Sunday, April 05, 2009

Poetry gripes

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that Vijay Seshadri's translation of Ghalib's Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat (the original here) in this month's Poetry is really terrible? I'm vaguely fond of Seshadri, and quite enjoyed his last book, but this translation of his doesn't so much miss the boat as not even make it to the harbor. The first time I read the translation I didn't even recognize the original (which I know large chunks of by heart - as who doesn't?) in it, and even now I have trouble reconciling the translation with Ghalib's ghazal. I mean, seriously, who renders

Koi mere dil se pooche tere teer-e neem-kash ko
Yeh khalish kahan se hoti jo jigar ke paar hota


You are a laconic marksman. You leave me
not dead but perpetually dying.

That is so far from the original (roughly: "Someone should ask my heart about your half-hearted arrow / Would it have hurt this much if the shaft had passed through?") that it's practically a different poem. Not only does it not stay true to the tone and sensibility of the original (always a difficult thing to do) it completely mangles the sense of the verse, obscures Ghalib's wit, and ends up 'telling' rather than 'showing' the final line. And that's one of the better verses of Seshadri's translation. Gah!


Meanwhile, Jim Holt, writing in the NY Times informs me that Robert Browning is "not quite a first-rate poet". I'm sorry, what?! I have no idea what Mr. Holt has been inhaling lately, but if Browning is not a first-rate poet I'd like to know who is. Personally, I consider Browning the greatest poet of his era (admittedly, this is an era that consists of Arnold, Swinburne and Tennyson - not English poetry's finest hour) and would gladly lose several minor appendages if I could turn out one poem that has half the flow and precision of My Last Duchess.


And finally, to calm my indignant nerves, Lawrence Raab's 'The Poem that Can't Be Written' from last week's New Yorker.


equivocal said...

Maybe you shouldn't have read the book before watching the movie...

Obviously I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of the translation; obviously Seshadri has not been very faithful; certainly he has chosen to render Ghalib in Americanese, which, though I dont mind it, is debatable; but I must say he's made a pretty damn good poem by my reckoning! As far as I'm concerned, going strictly by the end-text alone, this is the most convincing Ghalib I've ever seen in English. He may have blunt the humour in that particular couplet, but the wry bitter tone he's managed in the overall poem ("Instead I get analysis"; "just drunk as usual") -- I haven't seen any other Ghalib translators make it work.

And if that couplet you've quoted is not the best in the poem, it's still, for my money, a little better than all the other English versions of it around. Here, taken from this site are the 16 other versions of it done since 1990 (better a lack of humour than the unintended humour of some of these?):

Dr. Yaqub Mirza (1992)

How would your half-drawn arrow have cask [sic] my heart true,
Felt this sensation, had it pierced my heart through?

Umesh Joshi (1995)

May someone check with my heart anent your feeble-enforced dart,
Where this throbbing would have been if it had pierced the heart.

Khwaja Tariq Mahmood (1995)

My heart could well experience the effects of lingering pain
My innards your sharpened arrow could hardly penetrate

Prema Johari (1996)

But 'twixt life and death I linger still; hoping, and in pain,
O wouldst thy mark had failed not; and I in death's lap be lain.

Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (1999)

Ask my heart sometime about your arrow shot from a loose bow.
It would not have hurt so much if it had actually gone through.

TP Issar (2000)

I'm glad you shot your arrow / with the bow only half-bent.
For you the shot may've been in vain, / but it brought me exquisite pain!

Shah Abdus Salam ( 2001)

Let someone ask my heart about your half-drawn arrow,
Where from this torment started, had it passed the liver.

Sarfaraz K. Niazi (2002)

Would someone ask my heart about your half-drawn arrow;
From where would this sweet pain have come, had it gone through the liver?

O.P. Kejariwal (2002)
That half-drawn bow / That arrow about to go / Oh, ask my heart / The joy of the wait
For had it passed / Right through the heart / That would be the end / Of all that wait / And all that joy.

Sarvat Rahman (2003)

Ask my heart, it knows, what your half drawn arrow means,
This sweet pain would not be there, had it gone right through.

K.C. Kanda (2004)

Who but my heart can tell the thrill of your arrow, half-stretched,
Could it leave a sting behind, had it pierced my heart straight?

Kunwar Rajinder Singh Rana (2005)

From the half penetrated arrow one should gauge my pleasure;
If it had fully passed through the liver, it would not prick like this.

Shama Futehally (2005)

My heart alone is proof that your arrow / was half-drawn
what would be left to wound, had it done / the slightest harm?

Pravaean Rao

let my heart be asked to avouch, for your halfhearted dart, ensconced
how would this sweet pain result, had it gone through the wound clear?

U.C. Mahajan

Ask my heart the smarting pain inflicted by your eye lash's half stretched bow
from whence would come that sweet but painful thrill had it penetrated through.

Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear (2009)

Ask my heart about your half-drawn bow
This anguish would not arise had the arrow passed through my body

equivocal said...

ps-- as for the 19th century-- how could you forget Hopkins!!!!

Falstaff said...

equivocal: I don't disagree that the end poem is fairly good, I just feel that it's so unfaithful to the original that it basically isn't a Ghalib poem at all. I suspect my problem isn't so much that Seshadri isn't faithful to the original as the sense I get that he isn't even trying to be, so that the as a translation the whole poem seems like a series of easy, even glib choices. This is not a translation of Ghalib, it's a poem vaguely inspired by a Ghalib ghazal.

And while I agree that the other English version are atrocious, I'm not sure that lets Seshadri off the hook. Particularly because with Seshadri I have reason to expect better, whereas a lot of these other translators are so clearly clueless that they're impossible to take seriously.

I guess at some point I'm just going to have to try translating the ghazal myself.

Falstaff said...

equivocal: You know, I always think of Hopkins as being a 20th century poet (even though I know that isn't strictly accurate). He just reads that way, no?

equivocal said...

True about Hopkins-- even before I read your comment above, I realised that that was probably why you'd forgotten him in your list.

equivocal said...

Just saw this--

"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."