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RAWAdosa by Subbarayudu - Welcome William Wolak

An {{News for Soul}}

exclusive interview.


rawadosa by subbarayudu g. kameswara


Wolak Mubaarak At Hyderabad!


William Wolak (William Paterson University of New Jersey), a teacher of Creative Writing, and a practicing poet and translator, was at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2014 (January 24-26). He’s not exactly new to India, having presented his work at the JLF, Kritya and other literary meets in recent years.


Wolak-Subbarayudu-fnbworld at hyderabad literary festival

The genial giant’s presence at Hyderabad, however,  acquired a couple of extra dimensions  -  a new book launched (The Lover’s Body, New York, 2014); and a magical reading of his  translations of  Ghazals of Hafez to the accompaniment of Mehmood Alam’s  resonant rendition of the original Parsi ones; and the intuitive Sitar notes by Srinivas Reddy  in Kaafi, Jhinjooti, Jayjaywanti, Yaman, Des and Bharavi to cradle and rock gently the performers and the audience for forty five minutes making a timeless moment.  It was as if the great vocalist Manna Dey was singing Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala, with a smiling Omar Khayyam watching and the Saqi presiding over bubbling wine.

Wolak got interested in Persian poetry thanks to an Iranian classmate and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (1975) which took him to Iran. Later, when he settled on the project of translating Khwajeh Shams al-Din Mohammed Hafez-e Shirazi of the 14th century, it was fittingly a task he undertook in collaboration with Mehmood Karimi-Hakak (Siena College, NY). Having visited, India, Nepal, China among other Asian countries, Wolak has inevitably picked up a non-polemical Orientalism which may be referred to as pre-Edward Said.  


William Wolak is a poet who has done about 10 volumes of poetry, including translating from the Persian. Coming from a culture that is just about 400 years, drawing  for its mythology, music  and art from various European , Asian and African immigrants ; an immensely powerful and energetic culture that is nevertheless young; William Wolak is a fine example of what wide travel and study can do for a talented and imaginative  humanist. Mr. Wolak, as indeed the American culture, has offered  a considerable source of self-renewal for   peoples  in India and many parts of the world.



Excerpts from an earlier interview.

fnbworld:  Let us go straight to the heart of the matter. The literature of America is known in India generally for the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Mahatma Gandhi, and Nehru’s abiding fondness for Robert Frost’s lovely poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”. There  are more tense moments among the billion strong population of India, on account of America’s overall military, economic and political power, than  an awareness of America’s cultural diversity and richness. But both India and America are quite clear that consistent cultural interaction is likely to be more productive than the exercise of political power. India knows that America has its heart in the right place. Interestingly, this comes across, again, through your engagement, Wolak, with Iran and Persian poetry, the Ghazals of the 14th century poet Hafez. 

How did you get interested in the Eastern poetical phenomenon of the Ghazal? Its musicality, imagery and even the diverse structures is very different even from the free verse that is so popular now all over the world...

Wolak: I was a graduate student at the Rutgers University (New Jersey) where I met this Iranian student Ahmad Karimi Hakak. He read to me to contemporary and then classical Persian literature. Hakak began working on an anthology of contemporary Persian poetry and later offered introductory courses in Persian for some semesters.


There was much Persian history and all the classical poets from Ferdowsi’s Shanameh to Sadi and Hafez… all of the classical poets. We were very fortunate in having students from China, Argentina and Italy and diverse other cultures … we came together and began to open up to this diversity … and that’s where I had my first gleanings of what Persian poetry would be like. I began to study my Alif Beys and in time learnt to read some bit of Persian as well. Soon Ahmad left for a job in Seattle; but I met his brother Mahmood Karimi Hakak, who lived very close to New York city. Mahmood, a poet himself, and I came up with the idea of translating Persian poetry, and he suggested Hafez.

fnbworld: The perso-Arabic influence on Indian languages is very considerable, Bill. Hindi, and the mid millennium development of Urdu owe much to the interaction between Sanskritic and the Perso-Arabic linguistic traditions, including the music and the ‘singability’ of poetry, especially the ghazal. Your own training, Bill, in Persian being relatively circumscribed, the interesting sound patterns contributing to its musicality and amenability to actual singing,  must have been very intriguing. How did you manage this rich aural effect, develop ‘the ear’ for this resonance, in the course of your translation project with Hakak? How much is English capable of importing these trains of music?


