Listening to Noshi Gillani

By: Lavinia Greenlaw,

The literal versions for these poems were made by Nukhbah Langah. Before they arrived, I watched a film of Noshi Gillani reading her work and listened carefully to her cadences. I do not understand any Urdu so I was listening to pure sound. I kept returning to this film during the translation process in order to focus my attempts to capture her music in English. Her cadences helped me to understand how she structured her poems, and her performance gave me a sense of the complex character of her poetry's music.

The impression I got from the sound of her poems was that they were intense, and tense, arrangements of exploded feeling. I had in my head Emily Dickinson's dashes - how they hold the parts of her poems in mid-air, or the artist Cornelia Parker's suspended cutlery and blown-up shed. I also felt that Noshi's voice was emphatically lyrical, and that her music may be made up of fragments/phrases but that it was essentially unbroken. While the observations and images out of which her poems are made stand beside one another rather than follow on in narrative sequence, the music of the poem was forcefully cohesive.

I find her to be an extremely precise poet, especially precise about complexity! As I learnt how to unpack her images, I discovered how complex but exact they were. I felt that I was dealing with a sophisticated and technically ambitious poet who wanted to capture both extremis and constraint/restraint.

On first reading the literal versions, I found almost nothing I could confidently make sense of. I had to interrogate each image and observation until they revealed what they had in common or how they spoke to and of one another. This gave me the overall impetus and movement of the poem. These are not narrative poems so they could not be approached in a linear fashion. I started by asking many detailed questions about exact meaning, believing that interrogating the precision of a metaphor would lead me to its intended effect.

At this point, I worked in two different ways. I would either produce something in English which was evidently awkward but which made the first step towards an English version, or I pursued music, turning a phrase into its more natural and lyrical Engish equivalent. Both helped to pin down the sense.

Noshi Gillani's lineation is such that it is hard to tell whether a line refers back to the one before or on to the one below. She tends to write in phrases, or brief observations, which stand alone on a line (at the most two lines) and which sit alongside rather than connect to what surrounds them. With different grammatical conventions and alphabets, I had no punctuation to guide me so had to work all the more on what made sense of what.

For example, the following lines from the literal version:
there is no lamp, no skill
in search for a path
my watery eyes bleed
in account of my difficulties

I needed to know which line followed which: if there was no lamp or skill in the search for a path, or if the search for a path made the eyes bleed or both? These were hard questions for Nukhbah to answer as it was not often evident in the original, but by pursuing their meaning and associations, I managed to grasp the overall movement of the poem and so bring it into coherence in English.

I have neither a lamp nor the ability
to search for a way ahead
this is all so difficult
such strain that my eyes
weep not tears but blood

I also tried to retain the discrete nature of each line and where possible to allow them to stand alongside one another as described rather than connect them up.

The question of punctuation made it hard to judge cause and effect, subject and object.

There was a heart which blew away, the light
Light O god, O god light

What was the function of the comma in line one? Did the heart blow away the light or was the heart blown away and ‘the light' a refrain (as it was repeated in further stanzas).

It was immediately evident, in my discussions with Nukhbah and my rereading of her versions, that the voice of these poems was intimate, immediate and light - that is, neither portentous nor rhetorical. Some of the images carried too much weight in their literal English versions. These were often those - the desert, the journey, the flowered courtyard - which were familiar emblems in Urdu poetry and which would not seem contrived or ornate in the original. I had to lighten them, so as not to overload the poems, while also opening them up so that their resonance could be detected by an English reader.

For instance the phrase ‘My watery eyes bleed' clearly expressed extraordinary strain but was unfortunately bathetic in English that I unpacked it into ‘my eyes weep not tears but blood'. Similarly, the following literal was awkward in English and the syntax dislocated the image. It also sounded a little comical and overblown:
The snakes of time have eaten them up
I had a jasmine in my courtyard

I defused it by opening the metaphor up into a simile:
Time is like the snakes
eating the jasmine in my courtyard

This, from a poem addressing a loved one who is going away, demonstrates the density of some images and how complex they could be:

If you are visiting the fairyland then...
Find and create a sculpture of moonlit faces

If you visit fairyland
Make a sculpture of moonlit faces

I tried first just to make it sound more natural. I then realised it probably wasn't Fairyland, that Noshi was not being literal, but just some magical place, so I loosened it up:

That if in some fairyland, you are captured
by a moonlit face, you will copy it, bring it home

I had by now got an overall sense of the poem. It was saying OK, go travel and experience new things but if they enchant you, bring them home and share them with me. So I opened it up as follows:

That if in some enchanted place, you are captured
by a moonlit face, you will carve a likeness, bring it home

Some poems needed complete reorganisation of metaphorical construction in order to reach an equivalence in English:

The shift of seasons
reveals a secret
in the island of fear
to show directions
through the pain of his/her eyes
only the light can speak

A shift of season
exposes a secret
on the island of fear
but also offers a way through
the pain in her eyes
where light is all that speaks.

My first thought was to make the general specific (one shift, one way) as the plural depletes the intensity in English. I simplified the language and was pushing at the sense of the poem but hadn't got there yet.

A shift of season
exposes something
hidden in her fear:
a way across that island
lit by the pain in her eyes.

Once, through discussion with Nukhbah, I grasped the poem's intentions, I felt able to make confident decisions about reorganising the structure of her metaphors.

Overall, it was a fascinating experience which at times required rigorous scrutiny and at others, instinct and aesthetic judgement. Once a poem revealed itself, I could attack the the English version with more confidence and push it to release not a version but a poem.


15th July 2008