Sparks of Vision

Issue 9 Essay | Get the full digital print edition now!  Subscribe | Purchase

Artist: Madiha Hyder

Artist: Madiha Hyder

They say that Ghalib’s style is something more.”    — Ghalib
“Translating Ghalib is a no-win situation…In all of world literature there can be few genres less translator-friendly than the classical Urdu ghazal, and in all classical Urdu ghazal there can hardly be a poet more resistant and opaque to translation than Ghalib.”     — Frances Pritchett


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There is no auspicious starting point for the would-be translator of Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib”, the poet of the Urdu lyrical canon, whose verses can be seen printed on autorickshaws, heard in Bollywood song lyrics, and quoted in everyday conversation. In 1988, the major Indian television network Doordarshan aired the biographical serial “Mirza Ghalib,” starring Naseeruddin Shah in the title role. Ghalib is often referred to as the last great Mughal poet; during his lifetime he witnessed the ascent of colonial rule, the failed rebellion of 1857 – which saw Bahadur Shah “Zafar,” the last Mughal emperor, deposed and exiled – and the consolidation of British imperial power over the Indian subcontinent. Ghalib was raised in Agra, but settled in Delhi at a young age; he remained in Delhi for the rest of his life, inhabiting with great pride the aristocratic, Persianate culture of the late Mughal court. Even as he was often dependent on the British administration for his finances, Ghalib took the crown to task on not upholding their end of the traditional patron-client relationship between sovereigns and poets, petitioning Queen Victoria directly with a qasida – a poetic form that’s much longer than the ghazal, typically written in praise of a ruler – in her honor and a request for a pension (she did not respond). The events of 1857 left Delhi devastated, with Ghalib mourning the death of family and friends as well as of the literary greatness and cultural capital the city had come to symbolize. He reflected on the desolation in Dastanbu, a prose account of the rebellion written using only words of archaic Persian origin, and in private letters to friends, very much aware that he had outlived the very culture he strove to exemplify.He died in 1869.


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Aside from his significance to the history and development of Urdu poetry, Ghalib and his verse remain deeply intertwined with cultural and literary life in India and Pakistan today. Even if, as translators, we were to focus solely on the original text in producing a(n English) translation, the fact of its publication would nonetheless automatically place the text in conversation with numerous earlier translators, the most notable of whom are Aijaz Ahmed, Frances Pritchett, Ralph Russell, Sarvat Rahman, Yusuf Husain, K. C. Kanda, Annemarie Schimmel, and Ahmed Ali, although to my knowledge Frances Pritchett and Sarvat Rahman are the only ones to have translated Ghalib’s Urdu diwan in its entirety. Most of the other extant translations are academic articles or monographs with translations of verses included in the text as examples, or they are selections of a certain number of ghazals or couplets, which can be incomplete or misattributed.

Although relatively unknown outside of the subcontinent, Ghalib’s poetry has seen several English renderings; most notably for the contemporary American lyric are those included in the 1971 edited volume Ghazals of Ghalib, as well as the Ghalib-inspired English ghazal sequences “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” and “Blue Ghazals” by Adrienne Rich (1968). We might say that Ghalib’s verse initiated the English ghazal as a poetic form in its own right, although its use remains fairly scarce—other than Agha Shahid Ali’s 2000 collection Ravishing DisUnities, nothing approaching a diwanof English ghazals has emerged, although many poets have experimented with the ghazal’s formal limitations and possibilities in individual poems.

With the critical and popular attention that Ghalib’s Urdu verse has received, it comes as something of a surprise that his Persian poetry remains all but unknown. While Urdu constitutes the lion’s share of Asadullah’s corpus, he was much prouder of his poetic output in Persian. It is well-known that Ghalib wrote in both Urdu and Persian, but there are only a handful of critical editions of his Persian diwan (his prose works in Persian have fared little better). The only English translations that I could find of the Persian ghazals of Ghalib were those of Yusuf Husain and Ralph Russell, both of which left me very much unsatisfied with their excessively antiquated style (Husain, clearly trying to channel Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam) or clunky prose (Russell; the book also contains Urdu translations by Iftikhar Ahmad Adani, who, given how many Persian words and expressions are in use in Urdu, admittedly had it easier in terms of creating metered and rhymed translations). For example, Russell translates verse 1 of “Is/Not”1  as “You manifestly steal my heart – and yet not manifestly/You know that I suspect you – and that you are not suspect”. Neither volume offers a complete translation, either—only selected verses (while the basis for selection remains unexplained). Selected Persian verses of Ghalib also appear in Annemarie Schimmel’s work, but only as illustrative examples interspersed throughout academic prose.


