Shawna Vesco

The Task of the Beloved Translator

Agha Shahid Ali as Poet and Witness


Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Task of the Translator” has provided fodder for countless university courses, books, articles and essays on translation theory, and rightfully so. It introduces many foundational themes of the practice of translation such as authenticity, translatability, the idea of “pure language” and the stricture between fidelity and freedom in translational practices. But for all the opacity of his writing, Benjamin’s main point is clear when he writes “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re–creation of that work. For the sake of the pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language” (Illuminations, 72). Or, in other words, the task of the translator is to be a poet and not a translator at all. If we step back from Benjamin for a moment and consider not just what poetry is but how it is and what it does, Benjamin’s buzzwords are rendered slightly more transparent. Poetry is a technology of exile. By this I mean that the condition and force of poetry is exilic: it exiles both author and reader from language in the utilitarian sense of the word, namely communication and meaning. Outside of normal paradigms of signification and meaning– making, poetry creates a space that demands the self–renunciation of both reader and author. The work of poetry is actually an un–working (what Maurice Blanchot will call désoeuvrement) that draws attention to language as mediation, thus effectively beginning a process of defamiliarization in the author or reader, which in turn draws attention to the movement and operation of language as such. Theodore Adorno refers to this as murmuring (Rauschen), and between this idea of language itself speaking and Benjamin’s “pure language” we begin to see that the act of translation involves not a mode of equivalency, an emptying of one language into another, but rather a practice that carries over what is most essential from one work to another. It is in this act of carrying over, or should I say, in this act of poetics, that one can glimpse flashes of pure language. Pure language refers not to any one language, but rather to that which murmurs beneath all language. It is for this reason, then, that Benjamin suggests that translators are inadequate to the task of translation, and only poets can provoke and witness this unfolding of pure language.

Kashmiri–American poet Agha Shahid Ali died in 2001, and on his grave was inscribed a version of his famous makhta:

Listen, Listen: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: It means ‘the beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic

A makhta is a formal component of the ghazal poem, and it is basically a signature where the poet inserts their pen–name, takhallus (from the Arabic for “ending”), in the last couplet. And thus, as a last gift of poetry and love Agha Shahid Ali delivers us a playful and light–hearted triple ending: a makhta, which has a takhallus, which is hemmed in by death, truly the final strophe of a life. In the same way that “ending” attains several different meanings in one inscription, Shahid offers us a way to think through the many valences of “translation.” His work encourages us to respond to the exigency of translation as an embodied act of (dis)placement, which is first and foremost an act of translation outside of the purely linguistic determination of that word. Shahid, who is a translator of the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, bringing him from Urdu into English, is also an English–language poet in his own right. So in one sense, he does practice translation in the common understanding of that word: he renders Urdu poetry into English. But based on the personal commentary he provides about his process, it becomes clear that translating Faiz is not so cut and dry. The old cliché “lost in translation” cannot apply to Shahid’s work on Faiz, because nothing is lost in the wrenching of Faiz from his context—the very act of displacing Faiz constitutes another placement and hence the term (dis)placement. This idea of a generative (dis)placement reflects the hyphen in “Kashmiri–American poet,” and in fact it becomes a way in which Shahid occupies the very space of the hyphen itself. Shahid himself describes his political and cultural circumstances of having been (dis)placed as not a sort of rootlessness, but a double loyalty. This tension between rootlessness, longing, homeland and double origin is the very basis for (dis)placement. I will pursue the thought of this double loyalty by looking at Shahid’s process of translating Faiz, and afterward I hope to turn to his original pieces in order to elaborate the idea of (dis)placement as translation.

