Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish and the futility of translation

haidar-ali-aatishKhwaja Haider Ali Aatish (1764-1846) of Lucknow is one of the most famed Urdu poets of his time. A man of independence who steered clear of state patronage, he wrote in the ghazal (غزل) genre, avoiding over-elaborate linguistic exercises and writing mostly of love and mysticism.

I struggle to find Urdu poetry that is not transliterated into English. I understand the need, but as someone who grew up functioning in Urdu (and English), I read Urdu best in the Urdu Shahmukhi script. Here, for your reading pleasure, is a famous ghazal from Aatish, rendered (via google input tools, which doesn’t render the ‘hamzah’ properly, despite my attempts) in Urdu and with its English translation. I’ve done my best to do an idiomatic translation; feel free to offer feedback and corrections. I also had to keep stopping myself from slipping into “He” and “Him,” where the Urdu original offers no clue to gender, whether for the Lover or the Beloved in تو (you) and وہ (he/she/it).

Unfortunately, this exercise in translation feels less like a linguistic or literary exercise than a frustrating, rather pointless cultural one. How to translate the loving, voluntary self-surrender (the سپردگی) of “سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے ” without it becoming a humiliating, groveling self-debasement of an abused individual lacking in self-esteem? How to bring the Unity of me-and-Thou into the binary thought of modern English? How to translate into English the agitation of overwhelming devotional Love that cares not for Retribution? How to translate the mystical and literary trope of the Beloved’s “eyebrow” into English? This I cannot do. You are immersed in it, or you are not. You don’t get it in a translation.

As I’ve said before at this blog (I can’t recall which post, help me out here), I do believe people feel emotions in fundamentally different ways. I do believe language is not ultimately translatable, and I don’t believe language is transferable intact from one cultural setting to the other. Literature, when read in translation, is something different from its origins. When I visit Lahore, I find some college students educated in private schools struggle to read Urdu in Shahmukhi, and transliterate words into English. Perhaps English is the mushroom cloud that reduces all languages under it to shriveled skeletons. We can speak Urdu in bursts only, punctuated by the endless onslaught of English words or Anglicized Urdu. Perhaps, in many ways, it is culturally an inevitable shift where Urdu becomes something else entirely, something that Aatish would not recognize.

Perhaps this is an argument for the preservation of languages, so that – for example – Pakistani youth have the freedom, the option, to grow up thinking and feeling in English. Is this possible today? To what extent? I don’t know. As with diversity cultures – where Whiteness functions as the setting, the background, and the foreground, where samosas and pagodas and manga decorate and enhance Whiteness for better marketability – globalized cultures are inherently a death knell for local cultures and languages. Perhaps private spaces, protected – nay, even insulated – from the onslaught of English and Whiteness are the only hope for such cultures and languages. Maybe they must fade and reborn. What do I know.

I don’t know. @HumzaYousaf just took his oath in the Scottish parliament in Urdu. I believe it works, despite the insertion of the English “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth” (how about ملکہ عالیہ الزبتھ  maybe?) Anyway, here is Aatish, his words alive to me at least, almost 180 years since he wrote this ghazal, at a very different time, when Humza Yousaf’s ancestors and mine were watching in bewilderment as the East India Company drove its tentacles into India.

Enjoy. Or try to.

عدم سے جانب ہستی تلاش یار میں آے
کھلی آنکھیں تو دیکھا، وادی پرخار میں آے

یقیں ہے کچھ نہ کچھ رحمت مزاج یار میں آے
ادب سے ہاتھ باندھے ہم تیرے دربار میں آے

اگر بخشے زہے رحمت ، نہ بخشے تو شکایت کیا
سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے

نہ پوچھو اہل محشر ہم سے دیوانہ کی بیتابی
یہاں مجمع سنا، یاں بھی تلاش یار میں آے

عدم کے جانے والو بزم جاناں تک اگر پہنچو
ہمیں بھی یاد رکھنا ذکر جو دربار میں آے

نہ مانگو بوسہ اے آتش بگاڑے منہ وہ بیٹھے ہیں
قیامت ہے اگر بل ابروے خمدار میں آے

From nothingness, we came into existence, in search of the Beloved.
But when we opened our eyes, we found ourselves in a valley of thorns.

Surely the Beloved will tend toward mercy;
We enter Your audience, hands folded in reverence.

If the Beloved should pardon me, how fortunate I am! If not, I have no complaints.
My head inclines in acceptance and submission, whatever the Beloved wishes with me.

O you gathered for Judgement Day, ask not of the impatient Lover’s madness.
He heard people gathering, and here too he rushes in search of the Beloved.

O you departing for the other world, if you should reach the Beloved’s assembly,
don’t forget me, if I happen to be mentioned in the Beloved’s presence.

Don’t beg for a kiss, O Aatish, for the Beloved frowns in anger.
If the Beloved’s crescent eyebrows should crease, it is as Doomsday has arrived.

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4 Replies to “Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish and the futility of translation”

  1. You did a good job baitee. Remember your mother can answer some Urdu questions she holds a diploma of “Adeeb Aalim” in Urdu (Hope you are familiar with it!
    I know we often use these words all our lives but I cannot honestly say I knew this was Aatish who wrote giving the whole ghazal was a wonderful thing. I learned. This is called “peer shaow biaamooz (persian that is. How many facets of meanings each verse can get one wonders. Salaams to Aatish

    1. Ammi always had the perfect word for when I needed help with my homework. It was amazing. I didn’t know Aatish was the writer of this verse either!

  2. This is beautiful. Thank you for taking the time and effort to translate for non-Urdu (or those who lack sufficient Urdu vocabulary) speakers.

    The overwhelming feeling I took away from this poem is of someone being totally and completely in love. It doesn’t matter whether your Beloved uses or abuses you, smears you with spaghetti sauce or makes you change a foul nappie, or knocks you over with a bear hug, you just are going to keep loving your Beloved no matter what.

    The English word “submission” is tricky for the reasons you have described. I don’t know whether this is helpful to you or not, but I recently read, “In submission an individual accepts reality consciously but not unconsciously. He accepts as a practical fact that he cannot at the moment conquer reality, but lurking in his subconscious is the feeling:’there’ll come a day…’ This in no real acceptance; the struggle is still going on. With this temporary yielding, tension continues. But when the ability to accept functions on the unconscious level as surrender, there is no residual battle; there is relaxation and freedom from strain and conflict.”

    I love the divine eyebrows.

    Regarding Urdu, the French have a government institute that ‘upgrades’ the French language so that English/technology words are rendered into French, thus staunching the English flood. Germans, with their Lego-like language routinely “build” new words. Is there any attempt by the Pakistani government to create an Urdu Institute? Does Urdu lend itself (via prefixes, suffixes, etc) to building new words?

    1. Nabeela, your last question is above my pay grade but I think Svend would be able to engage with it. Mostly Urdu embraces and absorbs new words – unfortunately also replacing Urdu words with English ones.

      “Submission” is very tricky in English. There is no fana in mainstream English. There is always the two-ness, which makes any ‘union’ tricky, because union subordinates one to the other.

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