Reviewing translation of Deewan–e-Ghalib by Moniruddin Yusuf

28 March, 2021 12:00 AM printer

The announcement by Habibullah Sirajee, Director General of Bangla Academy that Amar Ekushey Boi Mela 2021 will be held in person from March 18, 2021 has brought joy to all book lovers in Bangladesh. The book fair has been a platform that brings literatures published from different countries and in different languages to Bengali readers so that they can enjoy and appreciate the beauty of other literatures and their own. On this occasion of the celebration of literary diversity, I would like to introduce to Bengali readers Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869), an acclaimed Urdu poet during the declining phase of the Mughal rule, famous for his ghazals.

His work has been analysed, discussed and translated into many languages including English with critical volumes dedicated towards his literary prowess and genius.  However, not much has been written about his life or understanding of his poetry in Bengali despite the fact that among the Urdu poets, Ghalib is probably the only one who enjoys some popularity among Bengalis. Additionally, his literary genius flourished in undivided India and therefore his poetry speaks to the life and society in the Indian subcontinent.

A great exception is the pioneering contribution of the Bengali writer Moniruddin Yusuf towards making Ghalib’s Urdu ghazals accessible to Bengali readers. Yusuf published the first edition of his book entitled Deewan-e-Ghalib in 1961 followed by a 2nd edition, published by the Islamic Foundation, Bangladesh, Dhaka, in 1980.  This book was an outcome of the translation project that was taken up by the Bangla Academy. The then Director of Bangla Academy in Dhaka, Syed Ali Ahsan, in the first edition of Yusuf’s translation has rightly acknowledged that Deewan-e-Ghalib is part of the great literature among the world languages.

Although Ghalib wrote in Urdu and Persian, he spoke for the whole humanity. His poetry reflects values of coexistence and harmony. Yusuf describes the virtues of the great poet’s personality and character, such as his humanity, kindness, depth of understanding, and power of expression. Ghalib’s cheerful disposition, wit, intelligence and philosophical leanings shine through his life and in his works. The fact that he is rooted in the cultural and literary ethos of South Asia makes his work even more relevant to Bengalis. Yusuf has helped us to see how significant Ghalib is for the greater humanity in terms of the transcendental and universal messages inherent in his works.

Ghalib started his literary career by writing in Persian and adopted Urdu later on for his ghazals. Many of his ghazals are therefore laced with Persian constructions, imageries and expressions. It is, therefore, quite a challenge to his translators to find words and expressions that can match the power and beauty of the original. In his translation, Yusuf succeeded in avoiding the Urdu and Persian linguistic imageries and uses pure Bengali terms, yet he skillfully transmits the metaphors of Ghalib’s Urdu ghazal in Bengali. An excellent example is the Urdu rhyming couplets in the following ghazal translated into Bengali:

Original Urdu

                Sab kahan kuchh lala-o-gul men numayan ho gaiin

                Khak men kiya suraten hongi ki pinahan ho gaiin

                Yaad thiin ham ko bhi ranga-rang bazm-aaraiyan

                Lekin ab naqsh-o-nigar-e-taq-e-nisiyan ho gain

 Yusuf’s translation in Bengali

                Lala o Golaper romoniyo roop shob ki prokash pelo?

                Koto she mohon murti na jani gopone-i roye gelo

                Amaro shorone bheshe uthe aaj otit shukher smriti

                Aha! Kotha gelo ashor-ujjal chitra-rongin geeti.

The fact that he is able to render the words, structures, symbolism, nuances and imageries of the original Urdu laced with Persian structures into Bengali shows not only his command of Arabic, Persian and Urdu, but also his literary skills in Bengali. The Persian izafat construction, in the fourth line, “naqsh-o-nigar-e-taq-e-nisiyan” has been translated successfully using native Bengali structure. Other than the Arabic and Persian origin words, such as lala o golap, Yusuf uses pure Bengali in all the four lines . He manages to convey the meaning in Bengali without using the Persian and Urdu words, naqsh, nigar, taq, and nisiyan.  This is admirable and praiseworthy.   

Yusuf’s work of translation allows us to experience the larger Muslim historical experiences of South Asia through a subtle yet powerful literary style that go beyond linguistic boundaries. It will be encouraging to see how new Bengali writers can build upon Yusuf’s pioneering work and contribute to bridging the linguistic gap through translation of works from other languages. This is will be a real tribute to his legacy.


Anique Afshan Newaz, University of Michigan, USA