Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies


Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies


The final issue of The Annual of Urdu Studies came out last week. When I got my subscription copy I put it aside after glancing through the table of contents. There was nothing that demanded immediate reading. But some hours later came an anguished email from an old friend: ‘Did you see the lead article in the current AUS by Tehsin Firaqi? I’m not qualified to judge many of the details (as far as I can tell, Fran’s choices were mostly justifiable), but it is written with incredible, hurtful animus, not only against Fran but also against any “non-native” who might dare to intrude upon the study of Urdu. What do you make of it? Why is the little world of Urdu studies so ungenerous?’

I had to stop what I was doing and read the article. It is titled: ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article.’ Its author, Dr. Tehsin Firaqi, is a senior Pakistani scholar. After a distinguished career at the University of the Punjab he is currently the Director of the Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, an institution preeminent in publishing carefully prepared editions of Urdu’s canonical literary texts. I soon discovered that my friend’s anguish was not misplaced. It was not an academic essay but a nasty hatchet job. The author’s vehemently aggressive tone shocked me, for having met him twice and read a few of his writings I had always considered him a reasonable person. Equally shocking was the fact of its publication in the final issue of a cherished journal, thirteen years after the book came out. My friend was right: the article was a shrill tirade exclusively directed against Prof. Frances Pritchett, the principal author of the book under discussion, even though she had done both the editing and translation in association with Mr. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. And why does Firaqi so privilege her? Because she happens to be a ‘non-native.’

Firaqi begins with a bald statement: ‘Though the translation was made and edited “in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” a distinguished Urdu critic, I tend to think that he played only a minor role in the enterprise….”[1] He then states his intention to substantiate that claim with examples that follow. However, he first gives two examples of what he considers to be perspicuous and superb translations, adding that similar passages are ‘liberally sprinkled’ throughout the book. He then makes another bald assertion: ‘These sections may indeed have benefited enormously from Faruqi’s extensive linguistic knowledge, his extraordinary translation skills, and his profound cultural insights. It is highly unlikely that Faruqi could in any way be responsible for some of the glaring errors found in other parts, where the translation lapses into sheer travesty and seriously damages its literary value.’

Now if that were indeed the case, and if that is all that bothers Firaqi, he should at least lay a charge of negligence, deliberate or otherwise, against Faruqi, the man with ‘extraordinary translation skill.’ Apparently, some days, he just didn’t do his job and let Pritchett get away with ‘travesty.’ Firaqi does not offer any explanation why an arguably reasonable person like Faruqi would be so callously irresponsible. He is more eager to make a third claim. ‘Pritchett cannot be expected,’ Firaqi declares, ‘to fully comprehend the cultural context of Urdu in a wider semantic perspective and to properly evaluate the linguistic complexities and stylistic innovations native to it. As a result, some specific Urdu cultural devices, linguistic niceties and idiomatic turns of phrase seem to evade her. Her reach is necessarily limited, while the arcane civilization of the Subcontinent and the essence of its poetic language are too lofty to be fully grasped by a non-native.’

In other words: every success goes to the credit of the ‘native,’ but all failures accrue to the ‘non-.’

For all I know, that could be a new post-colonial theory and I should receive it with silent reverence, but demur I must. I confess my teachers at Lucknow University failed to teach me both Alchemy and the Indian rope-trick, probably because their teachers, likewise, had failed them. Next I must urge Firaqi to avoid using the singular with reference to ‘the civilization of the Subcontinent’—even if he declares it to be ‘arcane’ and too ‘lofty’ for ordinary mortals—for that could, in this time of plagues, bring him harm from some wrong kind of a ‘native.’

Now we may turn to the ten examples of alleged mistranslation that so incense Firaqi—he uses much of the first half of the article denouncing them.

1. Firaqi’s first example involves the Urdu idiom balā lenā (the same as balāeN lenā) as it occurs in an exchange between a woman named Chimmo and the poet Amir Khusrau as narrated by Azad. Firaqi writes: ‘Now balā lenā̄ as a ritual ceremony was practiced in a very peculiar way among Indian womenfolk. First of all, a woman would pat a minor’s head, then place the fingers of her hands on her temples and snap them. This act of snapping fingers was called balāeN lenā. The women believed that through this act they had taken the misfortunes of the minor upon themselves. True, but as an idiomatic expression, balāeN lenā just means, “to sacrifice oneself,” “to love someone immensely.” Pritchett translates bal lung as: “May I take your misfortunes upon myself.” Though true in the backdrop of the ceremony mentioned above, the translation has become too literal and formal. It could easily have been rendered as: “May I be sacrificed to (sic) you.”

