The Rebel’s Silhouette and Shahid’s treatment to translation

Dhaar Mehak | Faizaan Bhat

Call me a poet

             Dear editor

They call this my alien language

 I am a dealer in words

              That mix cultures

      And leave me rootless


Having a Kashmiri father, mother from Uttar Pradesh, an upbringing in Delhi and Srinagar, Shahid had the legacy of an educated family. He had a refined taste for Urdu poetry, its vocabulary, mannerism and symbolism. He had an ear for Begum Akhtar’s voice. Shahid had family relations with the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Shahid had an eclectic intellectual growth, glimpses of which can be easily traced in his poetry. An early acquaintance with Faiz led him to eventually translate Faiz’s poetry.


Reading the accounts of the people who knew Shahid closely, reveal the inborn tendencies of the poet in him, a family of educationists, ties of families with literary elites and refined taste for poetry and music. In Shahid’s context it can well be said that it was a seed nurtured in the right kind of soil, with the required temperature and the apt amount of sunshine. A refined interaction of all these factors was meant to mature a poet of, “Lexon Hill”, “Country Without a Post Office”, “I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”… just to mention a few.


Faiz had been a regular visitor to young Shahid’s home. Shahid recollects in an account that it was through the vivid voice and rhythms of his father, the earliest encounters of Faiz’s work he has had. His father has been among the first persons to get a copy of Faiz’s fresh works and as Shahid mentions in an autobiographical account that poetry was the air and the breath at his house. Even his grand-mother, apart from quoting Kashmiri and Urdu poets, at times used to quote English poets as well. Faiz’s poetry was deliberated and discussed at his house and verily Shahid grew knowing and appreciating the depths of Faiz’s poetry.


About the translation itself there are so many views; and not mere views, but, different schools of thoughts, each with its own set of assertions and justifications. While one camp believes that the translations in totality are a mere waste; they believe that it robs the beauty and richness of the actual work. One among the two extreme poles of translation school believes that the translation altogether should be literal. There should be a word to word translation and in this way the scheme of translation can be maintained. Quite contrary to it, the other school believes; what are important are the meaning and message, the soul and not the body. Thus, this extreme pole believes that the translation should be symbolic and deliberative.

In the winter of 1976, when Shahid went to the United States, he realized that almost no one has heard about Faiz, while in the sub-continent he was a celebrated poet. On the other hand Nazim Hikmat was being read in translation and deliberated upon by the US literary elites. Shahid wanted to convey the richness of Faiz’s metaphors, imagery and the dualistic nature of his poetry to that part and the rest of the world.

Back around 1976, Shahid tried to translate Faiz in the most literal way he could but he could feel the uneven result of his work and considered the attempt rather a feeble and failed one. As Shahid calls it, a matter of chance that he came across some translations by Naomi Lazard of the Kayak, and found the work excellent. He tried to get in contact with her and even got to talk to her over phone shortly. She had met Faiz once. He had dictated a literal translation of his poem to her, they exchanged some questions and answers and their maximum correspondence was through mail.


Back in 1980, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was living in Beirut (Lebanon), in exile on account of the change in government and the following circumstances. From an acquaintance, Shahid got the address of Faiz in Beirut and wrote to him. He asked for his permission to translate his works and told him that he will be taking liberties with the originals. Shahid tried to apply all his wits and methods to be the best and the fittest in the eyes of Faiz for the translation. In the letter he created a sort of nostalgia with Faiz. He tried to remind him of their family friendship and about the tapes of private concerts of Begum Akhtar singing his Ghazal’s and wrote all he could summon.

In two weeks he wrote back, granting permission and asking him to send Begum Akhtar’s recordings.


Shahid always referred to the duality of his origin. When it came to language he always said that Urdu and English are his ‘own languages’ and that he has love for both. The imagery in Urdu is much different than English. Like the moon, rose, flame and moth and so many more, have got a distinct symbolic meaning in Urdu; may be just nothing to an American. The thing that led Shahid go further in translating Faiz was the same process of thought. He wanted the translation to come from a person, who, to begin with, was well versed in Urdu and had a masterly hand in English.

In the summer of 1989, Shahid began the translation of some selected poems of Faiz. He was helped by his mother Sufia with it. Shahid wrote, “Because translating a Ghazal is just about impossible, I have adopted loose free-verse stanzas to suggest the elliptical power of Faiz’s couplets. The magic of the form is missing, often heartbreaking so…”


To begin, I am picking up the poem, “Mujh say pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na maang…”  With it I am sharing two translations; one is the literal and the other by Agha Shahid.

