I studied French for about ten years, and I guess I wasn’t too bad at it; certainly I could read it fairly well… not quite as good at speaking and listening, but reading has always been my thing! When it came to translating from French to English I always got good marks because I tried to capture the spirit of what I was translating not necessarily the word for word exact translation – I didn’t always succeed but I wanted to write something in decent English as well as putting over the French. So… I have huge admiration for good translators!

One of my all time favourite books is ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulghakov;  a tremendous book, erudite, witty, painful, laugh-out-loud funny… I recommended it to my book club and they bought a modern translation by some useless article instead of the classic by Michael Glenny… I never thought to warn them! They hated the book, it made no sense, it wasn’t funny it was stupid, crass, ludicrous… I was actually quite upset!

Mikhail Bulgakov

I don’t read Urdu but here is a poem which leaps off the page, it speaks to me… so all respect to Agha Shahid Ali

Before You Came

Before you came,
things were as they should be:
the sky was the dead-end of sight,
the road was just a road, wine merely wine.

Now everything is like my heart,
a colour at the edge of blood:
the grey of your absence, the colour of poison, of thorns,
the gold when we meet, the season ablaze,
the yellow of autumn, the red of flowers, of flames,
and the black when you cover the earth
with the coal of dead fires.

And the sky, the road, the glass of wine?
The sky is a shirt wet with tears,
the road a vein about to break,
and the glass of wine a mirror in which
the sky, the road, the world keep changing.

Don't leave now that you're here—
Stay. So the world may become like itself again:
so the sky may be the sky,
the road a road,

and the glass of wine not a mirror, just a glass of wine.

 by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

translated by Agha Shahid Ali


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