In the introduction to the collection of Faiz’s translated poems, The Rebel’s Silhouette, Shahid writes that he couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring Faiz into English “for a mess of reasons, some of them quite certainly concerned with the poetic ego” (4). Faiz, dubbed the greatest poet of Pakistan, is not only an influential figure for his country, he specifically informs Shahid’s personal poetic context for Urdu poetry, especially in terms of the ghazal. The ghazal is eight hundred years old and has its roots embedded deeply in pre–Islamic Arabia. And while it is weighed down by quite a bit of historico– cultural baggage, not to mention formal requirements, it has had many vibrant afterlives. In fact, it seems a decent claim to say that the fact of its having afterlives constitutes the very fabric of the ghazal as we encounter it today. Beyond its Persian beginnings with Hafiz and Rumi, who imbued their ghazals with mystical imagery and thematics of love and wine, the ghazal found a home in the medieval Hebrew love poetry. From there the ghazal even found its place in the oeuvre of Lorca who, in composing these gacelas, “acknowledge[d] in his catholic manner the Arabic influence on Spain” (RS, x). To further elaborate the dissemination of the ghazal, allow me to simply quote Shahid quoting the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: “the ghazal was introduced to Western poetry ‘by the romanticists, mainly Fr. Schlegel, Rückert, and von Platen (Ghaselen, 1821) in Germany and was made more widely known by Goethe, who in his Westöstlicher Divan (1819) deliberately imitated Persian models’” (7). What we have here is not only a form of poetry that traverses many languages (Urdu, Punjabi, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, English, Germany), but we have a poetics that has in some sense become worlded—the magic, the force, and the lure of the ghazal seems to be almost metalingual in a way reminiscent of Benjamin’s pure language. And indeed, the ghazal is traditionally performed as music, and the confluence of the musicality with the poetic meter induces an ecstatic state for members of the audience—they become trans– ported in a similar way to the mystic followers of Sufism. At stake for Shahid in translating Faiz was the negotiation of this pure language and a double love, a double loyalty, to both Urdu and English. Shahid explains further that “these loyalties, which have political, cultural, and aesthetic implications, remain so entangled in me, so thoroughly mine, that they have led not to confusion but to a strange, arresting clarity” (RS, xii). In translating Faiz, in carrying him from one language into another, Shahid did not pursue the task of the translator, i.e. to make Faiz intelligible to an English audience, he pursued the task of the poet, i.e. to bring the affective ecstatic mystical qualities of his poetry to a new audience. By brushing up against the Urdu of Faiz, Shahid became a conduit through which the poetry itself flowed, and as a result we receive not Faiz in English, but an entirely new corpus generated from the fecundity of an impossible translation.

The question of “fidelity” is always a bit of a sticky–wicket when translating poetry because poetic language proceeds precisely by employing a confusion of connotative and denotative meanings. The play of image, symbol, metaphor, simile, etc. codes the poetic space in a particular way, and it makes the reader the decoder. Certain words, phrases, images etc., attain a multiplicity of meanings or significations throughout one poem and from one poem to another. Part of what makes Faiz not only a difficult figure to translate, but a controversial figure to boot, is that he takes stock imagery from the golden–age Persian ghazals of Hafiz and Rumi and recuperates them to be explicitly political. So something like the traditional figure of the Beloved (which already has manifestations as man, woman, god, etc.), takes on further valences that reflect Faiz’s political and social commitments. So, in a way, Shahid translates Faiz who is already “translating” or recuperating Hafiz, Rumi and Urdu poet Ghalib (1797–1869). The ghazal is not immanent, and in approaching the ghazal, one also encounters all ghazals, which is to say that one encounters the weight of an entire tradition. Essentially, what we see in this movement is the opening of the question “what are the boundaries of the ghazal?” At what point is the ghazal no longer a ghazal but some other form of poetry? Is the ghazal dictated by thematic concerns, form, content, musicality, some hidden kernel? Much to Shahid’s dismay, his fidelity to Faiz resulted in several “unfaithful” moves, one of which is the loss of some formal and rhythmic components. Some lines get enlarged into three lines, and other times he bypasses lines entirely, but all for the sake of a particular notion of fidelity. In modifying Faiz in what is considered to be “unfaithfully” in the strict word– for–word equivalency kind of way, Shahid actually is remaining more faithful to the vibe or perhaps the essence of Faiz. Shahid’s entire oeuvre, in fact, pushes up against this question of authenticity and fidelity because he writes ghazals in English to begin with. What kind of “translation” does this imply? If Shahid is not going from one language into another, how can he be understood to be performing “translation”? Shahid, who grew up listening to famous Urdu poets, brings with him a knowledge of ghazal that is rooted beyond language. And as such, he is able to “translate” an entire tradition, he is able to capture the ecstatic beauty of the ghazal and reproduce this not in English, but through English (trans–English, as it were!).