Disregarding the fact that what we are talking about here is neither a ‘ceremony’ nor a ‘ritual’ but only a symbolic gesture exclusive to women of a certain kind or age, it is obvious to me that Firaqi has never seen it being done. There is no patting on the head. The woman extends both hands toward the person’s head, curls her palms inward in a gesture of collecting the balā or balāeN, and then bringing her curled palms to her own head she cracks her knuckles. Yes, she cracks her knuckles, and does not, contrary to Firaqi’s claim, snap her fingers. Firaqi’s confusion arises out of his translating Urdu’s ungliyāN chaTkhānā into English with what is actually equivalent to Urdu’s chuTkī bajānā. Not a promising start for a ‘native.’

And what does Firaqi do to Azad’s original words that he holds sacrosanct? For that we go back a paragraph. This is how Firaqi introduces his example: ‘In the section titled “The History of Urdu Poetry,” Azad has mentioned one Bi Chimmo (an old female tobacconist) who served the Amir with a huqqah (it is interesting to note, however, that the times of Amir Khusrau were unacquainted with tobacco; it reached the Deccan centuries later through the Portuguese and then was transmitted onward to North India).’ Surely Chimmo was not a tobacconist. You couldn’t buy the Shahjahanabad Chronicle at her shop, nor an ounce of tobacco to take home and smoke with the missus. She was a sāqin, as Azad described her and then added, ‘The riffraff of the city used to gather at her shop and enjoy bhang and charas.’ Of course, long before Azad’s time—and long after Khusrau’s—the same people whose profession was to make and sell marijuana and opium products were also selling a smoke of tobacco—in addition to what they had always offered. (Firaqi’s erudite aside about the history of tobacco in India is of course charming.)

2. Next Firaqi refers to a line from the great poet Bedil that Azad had quoted—mi parad rangam ḥubābe gar ba daryā̄ bishkanad—then declares the P&F translation—‘My color flies away if a bubble bursts in the ocean’—was ‘nonsensical.’ He does not like ‘my color flies away’ for mi parad rangam. No further explanation is offered, not even an alternate translation. Now English does have such idiomatic expressions as ‘Color left his face’ or ‘Color drained out of his face,’ and so its flying away in a hurry for some reason is not a metaphorical impossibility. In any case, both English idioms have the same connotation as the Persian idiom used by Bedil. I checked in Bahār-e ‘Ajam to make sure.

3. The third example refers to a verse by Mir Zahik that includes the word ‘Khudā’ī.’

            kyā dījiye islāh Khudā’ī ko wagarna

            kāfī thā terā husn agar māh na hotā

Here is what Firaqi says: ‘The meaning of the shi’r is simply that the beloved’s beauty is so enchanting and exceptional that it would make no difference if there were no moon in the universe. In lexicons, Khudā’ī has come to stand for “people,” “world,” “universe.”’ Then, after quoting P&F’s translation—‘How could one give correction to God—otherwise, / Your beauty would have been enough, if there had been no moon’—he offers this critique: ‘God as the substitute for Khudā’ī is quite fallacious and inappropriate.’

Not trusting my memory, I checked two dictionaries. Farhang-e Āsafiya, the dictionary I love much and trust most, gives the following as the word’s primary meanings: ‘kirdigārī; sāhibī; Khāwindī; shān [wa] ‘azmat-e Khudā.Nurul-Lughat, the other dictionary I sometimes consult, gives the following as the word’s primary meanings: ‘sāhibī, Khudāwandī, Khudā kī shān.’ In other words, according to these well-respected dictionaries, the primary meaning of the word is none of the three that Firaqi lists: ‘people, world, and universe.’ And the English approximations of the Urdu primary meanings would be: ‘Lordship, omnipotence, and God’s glory.’ In both dictionaries, the meaning that Firaqi prefers is listed second.

