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Urdu poetry and the peerless art of translation

In my humble opinion, the best translations of Urdu poetry into English were done by Victor Kiernan of the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Khushwant Singh writes.

columns Updated: Jun 23, 2012 22:41 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh
Hindustan Times

In my humble opinion, the best translations of Urdu poetry into English were done by Victor Kiernan of the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It was a joint effort. Kiernan was teaching English at Lahore's Chiefs College. Faiz was teaching English in an Indian college. Kiernan had an Indian wife and was fluent in Hindustani. They became friends and together worked on the translations. They are a joy to read.

In my not-so-humble opinion my translations came next in merit. I have done a better job than any other Indian, Pakistani or foreign scholar in giving Urdu poetry good readability. My method is to first memorise the original and keep repeating it in my mind. I do this many times in bed as I retire for the night. The translation emerges bit by bit as I doze off. My translations have been well received. My rendering of Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa published by the Oxford University Press has gone into more than 14 editions. It goes on selling. So do my compilations made jointly with Kamna Prasad, but translated entirely by me: Celebrating the Best of Urdu Poetry (Penguin). I quote one memorable verse by her.

Raat yoon dil main teree khoyee huee yaad aaee
Jaisey veeraney main chupkey sey bahaar aa jaaye
Jaisey sahaaron mein hauley sey chalaey baad-e-naseem
Jaisey beemaar ko bevajah qaraar aajaaye

Last night the lost memory of you stole into my mind
Stealthily as spring steals into a wilderness;
As on desert wastes a gentle breeze begins to blow
As in one sick beyond hope, hope begins to grow.

Meer Taqi Meer (1722-1810) is a great favourite among lovers of Urdu poetry. Though born in a village close to Agra, he spent most of his life in Delhi. His most favourite poem among his admirers is his eulogy to drunkenness.

Main nashey main hoon
Yaaro mujhey muaaf rakho main nashey main hoon
Ab do to jam khaali hee do main nashey mein hoon
Masti sey barhamee hai meree
guftagoo key beech
Jo chaaho tum bhee mujh ko kaho main nashey mein hoon
Maazur hoon, jo paaon mera betarah padey
Tum sargiraan to mujh sey naa ho main nashey mein hoon
Bhaagee namaaz-e-jumma to jaatee nahee hain kuchh
Chalta hoon main bhee, tum to raho maian nashey mein hoon
Naazuk mizaaj aap qayaamat hein Meer Jee
Joon sheesha merey munh na lago main nashey mein hoon

I am somewhat drunk
Friends, you should forgive me, for I am somewhat drunk
And if, you must, give me an empty cup, for I am somewhat drunk.
This is intoxication you hear not malice in my talk
You too may curse and call me names, for I am somewhat drunk
You can see that I am helpless, when I try to walk I stumble
Don't be cross with me, please don't
grumble, for I am somewhat drunk.

Monsoon Singh
Q: What is the advantage of having Badal as chief minister of Punjab?
A: Expectation of rainfall always remains.

Soda or water
On a TV channel, a godman was listening to the problems of the faithful when he suddenly interjected and said:

"Why 'soda' is coming in my mind? Do you take whisky?"
"Yes, Prabhu," replied the faithful.
"Do you take it with soda or water?"
"Sometimes with soda and at other times with water," promptly answered the faithful.
"Stop using soda. Your problems would evaporate in no time," the godman pronounced the solution.

(Contributed by KJB Ahluwalia, Amritsar)

First Published: Jun 23, 2012 22:38 IST