A volume of poetry commemorating the birth centenary of the iconic Urdu poet is an inadequate effort.
Frankly, one doesn’t quite know what to make of the deluge of books and papers occasioned by centenaries. While a great many are tributes with little or no analysis or insight into the work of the great writer whose centenary is being observed, only a handful have a shelf life beyond the celebratory year itself. And so, one is hard-pressed to fathom the compulsions of the writers and publishers of the great majority of such works: Is a selection of the most popular works of a particular writer the best one can do? Can mere anthologising ever be enough? What is more, shouldn’t anthologies too fulfil certain basic requirements beyond subjective/selective preferences?
Faiz: Fifty Poems, brought out by Oxford University Press, Karachi, in the 100th year of the birth of the iconic Urdu poet, claims to be a celebration and a tribute. Regrettably, it stops at that, seemingly finding nothing amiss in such self-indulgence. It offers nothing by way of interpretation or study and certainly no insight or even rudimentary information on when some of these best-loved poems were written, or the events — either in the poet’s personal life or on the larger world arena — that triggered them. Surely, even a lay reader (fortunately, the book makes no claim to academic pretensions) deserves more. Surely, a publisher of the stature of Oxford University Press must offer something beyond what any local printer might. Surely, Faiz deserves better, if not more. This inadequacy seems all the more gaping given the quality of translations that accompany the Urdu originals. For, Mahmood Jamal’s renderings of the Urdu nazms and ghazals are both beautiful and poetic. That he has chosen to translate some of Faiz’s most popular poems — which a great many people know by heart — as well as those that have most often been rendered in English translation is in itself remarkable. That he has done them with finesse and elan is more so. See, for example:
The evening flickers, glows and falters to a halt./The night will come, washed clean with moonlight./And we shall speak again with gestures of our eyes/And those hands will clasp these yearning hands of mine
Last night your lost memory/Came to me/As spring comes upon a wilderness/As a cool breeze/Blows gently across desert sands/As a sick man/Without reason, finds relief.
A poet himself, Mahmood Jamal, notes — quite rightly — in his preface that ‘it helps to be a poet in the language you are translating into rather than the one you are translating from.’ He goes on to say: ‘In these translations I have kept two things in mind. First, that the poems read as poems in English, and secondly, that they do not deviate too far from the meaning/s and intent of the original.’ Both intentions are laudable for, I do believe, fidelity and humility are essential attributes of any good translator. Having said that, no translator works in a vacuum and a work of translation — no matter how immaculate and readable as a stand-alone piece of poetry — nevertheless requires something by way of background. And it is here, that this book fails Faiz and is likely to disappoint his many admirers.
Faiz: Fifty Poems is a slim book; its slender contents are divided into two unequal halves: a first section containing translations with the Urdu originals in the Urdu script on facing pages; and a second half of only transliterated poems in Roman. This brings me back to my original rant: God is in the details and there is none here!