I attended a webinar on “Translating Kazi Nazrul Islam’s ‘Bidrohi’: Plurality, Untranslatability and the Ethics of Translation” by Professor Ipshita Chanda of English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, which Jahangirnagar University’s English Department arranged this past November. Chanda discusses Nazrul’s natural, free and effortless blend of languages in his signature poem “Bidrohi” (The Rebel) and the well-known verse “Kandari Hushyiyar” (Helmsman Beware), and in the essays “Kala Admi Ke Guli Mara” (Shooting Black People) and “Boror Piriti Balir Bandh” (A Great Man’s Love is Like an Embankment Made of Sand). She builds on the idea that the living languages in a multilingual society like India possess “organic plurality” which is marked by “vagueness, ambiguity, variability, fuzziness” (Khubchandani 2012). Chanda argues that Kazi Nazrul Islam is almost “untranslatable” in English because of his inherent “plurality” vis-à-vis his remarkable diction, fascinating rhetoric and appealing symbols and allusions.
Apart from his “creative multi-lingual interventions”, Nazrul, as Azfar Hussain notes, “revolutionizes the field of metrical experiments by appropriating in his poetry … at least five different Arabic and Persian meters” (2018), a feat which no one has done in Bangla poetry before or after him. Besides, Hussain continues, “the dialectical dance” of Nazrul’s “imagination” resulting from his “unprecedentedly dramatic juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime, the abstract and the concrete, the general and the specific”, and his taking of “poetry itself as a charged site of actions and interventions, even as an anti-colonial and revolutionary praxis” contribute to Nazrul’s refreshing ambiguity which is enough to puzzle any translator. Hence, to translate Nazrul, one needs to properly comprehend the versatile genius’ aesthetics, style, thematic range and concerns, above all his intention—“intention”—so that “the echo of the original” (Benjamin 2004) is captured in the translation opening it to “interpretive possibilities” (Venuti 2009) in another time.
Against this backdrop of enormous challenge which translation of Nazrul’s work entails, writers.ink, a Dhaka-based publishing house which specialises in English publications, recently brought out the two-volume selections of Nazrul’s works, Kazi Nazrul Islam Selections 1 and 2. Edited by Niaz Zaman, an ardent Nazrul enthusiast who is also a distinguished Bangladeshi writer, Vol.1 of the Selections comprises translations of the poet’s representative poems, songs and dramatic poetry while Vol. 2 includes translations of his illustrative prose pieces—letters, essays, short stories, and speeches—by both distinguished and promising translators, poets and authors.
The two-volume Selections, as the editor states in her introduction to Vol.1, have been designed to “fill in the vacuum felt by researchers who are unable to read Bangla” as well as “interest an international audience in reading Nazrul and learning enough Bangla to read him in the original” (31). The books draw upon previous translations and translations specially commissioned for the current Selections. They contain reproductions of photographs, facsimiles of Nazrul’s works, and pictures of Nazrul’s grave on the premises of Dhaka University Mosque where the poet is laid to eternal rest. Vol. 2 includes useful glossary and notes, selected bibliography and translators’ short bios as well as a brief introduction to Nazrul’s prose works.
The Selections make a fair introduction to Nazrul’s diverse oeuvre. For obvious reasons, no novels or full-length plays feature in them. However, the poems, songs, stories, essays and speeches showcasing Nazrul’s commitment to humanism, secularism, Marxism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and love, and his opposition to sectarianism, bigotry, fundamentalism and fanaticism, have been emphasised in the books.
Vol.1 begins with his famous poem “Bidrohi”, which established Nazrul as a poet of rebellion, in Kaiser Haq’s translation. The captivating feature of Haq’s translation is its graceful retention of Nazrul’s rhythm as well as his creative take on the poet’s constellation of allusions which make it an amazing read:
I am a Bedouin, I am a Chengis;
I bow to none but me,
I am thunder;
I am the Om issuing from Shiva’s horn,
An apocalyptic blast from Israfil’s trumpet
I am Shiva’s tabor and trident,
The staff in the hand of the god Dharma
I am the whirling discus, the conch-shell horn, the mighty Om. (1. 39)
That Nazrul is every inch a secularist has been stressed in a number of pieces. So much so that the poet can declare without an iota of hesitation that “Faith is not hooliganism, hypocrisy or bigotry … In all religions, zealots are the disciples of devilry” in “Gorami Dharma Nay” (Fanaticism Is Not Religion, 1. 77). Nazrul’s absolute commitment to secularism and charged critique of religious hypocrisy earned him animosity, contempt and disregard from the scheming bosses of both religions. Here’s his take on the unscrupulous fanatics:
Putting everything aside, I got married.
Now the Hindus come after me – calling me a heathen.
What am I, I wonder, a jaban or a kafir?
And look for my tiki or beard, swinging my kachha!
The greedy moulvis and mullahs are up in arms.
“The scoundrel utters the names of gods and goddesses,
Let’s excommunicate him!
We pronounce: Kazi is a kafir
Although he’s willing to die a martyr!” (“Amar Kaifiyat” - My Answer – 1. 49)
Nazrul is convinced that the fanatics with their parochial outlook are doing a great damage to society. In essays like “Chhutmargo” - Untouchability - (2. 144-8) and “Hindu-Mussalman” - Hindus and Muslims - he confronts religious bigotry head-on.
Quintessentially secularist Nazrul composed a great many Islamic and Hindu devotional poems and songs. With utmost devotion he sings the glory of Allah (“Allah Amar Prabhu” - Allah Is My Lord - and Prophet Muhammad (“Tora Dekhe Ja Amina Mayer Kole - Come and See - 1. 211-13). And with the same fervour he offers his homage to goddess Kali in “Bal Re Jaba Bal” (O Red Hibiscus) and “Kalo Meyer Payer Tola” (Below the Feet of the Dark Maiden) (1. 223, 224).
Nazrul’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist critique of the Raj gets eloquent expression in a number of poems, songs and speeches. Of particular interest is “Rajbandir Jabanbandi” (Disposition of a Political Prisoner) which he wrote on 7 January 1923, while incarcerated in Presidency Jail, awaiting trial for treason. Nazrul gives vent to his pent-up feelings as he writes, “Today, India is subjugated. Its people are slaves. This is the absolute truth. In this kingdom, to call a slave a slave, to call injustice, injustice, is sedition. Forcibly turning truth into falsehood, injustice into justice, night into day – can truth go on like this?” (2. 204)
The two-volume Selections are then a significant addition to Nazrul scholarship. The editor should be congratulated for her efforts. Although the initial plan to bring out “The Essential Nazrul” fell through for reasons beyond her control (1. Vi-viii), she kept herself glued to the project. Kazi Nazrul Islam Selections 1 & 2 are indeed a labour of love.
Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor of English, Khulna University, Bangladesh. Currently he is on lien to Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), Dhaka. He is a translator, a theatre and performance studies scholar, and a literary and cultural theory enthusiast.