Transgressions, by Anjum Altaf, is a book of poetry that is a comment on the nature of translation more than anything else. This commentary is made all the more poignant since the book is not a work of translation in the first place, but is rather reflections on the poetry of the late, great master of Urdu poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Described on its cover as a book of ‘Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz,’ Anjum takes on the task of picking different poems by Faiz, and writing poetry inspired by those poems. He insists, and correctly so, that these are not translations. Instead, it is a very humble offering. The act of making another poet your muse is not just rare, but also a nod and an acknowledgement towards the greatness of the poet of inspiration.
This is, of course, not an unheard of exercise, the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova famously wrote about literature, including haunting poems titled ‘Reading Hamlet’ and ‘Dante.’ Her poetry was also inspired by the literature of another language, since she was also a Russian poet, and perhaps the only poet capable of rivaling the great Pushkin. Others have written poetry in which they have borrowed lines from the old masters, including Iqbal.
Recently, the second collection of poetry by upcoming Pakistani poet Afshan Shafi titled ‘Quiet Women’ featured a poem titled ‘Buried Amongst Flowers in Pakistan,’ a piece brilliant composed entirely of verses from Rumi, Browning and Nabokov. But what Anjum Altaf manages to do is one by one pick poems, and systematically presents his reflections on them in poetic meter.
A career academic whose discipline is economics but true love is literature, a subject he has read deeply and with great care, there is a hint of academia in how Transgressions is structured. However, it is clearly a work of heart, soul, and respect. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the last great Urdu poet, or at least the last great, era defining Urdu poet. The strength of his words, however, was international. Edward Said in his essay Reflections on Exile, describes an evening where himself, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the late Pakistani intellectual giant Eqbal Ahmed sat in a cafe in Beirut and recited Urdu poetry. Said writes that “After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating the verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on, it did not matter. What I watched required no translation.”
This goes to the core of Anjum Altaf’s book of poetry. Faiz’s words do not require translation at times, their strength and musicality going beyond language, and thus beyond translation. Translating Faiz might be futile and purposeless, at least trying to translate the poetry might be. Because while the meaning is there, the flow of the words can only be felt in Urdu. This is where, perhaps, Anjum Altaf manages a bold stroke quite prudently. If one is to grapple with Faiz in English, it might as well be in the form of honouring his poems and reflecting on them in the poetic meter instead of in the form of an essay.
It is also a little strange for a poet to publish an entire uniform collection meant to be printed as such with a singular theme. The most famous work of such a nature is perhaps Pable Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (100 Love Sonnets). It is even more strange for the entire collection to be dedicated to the work of another poet. But Anjum Altaf manages to make it an honest tribute.
Even the title, Transgressions, seems respectful in nature. Almost as if Altaf is afraid he is transgressing by commenting in a way upon the work of Faiz, and that too in English. But his poems manage to capture some of the essence of Faiz despite being in English. It reflects exile and hope simultaneously. It is a book of poetry that stands on its own merits, but most of all is an important read for any fan and scholar of Faiz, particularly since it is such a unique concept. Translations are a dime a dozen and a google search away, but this collection has a heart and a soul.
Anjum Altaf, Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Karachi: Liberty Books, 2020.