Perhaps Firaqi finds it disturbing that a poet (and also his translators) could think of ‘giving correction to God.’ How ‘inappropriate!’ But Urdu poets have been doing that for a long time. Many thought that Iqbal had behaved highly inappropriately when he ‘Complained’ to God more than a century ago, but that didn’t stop the poem from becoming an evergreen classic.

4. Here is the full text of Firaqi’s fourth example:

Commenting on and appreciating the easy, smooth style of Mir Soz, Azad regrets that this style could not persist for long since the Persian style of colorful metaphors and ideas full of exaggeration had overpowered the literary scene and had become expletives for people: ‘[…] rangīn isteʿārāt aur mubālgha ke Khayālāt goyā misl takya-e kalām kē zabānoN per chaṛh gaʾe haiN.’ This has been translated so literally that it appears to border on caricature: ‘[…] colorful metaphors and ideas full of exaggeration have been placed like pillows for our speech to recline against.’ The underscored phrase could be translated as: ‘… have become expletives for us.’

I was honestly confused for a few minutes. Expletives? In Mir Soz? The little dictionary in the computer calmed me down. Firaqi, it appears, was using the word in its secondary meaning: ‘a word that carries no meaning but has a grammatical function in a sentence.’ Of course, after calming down I became curious about the Urdu idiom: why does it have the word takya (pillow)? I also tried to figure out what ‘grammatical’ function was performed when someone added, say, a couple of shabūsh shabūsh to his every second or third sentence. I had no luck in the latter task, but the rationale behind takya was clear enough after a moment of thought. Some people in Urdu culture develop a tick—a neurological issue, if you please—so that they can’t go beyond a few words or sentences without adding a meaningless interjection that is always the same and has no grammatical function. That interjection is then a ‘pillow’ against which their meaningful words and phrases lean as they coalesce into sustained speech. The interjections have no ‘grammatical’ function; their function is neurological or psychological. They are not expletives in either sense of the word.

5. In his fifth example, Firaqi is incensed at the use of a single ‘superfluous’ word. He writes:

Azad gives credit to Rangin for inventing a new genre, reKhtī̄, but at the same time he also applauds the services of Insh’allah Khan Insha Inshāʾ in this regard saying: ‘Syed Inshaʾ kī tabʿ-e rangīn ne bẖī mūjid sē kam sughṛāpā nahiN dikẖāyā.’ Now the word sugghaṛ literally means ‘the one skillfully fashioned.’ Hence sughṛāpā means ‘skillfulness,’ ‘accomplishment’ and ‘elegance.’ Sughṛāpa is not specific to the female sex. Anyone who is skillful and accomplished can be called suggẖaṛ, regardless of whether the person is a female or not.

Having made these assertions, Firaqi declares: ‘Keeping this exposition in mind, note the translation of the above passage: ‘… but the colorful [rangīn] temperament of Sayyid Insha showed no less feminine skill than that of the inventor.’ The word ‘feminine’ here is altogether superfluous and demands to be omitted.’

For once Firaqi could be right—‘… showed no less skill’ would be good enough. But may I first point out that the correct word is sughaṛ and not sugghaṛ, and if it has not been gender specific in Urdu for a long time then Firaqi should have easily found one or two examples to support his contention. Further, ‘the one skillfully fashioned’ is not exactly the same as ‘skillful.’ The former could have been the meaning of the word at one time—as Asafiya tells us—but it is the latter that now prevails. Firaqi himself has used only that meaning. What the hapless translators had feebly tried to do was to replicate the choice Azad had made. Azad chose the word sughṛāpā exactly for the purpose of creating an association with what he was praising—the feminine persona the two poets adopted in their Rekhti verses. Azad’s little ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge,’ it turns out, was totally missed by a very proper Firaqi.

6. Firaqi next objects to the way P&F have translated a Persian expression, suKhan darīn ast, that occurs in a popular verse quoted by Azad. Their translation reads: ‘But if you want money—I won’t even discuss it.’ Firaqi wants it changed to ‘But if you want money—it is debatable.’ He insists that in Persian ‘suKhan darīn ast means “it is debatable” or “one cannot agree with this [matter].”’ I confess, being a non-native in both Persian and English, I fail to see the subtle distinction he feels compelled to insist on. The reader can decide for herself/himself.

