Between Translation & Composition

On November 9, 2012 by admin

Geeta Patel

Miraji was a consummate poet of the streets, someone whose life was made replete through the journeys he took. Mehr Farooqi’s many eloquent portrait in the newspaper Dawn brings him to life as a sadhu, mala in hand, long hair untamed, earrings dangling. One can almost imagine him, his thaila or shoulder bag laden with books and loose pages scribbled full of poems, a small bottle of alcohol tucked between them, wending his way on a yatra. He could have been a typical aashiq, a lover, hollow-eyed, locks askew, bechain, swinging between hope and despair, haunting the street, awaiting a glimpse of the woman he said he loved, Mira Sen, outside her firmly closed door, loitering outside Kinnaird College in Lahore. As he describes in his nazm, “Aankh Micholii”: “I walk past my house a little, wish she were here. How quickly she eludes my glance. What must I believe? Does she abhor me? But this: she looked down so soon, in such silence. What can I believe, does she know my longing? And this? When our eyes meet, she shuts her door, and I, destitute, wander again.”

But Miraji was a poet of the streets in many less conventional ways. If one can imagine galiyan as poetic paths, he also haunted the byways of libraries. He had forsaken a conventional education and was entirely self-taught. The librarian at the Punjab Public library remembered him as the first one in and the last one out. Libraries became his avenues to other worlds, avenues he travelled inexorably, returning to Urdu from sojourns into translations from French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and, closer to home, from Bengali, Sanskrit, and Braj. In absolutely essential ways these journeys transformed his being, became the lodestone for his poetry. Miraji was very young when he wrote many of his essays on poetry that he could have encountered only through such “travels”; some of them, collected in Mashriq-o-Maghrib ke Naghmain, were composed when he was 18 years old. So from the inception of his first forays into writing the lovely nazms, geets and ghazals for which he became famous, he translated. And these translations were seminal for him as a poet.

A few poets have acknowledged how important translation is for their own composition. Perhaps Rilke in his ninth elegy alluded to the centrality of translation. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, moved by the Sanskrit play Shakuntala and the profound lines of Hafez, sought out translation as inspiration for cycles of lyric. Kenneth Rexroth, in his essay “The Poet as Translator,” characterised translation as a kind of going beyond oneself in the act of voicing someone else’s lyric: “The translation of poetry into poetry is an act of sympathy — the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance … to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.” But Rexroth ventures further than this when, in discussing the British poet HD’s translations from ancient Greek, he calls her process and her verse “the story of her own possession by the ghost of Meleager”. For Rexroth the skimpiest understanding of translation is the common one: translation as a process of turning a text from one language into a text in another. Here the translator is almost absent, treated as a transparent funnel or conduit who enables what is most important — the new text. And usually what people look for when they think of translation in this way is fidelity, how close the translation is to the original. Rexroth brings the translator back into view, not just as someone who has to feel their way into the original by overcoming a self, but as someone who, in the process of translation, is taken over by the words that they are translating. They become something or someone else, and the two languages in their hands absorb these transformations. To explain the place of translation in Miraji’s life and work I would go even further. Adrienne Rich, in the United States, comes the closest to exemplifying what I want to say. Her poetic voice changed after she worked on Ghalib and she found in ghazal a form of lyric that made it more possible for her to enunciate love as loss. Miraji sought after different kinds of speaking when he translated; these then became his voice. But he also became another person through translation. And I am not sure how many poets have, like Miraji, held onto the spaces between translation and composition, composition and reading, reading and translation, as though they were as necessary as breath.

Urdu has of course had its own a long history of translation. One familiar and perhaps apocryphal story of the origins of the language makes translation between the various communities of the camp or the market its birthing site. And among many of the notables in the history of Urdu literature whose names may be invoked in relation to translation was Altaf Husain Hali. Hali, who made some of his living from translating books from English, could be thought of as someone whose call for a new aesthetics — through islaah or the improvement or revision of Urdu poetry to produce Urdu’s “nayii shairii” as poetry based in natural (that is, realist) description — was founded in translation. Nineteenth-century British realism transmuted into Urdu poetry might also have had the project of translation as its host.

“Nagarii nagarii phiraa musaafir ghar kaa raastaa bhuul gayaa, kyaa hai meraa kyaa hai teraa apnaa paraayaa bhuul gayaa.” This matlaa, the opening verse in a ghazal Miraji includes in Teen Rang (Three Colours), one of the poetry collections he compiled, scripted painstakingly in his own hand, fleshes out translation in myriad ways. It might be said to embody many of the features Miraji brings to translation. “From town to town the traveller journeyed, and forgot the road home, what was mine, what a stranger’s, both lost to memory,’’ he writes. “I don’t remember why I am here, what I have to do. My memory has turned into a flickering lamp.” A traveller, about whose travails Miraji also speaks in one of his longer, more elusively nuanced nazms, “Jaatrii,” is someone whose raison d’être is forgetting, in the ways that Rexroth intends. Travelling enables the sojourner to extend beyond their skin; travel as a method of translating pulls the poet away from home, the places where their voice assumes its familiar cadences and tones. This sort of translation inhabits the skin and sinews of another’s speaking and composition. So much so, that the differences between self and other, one voice and another lyric, dissolves, fades away. And the road home is lost to memory. What might this mean for a poet and writer like Miraji?

