Transgressions: A Review

The Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been translated by many writers including Khalid Hasan, Victor Kiernan, Shiv Kumar and Daud Kamal, among others. The small volume under review, while coming under the rubric of translation, is much more than literal translation of the original. Each poem is identified by its original Urdu title, making it easier to find the poem in Faiz’s published poetic works. In addition the author, in the footnotes, gives the names of others who have translated the particular poem and mentions the trigger that prompted him to translate the poem.

Title: Transgressions
Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Author: Anjum Altaf
Pages: 80 pp
Published by: LG Publishers Distributors, Delhi
Price: Rs. 660.25

Anjum Altaf is a well-known Pakistani academic. He has served as Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and later as Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

Faiz’s poetry has been a source of inspiration for people in the past 70-odd years in Pakistan and also in the Urdu Diaspora. It continues to inspire the multitude beyond imagination. Let me digress a bit to emphasise how Faiz has remained relevant.

Recently there were widespread student protests against the controversial Citizenship Law in India. In response to the intrusion by hoodlums and police on the campuses of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, both in Delhi, the students of India Institute of Technology in Kanpur, as students elsewhere in India, left the classrooms in protest and sang Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhen Ge. The powerful poem was immortalized by the voice of Iqbal Bano and many other singers – actually including singers from India.

At the Institute in Kanpur the administration formed a commission to look into whether the poem was anti-Hindu. The poem was originally sung by Iqbal Bano during the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq. Faiz was not against any religion but he was against religious bigotry and tyranny. At different times in Pakistan there was plenty of both – as it is today in India under Narendra Modi.

Anjum Altaf in his introduction to the book reaffirms the observation that Faiz’s poetry has always been topical and relevant. He points that it is a typical reaction in our part of the world, still steeped in the culture of orality, to recall poetry that speaks to any given situation.

In 2016 the students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, were attacked by the police. Anjum Altaf saw a deeper meaning in Faiz’s poem dar-e-umid ke daryuuza-gar. He rendered the poem in English under the title ‘Resist’. His rendition was read at the Pratirodh event at the Constitution Club in Delhi. One stanza of the short poem is telling:

Hordes swarm the streets
Goose-stepping, flaunting steel
Threatening, intimidating those
Who dare refuse to kneel

Faiz’s poem KahaaN Jaaoge is titled ‘Hope’ in Altaf’s rendition. Commenting on the poem Ejaz Rahim, an award winning English language poet, wrote, “Great poetry has a way of affirming life even in the darkest hour. There emerges a rainbow of hope even inside the word-painting of Dante’s Divine Comedy.”

Here is the rendition of this poem by Altaf:

There are times
When everyone, everything, exists for itself
The moon refuses to share its light
Stars recede into their black holes
Mirrors swallow their images
Even lovers fail to turn up for their trysts

What does it mean to hope in such times
Who would one turn to and for what
Faith would only call forth deception 

Let such times pass
The moon will yearn for the admiring gaze
Stars will pine to light the way
Mirrors will invite the longing look
Lovers will crave the warm embrace

Amidst the nods of recognition
Hope will find its place again

In the beginning of the book there is a beautiful piece penned by author’s erudite son Hasan Altaf. Faiz Ke Naam addresses Faiz and refers to his various poems. The writer uses Faiz’s Urdu words within the text of English renditions. The words written in Urdu sparkle and enhance the thrust of his powerful tribute.

Translating poetry of one language into another is always fraught with difficulties. Idioms, metaphors and similes that are peculiar to one language come in the way and can’t easily be rendered into another language. There the poet has to leave the literal translations aside and use imagination and a bit of poetic license to do justice to the the theme and the central idea.

Earlier in this review I mentioned the name of Ejaz Rahim. He is a retired cabinet secretary and a poet par excellence having published in excess of 20 books of English poetry. In a personal communication with the author, Ejaz Rahim wrote:

I believe the thematic translations can do more justice to a poem than attempts to render it literally. It is the spirit that needs to be caught by the translator’s imagination and conveyed in the form and metre close to his own heart. On this principle, a translated poem’s success depends upon the fresh pair of wings provided by the translator. One has read many translations of Faiz but I consider your ‘Transgressions’ extremely powerful and persuasive. You have been able to convey the passion and sapience of his verse with admirable verve and skill.

Going through Transgressions one realizes that Anjum Altaf has indeed used imagination and has ‘transgressed’ a bit to bring out the true intent and spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s exquisite poetry.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain holds Emeritus professorships in Humanities and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Toledo, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar.

By Sayed Amjad Hussain in The Friday Times, February 7, 2020

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