Shahid’s composition of ghazals in English has the effect of (dis)placement. On the basic level of language and meaning, effacement and abeyance are part of the very structure of the ghazal insofar as ghazals partake in the larger project of all poetics: rupture and disorientation. Stock ghazal imagery like the nightingale (bulbul), the rose (gul), the ruby, lips, wine, dark curly hair of the Beloved etc., all belong to particular associative webs through which they gain context–dependent meaning. The structure of the ghazal relies on a fragile unity of disunited couplets. Each couplet is, in a sense, completely autonomous—it contains perhaps a kernel of a thought, an image etc., that for is complete in itself. And yet, through rhyme and rhythm, each couplet builds on the other. Held as a unity only through their disunity (a model reminiscent of “community” proposed by Jean–Luc Nancy), Shahid explains that “[t]he opening couplet sets up the scheme...then the scheme occurs only in the second line of every succeeding couplet...” or, in other words, “the first line...sets up suspense, and the second line...delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding” (Ishmael, 22). To better illustrate this, take for example Shahid’s ghazal “Beyond English” which, as the title suggests, uses the phrase “beyond English” for this suspense/release effect. The first four couplets read:

“No language is old–––or young–––beyond English. So what of a common tongue beyond English?

I know some words for war, all of them sharp, but the sharpest one is jung–––beyond English!

If you wish to know of a king who loved his slave, you must learn legends, often–sung, beyond English.

Baghdad is sacked and its citizen must watch prisoners (now in miniatures) hung beyond English.”

We can feel the wonderful tension build between the successive rhymes (tongue, jung, often–sun, hung) and the refrain “beyond English”. Even then, the refrain is modified playfully by a mixture of punctuation. In any case, we start to realize just how difficult translating ghazals must be! Beyond poetic devices which render language untranslatable in a traditional sense, it is impossible to maintain a “faithful” or “authentic” rhyme and refrain scheme. For example, in Persian and Urdu ghazals, a common rhyme occurs between bulbul and gul, and so they are drawn into intimacy by way of that rhyme, so what happens to their relationship when they are transmuted into “nightingale” and “rose”? Furthermore, and more to our point, what happens when Shahid invokes these same images from within English? The weight of the Urdu tradition surely informs his affective relationship to the bulbul and yet, to what extent does the bulbul appear in his nightingales? Translation, for Shahid, is indeed an art of (dis)placement that, either curiously or remarkably, enriches both the originary tradition and the target tradition. It is not that Shahid extends or carries over cultural meanings, it is rather that his poetic act of translation constitutes these very meanings.

