The poet of the ghazal is a suffering lover—intoxicated, passionate, erratic, at times a mystic visionary—who extols the divine, abstract, and ultimately inaccessible beloved. When the classical Arabic ghazal emerged in the 6th century Umayyad court, in Damascus, Syria, it resembled the nasib (“amatory prelude”) of the pre-Islamic Arabic qasidah. Yet, early on, transformations in the conceptualization of love and the social function of love poetry began to shape important features that would define the form for centuries after. This beginning would be repeated every time the ghazal adapted to the cultural and social demands of the literary tradition into which it was absorbed. The endurance of the ghazal since its emergence in the Arabian Peninsula can be attributed to one factor—its adaptability. The ghazal has witnessed transformations on the conceptual, functional, formal, and linguistic levels across centuries and languages, and still, it continues to flourish.
The history of the ghazal is a history of translation. Not only with the notion of translation as adaptation, as the case in Persian and Hebrew poetry, but also in the literal sense of translated poems into Spanish, German, French, and English. In turn, these translations have developed into different iterations of the form. Thus, for example, Goethe’s translation of ghazals into German, would inspire his own versions in the West-östlicher Diwan. Similarly, Federico García Lorca’s gacelas in his Diván del Tamarit were inspired by translations of Arabic ghazals into Spanish. Yet despite this entrenched history of adaptability-through-translation, translating a medieval Arabic ghazal still proves a demanding task (of course all translation, by nature, is difficult), especially in the context of 21st century English, for the aesthetic and historical claims of these two different eras solicit different demands on the translator.
Rhyme and meter are integral when considering the aesthetic claims made by the medieval Arabic ghazal. A matrix of rhetorical figures organized by an overarching metaphor and a technique called tawriyah (“dissimulation”) give the poem its shape. These along with the employment of etymological synonyms, wordplay, paronomasia, and the subsequent meanings that result from the use of a particular rhyme scheme and meter constitute concrete facts of the poem. Indeed, palpably part of the experience of reading or hearing any ghazal is the ability to quantify and dissect the phonological, morphological, and etymological play of the poem’s language. Finally, part of the aesthetics of each bayt (“verse”) is its ability to stand on its own as a unit—a characteristic that draws from the larger cultural practice of producing or citing stand-alone verses for diwans, or poetic collections. This practice also eliminates, for the most part, the elliptical enjambment.
Translation exacerbates, among other problems, the issue of the social and historical modes of reading. The historical claims of the ghazal lie in a particular experience of recitation, an experience that bears directly on the composition of the ghazal as the poet relies on playing with the shared expectations and assumptions of the audience/reader. “It is situated in a triangular relationship” writes Thomas Bauer “between the poet, who embodies the lover, the addressee, who embodies the beloved (and who can perfectly well be fictive), and the reading or performative audience, who bestow on the poem their own meanings and who connect their own emotional reactions to the poem” (29). The audience of the ghazal was a participant in the experience of a staged performance of love between the poet-lover and the beloved (Segol 21). A modern reader habituated to the post-Romantic conception of the lyric as a poet’s subjective and intense emotional monologue approaches a medieval ghazal with an altogether different notion of both love and poetry. Poets of the medieval Arabic poetic tradition worked within an already established formal framework. Their own subjectivity emerges in the nuances of language, the subtle use of rhetorical technique, and in the reconfiguration of traditional tropes or motifs. Like the poet translated below, medieval poets relied heavily on entrenched conventions and metaphors, whereas our expectation of poems now—as the unique outpouring of a highly personal and subjective experience of an individual poet—reveals certain Romantic sensibilities in our reading of poetry. Thus what might be considered lyrical today, was in the medieval Arabic tradition part of a larger social interaction consisting of a series of reactions and reversal of expectations between the poet and the intended consumer of poetry—which in the case of the ghazal, may not always have been a specific intended lover.
Undergirding the difficulty in translating these aesthetic and socio-historical claims is the important gender element of the particular ghazal below which was composed by Hafsa bint al-Hajj al-Rakuniya who lived in Granada from 1135 C.E. until her departure to North Africa after the death of her lover, the poet Abu Ja’far ibn Sa’id (to whom the ghazal translated below is addressed). Hafsa’s status as a noblewoman contributed to her unique treatment of the conventions and motifs of the genre. Her ability to compose a ghazal, in fact, reflects a transformation in the social function of love poetry; for due to the ghazal’s lofty status in the medieval courts of Andalusia, a certain receptivity to variations on the conventional discourse surrounding women and their sexuality allowed Hafsa to subvert courtly conventions in her poem. In broaching what ostensibly began as a male genre, Hafsa and other women poets, “established authority by employing conventions for representing their own bodies and augmented it by playing with and altering those conventions” (Segol 148). Often, these alterations occurred and were navigated on a metapoetic level.
