How To Use This Translation

How not to use this translation

Āb-e ḥayāt is not a trustworthy history of Urdu literature. It cannot and should not be read as such. Many of its specific facts and dates are unreliable; many of its quotations from sources are unreliable; many of its larger generalizations are unreliable. It would take a lifetime of scholarship--and a multi-volume work full of long footnotes--to challenge all Āzād's inaccuracies. Rather than challenging some--and thus by implication approving of whatever is not challenged--we have elected to translate the work as the invaluable primary source it is, without offering a steady drumbeat of critical footnotes.

Similarly, Āzād incorporates verses--and occasionally prose passages--attributed to a wide variety of poets and writers. Sometimes the attribution is uncertain, and even more often the text appears in a form of which other variants also exist. After much thought, we have decided not to challenge Āzād's quotations, or to insist on documenting them. He rarely identifies his sources with any precision, and often does not identify them at all; the manuscript, tazkirah, and oral recitation tradition that persisted in Urdu poetry down to Āzād's generation means that we cannot know whether Āzād had a different (or conceivably even better?) source for the verse in question than those we have available today. And alas, scholars of Urdu know that even in reputable scholarly editions of the works of important poets, problematic and variant readings are numerous--and conflicts are often impossible to resolve with complete confidence. Rather than offer complex footnotes for verse after verse, we have chosen to treat Āzād's quotations like his text: as primary sources in themselves. Only in a few rare cases have we disputed (in notes or in the apparatus) the most flagrant misstatements.

For those seeking a reliable and accurate factual history of Urdu literature, the list of works that can be recommended in preference to Āb-e ḥayāt is long: it includes almost every history written in the century and more since Āzād's work. In English, the list of such histories of Urdu literature includes (in chronological order): Saksena (1927); Bailey (1928); Sadiq (1964); Ali (1973); Schimmel (1975); Shackle, Matthews, and Husain (1985); Russell (1992); and Zaidi (1993). A recent overview is Shabana Mahmud's Urdu Language and Literature: A Bibliography of Sources in European Languages (1992). The Urdu-knowing reader may wish to consult Jamīl Jālibī's monumental although as yet unfinished Tārīḳh-e adab-e urdū (1977-).

The text

This translation seeks to be of use to readers who know Urdu well, to readers who know some Urdu, and to readers who know no Urdu at all. For the benefit of the first two groups, the translation has been keyed to the page numbers of a widely available modern edition of the text (Lucknow: Uttar Padesh Urdu Academy, 1982)--one which is itself a photo-reproduction of a famous early edition (Lahore: Naval Kishor, 1907). Like all modern editions, this one is based on Āzād's revised and expanded second edition (1883) rather than the original 1880 text.

Fortunately, there are no serious textual problems. Because of Āb-e ḥayāt's widespread and lasting popularity, available editions are very numerous. Only rarely have we had to correct or supplement the readings of our chosen edition; and this has been easy to do by referring to other editions. We have not found it necessary to complicate the translation by noting all such small corrections and changes. Page numbers from our chosen edition appear within the translation in bold italics between '#' signs (e.g., #1#). Sometimes Āzād refers in his footnotes to material on other pages, the numbers of which have changed in the course of various editions; we have tried to recalibrate these numbers on the basis of content.

The omissions

Because the Urdu text is 528 pages long, some parts of it have been merely summarized or described, rather than translated in full. Summaries of omitted material are contained within square brackets. We have omitted some of the most technical material (certain linguistic examples) and some of the most untranslatable material (certain literary examples). Small omissions of these kinds occur at many points within the text, and are always clearly indicated.

But the bulk of our omissions are of a different sort. They are made in the anthology sections. After Āzād writes about each poet, he generally offers a sample of that poet's work; these samples range in length from a few verses to a number of pages. We have not translated these anthology sections.

Our reasons for omitting the anthology sections are both pragmatic and literary. Pragmatically, we recognize that these verses have merely been selected, not composed, by Āzād, and are in most cases available (often in better versions) from other sources as well. Thus since we have to cut somewhere, this is a good place to do it. Literarily, we know all too well that classical Urdu poetry is extremely hard to translate in a way that preserves both its meaning and its power. In seeking to translate ghazal verses, we have constantly been forced to make unacceptable sacrifices of one or the other. In general, we have chosen to sacrifice elegance for the sake of accuracy.