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These contrasting linguistic landscapes each had their effects on which ghazals I chose to translate from Urdu and Persian. I wanted to explore the challenge of translating the same author writing in the same genre in two different languages, so I set out to translate one to two ghazals apiece from Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian collections. At first, it seemed to me that the Urdu path would have been cleared of thorns by those who came before (the two ghazals I chose, “Leaving” and “If Only,” are extremely well-known), and I thought that, with the aid of multiple commentaries and interpretations, I could improve poetically on the translations that already existed, which to my mind were not making use of the full range of poetic devices available in English to create a compelling translation that could also read well as an English poem. However, I soon became tangled up in this overgrowth. In both of these ghazals, as in most of the rest of his Urdu and Persian poetry, Ghalib exults in an efflorescence of metaphor, paradox, or long strings of izafe construction (a grammatical particle carried over into Urdu from Persian that links two or more words together in possessive or adjectival relationships), and in the next line uses disarmingly, deceptively simple language. Many commentators disagree over the meanings of lines, or whether there is any meaning intended at all. Certainly these qualities of Ghalib’s Urdu verse cannot be underestimated, since reciters will relish the sounds of a line, repeating it in order to appreciate its aesthetic dimensions without necessarily understanding its content.

This is all simply to say that my approach was to privilege neither sound nor sense in translation, but to attempt a balance of the two, rooted in my own conviction that Ghalib (or any poet, for that matter) was deeply invested in exploring the ways in which how he says something affects what is said, and of course the other way around. Interestingly, I found that most of the existing translations of his Urdu ghazals into English by South Asian authors (who were, I assume, reasonably familiar with the original text) tended to be excessively literal, sacrificing certain aesthetic possibilities presumably in the interest of imparting the meaning over the form, whereas the American poets in the Ghazals of Ghalib volume present much looser translations that, if pleasant to the ear, often radically depart from the original meaning (inasmuch as any of us can be said to have understood it). By way of example, here are two verses that proved very difficult for me to translate—the first couplet of “Leaving,” and the sixth couplet of “If Only”—in three different iterations:


“There are a thousand such desires that each would require an entire lifetime;

Many of my wishes have been gratified but even those many were too few (fewer than I wish were gratified, not enough).”  — Aijaz Ahmad

“Of my thousand cravings, each one a career,

many I’ve done, but never enough.”  — William Stafford

“Thousands of wishes: all such

that for each one

I sighed my last breath.

My desires were many –

and yet, so few.”  — Francesca Chubb-Confer

“From the vein in the stone would have flown such a profusion of blood that it would be unstoppable,

If what you think as grief were a spark of fire.” — Aijaz Ahmad

“This stone would have pulsed blood all over

if man’s common suffering had really struck fire.” — William Stafford

“If you understand grief as sparks,

a ceaseless burning blood

would drip from the stone’s struck vein.” — Francesca Chubb-Confer


Aijaz Ahmad’s translations are extremely literal, even requiring parenthetical explanation in the first example. Stafford’s rendering of the first couplet of “Leaving” is, I think, reasonable, but the choice of “cravings” brings in connotations to the English reader that are simply not present in the original Urdu words “khwahish” (wishes, desires) and “career” seems an unjustified addition to the phrase “…pah dam nikle,” meaning “the breath emerges,” or, idiomatically, to die. Stafford also does not differentiate between the “khwahisheṇ” of the first hemistich and the “arman” of the second: arman can have the additional meaning of “regret” in addition to “wish” or “desire,” a distinction that I also felt forced to paper over in my translation, although I like that Ahmad retained the use of wishes vs. desires to indicate some degree of difference. In the second set of renderings, from “If Only,” Stafford’s departure from the original meaning is much clearer: I am not convinced that Ghalib is speaking universally, but rather creatively riffing on a metaphorical analogy (heart: rock, blood: sparks) to work through the speaker’s own suffering that the beloved has wrought upon him, addressing either the reader (“let me tell you how it is”) or the beloved (“let me explain what you’ve done to me”).

