FORM WITHOUT A HOME: ON
TRANSLATING THE INDO-PERSIAN RAD¯
What pleases in a ghazal is the variety with which
conspicuous sameness can be sustained; what the
form unleashes is the poet’s mercurial powers.
—Kelly LeFave, American poet1
One of the most distinctive and recognizable features of Persian poetics, the refrain (rad¯
entered literary history by way of a contrast with Arabic poetic norms. A word, syllable, or set of
syllables that recurs at the conclusion of each poetic distich (verse), the rad¯
ıf can be provisionally
translated as refrain, but it does more than simply recur.2Towards the end of the twelfth century,
the Persian poet-critic Rash¯
.dedicated a special section of his rhetorical treatise,
Gardens of Magic in the Nuances of Poetry, to explaining this literary device. Deﬁning the rad¯
one or more words that recur after the rhyme, Wat
.noted that Arabic poets “do not use rad¯
except for recent innovators displaying their virtuosity.”3Elevating the Persian refrain to the gold
standard of poetic excellence, Wat
.argued that this device eﬀectively tested the poet’s talent
.abc) and excellence (bast
Even as the rad¯
ıf’s formalization within the Persian literary-critical tradition was heralded
by rhetoricians, Persian poets turned increasingly to this literary device to develop the resources
of the Persian literary language as it deﬁned itself against—and within—Arabic poetic genres.
In nontechnical terms, the rad¯
ıf functions like a refrain in a song, except that the rules governing
its usage are considerably more formalized than in most musical traditions. It occurs at the end
of every distich, and twice in the ﬁrst distich. Technically, the rad¯
ıf is an extension of a poem’s
rhyme letter (known in Persian as the rav¯
ı).4Although like any rhyme, it intensiﬁes a verse’s sonic
resonance, the rad¯
ıf is often more complex, more semantically weighted, and more formally
demanding than the rhymes that inform Anglophone poetics. As a Persian-inﬂected rhyme, the
ıf constitutes one of Persian poetics’ major contributions to world literary history. But what
does the rad¯
ıf have to say to us today, and how can it help us savor the nuances of literary form,
including the paradoxes entailed in its translation across cultures and languages? How can the
ıf enrich our ways of reading lyric verse in general? This essay aims in part to illuminate these
Beyond the feats of technical virtuosity it enables, the Persian refrain is signiﬁcant from the
point of view of comparative poetics for challenging prevalent notions concerning what can be
“brought together and held” within the space of a single poem.5Semantic rhyme in English liter-
ature is as old as Chaucer, and parallels exist in the Old French romance. Yet, notwithstanding its
frequent use during the global Middle Ages, semantic rhyme carries speciﬁc weight with Persian
literature. This diﬀerence is in part due to the nonsequential structure of the genre in which it
occurs, the ghazal, a genre uniquely suited for the rad¯
ıf. As the British Orientalist William Jones
famously asserted, the ghazal is a lyric that links its verse together like “pearls at random strung.”6
Translation Review 90: 15–28, 2014
Copyright © The Center for Translation Studies
ISSN: 0737-4836 print/2164-0564 online
16 REBECCA GOULD
Jones’ controversial characterization of Persian poetics has been challenged by scholars keen to
draw attention to the complex way in which meaning is held together by Persian poems, but few
have contested his basic point, that the sequence of verses within a given poem does not easily
map onto the structure that informs more prosaically inclined, and less rhyme rich, literatures,
such as English.7The nonsequential structure of the Persian ghazal generates a variety of rhyme
unfamiliar to modern European and especially Anglophone literature. In this essay on Persian
and Indo-Persian understandings of rhyme as embodied and entailed in the rad¯
ıf, I aim to enable
a deeper appreciation of the unique relation the Persian refrain generates between translation
and lyric form.
As Alessandro Bausani notes, even when the Persian lyric has been approached compar-
atively, the comparative method has not been applied historically, with a view to the changes
internal to the Persian tradition.8And yet the rad¯
ıf, like other elements of the ghazal, has varied
so dramatically over time, that a historical understanding of these changes is crucial for grasp-
ing their implications for poetics. The historical trajectory of the Persian refrain recapitulates
the process through which classical Persian distinguished itself from Arabic norms. Originally,
notes Franklin Lewis, “a rad¯
ıf typically consisted of a rhyming noun followed by a recurrent verb
at the end of each line.”9With the rapid spread of New Persian literature, ﬁrst in Central Asia,
and subsequently from the Caucasus to South Asia from the eleventh to the fourteenth century,
nouns came to replace simple verbs such as b¯
ud (was), ast (is), and n¯
ıst (is not). Meanwhile, the
ıf increased in length “to encompass as many as four or even ﬁve syllables after the rhyming
vowel.”10 The progressive replacement of simple verbs with more elaborate noun and pronoun
combinations reﬂects Persian poets’ increasing conﬁdence in their own poetic tradition and their
interest in developing the Persian literary language to the maximum degree.
