Aah ko chahiye

November 4, 2007 at 4:14 pm 21 comments

Mirza Ghalib

Listen (to Begum Akhtar sing) [1]

aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak
kaun jiitaa hai tirii zulf ke sar hone tak

daam-e har mauj mein hai halqah-e sad kaam-e nihang
dekhein kyaa guzre hai qatre pah guhar hone tak

aashiqii sabr-talab aur tamannaa betaab
dil kaa kyaa rang karuun khun-e jigar hone tak

ham ne maanaa kih tagaaful na karoge lekin
khaak ho jaaeinge ham tum ko khabar hone tak

partav-e khur se hai shabnam ko fanaa ki taaliim
main bhii huun ek inaayat kii nazar hone tak

yak nazar besh nahiin fursat-e hastii gaafil
garmii-e bazm hai ik raqs-e sharar hone tak

gam-e hastii kaa asad kis se ho juz marg ilaaj
shamma har rang mein jaltii hai sahar hone tak

Translation (by Sarvat Rahman):

The sighs of love a life-time need, their object to attain,
Who lives long enough for your dark mysteries to attain?

In the net of each ocean-wave open a hundred dragon mouths,
To be a pearl, a water-drop what ordeals must sustain!

True love calls for patience, desire’s of impatience made,
Till suffering consumes me quite, how should my heart remain?

You will not be indifferent, I know, but nevertheless,
Dead and in the dust I’ll be when news of me you obtain.

The morning sun’s ardent rays spell death to each dew-drop,
I, too, exist only until, to glance at me you deign.

A single glance, no more, is the space of life, unaware!
For no longer than the spark’s dance does the gathering’s warmth remain.

The suffering that is life, ASAD, knows no cure but death,
All through the night must the candle burn, no matter what its pain.

Translation (mine) :

It takes a lifetime for a sigh to take effect
Who lives to see your hair perfectly arranged?

A hundred mouths whisper the net of every wave
Look what the speck endures till it becomes a pearl.

Love demands patience, desire is restless
What color shall I paint the heart, until you savage it?

You shan’t ignore me when the time comes, I know, but
I may turn to dust before the news reaches you.

Each drop of dew learns death from the rays of the sun
I too await release at a glance from you.

One glance, no more, fills the span of my life
The dance of a single spark that keeps the company warm.

Life is suffering, Asad, and has no cure but death
The flame burns in every color until the dawn.

The problem with posting Ghalib is a problem of translation. So compressed is Ghalib’s imagery, so rich in sound and nuance his language, that it is almost impossible to render his ghazals in English without mauling them beyond recognition. I admire Sarvat Rahman’s courage in taking on the entire Diwan-e-Ghalib – translating all 234 ghazals while retaining their form – but I have to say that the results, as with the translation above, make me cringe. I’ve tried to provide my own rendition, but even that doesn’t come close to the original. How does one begin to translate a line as brilliant as “dil ka kya rang karoon, khoon-e-jigar hone tak”? How does one convey the richness of its color (the word incarnadined springs to mind), the quality of the sentiment, the sense of quasi-paradox – all without losing the shortness, the simplicity of Ghalib’s original?

Trying to translate Ghalib, I am always reminded of these lines from Byron:

“To such as see thee not my words were weak;
To those who gaze on thee what language could they speak?”

Still, here it is. For those of you who speak Urdu, this ghazal should require no introduction, and its gloriousness should sing from every line. For those who don’t know the language, hopefully there’s enough in these butchered translations of ours to convey the exquisite intelligence that moves through this poem, the sheer lyricism of a master whose every couplet stands as a poem in its own right, and whose words, a century and a half after they were written, continue to be quoted by millions.


[1] Begum Akhtar only sings couplets 1,3,4 and 7. Another, perhaps more familiar version of the same couplets as sung by Jasjit Singh can be found (also on YouTube) here.


Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Mirza Ghalib, Urdu.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. megha  |  November 7, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    quite an effort, i won’t deny. only a few things i’d point out.
    rahman’s translation of the second line of the first couplet grasps the meaning alright. in yours, though, it doesn’t come out as well. the thing is that the two languages are so inherently different, an image or a metaphor don’t often yield the same effect in both.

    in the last couplet when he says ‘shamma har rang mein jaltii hai’, i think he’s referring to the changing shades of the night (of course quite literally it means throughout the night), which isn’t evident in your interpretation. so it seems more like this: the suffering that is this life would be healed by none but death, just like the flame burns in every colour of the night till it fades into dawn.

    also, ‘to await release’ hardly sounds poetic. :)
    and should it not be ‘Each drop of dew learns of death’ ?

    but of course, i should read this one more time; rather impatient with translations of urdu ghazals. and i can’t remember when last i was looking for courage in poetry. but transcreation and translation are challenging, true.