Mujhe se pehli si mohabbat

Meray mehboob na maang

Maine samjha tha ke tu hai to darakhshaan hai hayyaat

Tera gham hai to sham-e-dahar ka jhagra kya hai

Teri soorat se hai aalam mein baharon ko sabaat

Teri aankhon ke siwa dunya mein rakha kya hai

To jo mil jaye to taqdeer nigoon ho jaye

Yun na tha maine faqat chaha tha yun ho jaye

Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siwa

Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siwa

Angeenat sadiyon ke taariq bahimanaa talism

Resham-o-atlas-o-kamKhwaab mein bunwaye hue

Jaa-ba-jaa biktey hue koochaa-o-bazaar mein jism

Khaak mein litharey hue, khoon mein nehlaaye hue

Jism nikaley hue amraaz ke tannuuron se

Peep behti hui jaltey hue naasuuron se

Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar kya ki jiye

Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn mager kya ki jiye

Aur bhi dukh hain mohabbat ke dukh ke siwa

Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siwa

Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang…


Don’t ask me for that love again

That which then was ours, my love,

don’t ask me for that love again.

The world then was gold, burnished with light –

and only because of you. That’s what I had believed.

How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?

How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?

So what were these protests, these rumours of injustice?

A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.

The sky, whenever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.

If you’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.

All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.

But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.

The rich had cast their spell on history:

dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.

Bitter threads began to unravel before me

as I went into alleys and in open markets

saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.

I saw them sold and bought, again and again.

This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back

when I return from those alleys – what should one do?

And you are still so ravishing – what should I do?

There are other sorrows in this world,

comforts other than love.

Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.

Literal translation;

Don’t ask me for the love I once gave you, my love

I had thought if I had you, life would shine eternally on me

If I had your sorrows, those of the universe would mean nothing

Your face would bring permanence to every spring

What is there but your eyes to see in the world anyway?

If I found you, my fate would bow down to me

This was not how it was, it was merely how I wished it to be

There are other heartaches in the world than those of love

There is happiness other than the joy of union

The dreadful magic of uncountable dark years

Woven in silk, satin and brocade

In every corner are bodies sold in the market

Covered in dust, bathed in blood

(**** nikale huye amaraaz ke tannuuron se)

Bodies retrieved from the cauldrons of disease

(piip bahatii hu _ii galate huye naasuuron se)

Discharge flowing from their rotten ulcers

Still returns my gaze in that direction, what can be done

Even now your beauty is tantalizing, but what can be done

There are other heartaches in the world than those of love

There is happiness other than the joy of union

Don’t ask me for the love I once gave you, my love.

 The literal one being by;

Don’t ask me for that love that I once gave you, my love…

 And Shahid starts as;

That which then was ours, my love,

Don’t ask me for that love again…

Clearly of the two, rich in imagery, appeal and poetic form is the one Shahid has done, he has beautifully bifurcated it into two lines and has worked on the beauty of the line that has to appeal the senses of the reader. It begins not in a rather crude and cruel manner but starts from the softer side and then goes on to tell the truth that is rather harsh.

In rest of the poem as well, the two very well can be compared and the richness of Shahid’s poem can be seen as the word to word, literal translation fails to carry the beauty of this revolutionary poem.

In the poem, “Shaam-e-fiaaqh abh na puch” Shahid again takes to free-verse translation and carries the poem to English in a beautiful and bold manner;

Sham-e-firaaq ab naa pooch, aayi aur aa ke tal gayi,

Dil thaa ke phir behal gaya, jaan thee ke phir sambhal gayi;

Bazm-e-Khayal mein tere husn ki shamaa jal gayi,

Dard ka chaand bujh gaya, hijr ki raat dhal gayi;

Jab tujhe yaad kar liyaa subaha mehak mehak uthee,

jab tera gham jaga liya raat machal machal gayi;

Dil se to har muamlaa kar ke chale the saaf hum,

kehney mein unke samne baat badal badal gayi;

Aakhir-e-shab ke humsafar “faiz” najaane kya hue,

Reh gayi kis jagah saba, subaha kidhar nikal gayi.

 Shahid’s free-verse translation;

 Ask no more about separation

somehow I lived through its night

 The heart learned to console itself

life returned to its routines.

 In the festival of memory

you again were loveliness

lit up by beauty

The grief of the moon was extinguished

we were again together in the night.

 When I remember you

the morning is essence it is perfume it’s musk

 And the night

when I kindle our sorrow

is longing caught in itself

 The heart as such

has settled its every doubt

when I went to tell her we must part

 but on seeing her

the lips spoke love’s unrehearsed words

and everything changed everything changed

 It was the final night Faiz

what happened to those who’d started out with you?

When did the morning breeze abandon you

and where on those last miles

the dawn?

 Literal translation;

Of that broken evening, don’t ask

It came and it was gone

The heart finds distractions anew

Life finds a way to move on

Taper-like, your beauty lights

The chambers where my thoughts lie

Pain that beamed like the moon is doused

Even as the anguished night dies

Your thoughts swirl through my mind

As blooms waft through the morning air

And restive grow the sultry nights

When my soul weighs down with your cares

As to those old matters of the heart

I deemed that I had wiped the board

Still, when faced with you once more

Contrary were the passions that flowed

Faiz, the consorts of the term-of-night

What ensued of them I do not know

Where did the breeze get left behind?

Where did the morning twilight go?

It can verily be said that the translation Shahid made of Faiz, compels the reader to call him “Shahid’s Faiz”. Faiz had been made familiar to the rest of the world by Shahid through the elegant translation and the world thus knows the existence of this great poet of the subcontinent.

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