A Word on Translation
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL


If you think translating German, French or Russian literature into English is not easy, faithful or good, as some of my friends, native-speakers of these languages, think, try translating (or understanding a translation) from Urdu into English, philologically distant languages, each with its own metaphorical and cultural underpinnings unfamiliar in the other language.

More complicated and challenging when it comes to translating Urdu poetry into English, while still trying to abide by different standards of rhyme, rhythm and convey in English the same lyric quality as the Urdu-speakers find in their native language.

From a chapter on ‘A Word on Translation’ in my book, “In English, Faiz Ahmed Faiz” (2008), here are some of my thoughts:

No native English speaker would ever rush to first read a translation of Shakespeare, Byron, or Milton in any other language. Nor would English readers find in any translation the same poetic beauty and lyricism as the English poets had for them in their native language. No leap of faith, then, to imagine how native speakers of Urdu would feel about and react to translations, in English or any other language, of the Urdu poetry.

One can imagine why, to a Persian (Farsi) speaker, Edward FitzGerald’s “transmogrifications,” to use his own characterization, would amount to taking liberties with original Khayyam and his lyrical spirit. Some think that FitzGerald was not as much an attempt at translating Khayyam from Farsi to English as it was to interpret Sufi philosophy, to the extent he did understand, and bring it to the English readers.

By importing Pushkin, Rilke, Voltaire, Neruda, Borges, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and others from across the linguistic borders, English literature has only gotten richer, more expansive, more inclusive….

A translation, regardless of its individual poetic qualities or limitations, does provide a window into another culture, another emotional terrain that would have otherwise remained inaccessible or nonexistent to them….

If translation between two philologically and culturally related languages were not already difficult enough, a similar attempt between two languages with little in common (e.g., Urdu/Farsi and English, representing distant, unrelated culture and linguistics) is going to be barely acceptable, if at all, to speakers of either

language. If it was a graceful line in Urdu, it could well be turned into gibberish in English—and vice versa…

The responsibility of a translator is to remain not only faithful to the letter and spirit of the poet’s lines (no putting words into the poet’s mouth, no going off-tangent, no over-explanations, etc.), but to render them with lyrical quality, equally acceptable in a language not originally intended by the poet. Such an exercise might not be much different from watching an Arabian horse that, upon crossing a linguistic

border, acquires all the elegance, grace, and agility of a mule on an alien terrain.

Even the most widely admired translations (Rubaiyats of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald, five different editions) have not escaped harsh criticism. Edward Byles Cowell, a famous multilingual scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, who had earlier introduced FitzGerald to Khayyam, disapproved of the liberties

FitzGerald took in translating the seventy-five quatrains for the first edition, published “anonymously” in 1859. Cowell’s criticism was on the linguistics, nothing to do with him (Cowell) being a conservative Christian who might have been offended by Khayyam’s hedonistic portrayal of decadence. (“I admire Omar as I admire Lucretius . . . . I prefer to go to Nazareth, not to Naishapur,” said Cowell once). But that was also the time when traditional beliefs were already strained by Darwin’s Origin of Species, published the same year.

FitzGerald has been cited for several other technical transgressions (The Wine of Wisdom, Mehdi Aminrazavi, 2005), particularly for “soldering” two different quatrains together into one and trying to give some sense of a sequential progress from one quatrain to the next — something Khayyam never did, or intended to do. Each quatrain is supposed to be independent, self-contained and freestanding. FitzGerald was not a Sufi himself, and his study may not have been thorough or deep enough to fully understand it.

This is probably the most damning criticism: “The truth is that the Rubáiyat is more FitzGerald’s creation than Khayyam’s.”…..


FitzGerald is not the only translator widely admired by the readers but criticized by the purists. The purists have not spared Coleman Barks for not being true to Rumi.Khayyam and Rumi are not the only poets who received such translational and interpretive variations…

Between such philologically and culturally different languages as Urdu and English, one can safely assume that some liberties will be — will have to be — taken in translation; otherwise, a literal translation, no matter how linguistically pure and perfect, may appear too wooden, sterile, and un-lyrical to be acceptably

poetic in English, or across any other linguistic barrier. A literal translation is often incomprehensible, lost in linguistic anomalies, and may not convey what the poet meant, in a poetically acceptable form for a translator’s intended readership. Poetry in Urdu may not — would not — be poetry or remain poetic in another language or culture. To keep it equally poetic, lyrical is no ordinary challenge for a translator.

Having described the limitations, it must be stressed again that, without the translators’ efforts (regardless of the fidelity to the original language or quality of poetry translated), we would have never heard of Pushkin, Neruda, Voltaire, Rilke, Rumi, Khayyam, or Faiz in English…

Urdu metaphorical concepts in poetry are not seamlessly accommodated or assimilated in English. And a literal translation of these concepts would simply amount to exsanguination of the original poetry, draining passion and power out of it.

Speaking of metaphors, [the interchangeable use in Urdu of jigar (liver) for the heart (dil) is] —not much different from how “heart” and “mind” are interchangeably used in the Chinese. And “Ga-ray-baan chaak” or the “torn shirt” and “disheveled looks” of a lover are Urdu metaphors for being too preoccupied and consumed in love to worry about one’s appearance, and not really a sartorial fashion statement (like the torn and ripped low-rider, bleached, stonewashed jeans of today)…

Translation is not something that often receives a kind mention. An Italian proverb cautions, ‘Traduttore, traditore!’ or “Translator, Traitor!” Maybe. Maybe not! But the translators do actually bring you from across the borders, across the oceans what you had not seen before.

Someone else was a bit kinder to translators and said: “Purveyors and peddlers of something denounced and ridiculed on one side, unappreciated and unembraced on the other — translators, the unsung heroes of expanding literature!” Translation has also been likened to a sort of “an immigration process,” which “a rare breed of people are willing to go through . . .

The translators have my sympathy; rather, they have earned it. Reading translated poetry is like you, with a palate much accustomed to the French cuisine, are invited for the first time to a spicy dinner; and you have to negotiate with the served plate…



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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