I love poetry. I find the interplay of words and imagination simply fascinating. Poetry soothes me and calms me. It helps me focus when I am agitated and it entertains me when I am bored. And although I love English poetry too but Urdu poetry will always come first in my heart. I have doodled couplets on my rough pad hundreds of times and so it was only natural for my kids to be curious about learning the meanings of what I was writing. While my kids speak Urdu fluently, a few years ago the word bank of classical Urdu poetry was beyond their understanding. So to let them feel the joy of Urdu poetry I translated some of my favourite couplets in English for them.
I thought my kids will be thrilled by them as I was when I first read them. But my kids remained mostly unimpressed and while they politely agreed that the poet had a point they didn’t feel the beauty and majesty in the words as I did.
I blamed it on my translation. I thought my translation had not done justice to the original. So just out of curiosity I went and read books where the beautiful works from poetry and prose were translated in different languages and while the original was breath taking, the translation sounded hollow! It could make you nod your head at its best but not leave you speechless with awe. And I finally realized that it wasn’t just my translation it was THE TRANSLATION which stripped the beauty of the original. It is impossible to translate the beauty of words from one language to another. One can translate the meaning but the rhythm, the serenity, the magic that flows from the words themselves, is lost when you bring it in any other language.
I am glad my kids asked me the meanings of those couplets I doodle. It gave me the answer to the most disturbing question in my mind.
Muhammad bin Ishaq mentioned that Az-Zuhri said that Abu Jahl, Abu Sufyan Sakhr bin Harb and Al-Akhnas bin Shurayq once came to listen to the Prophet reciting the Qur’an at night, but these three men were not aware of the presence of each other. So they listened to the Prophet’s recitation until the morning, and then left. They met each other on their way back and each one of them asked the others, “What brought you” So they mentioned to each other the reason why they came. They vowed not to repeat this incident so that the young men of Quraysh would not hear of what they did and imitate them. On the second night, each one of the three came back thinking that the other two would not come because of the vows they made to each other. In the morning, they again met each other on their way back and criticized each other, vowing not to repeat what they did. On the third night, they again went to listen to the Prophet and in the morning they again vowed not to repeat this incident.
The story goes on but what struck me was how drawn were they towards the Quran even if they did not believe in its message. What was it that pulled them?
In order to find that pull myself, I went to Quran. I read it and I listened to my heart. Nothing! I listened to its recitation by the famous Qura (reciters) and I listened to my heart, Nothing! I thought maybe I am not feeling anything as I don’t understand it. So I read the translation but it appeared flat and though I dutifully read it, it didn’t give me goosebumps, it didn’t awe me. And for the life of me I couldn’t imagine anyone spending three whole night listening to it so much so that they would forget sleep, forget the promises they made and forget the enmity they bear towards these very words.
I was shocked. Here there were three people, staunch in their enmity towards Islam and Prophet SAW and yet for three nights they stay awake and listen to the recitation of Quran, spell bound, unable to move. If they were found out it would be shame and humiliation in front of the whole town, yet they were not able to resist the pull of that recitation! What was it that pulled them like the one possessed? What did they find so mesmerizing? And why, I the one who believe in this message, find nothing! Nothing pulling at the strings of my heart, nothing to make me cry, nothing to make me fall in sajood, nothing to make me cry out that He is Allaah, He is One! Let alone reciting it or listening to it for the whole night, I can barely sit half an hour and recite it without thinking of other things.
And then my kids asked me the meanings of the couplets I doodle and I found the answer to this problem.
Translations can convey the meaning but they can never portray the beauty of the words themselves. If a human translator is unable to completely portray the magic of words written by another human, how can I believe that a translation of the words of Allaah will be anywhere close to the original.
That was a few years ago. That is what started me on my journey to learn Arabic. So I can understand the direct words of my Lord, without any human factor like a translator coming between me and Him.
When will you start yours?