The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Reducing the sublime to the ordinary
Harbans Singh

Ghalib in Translation
by O. P. Kejariwal.
UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd.
Page: 200. Rs 375

Ghalib in TranslationTHERE is little doubt, as the author O. P. Kejariwal says in the introduction to the book, that even after a century and three decades of Ghalib’s death, his poetry not only continues to sparkle in the imagination and common conversation of the Urdu-speaking people but also remains popular at musical soirees across the subcontinent. He remains the subject of academic discussions as well as that of films and television serials. The reach of Ghalib, which cuts across the divisions of society, has tempted many an admirer to attempt translating him in English, and, as so often happens in such cases, the end result has failed to measure up to the expectations. Kejariwal is the latest addition to be part of that genre, and one is afraid that his fate and that of Ghalib at his hands has been no different.

This repeated failure of translators raises the fundamental question about the efficacy of the translation in capturing the spirit of Ghalib, his genuine universality and the ability to relate the emotions and attitudes of the decadent and effete society of the sunset years of the pompous Mughal empire to the modern times. Part of the problem lies in the poetry itself which, like the lifestyle of the aristocracy of the time, was obsessed more with weaving intricate but often frivolous patterns rather than exploring and chiseling the raw emotions and expounding meaningful philosophy of life from the experiences of life. In fact, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib represents all that was wrong with the times and those who had the onerous responsibility of leaving their imprint upon history. His was a life desperately trying to hold on to a lifestyle that could be supported by neither the means at command nor the system that had degenerated.


In the end, Mirza Ghalib, despite his immense talent for creativity, turns out to be a philanderer, for whom poetry was not only a refuge but also a mechanism that probably helped him from lapsing into insanity. Self deprecating and mocking, not only himself but life in general, he symbolised his age, and therefore refused to heed the warnings ahead. In the end, both he and his emperor stood gazing at the world that had collapsed so speedily around them. Therefore, despondency and escapism become the hallmark of his poetry though they are creatively laced with pithy and witty turns of phrases and imagery.

It is this world that has been translated by the author and into which he attempts to lead the English-speaking reader. However, the fact Kejariwal has chosen only couplets rather than complete poems makes one wonder if his intention was to cull out only notable quotes from Ghalib. If that was the intention then he deserves to be complimented on his selection, but it does leave a sense of inadequacy in appreciating the master. It is true that the interpretation and translation of the masters is the prerogative of the translator but should it entail that the reader be left stranded in a language that often borders on the dull and the prosaic? Often Kejariwal is guilty of reducing the lofty and the sublime to the ordinary and the mundane. Have a look at the couplet on page 33: bandgi mein bhi vo azad-o-khudbin hain ki ham/ulte phir ae, dare-kaba agar va na hua. In the original, one can almost see and feel the flourish with which a proud and haughty person turns away from a closed door, even if it was the House of God. The translation is not only dull and drab but also fails to capture the spirit of a man too proud to offer prayers on unequal terms. The inadequacy of the translator is even more acutely felt on page 40 where one of the more popular couplets is subjected to laboured verse which borders on the prose. Similarly, the effort of translating couplet of page 59 ends in something of a riddle, while that of page 69 is faulty, to say the least. One can go on and on and wonder if it would not have been better if only an honest paraphrasing of the couplets had been rendered. In response, the author might retort that in any case the translations of masters have invariably left many dissatisfied. But since this reflects upon the undoubtedly universal nature of Ghalib, one would have to blame the translator for doing injustice to the master.