In one of his illustrations for Ramooz – the book-length long poem by Jaun Elia written between 1962 and 1974 – artist Danish Raza paints the poet as a prophetic figure. Elia is depicted holding a flambeau in one hand, a book in the other, and carrying a spear-sized dip pen on his shoulder, with a group of apostle-like figures following him. It is not just the artist’s imagination – the poem, divided into what Jaun called alvaah (tablets), adopts a Biblical tone and glows with the mysterious light of the Old Testament, incorporating the dramatic rhetoric reminiscent of ancient scriptures, even if some of its concerns and nuances are “contemporary” such as capitalism, urbanisation, and so forth.

The illustration of Jaun Elia for 'Ramooz' by Danish Raza.

The editor of the book, Khalid Ahmad Ansari – who has been referred to as what Max Brod was to Kafka – quotes Elia about Ramooz in his introduction: “I have arm-wrestled god in this poem.” Ansari, who has compiled several of Elia’s collections posthumously, recalls the poet saying that sometime during his last days.

And it’s not just Ramooz. Elia saw poetry essentially as a prophetic experience: “In my surroundings,” he says in the introduction of his first book Shayad, “poetry was not considered merely a component of prophethood; rather it was seen as its entirety.”

If one agrees with Elia that poets are indeed prophetic messengers carrying scents and sounds of their inner and outer paths, translators, in my opinion, are pilgrims on these paths. They embark on a sacred quest to explore the secrets woven within verses, reverently, and often radically, herding their essence to new horizons. But how does one translate scents and sounds?

Is poetry really translatable?

Comme le dit le cliché, is poetry really translatable? And more importantly, is all poetry translatable? Why do some people feel compelled to translate certain works? I don’t know the answers to all these questions – what I know for sure is that it might be an academic practice for some, but for others, it’s a divine duty and the experience is as refreshing as creating original work.

In one of his memoirs, Ranjit Hoskote aptly talks about this experience, which deeply resonates with me: “Before it is a cultural or a political project, translation is for me a visceral experience, a pleasure of named and unnamed senses: a quickening of the pulse, a prickling of the skin, a speeded-up heartbeat, an announcement that the world has just changed course in some small yet decisive way.”

The quest for this visceral experience, driven by a divine necessity as well as the intriguing impossibility of translating poetry – particularly formal verse, which I will discuss in another piece for this space – has compelled me to embark on this deeply personal endeavour of translating Jaun Elia’s works into English. I am delighted to mention that the book I am working on will be the first-ever official English translation of the poet’s works.

Before I share some brief excerpts, it is important to acknowledge the ironic nature of a triumphant translation: it often erases the translator. A good translation can only exist in the absence of its translator. It makes their work unseen, introducing the author to a new audience. But do translators always have just the reader in mind while translating? It is certainly not the case with my practice. After working on each word, each line, each poem or ghazal, I wonder what would Jaun Elia have thought about this attempt. As a polyglot, would he have approved of certain choices?

He’s always there, staring at me from a larger-than-life mural in my studio. In a lecture on translation, Friedrich Schleiermacher said, “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him, or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”

Let the author be the shepherd

My strategy is to be loyal to the form, the grandeur, the silences, and the shadows in Elia’s verses. I have used the word “strategy” which is perhaps not a good word here – this is not a game of chess between the original and the translation. How can translating poetry be anything competitive when the very act of writing poetry itself is to translate the language of the dreams, the self and the matter into the language of text? This sacred art of subtly retelling the ineffable comes with a lot of responsibility. The translated text must not be merely seen as recreation but rather reincarnation. You have choices, of course, but let the author be the shepherd.

In my view, translators sometimes take excessive liberties and attempt to justify their choices solely based on poetic agency. What Western translators have done to Rumi is a quick example. This reminds me of a hilarious internet meme that often resurfaces where Rumi is depicted as saying, “My poetry is about Allah, not your ex.” I can’t stress the significance of responsible translation enough and this is not limited to poetry, of course.

An example is how the opening word of Albert Camus’s famous novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) in English affects and almost creates a certain image of the narrator in the reader’s mind. English translators for decades have been translating the famous opening line of the novel, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” as “Mother died today”, failing to capture the warmth of the French expression “maman” for mothers.

But one would ask: Is translating poetry not different? Indeed, it is. But when it comes to being a responsible translator, the answer is no. It may seem tempting to justify taking liberties due to the inherent fluidity of poetry, but such justifications can sometimes be seen as a convenient excuse, even if they sound really poetic.

For example, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer believes a poem to be a “manifestation of an invisible poem that exists beyond the conventional languages” and therefore sees a translation of a poem into a new language as an “opportunity to attempt to realise the original (invisible) poem.’” In my humble opinion, this mystification of a poem as something beyond the realm of what it actually is and then translating it, for example, how Jackson Pollock would throw paint on his canvas, does not really work.

To conclude, by this “responsibility” I certainly do not mean literality. I am fully aware that a translation can occasionally attain a status independent of its original, perhaps even surpassing it, making the original seem “unfaithful to the translation” in the intriguing words of Borges. What I am arguing for is mindfulness of the body, soul and cultural context of the original work, even if the original is not accessible to the reader of the translation. A deeper sensitivity towards what Walter Benjamin calls “pure language” that represents the universal essence of communication transcending linguistic boundaries is important but so is being faithful to the actual language.

The Tablet of the Coffin

My will is weighed
in every ordeal, every affliction
Amid the eternity and circles
my flag is hoisted

It is I
whose procession passes
through the stages of centuries
It is my coffin
that circulates between nations
Are you aware
my chest is wounded!

My liver has turned into blood
Are you aware
my arms have been chopped off
My corpses are tied
to the assassins of eternal ages

I am mobbed by slayers
that are disdainful, derisive
and impudent
Ignite the flames of fury again
Ignite the flames of fury against them,
awaken the tempest of wrath

I shall spark eternal abhorrence
in generations
against the tyrants
Throughout the world
I shall cast upon their name
a stain.

The Tablet of Lament

All the soil of your basti,

the winds that blow over it,
the whirlwinds that dance in the winds,
all that clutter, all that splutter
that bookkeep all their deceptions,
written on moments,
from day until night
are rotten

Your voice, whatever voice
that belongs here
is clutching its chest
and disgorging

Far from the pristine ponders of the sky
near the rotten waters,
what sort of basti
have you moved in?

I witness from both my head’s eyes
I witness
the fiery serpents slithering
in the chests of the tallest rooftops

You suffer
from the treachery, animosity and rigidity
of all the neighbouring settlements

Where to dwell, what community,
the basti has been established
where your hard-earned labour
is nothing but shame
and hesitation

Your earning is merely stooping
in submission

You must keep your eyes in your pockets!

Just put them there, already!
So, now come and stand near the windows

Keep standing and ask the windows
What is it after all
that even the windows could not witness

They witnessed your basti being strangled
and caught with its ankles
and someone dragging it from there,
someone shoving it from here.

All poems are by Jaun Elia, translated by Ammar Aziz.

Also read:

Why do young readers and social media find Jaun Elia’s poetry so relevant today?