Monday, 7 December 2015

Translating Ghalib..

Next to Iqbal, Ghalib is probably the most difficult poet to translate. Not because of his obtuse use of metaphors, or a turn of phrase that is so unique to the great man, but because his verse lends itself to such diverse interpretations, that every time one reads a couplet, one discovers a new meaning, a fresh twist in it.

Ghalib wasn't too prolific. In fact, his deewan barely runs into a hundred odd pages, yet he remains the most quoted (and often misquoted) Urdu poet ever. My father's favourite couplet, particularly in his last years, when he was faced with his own mortality, was

Maut ka ek din muayyan hai
Neend kyun raat bhar nahin aati

Indeed, one can find a Ghalib quote for almost every facet of life, and even today, over 135 years after his death, lovers of Urdu poetry like me are still trying to decipher him.

The ghazal I've tried to translate is one of my personal favourites, and the lines that resonate most in ones darker phases are

Qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham asl mein donon ek hain

Maut se pehle admi gham se nijaat paaye kyon..

Here's my attempt at the entire ghazal. I use the word `attempt' advisedly, for any interpretation of the great man can at best be an attempt, no more..

Dil Hi To Hai..

Dil hi to hai na sang-o-khisht, dard se bhar na aaye kyon
Royenge hum hazaar baar, koi hamein sataaye kyon

Merely a heart, not brick nor stone
Why should it not fill up with pain?
I’ll cry I’ll weep, I shall atone,
No jibes at me, I’ll go insane..

Dair nahin, haram nahin, dar nahin, aastan nahin
Baithe hain rehguzar pe hum, ghair humein uthaye kyon

Not temple nor mosque, nor hallowed turf
No tomb, no harem, no doorway of yore.
It’s a well trod, common path I surf
Who cares to oust me, aft or fore

Jab woh Jamaal-i-dilfaroz, surat-i-mehr-i-neemroz
Aap hi ho nazaarah soz, parde mein munh chhupaye kyun?

Beautiful, resplendent like the sun
A gentle breeze, a violent gail.
A vision, when all is said and done
Why doth she hide behind a veil?

Qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham, asl mein donon ek hain
Maut se pehle aadmi gham se nijaat paaye kyon

Imprisoned by life, captive of grief,
It’s all the same, I do suppose..
Can man e’re death, in life so brief
Rid himself of all his woes?

Haan wo nahi kkhuda parast, jao wo bewafa sahi
Jisko ho din-o-dil azeez uski gali mein jaye kyon?

Yes, maybe she’s far from piety
Given she’s unfaithful to bane.
Those who prize faith n fidelity,
Why would they walk towards her lane?

Ghalib-e-khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band hain
roiye zar zar kyaa, kijiye hai hai kyon?

Ghalib, you know, once you are gone
The world will go on, as before
Other great poets will be born
So why this moaning, why be sore?


  1. Superlative translation Harish. Could sense a modern thought behind selection of words.

  2. Brilliant translation! Breath of fresh air. What impresses most is that the writer expresses his own interpretation of Ghalib and has not been influenced by others. And as he has himself stated there can be a thousand interpretations of Ghalib - and then some. Loved it.

  3. A translation of Ghalib's work, adhering to the prescribed poetic measures, needs COURAGE for sure! Haven't yet come across anything like this. Kudos!

    (Feels like one is reading Eliot n not Ghalib!)

  4. I never tire of reading this translation over and over again. Makes me sad...

  5. Re-read your translation once again. You sure have given Ghalib a run for his money (‘shers’ actually ). This is indeed a beautiful ghazal.