhudi, both of which followed traditional Persian poetic traits of Rumi, complete with rhymes etc., Javed Nama is much like a narrative poem, in which different ‘players’ express their views and interact with other ‘players’. It is supposed to be Iqbal’s spiritual fantasy going from earth through various planets and beyond into the presence of God (something like Mai-raj of Prophet Mohammed). This poem ends with “Address to Javed,” his son and former Justice of the Pakistan’s Supreme Court. This last part of the poem is for some reason not present in some other published translations but it is included in this book.
Dr. Chaudhry has ‘rendered’ Javed Nama into simple English, free of any poetic pretensions and without resorting to contrived rhymes or archaic vocabulary, as we see in other translations of Urdu /Persian poetry, most of them inflexibly literal. We have no information on Dr. Chaudhry’s expertise in Persian but apparently he has had access to some readily available Urdu translations of Javed Nama. Iqbal Academy, Lahore, also has English translation of Javed Nama by Arberry. Those who do not understand Persian, or are not comfortable with it, would find this volume helpful in understanding in English what Iqbal had said and meant in Persian.
I think, however, readers would have appreciated some context and background to this book, with more exhaustive glossary. This 173-page book seems to have been published privately, and has no ISBN.
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