Wednesday, September 09, 2009

on beginning to understand the task of the translator.

कुछ क़फ़स की तीलियों से छन रहा है नूर सा
कुछ फ़ज़ा, कुछ हसरत-ए- परवाज़ की बातें करो

Kuchh qafas ki teeliyoN se chhan raha hai noor sa
Kuchh fazaa kuchh hasrat-e parvaaz ki baateiN karo


Bare bones translation --
Some(thing like) light filters through the bars of the cage
Talk some of spaciousness, some of the grievous longing for flight


Can one translate poetry from Urdu to English? NN and I were talking about this one evening. The consensus: of course, but it is bloody hard. I came down hard on Agha Shahid Ali whose ghazals in English I love, but whose translations of Faiz (while occasionally exquisite) I mostly find problematic in their too-muchness. There is often a sense of being overwhelmed by the untranslatability of Urdu in his English renderings, trying desperately to throw as many meanings and nuances out of a terse phrase as possible, a lifeline to save the reader from the wicked sea of his ignorance and lack of context.

In my hubris, I indicated my preference for the bare bones translation, like the one above. Write as literally, as sparingly, as possible, and let the reader make the meanings that s/he will. Two days later, I met my nemesis. In the form of this sh'er from Firaq Gorakhpuri, while listening to Kahkashan online.

Something like light does indeed filter through the bars of the cage, but it barely pierces the gloom in/of English.
"qafas", according to Platts, قفس qafas, s.m. A bird's cage, a cage; a coop; a lattice, grate; network; (met.) the body; the skeleton of the thorax. And my mind races, and thinks, wow, this is just like in "Indic" Hindi - where पिंजड़ा (cage) and पिंजर (skeleton) share the same etymological root. As Benjamin says, "... languages are not strangers to one another, but are , a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express..." And so here in English too, we're trapped in the cage of a skeleton ship...

The body is a cage, and the soul then a bird, and I begin to understand Agha Shahid Ali's inability to be economical with words. Something like light shines through, the skin stretched tight turns translucent. But it is still only something like light, and not the light. Trapped in the cage of the body, the soul yearns for the space to fly, and my translation falls like a stone. "Hasrat" is both grief and desire, and just one of them won't do. I remember Reading Plato, and just for a moment there, something like the light brightens.

...as now, when Socrates describes
the lover's wings spreading through the soul


like flames on a horizon, it isn't so much light
I think about, but the back's skin cracking
to let each wing's nub break through,

the surprise of the first pain and the eventual

lightening, the blood on the feathers drying
as you begin to sense the use for them.

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