Imperfect Intimations: A Review of “Intimations of Ghalib” by M. Shahid Alam

by Ali Minai

Note: Translations in italics are literal translations by the reviewer, whereas those in bold italics are by the M. Shahid Alam in the book under review.

In reviewing “Intimations of Ghalib”, a new translation of selected ghazals of the Urdu poet Ghalib by M. Shahid Alam, let it be said at the outset that translating classical Urdu ghazal into any language – possibly excepting Persian – is an almost impossible task, and translating Ghalib’s ghazals even more so. The use of symbolism, the aphoristic aspect of each couplet, the frequent play on words, and the packing of multiple meanings into a single verse are all too easy to lose in translation. And no Urdu poet used all these devices more pervasively and subtly than Ghalib, and even learned scholars can disagree strongly on the “correct” meaning of particular verses. As such, Alam set himself an impossible task, and the result is, among other things, a demonstration of this.

But first the positive – and there is much. The translator has made an admirable decision to retain the couplet structure of the ghazal in all translations, and in some cases, rhyme and refrain as well. In doing this, he has often succeeded in capturing the flavor of the ghazal genre, which is defined by strict rules of form, as described in the book’s Introduction. And even where he has struggled as a translator – indeed, often most in those places – Alam has succeeded more as a poet. Ultimately, the best part of this book is its intellectually honest and diligent attempt to grapple with its difficult task. In the process, Alam succeeds in creating a valuable work of literature that many readers should find accessible and enjoyable.

Before getting to the translations, the reader must read through the translator’s Introduction, which introduces both Ghalib and the genre of ghazal simply and elegantly. Mirza Asadullah Khan (1797-1869) – better known by his nom de plume, Ghalib – is generally regarded as one of the two or three greatest poets in the rich literary tradition of Urdu poetry. He lived in “interesting” times and at the center of calamitous events. Associated with the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar – an emperor in name only – Ghalib saw even that nominal glory go up in smoke during the rebellion of 1857, which led to the final British takeover of India and the end of the Mughal period. In the aftermath, Ghalib saw his own prospects diminished, many of his friends executed or exiled, and his world destroyed by forces he barely understood. In both his poetry and in his marvelous corpus of letters that are regarded as masterpiece of Urdu prose, Ghalib was able to create a persona and an ethos that is simultaneously individualistic, irreverent, complex, long-suffering and – paradoxically – good humored. His poetry, which is the focus of the book under review, is famous for both its philosophical depth and its Shakespearean insight into human nature.

No Urdu poet before or since has written so much that is so apt for everyday human experiences that, to paraphrase Ghalib himself, readers feel that it was already in their heart. The need to retain this aptness – this memorability – without sacrificing the meaning in all its complexity is the steepest obstacle that any translator of Ghalib must overcome. Alam has tried valiantly to do this, and that he has succeeded occasionally is no small achievement.

In his informative and insightful introduction, Alam lays out his both his challenges and his strategy for addressing them with refreshing clarity: He seeks to retain the meaning without sacrificing poetic effect, but faced with a stark choice, he prefers to opt for the latter. This is not a surprising decision, and many English translators of Eastern poetry from Fitzgerald to Bly have done the same. But this decision must be accompanied by another equally important, if rather subtle, one. Every great poet has a singular voice that uniquely pervades everything they say. A translator’s first preference must be to retain this voice, as Fitzgerald succeeded in doing with his translation of Omar Khayyam. But where that is not possible, the translator must create a new but plausible and unitary alternative voice that is maintained through the entire body of translations, and represents the poet’s persona for those reading him (or her) in translation. This is especially important when the translation includes a number of poems presented as a whole. Unfortunately, the present translation does not do this, and largely as a conscious choice. As Alam explains in the introduction, he was faced with the tension between conveying the literal and metaphorical meanings inherent in most of Ghalib’s ghazals, complicated further by his penchant for packing multiple meanings into single lines. Alam’s solution to this is seen best in his treatment of the ghazal that opens Ghalib’s divan (poetic collection), and which Alam puts at the end of his volume as ghazal number 35. Instead of giving us one translation, he provides five! The goal, as he states, is to show the alternative meanings inherent in Ghalib’s verses, but the result – at least to this reviewer – is a dissonant collection of voices, which precludes the reader from building a plausible persona for Ghalib. To elaborate on this, consider the first – extremely famous – couplet of this ghazal, and its literal translation:

naqsh faryaadee hae ki kee shokhi-e tehreer kaa?
kaaghazee hae paerahan har paykar-e tasveer kaa.