Yet even as the aesthetic and socio-historical claims are offered above in neat categories, translation reveals that the aspects related to each of these claims do not adhere so neatly to classification. Thus, for example, certain aesthetic claims, such as the use of a specific meter or rhyme, convey a meaning that communicates to the audience/reader a historically situated vision of love. Furthermore, cultural claims, such as the demand to take an audience into account or the ability to produce verses as complete units of meaning, have direct bearing on the aesthetic claims being made by the work. That is to say, that although certain qualities of the poetic genre necessitate a particular kind of attention from the translator, in the end, the primacy or importance of those qualities are subject to an interpretative labor that cannot separate them completely from one another.
Interpretation, then, is the foundation of every decision in the translation process. As Lawrence Venuti says, “the translation or adaptation inscribes its interpretation at every stage in the writing process, starting from the very choice of the source text and including every verbal choice (234). The decision to translate a 12th century Arabic ghazal is based on an interpretation that the particular beliefs and attitudes surrounding the situation of women in the Arab-speaking world are the result of the lack of historical and cultural representations of women, which translation, by offering such instances of representation, can remedy. Furthermore, in taking into account the aesthetic or cultural claims of a specific time, the translator has to render the effect of those claims into the target language, often based on a subjective experience of the poem. Venuti advances the translation-as-interpretation paradigm one step further, stating that because “translation performs an interpretation, it can never be literal, only figurative, or more precisely inscriptive of effects that work only in the translating language and culture” (Venuti 235).
The importance of the formal properties and poetic devices of the ghazal lay in the way they constitute the thinking of love. If as Louis MacNeice says, “in any poet’s poem the shape is half the meaning,” then the formal properties of the poem necessarily constitute a major factor in the translator’s task (Raffel 65). In other words, the expression of love through a particular metaphor, etymological metonymy, or end-rhyme delineates the poet’s ideological reality embedded and reflected in language not only as meaning that makes sense but also as meaning in the making of meaning. To translate (or even write) into free verse a formal Arabic ghazal detracts an added dimension of meaning signaled by a poet’s specific choice of meter and rhyme. It is to this point that the poet Agha Shahid Ali registers his grief concerning American renditions of ghazals: “I will take back the gift outright: the Americans have got it quite wrong.” Ali’s main protest of the free-verse ghazal is that it constitutes a contradiction in realities, like writing “a free-verse sonnet;” the form establishes a defining aspect of the genre (1). “And let me assure the free-versifiers” he adds, “that nothing neo-formalist lurks in my true-to-form assertions” (ibid). Ali’s insistence on the importance of form gestures to the unique dynamic by which many ghazals are composed: “that is, once a poet establishes the scheme—with total freedom, I might add—she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master” (3). Thus to insist on form would be in fact to insist on the social function of the ghazal, on the way the form is built upon expectations—any variation on the conventions of the poetic genre would rely for its success on an audience habituated to the form of the ghazal.
A little bit about the 12th century ghazal: the form consists of two-verse hemistichs with a single rhyme at the end of every second verse. The first verse, the sadr, or chest, and the second, the ‘ajz, or rump, of each hemistich pair are meant to form a single unit—bayt which also means house in Arabic and refers to an individual line (or stanza). The meter and rhyme scheme bind each verse together as the ghazal weaves a narrative of love. Hafsa embeds herself into the ghazal as a poetic form that communicates like a letter between two lovers. She elaborates this metaphor by overlapping the traditional descriptions of the beloved’s physical features—employing the conventions of describing the white teeth, sweet breath and saliva of the beloved to extol her own features—while a second-order meaning arises to signify a metapoetic interaction:
A visitor arrives with a gazelle-like neck
the crescent peering through her hair.
With a glance cast by Babel’s magic
and saliva surpassing the taste of wine.
With cheeks that rival roses
And teeth that scandalize pearls.
What more than this arrival
That you take for mere chance?
Will you answer her then,
Or does another call you instead?
Hafsa and the ghazal are one: the first-order description of the poet is the second-order description of the poem. By integrating herself into the poem, Hafsa creates a variation in the convention, and therefore draws attention to the words of the ghazal—those exaggerated physical descriptions come to describe the poem as well. Thus, even as she subverts the authority of the male poet, her lover, by taking over his role as the addresser, she retains the conventional object of desire by writing herself into the body of the poem. In so doing, she highlights the performance aspect of the ghazal, both in its display of love to a third party (the audience or reader) and in its communication of that love to the beloved. She does this all through linguistic nuance. Even the monorhyme at the end of every couplet which in the Arabic—lilhilālī, adawālī, lilaālī, infiṣālī, alashghālī—carries meaning as the sound lee (lī) also gestures to the possessive pronoun ‘mine’ in Arabic.
