Junoobi Asia Ki Muntakhib Nazmein
Selected and translated by Yasmeen Hameed
Book Corner, Jhelum
It is not just each translated text, but the very act of translation that seems to be engulfed in an array of uncertainties, ambiguities, mistrusts and paradoxes. In reality, no such thing as a “single authentic interpretation” of a text exists – or can ever exist.
Every translation is essentially an interpretation – essentially a possible interpretation that always leaves room for an alternative. Absolutism has never existed in the epistemic and performative worlds of translation. There can be several translations of a text and most can be equally valid, although some are more valid, reliable and more beautiful than others.
Beauty and reliability – in a literary translation, in particular – owe much to the masterful and creative use of language on the part of the translator. Paradoxically, however, a reliable literary translation into a poor language is less welcome than a well-done but less reliable translation.
That said, Junoobi Asia Ki Muntakhib Nazmein [Selected Poems of South Asia] is Yasmeen Hameed’s Urdu translations of South Asian poetry. It’s beautiful, loaded with fresh poetic language and worth reading.
A collection of over 100 poems from 16 South Asian languages, translated into Urdu, is a treat for poetry lovers
Poetry seems not only to have been Hameed’s first love, but also his last resort from the start. Even his sporadic prose writings remain dedicated to exploring the world of poetry. An acclaimed Urdu poet but not necessarily a feminist, she has translated Urdu nazms into English; the second edition of his book Pakistani Urdu Poetry: An Anthology of the Post Iqbal Urdu Nazm has just been published. The canon she employs for appreciating, evaluating and interpreting poetry is carved out of the “tradition” of modern Western poetry and Urdu nazm.
We all live, more or less, with contradictions and paradoxes. Poets generally live in paradoxes. Hameed enjoys composing, reading, translating and writing about modern nazm in form but, in substance, she appears skeptical of the anthropocentric notion of modernity, which pushes all metaphysics and its multiple manifestations to the margins.
Simply put, although she employs both modern forms and modern idiosyncratic diction of poetry, her choice of themes remains rooted in the unmistakable realm of tradition. This could be called “normal” among writers from postcolonial countries.
With a population of nearly two billion people, South Asia is extremely linguistically diverse. Most South Asian writers are bilingual. Some are multilingual. Apart from their mother tongue, they may be well versed in Sanskrit and Persian, Hindustani or Urdu, Hindi and present-day English.
The community of a lingua franca fostered a kind of cultural and literary camaraderie. And shared history syndicated common communal/emotional/political/cultural/economic pains and miseries and, ultimately, their homogeneous literary expressions.
But our colonial experience has made us look to the white West – and its extended intellectual blueprints – for knowledge (theirs and ours too), power, literary inspiration and validation. But as long as we have two eyes, we can only stick them to one object at any given time.
Thus, as we turn to the West and its intellectual and cultural blueprints, we become alienated from local and indigenous languages and cultures. The idea of “think globally, act locally” is suspended in a precarious state. This explains why we know and consume so much more European, American, African and Latin American literature than that of Pakistani and South Asian languages.
Veteran Urdu writer Muhammad Saleemur Rahman had also lamented that we, impressed by Western literature, do not know the literary works of our surroundings, which have so many common values.
In the introduction, Hameed describes some facts about the choice and ways of translating poetry, as well as some common values possessed by the poems of the 16 South Asian languages she selected.
First, she notes that all of her translations are based on the English versions of the poems. She also satisfactorily explains why the Urdu poems are not included: as the anthology is all about translations, she saw no reason to include an original Urdu piece.
However, his view of English as a South Asian language and the choice of all poets from one country – India – will remain questionable. Similarly, no Punjabi poets have been chosen in Pakistan. She also asserts that, in all the poems, one can find a common sensibility that the modern South Asian person of the 20th century has embraced.