Of whose capricious penmanship does the image complain
that every figure in a picture wears a paper garment?

This literal translation is virtually incomprehensible unless one knows a fact that Ghalib himself explained in one of his letters:According to legend, plaintiffs seeking justice in ancient Persia appeared in court dressed in garments of paper. Once that is understood – and, clearly, Ghalib meant to write only for those cultured enough to know this – the couplet becomes a marvelous play on the fact that pictures – and thus all human figures in them – are made on paper (at least in Mughal India), and that the art, in a sense, seeks justice from its viewers for the way its maker created it. And then there is a further mystical aspect, where the drawn image can be seen as a metaphor for Man or the World, and the playful artist as God. Others have seen in this mortals complaining that their maker gave them an existence as flimsy as paper. Many other meanings have also been ascribed to this most famous of Ghalib’s couplets. To readers of Urdu (once they know the historical allusion), all this is clear. However, putting it into English and keeping it poetic is virtually impossible. To his credit – Alam tries this in five different ways as follows:

Where is the Artist whose art they protest? Every
Prop, every player, dreads his part in the play.

Are we in this story for comic relief?
Cosmic players cry, as they stew.

He scripts, scores, directs the play. Casting
Complete, he reads the lines too. We lip sync.

Shaped for eternity: yet tied to time’s cross.
What did he think whose hand crafted us?

The galaxies grieve,
Whose whimsy are we?

Five different voices and personae: Which one is Ghalib’s? While none of the translations gets to the original meaning, arguably 35.4 comes closest – and perhaps also closest to Ghalib’s voice. The use of colloquialisms such as “they stew” and “we lip sync” too seems jarring and not at all Ghalibian, though that is obviously the subjective opinion of one reader. To continue with subjective opinion, the last translation (35.5) is quite eloquent in its own right, though barely connected to the original. Interestingly, however, it is reminiscent of another famous couplet by Ghalib:

bazeecha-e atfaal hae dunyaa miray aagay
hotaa hae shab-o roz tamaashaa miray aagay

The world, in my eyes, is a playhouse of children,
With frivolous spectacles unfolding day and night.

Getting back to the translations by Alam, the example above seems to explain why, in spite of many individually moving translations, the book as a whole does not satisfy the reader’s expectations completely. The translator, it seems, tried to approach each ghazal from several different angles and in different guises. For most ghazals, in the end, we got one translation; for some two. Perhaps there were other versions that did not make the cut, but the ones that did are not all from the same “Ghalib”, and that is a problem.

There are many places in the book where the translation does capture the essence of the original, and with eloquence. For example,

ishrat-e qatra hae daryaa meN fanaa ho jaanaa
dard kaa had se guzarnaa hae davaa ho jaanaa

Ecstasy for a drop is to lose itself in the ocean;
Pain, exceeding a limit, becomes a remedy.

Alam’s translation is (ghazal 6):
A drop craves extinction in the sea
Past plentitude, pain becomes remedy.

This maintains the essential meaning and the aphoristic style without being an exact translation.


sab kahaaN kuchh laala-o gul mayN numayyaaN ho gayeeN
khaak mayN kyaa sooratayN hoN gee ke pinhaaN ho gayeeN

Not all, but just a few manifest in poppies and roses;
What lovely faces have vanished into the earth!

Alam translates it as (ghazal 2.2):
Not all, only a few come back to us as tulips.
Many more lie buried, dust on their sleeping eyelids.

As another example, consider one of Ghalib’s most famous couplets:

naa-karda gunaahoN ki bhi hasrat ki milay daad
yaarab agar in karda gunaahoN ki sazaa hae

Give me credit for the sins I was left yearning to commit,
O God, if there is to be punishment for those I did.

This is translated as (ghazal 3):
For sins conceived but set aside, credit us,
If we must pay for sins we carry through.

Or another example:

gham-e hastee ka Asad kis se ho juz marg ‘ilaaj                    (Ghalib also used Asad as a nom de plume)
sham’a har rang meN jaltee hae sahar honay tak

What can assuage the sorrow of living except death?
The candle burns however it can until dawn comes.

