Many moons ago I received Intimacies of Ghalib, a slim volume of translations of the timeless verse of the great 19th century poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. It took me a long time to read and savor Ghalib’s delicious rendition in English. Translating Ghalib into English, in my opinion, is the most difficult task for any scholar of literature. Not that Ghalib is untranslatable, but it is the complexity and deliberate playfulness of the poet’s diction that makes any endeavor fraught with pitfalls. At Mr. Shahid Alam Intimacies of Ghalib, hence, is a departure from the literalism that plagues many translations of Urdu or Persian poetry.

Translate to Urdu ghazal, defined by its non-negotiable meter, rhyme and alliterative infrastructure, is, according to literary critic Nasir Abbas Nayyar, challenging primarily for two reasons: cannot be found in any other language; second, the ideas and thoughts in poetry are heavily imbued with emotion and sentiment, expressed through a unique but elusive cognitive process involving distinctive metaphorical language. Neither can be reproduced exactly “even by the most skilled translator”, says Nayyar.

And yet, despite this vast array of reasons, Urdu poetry, especially that of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, has always been translated around the world. Frances Pritchett is perhaps best known in this field, having translated Ghalib’s complete “Dīwān” into English, while struggling to maintain the essence that is Ghalib. Pritchett has invested almost his entire life in this pursuit. In part, this is also related to the complexity of Ghalib’s thought. “Translating the Ghalib,” she said, “is a no-win situation…in all of world literature there can be few less translator-friendly genres than the classic Urdu ghazal, and in all the classical ghazals, there can hardly be a poet more resistant and opaque to translation than Ghalib.

The British scholar-translator of Urdu literature Ralph Russel also noted that a translator of Ghalib should consider his (Ghalib’s) concern for “proper diction, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration and all sorts of of verbal vanities is as evident as in his verses.”

According to Russel, besides the problem of completely mapping the meaning onto another language, other factors are also obstacles. The first of these is rhyme. The ghazal constitutes a number of couplets, usually following a uniform meter, and a rhyme scheme that follows: AA, BA, CA, DA, etc. Mapping this rhyme scheme onto English and achieving the same effect as in Urdu is an almost impossible task to achieve, he adds. “You are faced with the stubborn and unalterable fact that Urdu has rhyming words galore, and English has none.” In this case, as in most cases of ghazal, one is obliged to “translate a poem united by a unity of rhyme into a poem where this type of unity cannot be maintained”.

The second is the meter issue, as it varies greatly for Urdu and English. “In English, the essential determinant of the metric pattern is the stress pattern inherent in each English word; In Urdu, meter is basically based on the amount greatly altered, however, by the incidence of a kind of stress comparable to the beat of music. In many cases, Russel adds, the rhythm of Ghalib’s verse is not adaptable to any other English model. And so, the best possible option is to get the same number of syllables with discernible rhythm. Often translators attempt to match Ghalib’s Urdu phrases with what they know as proper English idioms, but sometimes they are unable to do so.

Given these obstacles, Alam’s work is commendable. As he notes in his introduction, “I have tried to retain the imagery, the metaphors, the cadences, the conventions, the Ghazals, the dramatis personae, the two-line format of the she’r and the compactness of the Ghazal on the page.” While such intimacy with the text is apparent in the translations of this volume, Alam’s real feat is recognizing the multiplicity of meaning in Ghalib’s verses. At the same time, he confesses that there may be limits to his understanding and comprehension of the verse. This is why the translator, in some cases, offers two versions of the same original. For example, taking an enigmatic verse from Ghalib, Alam offers five versions – and each of these versions uncovers the layer of meaning.