Indian Literature in Translation: What I Learnt Translating Shahryar's Poetry

Hindi/Urdu have a very different register, speech pattern, syntax, and cultural vocabulary when compared to English.

7 min read

There is providence, it is said, in the fall of a sparrow. A chance meeting sometime in the year 1991, with Dr Rao, the Editor of Indian Literature, the journal of the Sahitya Akademi, proved not only fortuitous but had consequences far beyond any that anyone could have foreseen.

Dr Rao was looking for someone to translate a particular story by Premchand, Mandir Masjid; he suggested, quite without preamble, that I should do it and he would publish it in his journal. He overruled my qualms about no previous experience at translating, let alone writing. I was then working as Assistant Editor at the India International Centre and was perfectly content editing other people’s (bad) writing.

Soon enough, I had pecked away industriously at my father’s battered old typewriter and presented Dr Rao with a translation which he duly published in Indian Literature. Little was I to know then that the sequence of events that would unspool—almost in slow motion over the next two decades—from that chance meeting and that generous, almost avuncular, suggestion would give birth to an undreamt-of literary career.

For someone with no literary ambitions at that point and no academic interests either, that single act of translation would prove to be the foundation stone for a life-long vocation. Almost 25 years later, I am still building on that single serendipitous meeting.


Tasting Blood of Translation

Looking back, it seems as though I had tasted blood after translating that one Premchand short story. Within a year, in October 1992 to be precise, I had published a collection of 10 short stories by Premchand with Harper Collins. Titled The Temple and the Mosque, it was a slim book with a very short introductory note, called rather self-effacingly, ‘Translator’s Note’. Looking back, it seems odd that I was content to dub it so; perhaps the sense of ownership I now have with a text was entirely missing then.

I translate from Urdu and Hindi into English; these two languages have a very different register, a different kind of speech pattern, syntax, as well as cultural vocabulary when compared to English.

Perhaps, if I were translating from Urdu to, say, Oriya, I might have fewer problems even though the two languages and the literatures associated with them have little in common. But since both Urdu and Oriya belong to the Indian sub-continent there are many things I can take for granted. It is not so with English.

English Audience, Desi Context

Apart from the purely technical aspects such as sentence structure, placing of verbs, the natural pauses in Urdu and Hindi, there is the huge issue of context. How do you translate cultural sensitivity? How do you translate something like jigar (literally meaning ‘liver’) which crops up repeatedly in Urdu poetry but is not used for liver in the anatomical sense? Jigar is not even heart (as when Ghalib says ‘Yeh khalish kahan se hoti jo jigar ke paar hota…’). For the Urdu poet jigar then is an abstraction and not a part of the human anatomy or an organ.

Elsewhere, there are images and metaphors that mean something automatically to those belonging to a certain culture. For instance, a kite with its string cut which is dangling from a banyan tree, the smell of the first rain on parched ground, the sweet scent of mogra blossoms in a bride’s sehra. The last image is especially poignant because the tremulous scent of mogra conjures up the bride’s tremulous beauty.

Such images and metaphors that are rooted in a culture do not require translation when one is translating between Indian languages but when you are translating from an Indian language into English, you have one of two choices: burden your translation with explanations and make it cumbersome and clumsy; or retain the image and allow it to speak for itself and, when need be, give a detailed Introduction that sets out the contours of the context of your text.


My 25 Years as a Translator 

Increasingly, in the 25-odd years that I have been translating, I am as interested in the context as the text I am translating—which is why I find it increasingly necessary to write a detailed Introduction to the stories or novel or poetry that I might be translating.

Over the years, I have translated the fiction of Rashid Jahan, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chandar, Phanishwarnath Renu among a host of others and the poetry of Zehra Nigah, Kaifi Azmi, Shahryar, Javed Akhtar, and most recently Gulzar’s Collected Works. In one of my recent translations—of Intizar Husain's seminal novel Aagey Samandar Hai (translated as The Sea Lies Ahead, Harper Collins, 2015)—I have even provided extensive footnotes. These seem important in a literary work dense with cultural allusions or references to, for instance, early Islamic history which may not be instantly revealing to an English reader but which would not have required explanation in its Urdu original.

I attempted a little experiment in Aagey Samandar Hai. I must confess I am not a pioneer of this experimental form of translating; others have done it before me, most notably the translators of Latin American works such as Gregory Rabassa.

