Naomi Lazard (born 1936) is a noted American poet, the winner of two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a past-President of the Poetry Society of America. She is also a children's book author and a playwright. She holds the distinction of being the only American poet to have been a close friend of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Her translations of Faiz’ poetry ‘The True Subject’ were supervised and approved by Faiz himself. In her essay ‘Translating Faiz’ (available at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/books/annualofurdustudies/pager.html?volume=5&objectid=PK2151.A6152_5_109.gif), she describes the beginning of her friendship with Faiz and the process of translation under his supervision.
‘The True Subject’ has recently been republished in Pakistan by Oxford University Press.
Is translation of poetry from one language to another culturally unrelated language such as Urdu to English possible and/or desirable?
I think it’s possible and of course it’s desirable, that’s all we have. Otherwise, we English speakers wouldn’t know anything about poetry in Latin, Greek, Urdu, Japanese, Chinese, practically any language of the world. Of course it’s not perfect, ever. English presents a very specific problem and that is going from Urdu, a very musical language based mostly on metaphor and images to a language (English) that is extremely utilitarian and based on verbs. Without verbs English is placid, it’s without muscles, the verbs are the muscles. You know in English there are about four or five questions to answer and I think it’s the same all the time. It’s “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “When “, and the most important “How”. In English the verb answers the “How”.
Have you read or translated the poetry of any other Urdu poets besides Faiz?
I have only translated Faiz and a few poems by Iftikhar Arif. I also have read translations of Iqbal, Ghalib, that’s about it. It’s Faiz that I know the best because I worked with him on the translations. The way I understand Faiz is that he became the voice of the people of his time, the embodiment of the voice of the people of Pakistan. That was his subject “Pakistan and the World”. It was a voice that became a very important voice. When I read Faiz’s poetry in translations I feel their importance. Faiz is a great poet and that’s all there is to it.
Is the only way to appreciate the true essence of poetry, to read in its original language?
No, for a reader of Faiz who knows Urdu, it is the only way but it’s not available in that way to a speaker of another language who doesn’t know Urdu. The question can be answered for any writer, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. For English speakers we’ve got to read the translations and we are dependent on the facility and expertise of the translator to get the meaning and the music and the metaphor of another language. There are bad translations of everyone. Languages change. Things are more blunt, expressions are more blunt and expressions have been adapted that weren’t even known fifty years ago or even thirty years ago. That’s how quickly languages change. Those who can read the original have a great advantage because everything about poetry is really couched in metaphor and metaphor is embedded in the language. In English everything depends on the ability of the translator to capture the essence and this is what I tried. I tried to get as much as I could of Faiz. What was important for me was the meaning, first and for most was the meaning, after that the feeling. He is not vague, yes there is irony, there is definitely irony there. As if he is writing always about something that is lost or about to begin. That is very much empathic with the Sufis that the loss of the beloved is the true subject of poetry. And I hear that in Faiz’s poetry all the time. That’s what poetry means. Poetry that captures the experience of a people or a nation It becomes more true as time goes on. And I think that’s true with Faiz’s poetry and that’s why it lives. It not only lives it expands.
How does Faiz’s poetry compared to Robert Frost, Walt Whitman or other great American poets?
Well that’s interesting because when I first read Faiz’s poetry in translation, Victor Kiernan’s Victorian translations, I compared him to Neruda even though I hadn’t seen it as poetry that could be read today as English poetry. I knew he was a great poet because of the themes which are great. Robert Frost is a great poet, wonderful poet. He is the American bucolic writ large. He is a farmer, the guy who ploughs his garden, but he is a man of the earth. You know “The Road Not Taken” is total metaphor and it’s a wonderful poem. Walt Whitman is a great humanistic poet. I don’t know exactly how they are different from Faiz except that they are American. Their voice is not his voice because he comes out of Urdu, comes out of different culture. That’s what it is. American culture in a way is simpler, it’s subconsciously simpler and the language is plainer, its much plainer.
Where is the balance between poetic aesthetics and sociopolitical comment? How does a poet find it?
That’s impossible to answer. Where is the balance between politics, economics and aesthetics. I think there is no difference, everything is mashed together. And everything depends in poetry on the sensibilities and the consciousness of the poet. I don’t know that poetry is possible if it’s not humanistic. There is no poetry of fascism, it just doesn’t exist. Poetry is something that comes from loss or love and basic human emotions. It’s just all a package, a human package.
What is the poet’s social responsibility?