Shahid has various collections of poetry, and something like his 2002 collection Rooms Are Never Finished explores, alongside ghazals, a variety of poetic forms like sonnets, prose poems, canzones and Sapphics. The poetic world that Shahid tenderly crafts from one poem to the next is so very distinctly his own, and yet not. In just leafing through the pages and scanning for “content words”, one can easily start to pick out major themes and images: loss, desolation, longing, fennel, saffron, emerald, amethyst, sapphires, broken cities, curfew, returns, departures and farewells. This is the very stuff from which traditional ghazals are made. In fact, the period of the golden age of ghazals (from 1150– 1390) produced ghazals that were so similar in content that it’s difficult to attribute them to particular authors and particular eras. There must be something, then, in Shahid’s recuperations that in a singular movement of divestment and investment, reinvigorates these materials. Beyond “recuperation” he is actually performing a trans–positioning and a retrofitting or trans–coding of the ghazal itself. The incorporation of stock imagery and allusions to admired writers and thinkers function as a (dis)placement that absorbs entire poetic, historical, cultural milieus into his own work. Something like the figure of Ishmael, for example, brings with it a network of connotations from the Tanakh, to the Koran, and even Melville. As cacophonous as some of these transpositions might seem, Shahid harmoniously makes this cacophony part of the very fabric of his work. This sort of (dis)placement results from Shahid’s condition of not being in exile, but rather from being in exile from exile. It is easy to read Shahid’s iteration of the Beloved motif as his desperate longing for the homeland as modeled after Sufism’s Beloved who anxiously and even frantically longs to be reunited with the godhead. But Shahid, as his makhta suggests, is more of a witness than a figure of intense yearning and desire for return. Surely, the trope of travel and return appears in many of his poems, but it is a circular return whose origin remains forever unclear and indistinct. The mode of (dis)placement requires that Shahid occupy a space of eternal liminality, return with no origin and no end.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Shahid’s oeuvre is his treatment of place, and subsequently, his treatment of memory, time and history. His poem “The Blesséd Word: A Prologue” begins with this quote from Osip Mandelstam: “We shall meet again, in Petersburg.” Mandelstam, a Jewish poet living under the Soviet Regime (and dying under it too, incidentally) wrote that line at the very time when Petersburg had been renamed Leningrad by the regime he unambiguously detested through his poetry. So, essentially, to meet again in Petersburg names not a geographic location, but a different sort of topos—a place of memory perhaps, a place in an already foreclosed and unforeseeable future. Shahid, in echo to Mandelstam, writes “‘We shall meet again, in Srinagar.’...He reinvents Petersburg (I, Srinagar), an imaginary homeland, filling it, closing it, shutting himself (myself) in it.” Shahid is here asserting his close affinity with Mandelstam, but he’s also aligning Srinagar and “Kashmir, Haschmir, Chasmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmier...” in strange ways. Kashmir becomes dislocated or displaced from it’s particular socio–historical context and instead gets drawn into intimacy with the case of Petersburg/Leningrad. In a similar move, the other great miseries of the 1980s and 1990s find their way into the pages that are at once so specific to the singularity of the Kashmiri situation, but at the same time so universal. Sarajevo, Bosnia, Croatia, Chechnya, and Armenia appear alongside the tribulations of Kashmir, just as Dal Lake, Shalimar, Delhi and the Indus appear alongside Massachusetts, Boston, and Frankfurt. Furthermore, characters such as Caesar, Cleopatra, Laila, Muhammad Darwish, Zainab, Jesus, Amichai, and Ishmael dot his poetry. The effect this all has is one of a productive disorientation—a confusion of space and time wherein “trans–“ rules the day. The reader of Shahid becomes trans– located, thrust into trans–it, and ultimately rendered trans–coded. The prefix “trans–“ points to a state or condition of liminality, a kind of threshold or zone of transition. Through liminality (like rites of passage, initiations, pilgrimages, etc.) new systems and paradigms can emerge, and crucial to the thought of liminality is precisely this idea of “borders.” The limen dwells on the edge, the fringe of stratified systems and thus presents itself as a site for transgression of those dominant structures. What Shahid offers us, his readers, is a way to occupy this revolutionary space of liminality. Everything is transition, instability, and pure contingency, and what the ghazal form offers us is precisely this beautiful inconsistency of meaning and signification. Shahid, the beloved witness, set as his task a poetic witnessing that holds the world in (dis)placement, and to this testimony he invites us to “listen”:

Listen, Listen: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: It means ‘the beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Pimlico, 1999.
Shahid, Agha Ali. The Rebel’s Silhouette. University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
–––. Call Me Ishmael Tonight. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2003.
–––. The Country Without A Post Office. W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1997.

Shawna Vesco is still alive.