Thus we are content to keep the results to an illustrative minimum. Our policy has been to translate many of the verses contained within Āzād's own prose text sections--verses that he analyzes or discusses or otherwise highlights for our attention. In this way we provide samples of verse in translation, and also make Āzād's critical discussion intelligible. These verses are often not the most excellent or even most representative ones in the literary tradition. But they are the best ones for understanding Āzād's observations in Āb-e ḥayāt.

The format

Āzād's five 'eras' [daur] vary widely in the amount of attention (as measured by number of pages) that he accords to them. In our selected edition of the text, the first two eras receive about twenty pages apiece, the third and fourth about a hundred pages apiece, and the fifth about two hundred pages (of which fully sixty are devoted to Żauq). For the reader's convenience and our own, we have subdivided the latter three eras into reasonably-sized 'parts', without unduly distorting Āzād's own internal divisions. The capitalized section headings that introduce new poets, or new facets of a particularly important poet's life, are almost entirely Āzād's; the few such headings we have inserted are enclosed in square brackets. The bold-italicized subtitles are Āzād's as well; in the Urdu they are written in the margin of the text, and are usually his lowest-level form of textual organization. The footnotes in the alphabetical series are Āzād's own, while those in the numerical series are ours. In the two unusual cases of the poets 'Hudhud' (#464-70#) and 'Auj' (#494-97), Āzād's extremely long multi-page footnotes have been inserted, with explanation, into the translation text proper. Āzād's literary history does not look well-organized by modern standards, but for his own time it provided quite a reasonable framework.

Within the translation all parentheses are Āzād's, and all square brackets are ours. Within such square brackets we analyze or supplement the surrounding textual material, or summarize omissions; an equals sign (=) within square brackets signals an exact definition of the preceding word. We have preserved all of Āzād's paragraph divisions, and for the sake of clarity we have sometimes added a few of our own, to break up unusually long or disjointed paragraphs. Diagonal slashes (/) enclose verse excerpts from individual poems, whether one verse or many, so that the reader can easily see whether a series of quoted verses all come from the same larger poem or not.

The transliteration system

For the sake of consistency, Persian words have been transliterated as they are pronounced in Urdu. Indic words have been treated as though they were written phonetically in Urdu script. The letters of the Urdu script have been transliterated as follows:

alif as: a, i, u, ā

b p t ṭ ṡ

j ch ḥ ḳh

d ḍ ż

r ṛ z zh

s sh

ṣ ẓ

t̤ z̤

ʿ ġh

f q

k g

l m


vāʾo as: v, ū, o, au



baṛī ye as: y, e, ai

nūn-e ġhunnah: ñ

hamzah: ʾ

iẓāfat: -e

The style

When it comes to style, we know very well how much we are losing; Āzād's style is famous, and Āb-e ḥayāt has been rightly held to be untranslatable. The text is very difficult at times in its vocabulary and sentence structure; its obliqueness of reference also requires much editorial judgment. We've done our best with it: both accuracy and good English style have been our goals throughout. Although we may have had to chart a zigzag course at times, we've tried never to forget our double allegiance. And we've had a few modest successes.

Here is one example of what we've been able to do. Although most of Āzād's puns have inevitably been lost in translation, we've managed to keep one of his favorites. The word zamīn means literally 'ground, earth', as in the well-known zamīndār, 'land-holder'. It also refers to the formal parameters of a given ghazal (see the 'Literary Terms' index). We have translated it consistently as 'ground', so that the uses of it will be clear. Āzād writes, for example, in praise of Shāh Naṣīr's poetic inventiveness, 'He used to devise new grounds.... But they were so stony that even great champions couldn't take a step to advance upon them' (#392#). And he cites words of praise addressed to Żauq, concerning Z̤afar's choice of such 'stony grounds': 'You make them verdant. Otherwise, they'd become too alkaline' (#472#).

We've also preserved Āzād's many puns on āb [=water, luster]. In addition, we've preserved a few of his favorite turns of phrase. For example, he loves to speak of well-mingled things as 'milk and sugar' [shīr o shakar], and to describe colorful language as 'parrots and mynahs'. We have not wanted to smooth these out into invisibility.