Well, it depends on the person. Great poets have a sense of great responsibility, I think. A minor poet doesn’t need it. There’s a contradiction because by the act of writing a poet bonds with humanity, doesn’t write as a singular example that doesn’t exists elsewhere. Poetry is an act of love because it comes out of vulnerability; it doesn’t come out of any kind of strength or muscularity. It’s not that at all. It’s exposing that vulnerability, the loss, the pain whatever it is of life which nobody escapes. Poetry expresses the voice of a whole people. It becomes emblematic of a particular place, time and everything that goes with it. That’s a very big role. It’s not the person who gets up on a podium and says that is what you have to do. That has nothing to do with it. This is the voice of the people that can’t ever really speak for itself. It’s true that individuals can speak but a poet becomes a metaphor for the big. In life there only a few ways that certain intimacies can be expressed, very few. One of them is in love. Another is Church, if you are a believer and you go to Church and you have a shared ecstasy sometimes. The voice of a poet expresses the essence of what it feels like to be that person and being able to express that opens the way to understanding a whole experience. It’s the beginning of insight. Most people pretend all the time, they pretend to be ok. They pretend to be coping very, very well. And most of the time that isn’t quite true. Most of the time they are just barely clinging to sanity. I feel it very strongly today in this country (America). Poetry is written by strong people but the strength is not the strength of a politician which really depends on arrogance as if they know better.
If it is true that great poetry descends from Heaven, how does a poet prepare for it?
Well that question means nothing to me because I don’t believe that anything descends from the Heaven, certainly not great poetry. Great poetry is a human product, a man made or a woman made creation. So I would say it’s not true, nothing descends. Poetry comes from within. It comes out of an experience of loss, a painful experience. I remember when I started to write poetry and I remember exactly what purpose it served. It was just all too much for me and writing poetry was my effort to find a meaning, just some meaning in chaos. That’s what life is like, it’s always chaotic and meaning always has to be construed, it’s never manifest. And that’s a big process in poetry, finding the form. I think that’s necessary, it will never just appear. There aren’t such things as inspirations. Out of five hundred poems one is given without work, the other four ninety-nine have to be worked on. Occasionally there is a poem that appears…..I remember once I had a very beloved cat, who was always talking to me and this cat died on my bed and I just couldn’t stand it. I called a friend of mine who had just lost his dog and had written a beautiful book about it. That person is Maurice Sandak who’s a children book writer and illustrator, the best in America. So I called him up and I said “Maurice what am I going to do “and he said “Oh, write it down” (laughing). And I wrote the poem, it was an elegy for Lobo. And that was the first poem that was ever published of mine in the New Yorker. It came, it just came. It came out of terrific emotion and loss. I think that’s where poetry comes from. You know Faiz wrote a lot of his poetry in prison. Its full of loneliness, the isolation, the injustice of it. That’s the way it is. There are happy poems but I don’t think they are so spontaneous. In fact if you are really ok and life is easy, there’s hardly any poetry. Poetry’s wellspring is loss.
What was Faiz like in person?
He had a sweetness that was genuine, never put on. It came out of his great ability not to judge. People were never judged, they were who they were. Faiz never judged, never condemned, he was always accepting and watching, noticing, observing but he was never judging. People gravitated to him. My big experience was there at the conference in Hawaii. There were always people sitting at his feet. I have never seen that before, that’s pretty much like him. He was also very smart. He had a high order of intelligence that expressed itself in language that was not ornate or put on in anyway. One always had to listen to him, what he had to say was important. I sent my translations to the National Endowment of Arts for a Fellowship. I heard back from a very good writer named Frank Conroy. Frank wrote me a letter, he said everybody loves these poems but who is that poet, never heard of him. Therefore I didn’t get the Fellowship. That’s when I started to assemble my response and included the letter from Salman Rushdie and Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmed. And you know, the next year I did get it and more importantly they changed their practice but from that moment they always have a person who knows the original culture and language. They don’t depend on Americans. That was a good thing to happen. Now people can translate from languages that are not usual in America. English, French, Italian, German, Russian and Spanish.
What did Faiz think about his own poetry and about the fact that he was acknowledged as a great poet?
Well, Faiz was never one to blow his own horn. He was a very modest person. He had great faith in himself and a very strong character. He had very strong convictions, he wasn’t a leaf blowing in the wind. T.S. Eliot in his very famous essay of maybe fifty years ago, was speaking to poets and said, you know don’t try to invent new forms. Forget this experimental poetry, modern forms, just stick to the old forms. The forms that people know and they have lived with and they are culturally at home with and invest them with new meaning.
That’s what Faiz did. He wrote in time honored forms. Ghazals, the lyrics that he wrote, he invested them with totally new meaning. They became political poems but metaphorically they are still love poems.
Excerpt from “Aur phir ek din yun khizaan aa gaee” (“When Autumn Came”). (This poem is not included in Faiz’ ‘Kulliyat’ ‘Nuskha Hai Wafa’):
This is the way that autumn came to the trees
It stripped them down to the skin
Left their ebony bodies naked
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves
Scattered them over the ground
Anyone at all could trample them out of shape
Undisturbed by a single moan of protest
Oh, God of May, have mercy
Bless these withered bodies
With the passion of your resurrection
Give some tree the gift of green again
Let one bird sing.
[We would like to thank Dr. Awais Aftab for his help in preparing this manuscript. An abbreviated version of this essay was first published in the Friday Times, Lahore.]