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Translator's Note: “No, I wasn’t meant to love and be loved”

BY VIJAY SESHADRI

 

This is a translation of one of the most famous and widely anthologized ghazals of the Delhi poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797 - 1869), the last and—with Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810)—the greatest of the classical Urdu poets. The ghazal is rich and various but fairly limpid, as far as Ghalib goes (though there are subtleties in the use of conditional and subjunctive tenses that no amount of effort can capture in English). Its limpidity and its consistent magnificence have attracted translators. Frances Pritchett's superb Ghalib website (columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/) offers no less than thirty-six English versions, spread out over seventy years, of all or most of its couplets, including truncated ones by William Stafford and Robert Bly.

Faced with this wealth of attention, a new translator is tempted to strike out into his or her own understanding of the poem, confident that there exist plenty of correctives to possible misprisonings (for readers interested in exploring the poem further, the index number on the website is twenty). I've succumbed to this temptation, so the preceding is a "free" translation of all but one of its couplets (one which I felt had too much recondite monistic philosophy to suit my needs). I've struggled less with Ghalib's intricate grammar, prosody, syntax, and rhetoric, his lexical range and depth, than with his idiomatic vigor, celerity, dramatic sense of self, and humor. The translator of Ghalib is a little like the hapless lover who dominates the classical Urdu ghazal—full of self-pity about his own inadequacy in the presence of his triumphant, unapproachable object of desire, at once ridiculous and tragic. I've squirmed (maybe too much) under this condition.

A note about that which this lover loves: masters of the ghazal, originally an Arabic verse form that antedates the arrival of Islam, dined out for a thousand years by being exquisitely ambiguous about the identity of the beloved. Is the beloved a human person or God? Is the love carnal or divine? For a poet as complex and vital as Ghalib, to speak about one is an excuse to speak about the other.—VS

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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