However, for our readers' convenience, in one particular case we've made the opposite sort of decision. The beloved of classical Urdu ghazal is always grammatically masculine, even when the content of the verse clearly implies a female beloved. We have generally translated all such references as though the beloved is a woman, unless the particular verse clearly identifies the beloved as a beautiful boy. By this practice we intend to achieve the 'least marked' status that heterosexually addressed love poetry has in English. Translating the poetry as though it were always addressed by a male lover to a male beloved would create the effect in English of self-consciously homosexual poetry, which is not how the ghazal appears within its own milieu.


The 'Bibliography' is divided into two broad sections: English sources and Urdu ones. In the English section especially, we have taken advantage of the chance to list a number of literary histories written since Āb-e ḥayāt, for the convenience of our readers. These are useful as comparative material for the reader wishing to see Āzād within the tradition he did so much to establish. Rather than listing only works we consider especially excellent, we have preferred to err on the side of inclusiveness.

Authors and works

The scholarly apparatus consists of three parts, all based on the page numbers in the original text. This means that Urdu-knowers who do not need to use the translation itself can still use the apparatus; and that people who know some Urdu can easily use the translation to locate particular passages within the Urdu text.

The first part, the index of authors and works mentioned in Āb-e ḥayāt, seeks to be entirely complete: to include every author mentioned in Āzād's text and footnotes. Authors are identified by pen-name, except in a few cases that are cross-referenced. All works mentioned in the text and footnotes are also included, except references to poets' (untitled) volumes and kulliyāt, or complete works. For the reasons explained earlier, the page references are keyed to the Urdu text; the whole Urdu text has been indexed, including parts that have not been translated.

Names of authors and their works are in the form provided by the text itself, except for those in brackets; these latter have been provided by the translators to clarify vaguer references. Curly brackets enclose the page numbers of a section devoted especially to a single poet; such sections always include quotations. A plus sign marks a passage that we found to be of particular interest. Parentheses around page numbers show related references in which the exact name does not occur.

Literary terms

The second part, the index of literary terms mentioned in Āb-e ḥayāt, required more judgment on our part. Its general organization is explained in the introductory note with which it begins. We have tried to err on the side of inclusiveness. Āzād's own favorite literary terms are all included; standard Urdu literary terms are also included if Āzād uses them even rarely. To the extent possible, each term has been provided with a single English equivalent that consistently replaces it. Such English equivalents are marked with an asterisk on their first occurrence in the translation, and are cross-referenced within the 'Literary Terms' index. Definitions have also been included for all terms except the most obviously parallel ones; these definitions are our own rather than Āzād's. In some cases we have included references to helpful further readings in a few basic sources. As with all the apparatus, the page references are keyed to the Urdu text; and the whole Urdu text has been indexed, including parts not translated and selections of poetry.

In this index no proper names are listed. The terms listed are those important to the Perso-Arabic literary tradition generally, as well as terms that occur especially frequently or otherwise seem important to Āzād himself. All names of genres have been included. In the case of a few especially common terms, only the more important page references are shown; page references to these terms are prefaced with 'Notably' to indicate this fact. A plus sign identifies a reference that seemed to us to be of particular interest. Parentheses show related references in which the term itself does not occur.

General index of references

The 'General Index' is much the hardest to characterize. It contains both proper names (languages, nations, ethnic groups, individuals) and terms (items of South Asian cultural interest) used by Āzād. It also contains some categories devised by us (magic, love, Lucknow as a literary center, anecdotes involving women, etc.) with an eye to our own and our readers' interests.

As always, the page references are keyed to the Urdu text; the whole Urdu text has been indexed, including parts not translated. All names of languages mentioned in the text are included, and many important proper names (of places, of people other than poets), and many terms of general cultural importance that are not specifically literary. A plus sign identifies references that we found to be of particular interest, and parentheses show related references in which the term itself does not occur.

The making of the book

A word about the physical appearance of this book is perhaps in order. The reader will easily perceive the complexity of the text itself, as well as the annotations and apparatus. The whole book was prepared in the form of camera-ready copy by F.W.P. on her own computer, using the academic software program Nota Bene.

The advantage of this method is that the diacritics and other scholarly details are as perfect as she has been able to make them, since no typesetter intervenes. Nota Bene also permits the use of two independent sets of footnotes, Āzād's and the translators'. The disadvantage is that there is somewhat less flexibility in varying typefaces, type sizes, and diacritic placement, and in controlling precise page length.

We hope that the greater scholarly accuracy made possible by camera-ready copy will atone for any esthetic flaws.