Written language distorts the immediacy of our sensory existence. Different written languages distort it in different ways. Perhaps, if we cannot abandon language utterly, a poor substitute is to immerse ourselves in several different languages, perhaps to sample the breadth of what civilization has substituted for direct experience.
Urdu is a language as foreign to us as any, and the Persian culture is rich and deep and ancient. Mizra Ghalib, born this day in 1797, has a voice that rings with both our ancient human roots and the angst of modern civilization. Shahid Alam has a new translation of Ghalib, and Ali Minai has an extensive, nuanced and scholarly review in 3QuarksDaily
Read some of the various ways in which a single line of Ghalib can be translated:
35.1 Where is the Artist whose art they protest? Every prop, every player, dreads his part in the play.
35.2 Are we in this story for comic relief? Cosmic players cry, as they stew.
35.3 He scripts, scores, directs the play. Casting complete, he reads the lines too. We lip sync.
35.4 Shaped for eternity: yet tied to time’s cross. What did he think whose hand crafted us?
35.5 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:
The world, in my eyes, is a playhouse of children,
With frivolous spectacles unfolding day and night.
Ecstasy for a drop is to lose itself in the ocean;
Pain, exceeding a limit, becomes a remedy.
A drop craves extinction in the sea
Past plentitude, pain becomes remedy.
Glory it is for the drop
To merge with the ocean
Pain ceases to be
Once beyond redemption
Water-bead ecstasy : dying in the stream;
Too strong a pain brings its own balm
The ecstasy of a drop is to annihilate itself into ocean
The pain going beyond bounds turns into its own panacea
To be annihilated in the sea
Is the delight of every drop
When pain exceeds the limit
It becomes its own remedy
Blessed is the drop
That loses itself in the sea;
Doth prove its own remedy
In how many translations is it clear that this is an aphorism about death?