  • 2. falstaff  |  November 7, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    megha: Thanks for your feedback. I agree that my translation doesn’t do justice to the second line of the first couplet – it’s the line I struggled with the most – though I don’t much care for Rahman’s version either, even if you ignore the tone-deafness of his translation. I think the trouble there is, as you suggest, that the image simply doesn’t carry the emotional weight in English that is does in Urdu. So one is forced to choose between keeping the image and diluting the emotional impact of the poem or moving away from the specificity of Ghalib’s image and substituting some vague abstraction – which, to me, is just as much a disservice to Ghalib as the former.

    In general, my attempt is to stick as closely as I can to what Ghalib is actually saying and to stay away from trying to inflict my own interpretations on his words. I realize this makes him less accessible to English readers, but I think specificity of image and ambiguity of meaning are too important to poetry to be done away with. Without them, Ghalib sounds more didactic and medieval than he actually is. So, for instance, while on the whole I agree with your interpretation of the last line, it’s not what Ghalib is saying – he says simply that the flame burns in every color until the dawn – the question of whether it’s the flame that is changing color or the night is, technically, left open. Why would I take away that ambiguity if I didn’t have to?

    Finally, what sounds poetic is necessarily subjective. “Each drop of dew learns of death” may be marginally more correct, but the double ‘of’ sounds terrible and the extra ‘of’ ruins the meter of the whole line.

  • 3. megha  |  November 7, 2007 at 8:04 pm

    falstaff> ah, yes. now that you mention choices (in this particular context) and disservice to the poet.. i suppose you might know why rahman’s rendition ceases to interest me after the first couplet – i continue to read it simply out of curiosity and because i think any effort in translation of urdu poetry keeps me from immediately giving up on it – whereas yours i read without another thought. he has tied himself down with the form; in your translation, however, at the very least, i see possibility (even if, honestly, the first couplet isn’t particularly impressive).

    now if you’re translating merely for your own amusement, there is no real issue here at all. but as with most other translators there’s the question of doing justice to the poet. there’ve been, it seems, some excellent efforts in this field, but i’d think oftentimes it’s practically impossible to create anything comparable to the original work especially with a language such as urdu that renders itself more easily to poetry. and so one takes some liberty. the extent to which you do that depends upon what exactly you mean to accomplish. a literal translation might work if the reader has some basic knowledge of the language, it’s nuances and the poet’s peculiar ways and a few other things, for then they might then be able to relate to the images at some level and at least begin to comprehend their ’emotional weight’ (your phrase, yes). but with just that, you might be taking away too much from someone absolutely new to the language. so to be fair, one could perhaps, along with the translation, attempt to recreate the original work – in their own style, of course – in the other language using images and form more appropriate to it. in this the translator’s own interpretation might interfere, but i should think a careful reader would know where the translator’s perception and imagination begin (they may be also helped with some notes if the translator happens to be too particular and nice). and i don’t believe anyone should be too concerned about the not so careful readers.

    and you’re right about subjectivity there. i just probably saw too much of ghalib here to find that poetic, i take it back.

    last thing, i couldn’t imagine how ghalib could sound didactic. but then, i have read very little.

    thank you.

  • 4. Raj  |  March 9, 2008 at 6:50 am


    Great efforts by everyone. I love all mirza galib’s gazals by Jaggu and listen them almost daily. it gives me eternal peace.

    Can any of you please translate other gazals of Galib and sent me at my emaill. It s like i can never forget what you would do for me.


  • 5. Asif Ali Najam  |  May 5, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Ghalib’s poetry is eternal. His genius can never ever be ‘critically appreciated’. He always was and remains, hitherto, beyond the critique of lesser mortals…

    Obviously the richness of the Urdu language is almost impossible to be matched in English and especially when the translator is bound by meter, rhyme, verse et al; additional constraints are evidently subject.

    I have gone through the work of Dr. Sarvat Rahman. She certainly has done a wonderful job. A person essentially with a non-Urdu background would find her work extremely helpful in appreciating (although to a limited extent admittedly) the poetic genius of Ghalib.

    Ghalib’s poetry is undoubtedly ethereal and was helped enormously by his imagination limitless and pain equally immense. The combination proved to be such an effective one that he obliterated ‘competition’.

    When somebody attempts to translate say … “main bhii huun ék inaayat kii nazar honé tak….” s/he can at most duplicate the literary elements but would not be able to deny the shallowness that would eventually result…not because of the translator’s incompetence, lingual constraints or anything otherwise…but because of the fact each word of a Ghalib’s couplet speaks a volume more than the word itself. The ideas and schemes are well beyond the ‘frame’ of couplet itself, as though extrapolating…which at times gives even Urdu speaking people a tough time comprehending.

    Obviously, when translated, the richness of the poet’s idea is considerably stripped in the translator’s endeavour of maintaining the mood, wholesomeness and brevity in the resultant.