7. In Firaqi’s seventh example we venture into Horticulture. He writes:

In the Fourth Era, Azad has devoted a few pages to the literary encounters between Inshā’ and Muṣhafī where satires were composed which sometimes bordered on obscenity. Then, by way of advice, he says: ‘Khair hameN chahiye ki thoṛī der ke liye shahd kī makkhī̄ ban jāʾeN. JahāN rasīlā phūl dēkẖeN, jā baiṭheN, jāle aur maile maile pattoN se bacheN.’ This passage has been translated as: ‘Well, for a little while we ought to become honeybees—where we see a juicy flower, we ought to go and alight. We ought to avoid the spiderwebs and the many dirty leaves.’ It did not cross the mind of the translator that the word ‘jāle’ here actually denotes the wild-grown weeds, grass or bushes, and have (sic) a semantic affinity with dirty leaves. ‘Spiderwebs’ are (sic) quite out of place here. John Platts, in his famous Urdu, Classical Hindi and English Dictionary has given one of the meanings of jāle as ‘weeds.’

Why ‘spiderwebs’ is ‘out of place’ in the translation is not clear to me unless I start believing that real-life spiders never go anywhere near a flowering plant or that common weeds don’t have blooms that could be attractive to honeybees. Since Firaqi put trust in Platts, I decided to check his dictionary. Here is the entry: ‘A net; a web, spider’s web, cobweb: a pellicle; a speck (in the eye), cataract; a large jar, an earthen vessel; mildew (on flour &c); a kind of water-weed (used in refining sugar).’ Then Platts lists an idiomatic verb, jaale paR jaanaa, and gives the meaning: ‘To be overgrown with weeds.’ No wonder ‘it did not cross the mind’ of the translators to skip cobwebs and jump to ‘wild-grown weeds, grass or bushes,’ as Firaqi, ever eager to insist on the primacy of a secondary or tertiary meaning of a word, would have it. Here I may add that the same Platts could have helped Firaqi get over his unhappiness concerning the word Khudā’ī (example 3 above). Platts’ entry for the word (noun) reads, ‘Godship, godhead, divinity, providence; almighty power, omnipotence,’ and only then come the secondary meanings, ‘creation, nature, the world.’ But Firaqi, naturally, went for the secondary meaning.

8. Firaqi’s eighth example is again a Persian verse quoted by Azad:

          Bināl būlbul agar bā manat sar-e yārīst

          ki mā dō ʿāshiq-e zārīm-o-kār-e mā zārīst

P&F have translated it as follows:

Oh nightingale, lament, if you claim to be friends with me,

For we are two sad lovers, and our desire is to weep.

Firaqi writes, ‘The English translation of the shi’r falls short of the original. “Kār-e mā zārīst” has a clear meaning: “We are wont to cry/weep.” “Our desire is to weep” is an inappropriate translation since the word “desire” here is quite unjustifiable and uncalled for.’ I too don’t like ‘desire’—my preference: ‘our business is to cry’—but would be loathe to call it ‘Unjustifiable and uncalled for’ unless I had some other axe to grind.

9. Firaqi next takes umbrage at the entry on Shah Nasīr. He writes:

Azad has mentioned Shah Nasīr in the same Fifth Era. The name of his father was Shah Gharīb. Making a pun on Shah Gharīb, Azad writes: ‘apnī ghūrbat-e tabʿa aur Khāksārī-e mīzāj kī badōlat ism bā musammā gharīb thē.’ He writes further that many a royal village had been allotted to his forefathers and he had inherited them. This speaks volumes that Shah Gharīb was ‘gharīb’ (poor) in name only. That is why he raised his child, Shah Naṣīr, along lines conforming to elitist notions of propriety and respectability and appointed competent and well-reputed tutors for his education. What Azad meant by ‘ghurbat-e tabʿa’ was simply that Shah Gharīb was not ‘gharīb’ in the literal sense of the word but out of his nature and temperament; he had inwardly made his heart his true habitat. However, in the English translation he has been parenthesized ‘poor,’ which is ridiculous. It could have been easily translated as ‘outsider’ or ‘stranger.’