The translation is (ghazal 16):
Nothing cures this agony but death.
A candle too burns until its last breath.

Simple and terse, but powerful in its aphoristic form and strong rhyme. And finally:

ye naa’sh-e bay-kafan asad-e khasta-jaaN ki hae
haq maghfirat karay, ajab aazaad mard thaa

This shroudless corpse is that of long-suffering Asad;
May God bless him, he was a free-spirited man.

This is translated as (ghazal 30):
In death, Ghalib lay uncoffined, unwashed.
May God bless the man. He dared to be free.

Then there are the instances where Alam may have relinquished the meaning of the original, but creates a fine bit of poetry on his own, such as:

Ghalib, cast your cold conceits
In love’s fire till death delivers you       (35.2)

Or another putative translation of the same couplet:

In a solitary cell, Ghalib, we tread fire.
In body, heart, and soul, time has tested us.        (35.4)

And one more – utterly unrelated to the original, but a compelling image:

It happened long ago. Afraid of losing us,
She lifted her veil till her beauty sang all night      (12)

But there are also many instances where the translation loses the entire point. Take, for example, the fourth couplet of ghazal 13:

I did not think that love had such force.
When it hit me, I could not sleep for years.

The translator here is constrained a bit by the decision to use “for years” as a refrain – probably not the best choice for this ghazal – but putting that aside, here is the brilliant original:

 kam jaantay thay ham bhi gham-e ishq ko, par ab
daykhaa to kam huay pe gham-e rozgaar thaa

I did not think much of Love’s struggles, but now,
Looking more closely, I see that, diminished, they were the struggles of living.

In other words, Ghalib thinks that all the struggles and sorrows of life are encompassed within the greater endeavor of Love. It is even more complicated, since it can also be translated as:

I did not understand Love’s struggles too well, but now
Looking more closely, I understand that the struggles of life were but a diminished form of those.

It is difficult to see how Alam’s translation captures any of the original’s meaning. In other cases, the translation simply misses the meaning of specific words. For example, Ghalib says:

na gul-e naghma hooN, na parda-e saaz
maeN hooN apnee shikast kee avvaaz

Neither a melody’s bloom, nor an instrument’s notes,
I am the sound of my own shattering.

Alam has two translations of this:

No roseate song, no silk-spun melody
I am the last echo of my own defeat

Not canticle nor music weaving.
Listen to my heart, grieving.


Finally, one of the most discomfiting aspects of the translations – at least for this reviewer – was the frequent, needless, and jarring use of colloquialisms. In addition to the examples cited earlier, one sees:

Glad I stopped him. Ghalib was so rattled,
His tears would have drowned the city tonight.   (ghazal 12)

On your feet, Ghalib, figure this out. In
Good times, you had your life figured out.       (ghazal 20)

Word is out, Ghalib hangs tonight. I too
Was there: she did not take him out.              (ghazal 18)

She binds me forever in her silken coils.
I am love’s captive: my beef could be worse.   (ghazal 27)

And many, many more. One can be quite sure that Ghalib, though often frustrated, did not get “rattled”; comprehended things without having them “figured out”; was never “taken out” by a lover; and, though bound in silken coils, would never have “had a beef” with anyone! Perhaps the translator thought that such language made his translation more relatable to an American audience, and he could be right. But, in the process, it obscures Ghalib’s authentic voice. Ghalib was a cultured, erudite, deeply philosophical poet – more Eliot than Ginsberg – and anything that suggests otherwise distracts from the essence of his art.

There is no objective criterion for poetic greatness, but if poets is to be judged by the resonance they find in the minds of their readers, Ghalib must be counted among the best. Bringing his remarkable poetry to a wider audience  – as exemplified in the Ghalib project at Columbia University –  is just as important as doing so for other great poets such as Rumi or Hafez, and anyone who takes up this challenge with serious commitment is to be applauded. M. Shahid Alam’s “Intimations of Ghalib” is an excellent example of such commitment, and a serious addition to the growing corpus of English translations of Ghalib – from Ralph Russell to Sarfaraz Niazi. Like most of them, it has only been able to capture Ghalib’s genius in a limited way. It is a serious work and well worth reading, but perhaps more as an appetizer rather than a main course for minds hungry for a true understanding of Ghalib.