Friday, June 3, 2016

"Nothing is Mine for Long"

Divan of Ghalib, Nachoem M. Wijnberg

"The human / image remains imprisoned / in the mirror of the world." (Ghalib) 

Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, whose takhallus, or pen-name, was Ghalib ("most excellent"), was born in Agra during the twilight of the Mughal Empire, though he lived most of his life in Delhi. Ghalib's "traditional divan," contains 234 ghazals as well as Urdu poems in other styles. Ghalib also composed poetry and prose works in Persian, including a history of the 1857 "mutiny." Virtually all translators and commentators (over one hundred commentaries on Ghalib's ghazals exist) agree that the task of translating Ghalib is a "doomed mission" [Frances W. Pritchett], and agree that Ghalib is "mushkil-panand"--a lover of complexity.  I have spent parts of the past few days admiring a handful of the ghazals in various translations (Niazi, Ahmed Ali, as well as adaptations by W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and others).  I also found myself rereading Nabokov's famous 1941 New Republic article, "On the Art of Translation,"written as the polyglot novelist revised his version of Pushkin:

"We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude."

No doubt Nabokov considered himself nearly up to the task of Eugene Onegin--but to render Ghalib's subtle and delicate love poems from Urdu to English--to have assimilated not only the languages but the "author's manner and methods," his "social background," his "demeanor"--who could achieve so much, and how might we, as readers without Urdu or any other Nabokovian qualification, hope to make sense of this great poet?

While I was reading Nachoem M. Wijnberg's poems for (in honor of, as homage to, based on, etc.) Ghalib in David Colmer's fine translation, I had in mind this sentence from the collection's forward, written, presumably, by Colmer: "[Divan of Ghalib] is a book of English translations of the Dutch poems Nachoem Wijnberg wrote for Ghalib and with Ghalib with Ghalib and to Ghalib." This clarification--if you can call it that--yes, at first I thought White Pine had sent me a collection of translations of Ghalib by a Dutch poet translated into English by an Austrailian!--not only enhanced my interest in the book (beautifully gotten up, as all WP books are) but let me off the hook: no need to fret about the "accuracy" or "spirit" of the translations. This was a straightforward literary transaction: a book of poems Englished from a comfortable (bourgeois!) language from which even I--monoglot that I am--could wrestle some words, a hommage (of sorts) rather than another attempt to climb the mountain of Ghalib's esoteric genius.

This is familiar territory for me, this realm of the poetic transformation rather than translation. I have enough German to know that Rilke's sublime Duino Elegies are untranslatable (William Gass has a wonderful book on the subject of not translating Rilke), and Kenneth Rexroth's versions of Tu Fu--among my favorite poems--have always felt more like Rexroth channeling Tu Fu than surmounting the multiple Nabokovian hurdles to rendering a man as little known to us as Lao Tzu. Rexroth worked with the Chinese scholar Ling Chung on his versions of Chinese poetry; but of course Rexroth had many languages, and he was among the last poets to have read everything. I also love reading and comparing various versions of grad school stand-bys like Beowulf, wondering all the while if Michael Alexander, Burton Raffel, and Seamus Heaney had even read the same poem. But then there's John Gardner's wonderful Grendel, and that, patient reader, brings us at last to Wijnberg's Ghalib.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg, born in 1961, is the author, in Dutch, of fourteen books of poetry and, by my count, three novels. He is a professor of something called "cultural entrepreneurship" at the University of Amsterdam. And why not? The best poems are written by those who have never been "work-shopped" in Iowa or anyplace else. I have ordered both of Wijnberg's books available in English (The Jews and Advance Payment, the latter also translated by David Colmer); I will report on these books in due course. The reviews suggest that Wijnberg's novels are difficult and obscure; so much the better.

However, there is nothing obscure about Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib--the poems are personal, chatty, direct, and commodious. No need to have mastered the intricacies of the ghazal to cozy up to "Enough:"

I have seen no more of the one who said that if he had a second 
life it would be mine.
   I wished I had seen more of the one who made morning for 
himself, who said my morning.

He can build his own hourse, he doesn't make day or night until 
the house is ready.
   His legs spread, a hand of each knee, that how he sits on a 
chair in the doorway. There is no door, he doesn't know how to 
make one....

The loose lines seem to stretch out through odd-ball commas until the idea is done. Throughout the collection, one finds a no-nonsense, declarative style: "I know how this goes, last time I didn't find a solution in time./But if I can try again I'll be more able to keep up with what's/Happening--it helps to know a lot." ("How It Grows"). Here and there I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard's let's-have-a-coffee-and-a-cigarette-and-talk style of coming to the point; Wijnberg eschews metaphor for straight talk, as if he were doing two things at once (culture and entrepreneurship) and didn't want to waste a lot of time: "Ghalib, did you have to spend another day getting used/To the idea that the stars you see at night might have/disappeared long ago?" A rhetorical question posed in "India," not so much, one feels, to Ghalib as to the poet himself. No channeling here, but rather an unfolding meditation on reading and thinking about a predecessor, which, when you come right down to it, is what all literature is really about, an adding to the universe of language by charting one's own reflection of what, frankly, can never be what Nabokov wished--a full reckoning with another mind.

The poems in Wijnberg's Divan that I returned to several times were the most discursive and personal. I thought I might have a go at matching one divan to another, Wijnberg back to Ghalib's originals, but I doubt I'd find many resemblances, and so what if I did? The pleasure I took in this book was more along the lines of seeing how many associations might be coaxed out of "Ghalib," as if the 19th century Urdu/Persian genius were at the center of one of many millions of poetic constellations and Wijnberg's idea was to make poems reflecting this fact. Think, perhaps, of Dante's Cavalcanti or Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, not dissimilar recognitions of the power of predecessors.  Wijnberg's poetic "you," I'm guessing, isn't Ghalib, but some North Star of meaning.  I note that one of the blurbs on the book jacket points to Wijnberg as "disguising himself" as Ghalib. I respectfully disagree. The distance between the meditative subject of these poems and Wijnberg is preserved throughout; his Divan evokes unknowing, distance, the mystery of another's life and language. It is precisely the lack of disguise that is most perceptive in Divan of Ghalib. Not only is translation (sometimes) futile; so is impersonation. What remains is the kind of homage Wijnberg pays to Ghalib: we are different, but like some great perturbation in the sea of language, your words affect my own. Bloom thought of influence as anxious; perhaps, but also respectful and worthy of recognition.

This book was welcome right at this moment of my life--of our lives. So much nonsense about our insurmountable differences, our inescapable tribal loathings, tumbling from the mouths of the ignorant  and ambitious! How refreshing to encounter in a new poet (Wijnberg) an old friend (Ghalib) freshly attired. To be reminded again of what continues to matter when so much no longer does.

George Ovitt (6/3/16)

Nachoem M. Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib, translated by David Colmer is available from White Pine Press.

A brief, accessible study of Ghalib by Ahmed Ali is here

For addition information on the ghazal and other poetic forms in Urdu I rely on Frances W. Pritchitt of Columbia University (whose translation of Intizar Husain's great Urdu novel Basti was reviewed in this blog):

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