The translation actually does mention Shah Gharīb’s prosperity. Though Azad’s statement has not been translated P&F have presented it in summary in the same paragraph. Firaqi, however, conveniently ignores the very next sentence in Azad’s text where Gharīb’s ‘gharībī’ is contrasted his life in ‘amīrī.’ In fact, Azad, over three sentences, exploits both meanings of the word, but more often with reference to ‘poor’ and ‘poverty.’ Shah Gharīb lived like a ‘stranger’ within the company he kept but he also lived like a rich man despite having the name ‘Poor.’ It would have been nicer if both meanings had been given in the parenthetical remark, but then Firaqi too chose only ‘poor’ in that context—as can be seen above.

10. Firaqi’s final example of what he regards as gross mistranslations by P&F reads as follows:

BāteN kahāniyāN ho ga’īN,’ is translated as ‘All these things became stories,’ which is too literal. ‘All these are now bygone tales’ would have been a better substitute.

Briefly I felt willing to go along with Firaqi, though there was no compelling reason to allow his ‘bygone.’ ‘Now those things are told as stories,’ would be forceful enough. But his very next comments, a kind of summation, put me off:

As mentioned above, the translator’s misrepresentation of the content and her arbitrary treatment of the text is (sic) unacceptable. It (sic) violates the established principles of good translation, which (sic) assign priority to the original text. Any violation of this fundamental principle is likely to lead to a flawed translation.

How sad! Firaqi, obviously, wrote out of some curious animus that he just couldn’t hold back. And he unceasingly directed it at only one of the two authors, the one who happens to be a ‘non-native.’ His anger does not even allow him to pause and consider the ironical fact that he himself is a non-native when it comes to English.

What’s wrong with our Urduwalas? ‘Dakini is awful.’ ‘Delhi’s idiom is supreme.’ ‘No, Lucknow sets the standard.’ ‘The Urdu of the Hindus smells of kachoris.’ ‘What’s with these Punjabis, why do they use ne where they should use ko? When Premchand couldn’t take it anymore he called them ‘the Pharaohs of Urdu,’ but that didn’t stop anyone from dumping on poor Gian Chand Jain when he was dying. And now we have this almost belligerent ‘nativism.’ Ye hamārī zabān hai, pyāre.*



[1] All quotations are from Tehsin Firaqi, ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article,’ in The Annual of Urdu Studies, #29 (2014), pp. 10–26. To avoid unnecessary clutter, I do not give page references to individual quotations, and will also simplify (alas, not consistently) the transliteration of Urdu words in them. The book under discussion: Muḥammad Ḥusain Āzād, Āb-e Ḥayāt: Shaping the Canon of Urdu Poetry, translated and edited by Frances Pritchett in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

*Two small changes were made in the essay on June 3, 2014.

A friend has made available Dr. Firaqi’s original Urdu article that was published in the proceedings of a conference some years ago. It is attached here as a pdf file.

Firaqi’s Urdu article



One thought on “Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies

  1. It shall be very kind of Naim Saahib to reproduce the text in original Farsi script either in the Urdulist thread or by email to me, the first line of the couplet (misr’a e awwal) “Beh naal bulbul agar baa manat sar-e yaarist” because the transliteration did not convey the meaning in Farsi to me what has been translated as “Lament O nightingale! If you claim to be friends with me!”

    So far as the Persian word “Kaar” (Sanskrit: Kaarya) is concerned, my humble submission as a student of Farsi/Dari is that literally it means “work” or “activity/business/engagement” (Example: ‘Tu baa man che kaar daari?’ What business/work do you have with me?) and figuratively it is also used to mean “pastime” or “job”. An example from Ali Hazeen Laheji’s Aihaam ~ “ISHQBAAZI BUTPARASTI KAAR E MAA’ST! MAA DAREIN KAAR O KHUDA DAR KAAR E MAA’ST!” shows the pun of the word “Kaar” which in the first line means “pastime” and in conjunction with the word “Dar” that means “in” forms a new word “Darkaar” which means “need/requirement”. The couplet translates as ~ “Love games (platonic?)/Affairs and idol worship (figuratively “Butpararsti” means “adoring beautiful persons” and literally “idolatry”) are our pastimes and as such we have God within these pastimes/ we are in need of God to save us from idolatry!”

    Thanks and regards.

    CA. Shyamal Mitra.
    New Delhi.

    Here is the line:
    بنال بلبل اگر با منت سر یاریست

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