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This review is taken from PN Review 54, Volume 13 Number 4, March - April 1987.

CULTURAL RESISTANCE The Penguin Book of Urdu Poetry, selected and translated by Mahmood Jamal (Penguin) £3.95

The editor and translator of this book, Mahmood Jamal, seems well aware of the hazards of his enterprise. 'In translation from a culture and tradition so distinct', he says in his introduction, 'the loss of context itself diminishes the beauty and depth of a poem'. This must be especially true where the language - the archive of culture, tradition and context - is unfamiliar to Western readers. It would only be piety, therefore, to say that the poems in this volume read with the intensity and force of poetic statement. They don't. In fact they read with a suspect consistency which is not surprising since they are translated by the same hand. And not always a deft hand either, I'm afraid. What is missing and missed most of all in these translations is the flint and spark of a vernacular. Mahmood Jamal often translates the poems into a stilted speech-day prose, as for instance in this poem called 'One Year' by Ali Sardar J'afri:


What is the meaning of imprisonment,
what the significance of jails?
O year now asleep in time's graveyard
on your shrivelled shadow
barking jaildogs weep.
I look at all this and I laugh.


It may well be possible to get some sense from this - and indeed to be grateful for what sense it makes - but the sensibility remains inscrutable. They rhythms are awkward, the tone of voice is strangely formal. ...


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