On the Same Page

Agha Shahid Ali’s translations of revolutionary poets

01 January 2020
COPYRIGHT © 1990 STACEY CHASE
COPYRIGHT © 1990 STACEY CHASE

IN THE LATE 1940s, the 18-year-old American poet WS Merwin made a pilgrimage to Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, DC to meet another poet—Ezra Pound. Though Pound was under indictment for treason against the United States, following radio broadcasts during the Second World War in which he declared his support for Benito Mussolini, Merwin admired the poet and had wandered into the hospital looking for advice from a revered figure. Pound argued that if Merwin was serious about being a poet, he should write 75 lines every day. “But at your age you don’t have anything to write about,” he continued. “You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to translating.”

In a career that spanned almost seven decades, Merwin followed Pound’s advice to learn the art of translation so as not to be at the mercy of other translators. He translated poetry into English, from languages including German, Russian, Chinese, Egyptian, Welsh, Urdu, Japanese, Persian and Sanskrit. Translating gave Merwin more control over English—so much so, that it led the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali to declare, in an interview, that “Merwin became Merwin-esque by translating.” Shahid, who knew Merwin personally, is now located in this exquisite lineage of poets who learned to break the barriers of language through their work in translation.

Shahid is celebrated most for The Country Without a Post Office, a collection of poems that reflects on the Kashmiri people’s resistance, and the suffering brought on by the Indian government’s repression. He spent the last decade of his life reinvigorating modern American poetry by popularising the ghazal as a poetic form in the West and introducing the sensibilities and excesses of Urdu traditions into conventions of English poetry. But Shahid was also a prolific translator who familiarised the American audience with poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mirza Ghalib. By working as a translator—a legacy that is often overlooked—he enriched his poetry, adding depth to it.

Manan Kapoor is a Delhi-based writer. He was a part of the 2019 Sangam House writers’ residency. His biography of Agha Shahid Ali is forthcoming from Penguin Random House.

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