Poetry in Translation: A Couplet of Ghalib

by S. Abbas Raza

This post is dedicated to my wife, Margit Oberrauch.

A couple of weeks ago I came upon a Ghalib couplet in Urdu which evoked pangs of recognition in me. Ghalib captures so simply and so well a discomfort that I like to imagine nearly everyone has experienced: that of having to ask a favor from an enemy, a rival, a cruel person, a nemesis, or even the object of one's unrequited love. Reading (or hearing) it one immediately and viscerally and empathetically feels the immensity of Ghalib's effort in overcoming embarrassment and shame, having recognized the necessity of doing it, and this is complicated by other layers of agonizing sentiment generated by the imminent exposure of vulnerability, having to act obsequious, as well as the risk of further public insult if the person refuses to grant the favor. Having to ask for help is bad enough when the person being asked is not someone you hate (or hates you). (It reminded me a bit of Nabokov's Pnin.)


It is truly masterful, a fragile gem of a couplet in Urdu, in the sense that not only can it not be improved, changing a single word anywhere destroys it. (Yes, I had the temerity to try.) But when I tried to explain the meaning of the couplet to my wife I found it near-impossible to translate into English in any straightforward way. I hemmed and hawed and went into a ten-minute lecture on what it is about but never managed to say in two decent lines of English what Ghalib has said so easily in Urdu.

Here is my transliteration into Roman Urdu:

Kaam uss say aa paraa hai keh jiss ka jahaan mein

Layvay nah koee naam sitamgar kahay baghair

And finally, here is the best I could do as an English translation, using three lines:

I am obliged to seek help from him

to whom no one in the world refers

without also referring to his cruelty

I invite you, if you speak Urdu, to suggest your own translation.