Miraji translated copiously throughout his life, while he was also writing essays and composing nazm, geet and ghazal. In his youth he translated the Bengali poet Vidyapati, Li Po, most of the symbolist poets, DH Lawrence, the Brontë sisters, Sappho, women poets writing in Japanese and Korean, and Heinrich Heine; he went on to translate Anna Akhmatova and Muriel Rukeyser, and towards the end of his life he compiled three books of translations, one each from Mirabai, Omar Khayyam, and Damodar Gupta. In my book, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry, I investigate how translating Charles Baudelaire would invigorate Miraji’s desire to revitalise the Urdu lyrical tradition that had lost its way after 1857. I suggest that translation opens avenues for Miraji that do not follow the conventions of realism that Hali intimated as a new path for Urdu lyric.

These are some of the avenues Miraji traversed in “nagarii, nagarii”: that new ghazals might discover their lineages not in Perso-Arabic conventions but perhaps in the ordinary Hindi of the street, perhaps in the cadences and metaphors from Daccanii ghazal such as those attributed to Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah, who in “piyaa baaj pyaalaa piyaa na jaaye” sings in a language redolent with Braj. Miraji’s ghazal offers an alternative sojourn that diverges from the one suggested by Hali: one of possession, rather than realism. “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another,” Walter Benjamin reminds us in his essay, “The Task of the Translator.” Enchanted, seduced by another voice, the ghazal releases its own lingua franca under Miraji’s delicate pen: “ghar kaa raastaa bhuul gayaa”. In losing the way home the ghazal calls to mind the journeys mystics make, so necessary to Benjamin’s evocations on translation: to shed their everyday worldly skin, to forsake the differences between oneself and those who are strangers to us. This ghazal shows us what translation can do to a particular form, but also tells us what translators must do: forgo the comforts of the familiar. And wending their way along the pathways of mysticism, translators become one with someone else, porous to resonances. Overtaken by other spirits they come to be other than they were when they embarked on their travels.

What are the effects for Miraji? You see them, as I have indicated, in his poetry. You also see them in his prose analyses of his contemporaries who wrote in Urdu. You see them in his life. And each venue blends into the others.

Whether his name was taken from Mira Sen, the woman Miraji said he was in love with, or from Mirabai, the poet of mystical love, the change in his name is not the only way in which Miraji refashions himself into the feminine. In the essay, “How songs are composed,” Miraji says, “When the ripples of thought carry me, they take me so far away that I begin to think that only women can make songs.” Song comes truer as Miraji translates himself through a woman’s tongue. The poet is overtaken by a woman’s spirit, lives on in her skin, and his lyric is often spoken as a woman. In the familiar nazm, “Ras kii Anokii Lahren,” she asserts, “I want the world’s eyes to follow me/follow me as though/I were a tree’s supple branch”. In other nazms, under Mirabai’s spell, Miraji’s voice softens into hers, its sinews and refrains Hindi and Braj. The iconography of painting in sringara rasa and Mirabai’s lingering colours for her beloved Krishna, the indigo black of his skin, the pitch forest in which they meet, the rich darkness of their night of love, the bleak gloom of her desire thwarted release themselves into his own contemporary verse: the nazm. To take but one of many possible examples, this one from “Tahriik”: “Far off in the tall indigo jungle/black blue black clouds crowded/In the forest, a black koel calls/ black shadows on the ground/black wet eyes/black blue black hair./Close by./In the center of my heart. Slowly/slowly sighs arose/sorrow poisons the nectar/sorrow’s fierce fiery glances./ Sorrow’s yellow-black eyes./Sorrow’s soft whisper step.”

Translation also gifts Miraji a critical idiom through which he approaches the poetry of his contemporaries. Here his soulmate is not Mirabai, but the French symbolist Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme’s influences can certainly be seen in Miraji’s own style. Its elusive quality, its ibhaam, gathers its power from Mallarme’s evocative shadows: “The dark sits, leaps forward — like a shutter that snaps open and closes/with the hard slaps from a storm/like a wounded fluttering bird.” These lines from “Jaatrii” press themselves forward into a demand that translates their khayaalaat, their textured subtlety, into elucidation. Visceral and vivid, and at the same time charged with philosophical succulence, they marshal a host of questions that might expose or reveal the philosophical nuances captured in them: is the dark the dark night of the soul, the place where the poet has lost his tongue? Why does the dark open and close, come and go? These sorts of questions are kin to those that Miraji picks up from Roger Fry’s translations of Mallarme. In attempting to render Mallarme, Fry found himself adding exegeses on the verse which unravelled its elliptical intonations. Miraji expected nothing less from his own readers, and he used the same habits of analysis on the work of his contemporaries in Is Nazm Main (In This Poem). The collection is one of the finest series of close readings of Urdu lyric from the period in which Miraji lived. In it Miraji practices translations as acts of parsing. Unpacking the subtlety in each line, Miraji places the poet and poem into contexts that allow readers to enter the poem so that, for the space of the essay, they live the flesh and muscle of the poem’s language. Readers here become sojourners into another’s world, asked to forgo, for a small hiatus, the differences between them and the other.

“Adab zindagii kaa tarjumaah hai,” Miraji says in “Nayii Shairii kii Buniyaaden”: “Art is a translation of life”. And also, perhaps, what comes after.

“Prophecy from another time

After my life has come and gone,

after my death perhaps

In a spring season

When a call returned drifts in

My songs will be heard the

world over.”

The lines are Sappho’s, or are they Miraji’s, translating one of her verses as he inhabits her tongue for one of his early essays? The question is not an idle one. Perhaps the only way to answer it is to give the sojourner and translator, the poet who was Miraji, the last word:

“If anyone asks

Who said this,

Tell them what’s in your heart.

Miraji spoke and repented

And then,

Having talked



Geeta Patel is Associate Professor, Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures and Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry

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