Finding Meaning: An Urdu Poetry Workshop Review

Urdu poetry workshop

Every language has its own flavour – that curls around words, so that the intangible can almost be tasted. Humour, pathos, tragedy, irony – each can be held in a single word or gleaming phrase that can lose its essence when squeezed into an alien mould. That is why the task of translating poetry from one language to another represents such challenges, not only in terms of authentically conveying style, content and context, but in capturing the spirit that may elude even a native speaker on the first reading. Enter the Poetry Translation Centre.

The Centre aims to bring contemporary international poetry to English-speaking audiences through a collective, immersive experience. A few weeks earlier, the PTC chose to focus on the work of two Urdu poets representing very different faces of South Asia. The first was Main Bach Gai, Maa (‘I was saved, Mother’) by Pakistani poet Zehra Nigah, and the second a romantic ghazal by Javed Akhtar, the legendary Indian lyricist and screenwriter.

As a Pakistani expatriate at a personal crossroads, I found myself registering for the workshop not just out of a sense of curiosity, but also the ever-present desire to connect with a place I still think of as “home.” I wanted to see how it could be done – that remoulding of language to retain the essence and spirit of the original.

With prize-winning novelist and translator Marion Molteno and poet Clare Pollard as facilitators, we were in good hands. Marion’s engagement with the Urdu language spans 26 years, and is rooted in her experience of teaching English to immigrant communities. She also edited a new edition of renowned Urdu scholar Ralph Russell’s book The Famous Ghalib – The Sound of the Moving Pen. Clare’s first poetry collection was published in 1998, and she received the Eric Gregory Award in 2000.

The format of the evening was perhaps unique to the PTC. Our diverse group of native Urdu and English speakers was presented literal translations of two poems, then given a chance to refer to the original Urdu versions to add layers, form and nuance.

Marion’s opening reading of Main Bach Gai, Maa left us visibly moved. This is a dark, powerful piece written in the voice of an unborn child, terminated for being a girl. With quiet bitterness, she addresses her mother, saying she was “saved” by death, from a society that had no room for her. The poem uses imagery from everyday life, distorted to represent the discrimination and violence perpetrated against women and girls by patriarchal structures and norms – the “henna” of blood, the “kohl” of acid.

Here’s a (somewhat shaky) video of the poet herself reciting the poem.

I was curious how those from a different culture would suggest dealing with references to the customs of “satta vatta” (a barter-like marriage deal) and “karo kari” (honour killing) in our translation. As we worked through the poem line by line, each participant came forward to surprise the others with fresh perspectives about specific words, and how far it would compromise the authenticity of the poem to attempt to translate – or whether the original Urdu should be left in.

I was humbled by my company; there were those with far deeper knowledge of etymology, history and culture, and those who had no link to the subcontinent but were ready with thoughtful ideas about words to capture delicate, easily lost meaning. It was truly striking how much open and inquiring minds can gain a sense of a place by engaging with words. By the end of the exercise, I had come to question my own notions about language and the inaccessibility of poetry.

Perhaps it was apt that the poem under scrutiny was by a writer who shrugged off most labels. Zehra Nigah keenly felt gender-based social injustice and chose to expose oppression through a female voice – yet, she is adamant that her concerns are not for women alone. According to Marion, “She was a path-breaker within a very conservative milieu. She works on sentiment” – and therein lies her power.

If sentiment can be universal, then poetry shouldn’t be confined to those who speak the language in which it was first cast. London, in particular, offers unending reminders that identities are fluid, and words in any language are vessels that can indeed be filled with multiple meanings.

In the end, we spent so much time exploring Zehra Nigah’s words, that by the end of the session, in spite of Clare’s expert facilitation, there was only time for a cursory reading of the beautiful ghazal, which was a pity. Hopefully there’ll be time for it in the next one – Marion is considering another Urdu poetry workshop in the autumn. If you’re interested in rediscovering old roots or setting out new ones, we’ll keep you posted.

To whet your appetite in the meantime, you can get hold of a Kindle version Ralph Russell’s book, edited by Marion Molteno – The Famous Ghalib – The Sound of the Moving Pen here.


By Madeeha Ansari. Madeeha has some thing(s) to do with development, displacement, schools and stories. She works for a children’s non-profit,  and tries to keep an ear out for the poetry in life.


Posted on 4 May 2017.

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