Nostalgia and displacement are dominant themes for poets coming from Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Oria, Bengali, Sinhalese and other backgrounds. Nostalgia and displacement are intertwined: you become nostalgic because you experienced the displacement and you remember all that you left behind, or that disappeared, because of its irrelevance in the new order of things.
Although hollow jargon is used frequently – and often out of context – by modern and postcolonial critics, displacement is a term most relevant to understanding why South Asian poets yearn desperately for things, people, places, customs, rituals and symbols. they were forced to leave and detach.
The existential crisis that their poetry displays is less philosophical, and more historical and cultural. This is where modern South Asian poetry clearly differs from modern Western poetry.
For example, in ‘Meri Chhoti Si Duniya’ [My Small World] The Tamil poet Gnanakoothan recalls with nostalgia that his little world [comprises a fence of bamboo where a chameleon and a cricket sit]. If anyone makes fun of his little abode, he will step back and retreat to his place, where there are birds to welcome him.
‘Nasabnama’ [Lineage], an English poem by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, is an imaginative journey into the past. As boundaries between personal and cultural/political blurring in modern postcolonial literature, Mehrotra delves deep into the cultural past of her land, on a journey that uncovers how our identities are constructed.
Alongside our ancestors, our cultures and our histories, the plant and animal kingdom have contributed a lot to the construction of our ipseity. So much of the Hameed anthology is about parental relationships and there are also verses about the rights of animals, birds and trees, and how they provided a wonderful treasure trove of metaphors for poetry.
All the beautiful metaphors seem to be borrowed from nature and many of the poems in this anthology are rich in metaphors from nature.
In ‘Cheetay Ke Haqooq’ [Rights of the Leopard], the Bengali poet Asad Chaudhary writes about animals facing extinction. In his second poem, ‘Noha'[Lamentation], he wishes it had been just clay. We humans have an insatiable thirst for power over nature and this has made the lives of animals miserable. If Chaudhry had been just clay, crawling animals would reside there and he could feed them.
‘Mera Mashraqi Bengal’ [My Eastern Bengal] by the late Syed Ali Ahsan also vehemently describes the landscape of Bangladesh – its trees, jungles, birds, rains, days, nights and cultural ethos. These poems seem to create a semblance of Bengali national culture.
The various geographical landscapes skillfully painted by these poets contain a pattern of movement and stillness, a kind of music indeed, for good poetry has not only melodious words, but also jingles of images.
How refreshing, revitalizing and incredibly beautiful and meaningful metaphors drawn from nature can be, brilliantly illustrated by Telugu poet C. Narayana Reddy “Mein Tumhain Samandar Daita Hoon” [I Give You A Sea].
It is true that the sea – being a universal metaphor – sometimes seems like an obnoxious cliche, lacking the sparkle we seek in poetic metaphors in the first place. But the way Reddy uses it is truly both spectacular and meaningful. His poem says: [I give you a sea. Wrap it up around your whole body. And look how you come to turn into an idea beyond your own conception and see then how strong faith you develop in your own self.]
As Hameed did not incorporate the poems in their original language into the text, we cannot comment on the authenticity of the translations. But when it comes to the richness and fluidity of language, as well as the length of lines aimed at conveying the tone and feelings of the narrators, the poems are simply stunning. The overall diction will not be unfamiliar to Urdu readers, so while reading, one feels a kind of seamless vibe.
A word of warning, however. Each poem asks to be read in complete silence. Many know that indoor noise is much louder than outdoor noise. Better yet, read them at night, alone, by candlelight! Rest assured that such a bizarre ritual observance will guarantee the experience of slow but overwhelming music and fragrance oozing from every word.
Although over 100 poems from 16 South Asian languages have been translated, a few major languages have been dropped. None of the languages of Pakistan are included, and no poets from Afghanistan have been selected. Other than that small omission, Hameed’s book is a treat in an age when, except for fiction, nothing seems to matter to readers of literature.
The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at Punjab University in Lahore. His latest book review is Ye Qissa Kiya Hai Maani Ka. He tweets @NasirAbbas65
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 5, 2022