Wolak: So… the first point is the English is a very rhyme-poor language. It’s not like Persian… it’s not like French… it’s not like Spanish in which it is very easy to rhyme. So the ghazal and it’s component sound, the aural architecture was the first thing we’d discuss   about the poem. Hakak would read the poem and we’d identify where the rhymes and sound effects are, what the dynamics were and where the main points are.  Then we’d do the best to bring in the possible equivalent sound effects such as assonance, onomatopoeia, aliteration… anything… anything that suited… the structure of the line, the phrasing, the sound quality…

fnbworld: Short of rhyme…?

Wolak: Short of rhyme! Rhyme is the key component. We argued a great deal about rhyme… Hakak wanted it and I didn’t!

fnbworld:  That’s why I lead with  free verse, sound and music, Bill…

Wolak: … many translations appear as free verse and the words go all over. Our main conception of translation from the very beginning was to preserve the structure of the poem. First of all, it was considered as a bilingual translation, such that the Original and the translation are on facing pages so that anyone who could read the original could see immediately what the weaknesses and the strengths … we have fought over every word on the page…, some arguments he won, some I, there were piles of books all over for us to consult them all the time.

One argument about rhyme is… translators have two options…one is to preserve the rhyming  structure  producing a poem that is devoid of  the actual meaning of the poem. The other is to preserve the ideas and the imagery that the poem is using in order to get at the meaning of the ghazal (of any poet).  You can not follow both the paths at once. We’d have to make a choice. We chose the second path, using alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia… anything that helped keep a sound pattern which is close.  Logos or Melos…that’s the crucial choice.

fnbworld: Ah! That kind of a choice!

Wolak: Yes. We could explain everything with a comprehensive introduction and number of notes … 

fnbworld: Right…there is a long  and informative introduction, touching upon the sound, the music as well…

Wolak: In the introduction we cite a deep influence on my translational practice with regard to rhyme -- the Czech poet Ondra Lysohorsky’s lines, “ Gone is the age of rhymes and assonances / which even with the best practitioners, tell small lies, ”( “Rhymes”).

fnbworld: Small lies! Wonderful, how true…

Wolak: So, we would try  to capture the truths of  philosophy, the  thinking of Hafez in our translation, without  telling those ‘small lies’; though we did not altogether avoid possible ways of recreating sound patterns and rhymes, we used repetitive phrases to  make up for the loss of rhyming structures. 

fnbworld: So…looking at the performative  aspect of the ghazal  in translation projects,  the aural architecture has to be an additive aspect, an external accretion?

Wolak: Yes…if you’re translating a Sonnet into another language, the performative is not especially important; but with a ghazal in translation, the performative becomes very crucial. I’m not a trained singer in the qawwali tradition… but if I were, I could go somewhere with the issue of musica, but at this moment the translation will probably require and additive musical quality. The performance  of the translation  improves with the addition of an external musical ambience , perhaps cradling it. The translation could do with something that mimics …

fnbworld: … the aural effect already inherent in the original!

Wolak: In a sense, yes. The rhythm of a ghazal is quite central and  to the extent English allows the translation may capture it; the performance of the translation will  certainly gain from   some  balm of additive music  as you will see from the performance later this evening with the Persian original being read after the  reading of the translation which will be  embedded in some exquisite  notes of Sitar by Srinivas Reddy.

fnbworld: Are you familiar with any Indian poets who’ve written ghazals… from Ghalib to Gulzar?

Wolak: Yes I am familiar with Ghalib; I don’t think anyone has translated Ghalib’s Persian poems into English, and there is some possibility of a project to translate his Persian poems with in collaboration with Hakak; I know Gulzar as a fellow traveler, a translator and promoter of Ghalib… I have all of Gulzar’s books. I came to Gulzar from Ghalib… and I came to Ghalib from Hafez.

fnbworld: Thank you Bill, for sharing  your  experience of translating the Ghazals of Hafez. Could you possibly read one of your translations. That would be a fine way of concluding this conversation.

Wolak: I’ll read “THOSE WHO STOOD UP FOR TOLERANCE” from the Hafez  ghazals; Thank you:


May days of love’s reunions be remembered

May those days be remembered, may they always be remembered.

My mouth is poisoned by the bitterness of grief;

May the toasts of those happy drinkers be remembered.

Although my comrades are free from remembering me,

I remember them all constantly.

Though l’m captured and bound by this misery,

May the attempts of those who stood up for tolerance be remembered.

Even though a hundred rivers constantly flow from my eyes,

Zandehrood irrigates for those who make gardens, may it be remembered

From now on the secret of Hafez will remain unspoken.

Have pity on those who must keep secrets; may that be remembered...

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