Yet in the above translation, these details, however, are lost. English poems (especially American-English poems) have long gone rhyme-deaf. The repeated monorhyme at the end of each couplet risks sounding antiquated and inaccessible (not unlike the out-of-reach beloved). However, the question remains: can a formally regular poem be translated into English; into a literary culture that no longer has the “ear” for it? For Lynn Hejinian this problem can be sidestepped, for she objects to formal translations on the grounds that “to call rhyme and meter the essence of poetry, or even to name them as the primary formal properties of it, is inaccurate; it is also, and perhaps especially for the translator misleading” (102). But Hejinian’s objection to rhyme and meter penetrate the deep problem with which they are viewed in English, as her comment on them in “Forms of Alterity” registers that to some extent “by evoking closure through the use of end-rhyme and stability through the use of regular meter,” English conveys in its reverential attitudes to traditional-bound formalism a “moribund condition,” an attitude that she claims, “can only be taken to mean that poetry is dead” (109).
A solution to a formally-lacking translation may be found in the recent iterations of the ghazal in American poetry which makes up one of the myriad forms of the genre that have emerged since its inception centuries ago in 6th century urban Damascus. However, its offspring, the Persian ghazal, is mostly to be credited with this phenomenon. Its modern form arrived on the arms of translations of Ghalib, a 19th century Urdu and Persian-language poet, orchestrated by Ajaz Ahmad with the help of American poets and translators. Thus, one finds the descendent of that early Damascene/Andalusian/Persian form tucked into the anthologies and poetry books of figures like Adrienne Rich and William Stafford. The English ghazal, modeled after the modern Persian form, contains a refrain at the end of every second verse of a couplet, which may be quoted as stand-alone verses. What follows is an example of this kind of translation:
A visitor has arrived, with the neck of a gazelle
and the crescent peers, through these dark braids of mine.
With saliva that surpasses the taste of wine,
you’ll see the cast of Babel’s magic in a glance of mine.
Cheeks that blush causing the roses to hide,
and the brightest pearls are scandalized by these teeth of mine.
Do you take this visit as happenstance,
or rather what else do you see in this arrival of mine?
Would you heed a call that implores you
or does something else distract you from these words of mine?
A translation like the one above may be accused of taking too many liberties, investing too much of the translator’s subjectivity into an already very involved and interpretive labor. Yet, perhaps the affordance of this genre—its capability to assume different guises in order to convey and communicate a desire always deferred because out of reach—is stubbornly part of the poetics of the ghazal. Embracing the poetics of communicability and translation that are integral aspects of the history of this form, the translator can give the ghazal, like Hafsa, a shape analogous to the original form. Like Hafsa, with the neck of a gazelle, the translator appeals to a different language in order to give shape to an enduring desire.
You, most charming of people,
before the state that fate dealt you.
You loved a woman black as night,
which the marvels of beauty had covered.
Joy does not appear in her shadow
No, nor any glimpse of timidity.
God, tell me, for you know
of all those who wandered in love with images,
Who wandered in gardens
where there is no light and no flowers bloom.
Verses in Arabic:
زائرٌ قد أتى بجيد الغزال مطلع تحتَ جنحه للهلالِ
بلحاظ من سحر بابلَ صيغت و رضابٍ يفوقُ بنت الدوالي
يفضح الورد ما حوى منه خدّ و كذا الثغر فاضحٌ للآلي
ما ترى في دخولهِ بعد إذنٍ أو تراه لعارض في اِنفصالِ
أتراكم بإذنهِ مسعفيهِ أَم لَكم شاغل من الأشغالِ
* * *
يا أظرفَ الناسِ قبل حال أوقعه نحوهُ القدر
عشقت سوداء مثل ليل بداع الحسن قد ستر
لا يظهر البشر في دجاها كلاّ و لا يصبر الخفر
بِالَله قل لي و أنت أدرى بكلّ مَن هام في الصور
مَنِ الّذي هام في جنان لا نور فيه و لا زهر
Ali, Agha Shahid. Ravishing Disunities. Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Ar-Rakuniya, Hafsa. “Untitled Ghazal”. Encyclopedia of Poetry. Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
Bauer, Thomas. “Ghazal as World Literature: Transformations of a Literary Genre”. Ghazal as World Literature. Edited by Thomas Bauer and Angela Neuwirth. Ergon Verlag Wurzburg, 2005. pp 9-31.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and Ludwig Geiger. West-östlicher Diwan. Leipzig: Hesse, 1901.
Hejinian, Lynn. “Forms in Alterity”. Translation of Poetry and Poetic Prose. Edited by Sture Allén. World Scientific Publishing Company, 1999. pp 101-16.
Lorca, Federico García. Diván del tamarit. 1940.
Raffel, Burton. The Art of Translating Poetry. The Pennsylvania State University press. University Park 1988.
Segol, Marla. “Representing the Body in Poems by Medieval Muslim Women”. Medieval Feminist Forum. Vol. 45, no. 1 (2009): 147-169.
Venuti, Lawrence. “The Poet's Version; or, An Ethics of Translation”. Translation Studies. Vol 4, no. 2 Routledge 2011. pp 230-47.