I had not read the novel before starting its translation; each day I would only read as much as I planned to translate that day; each day I resisted the impulse to read even a paragraph or a line more. I think this helps in giving a freshness to the translation, and a certain spontaneity. I think the omniscience that a translator assumes is missing in such an approach.


Undaunted by the Losses in Translation

Losses are inevitable in the act of translation but, taken in the balance, the gains far outweigh the losses. A work of translation, it is said, is like looking at the wrong side of a carpet; the pattern and outline is clearly visible on the ‘wrong’ side but what is missing is the sheen and colour and brilliance of the ‘right’ side.

Instead of being daunted by the losses, I do believe one should think of the immeasurable gains. For, if intrepid pioneering translators had not worked upon the finest of world literatures how much poorer our ‘own’ literatures would have been. Imagine not having read the Greek classics, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Republic, imagine no Maupassant, no Russian Masters, no Gabriel Garcia Marquez, no Pablo Neruda either. Imagine, within India, not having read OV Vijayan, Mahasweta Devi, Vivek Shanbhag, Perumal Murugan and many, many others.


Challenges of Translating Urdu into English

Coming to Urdu literature, especially Urdu poetry, it is a challenge and a formidable one to translate from Urdu into English.

Let me give an example from Shahryar whom I translated first in Through the Closed Doorway (Rupa & Co, 2004) and whose biography I subsequently wrote as Shahryar: A Life in Poetry (Harper Collins, 2018). Retaining the compactness and metaphoric precision of the Urdu originals while also carrying into English some of the rhythm and rhyme of Shahryar’s often idiosyncratic use of words and silences, not to mention a peculiar syntax, can be quite daunting.

Unlike English, metrical patterns in Urdu depend on line lengths and lengths of syllables rather than stresses. There is also no pre-ordained word order, the poet being free to craft his own syntax; punctuation, too, is seldom used as most poets prefer to allow natural pauses to do the job.

If you look at how Shahryar’s poetry is placed on a page, you will see how he makes full use of natural pauses and builds a pace and tempo into his words that is perfectly in consonance with the direction in which the nazm is taking the reader.

While all of this has great aural charm in Urdu, unfortunately in English it can sound like a meaningless jumble of words. I found it best, therefore, to stay as close to the images and let them carry the poem through, where rhythm and rhyme were proving to be elusive to capture in English.


What I Learnt from Shahryar's Poetry

In Shahryar’s poetry the image is important. He cloaks it in a many-splendoured robe of words, words that have a mesmeric spell of their own. As a translator, you have to pull yourself away from their insistent, inward pull to look again at the image. Once out of that tilismic enchantment, you look at the beauty of the image conjured up by the play upon words. It shines through the many layers of meaning in all its crystal clarity, its freshness and poignancy.

My experience, both as a reader and translator, tells me that is when, maybe, you have reached the core of Shahryar’s poetry, felt its newness and its allure in a way that is almost tactile. That is also the point when, perhaps, you have felt yourself drawn across an invisible doorway through the portal of wakefulness.

Here are some examples:


Among those who crossed over

One among those who watch from the shore

I too used to be fearful of the river

There were many of us in that paper boat

I was the only one who crossed over


The habit of living

There is no one to come and meet me

Then why do I have the name plate on my door

When you get the habit of living

It is hard to let go


The fear of morning

There is nothing new about the falling of night

And that is why I am fearful

The morning that will follow

Does not include the night

That I know


The pleasure of wakefulness

My lips upon yours

Weighing your body

In the scales of my hands

And the smell of gunpowder in the domes till afar

After a long time I savoured the pleasure of wakefulness


You will be punished

You have sold the ink of the night

To the morning

You will be punished some day

For the devastation you have wrought


Sorrowful since the morning

Night shall halt in the middle of the wind tonight

The thought that I will not be able to

Light the lamp of my dreams

Causes a frenzy inside me

And has made me sorrowful since the morning


Do you remember any of it

The routes I took to reach your body

The sound of earth and the scent of wheat

I brought with me

Do you remember any of it


It rained for a long time

In the evening, behind the fig leaves

A bare-foot whisper

Ran so swiftly

It nearly suffocated me

I yearned for a drink that tasted of sand

There in the distance a storm brewed

And then it rained for a long time


I am scared

I am scared

I am scared of those moments

Those moments yet to come

That will search

With great freedom

Every corner of my heart

For those dreams, and those secrets

That I have kept hidden from this world


(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More