It’s tempting to read Aijaz Ahmad’s translations of Mirza Ghalib, giant of the modern Urdu-language ghazal, against his later Marxist criticism. Ahmad’s intro lays stress on Ghalib’s role as witness to a declining Mughal world being steamrolled by the British, and lends a postcolonial shading to the poet’s special brand of wistfulness. But his politics is really in the book’s approach to translation. Other translators have only interpreted the poems; Ahmad’s point is to change them. His apparatus for each ghazal (or the portion of each he’s selected to translate) includes a prose-y, open-ended “literal translation,” often better than the poetic renderings that follow; a section explaining the key Urdu vocabulary he’s brought over into English; a General Explanation of puzzling couplets, detailing the philosophy and theology behind Ghalib’s imagery, or admitting his failure to grasp it; and two or three different translations for each poem provided by a pool of seven English-language poets.
The poets aren’t ones I’d think of for an exploratory project like this: W.S. Merwin, William Stafford, Mark Strand, and Adrienne Rich don’t conjure up visions of radical advances in poetics. The beauty of Ahmad’s structure though is that you can call them out for their complacencies and distortions, since you’re privy to the same text they worked from. By the same token, you end up giving credit where credit is due—Rich stands out as especially deft at catching the subtle thought at work behind the rainbows and wine cups and flowers. The book’s interest finally extends beyond Ghalib to the possibilities of translation in general, though the ghazals appear here with a beauty and accuracy that’s hard to best anywhere else.
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