Pakistani Urdu verse : On the wings of a gentle breeze

Oxford publishes anthology of Pakistani Urdu verse translated and edited by Yasmeen Hameed.

Mushir Anwar November 30, 2010

The publication by Oxford of an anthology of Pakistani Urdu verse translated and edited by Yasmeen Hameed is something good that has happened to not only Urdu poetry but to Urdu itself which prides itself so much on its matchless lyrical tradition.

Translations of poetry from Pakistan have been published from time to time. Selections of Iqbal, Faiz, Qasmi and other poets are available in English translation as well as anthologies published here and abroad that are in a limited sense representative of Urdu verse.

But none of them seem to have made the kind of impact that translations of poetry from Latin America have made, winning world wide recognition for poets like Neruda, Borges, Lorca. This insularity is understandable in case of ghazal which becomes insipid in translation, and the more so when it is at its best. So ghazal had better be left alone. Urdu Nazm is new and a product of the time in which we live. Not only its literal but even its cultural colour is transmittable in deft and capable hands like Yasmeen’s who is herself an elegant nazm practitioner and possesses the required feel for the English word, an absolute must for anyone handling poetry. Her English rendition is like an easy glide over the wing of a gentle breeze.

What a good translation of poetry should have, is not so much literality or exactness of equivalence, as the capacity to find the pace and rhythm of the poet’s fancy and catch a reflection of his or her thought; what translators often do (which Yasmeen has meticulously avoided in this work) is try to better the original which is a serious fault and is unfortunately quite common.

I noticed it while editing a book of translations of contemporary American poetry which Iftikhar Arif had asked me to do for the Pakistan Academy of Letters when he was its chairman. Modern American poetry is often highly allusive; the disconnect in flights of thought is at times unbridgeable, which is indeed no merit for good verse, and for a translator who is not familiar with the particular locale, slang expression or jargon, it is problematic to convey what the poet is saying.

Confronted with such passages, I found a number of our erudite translators drifting into their own creative islands, oceans away from the poet’s native continent.  It was hard work correcting their course and redirecting the translation to its genuine vicinity. In the course of this trying and taxing work I referred a couple of such intractable pieces to my American friend, Dr Peter Coughlin, a linguist, who told me to try to find the closest literal equivalent of the original expression or retain the original itself instead of applying some poetic or intellectual gimmickry of my own.

The translations were drastically edited to bring them closer to the poet’s intent. But the bilingual book we had planned to be produced, like Yasmeen Hameed’s present one by Oxford, was a disaster when it finally came out, months after Iftikhar Arif’s departure from PAL. It  was an atrocious muddle of the texts and translations. Mercifully, we were spared mention in the credits.

Pakistani Urdu Verse has a substantial body and variety covering selections from 63 poets, born between 1910 (Noon Meem Rashid) and 1968 (Farrukh Yar), and offers to the English audience a good idea of the vastness of thought and feeling the Urdu nazm encompasses, and the contemporary awareness it is able to exhibit through its traditional and strong cultural confines. These poems are certainly not the best or the most popular of the concerned poet’s work. Yasmeen has ‘put together a diverse range of themes, forms and practices in contemporary poetry’ to present ‘the nazm as it developed in the twentieth century’. Its circulation in libraries and availability at bookstores in the English reading world will give Urdu a welcome fillip. Anthologies published abroad will certainly make use of this new source for Urdu poetry.

With the original verses juxtaposed against the English version, the book is doubly useful; the fluid grace of the Urdu script evokes an hieroglyphic imagery for the foreign eye.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2010.


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