A key difference in my translations of the two Urdu and one Persian ghazal lies in how I came to select them for translation in the first place. Because I made my selections for the Urdu translations based purely on what immediately came to mind as the most famous and well-loved ghazals of Ghalib, I chose them more for their cultural significance rather than for their qualities as poems in and of themselves (although that is not to say that they are necessarily aesthetically unsatisfying or inferior, merely that I wasn’t thinking about unique metaphors or interesting radifs when I picked them). It may be that these ghazals do not really lend themselves to translation; indeed, perhaps their popularity in the Urdu-speaking world hinges on some aspect of their untranslatability.


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On the contrary, I was largely unfamiliar with Ghalib’s Persian poetry, so my selection process for “Is/Not” was simply to page through the text of the diwan until I saw a radif (the repeated refrain at the end of the each couplet in a ghazal) that jumped out at me. I was taken in by the devastating (and deceptive) simplicity of the paradoxical –an ast o –an nist refrain, not to mention that it was easier to render into a recognizable English refrain than the verb formations (-ar hota and –am nikle) of the Urdu ghazals. I further appreciated the way in which each repeated negating phrase recalls and foreshadows the ones to come and provides a formal unity to the poem, which is of course present in the ghazal form in both languages but was something I couldn’t find myself able to carry over in the Urdu ones. I broke up the two-line misras into three-line stanzas, to avoid having over-long lines and to enable me to highlight near-rhymes, enjambment, and the like at the ends of lines. For this ghazal, I also made use of extra spacing before the radif to set it apart while still maintaining its relationship to the rest of the stanza.

A few more words before I finally allow my translations to speak on their own behalf. While normally I would feel obliged to provide a detailed introduction situating Ghalib in his historical and literary milieu, as well as to bring attention to the myriad allusions, loaded terms, colloquialisms, and instances of wordplay that didn’t make the leap into English, ideally the ghazals ought to be able to stand on their own as English poems that would require nothing more to be added. To this end, I have done my best to incorporate strategies that, while never aiming for a complete replication of the original rhyme and meter, nonetheless strive for some form of rhyme and meter, as well as attention to the sound of it all, which is so integral to the ghazals in both Urdu and Persian. Most stanzas of all three ghazals contain some form of end-rhyme, internal rhyme, rhythmic parallels, and metrical pieces suggesting stress patterns, if not conforming precisely to iambic or dactylic meters in English. These effects, of course, cannot replicate the music of any of the ghazals in their original language, but they can hopefully contribute to a more developed English translation—despite all the inherent difficulties, I firmly believe that poetry should be translated as poetry.

This whole experiment of mine is, of course, itself an answer to the question of whether poetry can be translated at all. For Ghalib in particular, Frances Pritchett has steadfastly reiterated that “translating the ghazals of Ghalib in a serious literary way is a doomed mission in any case; it’s basically impossible.” It may be a doomed mission, but, to quote another Urdu poet, “the gate of poetry stands open until doomsday.” In a line that stuck with me from Ghalib’s Persian diwan, he wryly comments that “ay kih dar rah-i sukhan chun to hazar amad o raft,” or “a thousand such as you have come and gone on the path of poetry.” So: what’s one more?


“Leaving” (Urdu)

Thousands of wishes: all such

that for each one

I sighed my last breath.

My desires were many

and yet, so few.


Why would my murderer worry

about my blood on her neck?

Will it stay there—dripping with each breath

from wet eyes, just like this,

my whole life?


We’ve all heard about Adam

leaving paradise.

But when I left your street—

now that was disgrace.


If all those twisting twining curls

would come undone,

cruel one: the confusion, the secret

profusion of your lengths

would tumble out.


I should write every letter

she could receive.

Dawn broke. Pen tucked

behind my ear, I left the house.


In this age, wine-drinking flows from

me: that time swung back around

for Jamshid’s cup to come

into the world.
I’d hoped for some justice, some understanding,

from those who knew woundedness;

but they were worse off than me,

even more wounded

by that cruel sword.


Living and dying. There’s no difference

in love. Breath leaves the body

when you see that infidel,

but only then, you live.


Where’s the wine-house door, Ghalib?

Where’s the preacher?

I know this much:

yesterday, as I was leaving,

he was on his way in.

“If Only” (Urdu)

It wasn’t our fate to be together.

If we’d kept on living,

we’d be waiting still.


I lived on your promise—

we both knew it was false.

If there was ever any trust,

wouldn’t I have died of happiness?


You were so exquisitely fragile:

and so I knew your vow

was likewise breakable.

If it had been knotted tight,

you never could have broken it.


