Poetry in Translation: Agha Shahid Ali and I Do Faiz

by S. Abbas Raza

This post is for 3QD friend and supporter Robert Pinsky.

At one pole of the axis representing how literal poetry translations should be are figures like Vladimir Nabokov who believed that poetry must be translated as literally as possible without any interpretive liberties taken or attempts to preserve rhythm or the spirit of the thing in any other way by the translator. His 1965 translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English was so strictly faithful to the Russian that it exasperated and infuriated critics and started a long-running feud between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. In his translations of one of the greatest 20th century Urdu poets, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali sits on the other pole of that axis, allowing himself a rather fair degree of freedom in his renderings. Below, on the left, I have translated one of my favorite poems by Faiz, written in beautiful, courageous defiance while he was a political prisoner in Pakistan. I have tried to keep it as close to the original as possible and it is pretty much a word-for-word translation. For comparison, I give Agha Shahid Ali's version on the right.


Night descends on a spiral
staircase of evening stars;
a breeze passes by
as tenderly as if
someone had said a loving thing.

The countryless trees
of the prison courtyard
are absorbed in drawing
pictures and patterns
on a shirtfront of sky.

On the shoulders of heaven
shines the lovely hand
of beneficent moonlight,
dissolving into dust the watery stars,
dissolving the blueness of sky in the starry light.

In greenish corners
shimmer sky-blue shadows
in the way that the waves
of the pain of separation
from my lover arrive in my heart.

My mind continually says to my heart:
so sweet is life at this very moment
that those who prepare
the poisons of cruelty
cannot be victorious today or tomorrow.

So what if they managed
to put out the candles
in the places where lovers meet;
let us see if they can ever
extinguish the moon.


The Urdu original of Faiz's poem is below.