    I am hereby attempting to give a translation of my own. One would notice that I haven’t been stingy with the amount of words in the translation/description. I duly feel its requisite. Nevertheless I feel incapacitated to even capture a miniscule part of the beauty of the original ‘ghazal’.

    Long live Ghalib. Urdu, the language, owes him.


    It might take a lifetime for my sigh(s) to have any influence over you…
    Who would anyways stay alive to see your hair perfectly arranged or your ambiguities disentangled, even if one tried…?

    My deep love for you advocates patience, though my yearning is ruthlessly left restless…
    Which colour you reckon should I paint my heart with right now? Though there’s no point. Upon its execution (which is near), only scarlet would be smeared all over.

    The dew-drop knows of its imminent death. The sun’s rays themselves have taught it its eventuality.
    I too, am waiting for my release, but maybe for the final condescending glance.

    I perhaps know you would not be apathetical, not for ever…
    However, by the time you would decide on returning, I would be decimated and in dust.

    When was just a glance of yours enough for me? My sprawling existence stands oblivious, without any answers…
    The gathering’s warmth is fading…how useful, anyways, would an eventual fleeting spark of fire now be?

    Each fragment of my life is steeped so deep in suffering; ‘Asad’, deep down I know death is the only cure.
    Who ever cared for the midnight candle and its suffering? So why do you complain Asad? It would reach its end by dawn and so would you.

    • 6. Prats  |  May 22, 2009 at 10:15 pm


      you are right on to capture the meaning of “Aah ko chahiye ek umra aasar hone tak…Koun jeeta hai tere julf ki sar hone tak”

      Hair perfectly arranged also used as a metaphor for being successful in love. so

    • 7. Nikhil  |  January 12, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Great job Asif! Your attempt seems to convey the meaning the best and so what if its in prose and uses a few more words. Thanks.

  • 8. Ravi Kopra  |  August 11, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Another translation at

  • 9. Sarabjeet Singh  |  October 7, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Asif Ali Najam Sahab

    salaam walequm

    i don’t know urdu much but somehow i believe as if you’ve felt what Ghalib saab meant while reciting this gazal.

    mind blowing sahab

  • 10. Reem  |  May 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    I like Sarwat’s translation.. I agree Ghalib is near impossible to translate because only the poet him/herself know what the imagery & meaning it has.
    I just wanted to correct 1 thing Megha wrote–
    Hair perfectly arranged.? no.. I think its refers to the TIME factor—to see 1 strand of hair seed off to produce more to cover the head.
    Great courage to reproduce ur own version though.

  • 11. bashir anarwala  |  February 16, 2011 at 4:15 am

    i am thrilled by the above translations! great effort guys, i never understood this gazal completely before but by reading the translations my eyes became wet and i realised how great ghalib was and how genius his mind was to say the state of his greivance in such a poetic way.

  • 12. Ismail Shah  |  May 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

    That’s the best Ghazal Ever…….

  • 13. Babar  |  June 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Sarwat Rahman’s translation much better than yours of course.
    He seems to have written it in rhythm close to original. Somehow,
    I find it hard to imagine if anyone would ever come close to its depth in English translation.

  • 14. Gohar Ayubian  |  September 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

    the only ghazal which i like the most… specially isko hasim nadeem ne jis jaga mention kya he apne novel (khuda aur muhabbat ) mein… dat is awesome…

  • 15. Venkatesh  |  November 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing the translations. I liked Sarwat Rahman’s more as it captures the depth of the ghazal quite well.

  • 16. varun  |  April 22, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Your translation , especially of first two lines, is clear and nice. Thanks for sharing.

  • 17. Deepinder Singh Kapany  |  May 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    This ghazal was written by ghalib when he saw a 12 year old girl and fell in love with her. Since he was much older, hence he wrote ” kaun jeeta hai Teri Zulf ke sar hone tak”

  • 18. headneckcancerindia  |  June 24, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Realisations in life – both good and not so good – come with time and – I guess – with age. Poets especially geniuses like Ghalib, had a way of realisings things so completely, and then putting it down in lucid and lovely poetry. Life must have been as difficult for them as it could or might have been beautiful.

  • 19. raashid ahmad  |  March 18, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    best translation I ever read .
    simply awesome

  • 20. Ten of my favourite ‘classic poem’ songs | Dustedoff  |  April 15, 2014 at 4:56 am

    […] was very difficult; I veered between Nuktacheen hai, gham-e-dil; Yeh na thhi hamaari qismat; and Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak. I finally chose this one, because I love the rendition, the music, and the picturisation. Nehru is […]

  • 21. ganesh prasad gupta  |  October 1, 2014 at 5:19 am

    so many good and knowledgeable persons have taken so keen interest in explaining the meaning of this great gazal. i am thankful to all of them.


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