Let anyone ask my heart

about your half-drawn arrow;

that thrill as it rankles. Where would I be

if it had pierced me through?


What kind of friends

give you advice?

If only they could cure or lift my grief!


If you understand grief as sparks,

a ceaseless burning blood

would drip from the stone’s struck vein.


How can we escape life-breaking

heartache? We still have hearts.

If it weren’t the grief of love,

it would be the grief of all living.


Who could I tell about the torment

of that long night’s loneliness?

What harm was it to die,

if only once?


In death, I was disgraced.

Why wasn’t I plunged into the sea;

my tomb, my funeral, all drowned?


Who could have seen him?

That oneness is one.

If there were any trace of twoness,

somewhere the two of us would have met.


These Sufi problems! This discoursing!

You’d be a saint, Ghalib,

if you didn’t drink so much.

“Is/Not” (Persian)

My heart’s teased out by your expert lure.

That much is clear                           and is not.

You know that I suspect you                      and do not.


My thought’s mute figure tells
you of my grief, expressing all

from head to toe                 and does not.


I live on your command. All that I do,

unveiled—with every veil—flows forth

from you                   and does not.


I take pride in your deceiving

the discerning. Your mouth

announces a kiss                   and it’s gone.


Our grief in the garden: spring is here,

never lasting. Our joy: the ashes’ glow,

which is autumn                 and is not.


The value of each drop,

lost in the sea, is gain

resembling loss, and there               is none.


With each flicker of your eyelashes

this creation is made new:

The eye thinks all is as it was                     and is not.


A rose swells within the branch

from the surge of spring,

like wine in the decanter, concealed                     and not.


Split my side. See my heart.

How long should I keep saying

that this is how it is and how                       it is not.


Watch out, Ghalib, for your own sight.

Draw back this veil.

It’s like this                          and is not.




“Embrace” (Persian)

No easy task, I said, to wrap

your arms around

my bursting joy


She simply drew me close.

Her provocations thrill me:

her heart

beats out a bagatelle,

her forehead

wrinkles wryly, yet

her sly hands

find my own.


Her damply clinging tunic, soaked

to sheerness

leaves her naked

but for perspiration in my arms.


Her wits


to the wine,

No longer

can she tell

hers from mine,

and shyly hides

her cheek against my chest.


At times she


sleeps at my side,

lips closed to sound.

At times she

props her head

up on my arm

rubbing her chin.


She came at dawn


sash loose. As we embraced,


the summons of the shah were left unopened.
An officer with blade and lance

in hand came riding

from the court,

attendant running close behind.



she sways

throughout the palace gardens,

hundreds more blooming

in her shadow’s embrace.


Spying a bud,

she declares (to the roses):

“You see how I shoot for the liver,

how the arrow rankles and stays!”


Well, Ghalib! Sitting in solitude

with such fear and delight:

the royal spies waiting in ambush,

the sought-after one in my embrace!

Francesca Chubb-Confer is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She works with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu poetry and is broadly interested in the intersections of literature, politics, and religion in the Indian Ocean world.


  1. I have assigned titles to each ghazal based on an interpretation of their radif. “Leaving” comes from the conjugated form nikle of the Urdu verb nikalna, which has a rich range of valences but which often translates well with some version of the idea conveyed by the English term “leaving”: breath leaving the body to mean death, the lover leaving the street of the beloved, leaving the house to ensure a letter is written to the beloved, leaving the tavern. “If Only” refers to the sense of the radif of the conjugated verb hota, or “would have been,” lending a grammatical irrealis to the entire ghazal. “Is/Not” maps onto the o –an nist (preceded by –an ast) of the Persian ghazal, in which every statement is immediately contradicted, setting up a sequence of paradoxes that both speak to the illusory nature of the world surrounding the speaker, and also in my opinion function as a commentary on poetry itself, i.e. “I’m saying that x is y in this metaphor, but of course it really isn’t (or is it?)”. “Embrace” is a translation of the radif“dar baghal,” or “in the arms/in the embrace” – more literal renderings, but not without meaning and reference shifts occurring throughout the poems. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Michael Sells, Professor Franklin Lewis and my colleagues in the Translation History and Practice course at the University of Chicago, especially Elizabeth Sartell, Justin Smolin, and Anurag Advani; Professor C. M. Naim for his vast expertise and insistence that Ghalib is done to death; and Alex Higgin-Houser and Professor John Wilkinson for considering the translations from the point of view of the English-language lyric. []

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