Columbia University Press: Ghalib and Translations from the Asian Classics

April 29th, 2017

Christine Dunbar is Asian Humanities Editor at Columbia University Press

Translation is by necessity a form of interpretation. In the translation of poetry, which allows for so many different gestures toward multiple meanings—this is pain and pleasure. Pain because you are constantly aware of both what is being lost in the translation and what new possibilities are being added, and pleasure because when a word or phrase or poem works in translation, it feels miraculous. This is perhaps even more than usually true when translating the ghazals of Ghalib. As Frances Pritchett and Owen Cornwall write in their introduction to Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters (Columbia University Press, 2017), “since each verse is only fifteen or twenty words long, every word must count, and as many words as possible must count in more than one way.” Obviously this creates difficulties for the translator, and some previous translations have sacrificed the words to the verse, resulting in quite liberal interpretations/translations. Pritchett and Cornwall hew closer to the original text, but still manage to create beautiful, haunting poems. In the translation itself, they leave as much of the interpretative work as possible to the reader, though copious notes give close readings of the texts and alert the reader to any comments Ghalib himself made on them. Letters and poems in other genres round out the view of Ghalib’s poetic universe.

Books in the Translations from the Asian Classics series present masterworks from the Asian world in translations by scholars who have devoted their lives to these texts.  The series takes as axiomatic that these works are treasures of world culture and seeks to draw on the deep knowledge of the academy to make them accessible to an interested general audience. There’s sometimes a concern in scholarly publishing that it’s easy to “scare off” non-academic readers with, say, detailed notes or apparatus. But Pritchett and Cornwall show how—when done right—these very elements can add to the broad appeal of a work. In particular, I thoroughly enjoyed reading their glossary (how often can you say that?) which evokes the world of the ghazal with biographies of stock characters, descriptions of geographical locations, and definitions of tropes. The liver, for instance, is “the organ that makes and supplies fresh blood, even as the wounded heart hemorrhages it and the tearful eyes shed it in rivers. Thus the liver is an emblem of fortitude and endurance.” Such a mundane organ to have such a romantic role! Similarly, in Ghalib’s ghazal 10, reproduced below, the “doors and walls” of the refrain take on increasing romantic weight, as they fall, dance, and finally remain as the narrator’s sole confidant.



To hell with these doors and walls before my eyes!

An ardent gaze finds wings and feathers in doors and walls.


Brimming tears made the house such a blur

That my walls and doors became doors and walls.


There’s no shade. Since they heard that she’s arriving,

They’ve gone ahead to greet her, the doors and walls.


What an abundance of the wine of your glory.

In your street they’re all drunk, the doors and walls.


If you deal in waiting, then come to me—

They’re a warehouse full of gazing, my doors and walls.


Whenever I thought of shedding floods of tears,

They fell at my feet, my desperate doors and walls.


When she came and lived next door, then in the shadow,

My doors and walls adored her doors and walls.


It stings my eyes—a bustling house, without you.

I always weep, when I see doors and walls.


Don’t ask about the self-lessness of the joy when the flood comes.

For they dance, fallen end to end, the doors and walls.


Don’t tell anyone, Ghalib. For there’s no one nowadays

Fit for love secrets, except the doors and walls.


From Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters by Ghalib, translated by Frances W. Pritchett and Owen T. A. Cornwall