While it came to structure the ghazal’s form and meaning, the rad¯
ıf also came to function
as a tool for organizing the poet’s d¯
an (collected poems). Rather than being grouped themati-
cally, the works of classical Persian poets were grouped by form—including qas
ıda (ode), ghazal
ı(narrative poem),and rub¯
ı(quatrain)—and secondarily in alphabetical order
according to rad¯
ıf. This method of organization fostered speciﬁc forms of intertextuality, inspir-
ing poets to produce new ghazals on speciﬁc refrains, and highlighting their innovations in this
domain. Because they are rarer and therefore easier to identify than rad¯
ıfs based on common
ıfs formed from compound rhymes furnish “precise information about which poets
were inﬂuenced by whom, as well as the ways in which this inﬂuence ...reverberated through
the classical Persian poetic tradition.”11 Bearing semantic as well as phonemic weight, compound
ıfs work as citational trails, much as quotation marks and footnotes do in modern texts. The
more demanding were the formal restrictions imposed by the rad¯
ıf, the more were poets driven
to work creatively within the constraints this formal device imposed. At times, through strategic
citation of their predecessors’ rad¯
ıfs, poets managed even to surpass the poem that they were
In what follows, I explore how two of South Asia’s greatest premodern lyric poets: Hasan
Sijzi (633–715/1254–1336) and Bidel (1054/1644–1133/1721), engaged in the appropriation and
recreation of prior rad¯
ıfs. Situated geographically and culturally on the peripheries of main-
stream Persian literary culture, these Indo-Persian poets transformed what they inherited from
their Persian predecessors. Persuaded that every successful imitation would increase their poetic
stature, both within their lifetimes and for posterity, Hasan and Bidel deployed the rad¯
abandon. Although neither poet was born in Delhi, both came of age as poets in what was, to
deploy a paradox, a central periphery of the Persian ecumene. That their talents ﬂourished in
Delhi speciﬁcally is more than fortuitous. Their location on the peripheries of mainstream Persian
literary culture enabled Indo-Persian poets to experiment with hitherto unused literary devices
and forms more boldly than their Iranian counterparts.13 Hence the rad¯
ıf’s extraordinary career
in Indo-Persian poetics, which is one crucial chapter in the history of the ghazal’s transnational
circulation across early modern Asia, and subsequently modern Europe and America.14
While Persian rhetoricians like Wat
.intimated the rad¯
ıf’s signiﬁcance, the poetic force
wielded by this device, and which was in part the consequence of the dense constellations of
meaning fostered by the Persian ghazal across premodern Asia, exceeded the formulations given
to the device in Persian literary criticism. Before proceeding further with his poetic innovations,
it is worth dwelling within the social and historical world within which our poets cultivated the
ıf. I ﬁrst consider the literary horizons of H
.asan, followed by those of Bidel, before examining
how their deployments of the rad¯
ıf clarify the relation between translation and literary form.
Sameness in Difference, Difference in Sameness
Hasan Sijzi entered the world at an early moment in the development of Indo-Persian poetry.
Although it had already had a lengthy history in Arabic and Persian literature, the ghazal had
yet to make a major impact on the subcontinent. Following the Mongol invasions of 1258 that
hastened the collapse of Baghdad’s already-waning caliphate and which contributed to the rise
of Persianate dynasties throughout South and Central Asia, the panegyric qas
ıda had to com-
pete for pride of place in the Persian genre system with lyric genres, including the ghazal and
ı. In a world where the composition of poetry had traditionally been entangled in con-
testations of political sovereignty, the poetry of patronage was in the process of being gradually
superseded by the verse of mystic union, which merged worldly and spiritual desire.15 Although
an is, like that of other poets of the Delhi Sultanate, rich in panegyrics, the predomi-
nance of the lyric voice in H
.asan’s oeuvre cannot be separated from this historical shift in literary
Like many poets, critics, and historians who attained to prominence in the Delhi Sultanate,
Hasan descended from immigrants who had journeyed to South Asia while ﬂeeing the Mongol
invasions, and who had taken up residence there in search of new opportunities and a more
peaceful life. While there are conﬂicting accounts regarding the location of his birth, it is known
that Hasan passed most of his adult life in Delhi.16 His full name, Am¯
ır Najm al-D¯
ı, indicates that his father was from Sist¯
an (also known as Sijist¯
an area that encompassed eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. Hence his name Sijz¯
ing from Sijist¯
an.17 According to his own testimony, Hasan began writing poetry at the age of
thirteen, under the inﬂuence of the Persian poets Sa'd¯
ı (d. 1291), best known as the author of
an (Rose Garden) but also a pioneer of the ghazal form, and Ab ¯
u al-Khayr (d.
1049), the mystically inclined author of many rub¯
ıyyat (quatrains).18 Hasan did not become
publicly known for his verse, however, until he met Delhi’s most famous poet, Am¯
ır Khusrow, at
a baker’s shop in Delhi, a city that was at that time “renowned throughout the Islamic world for
its institutions of learning and as a haven for wandering scholars and poets.”19
ır Khusrow and Hasan Sijz¯
ı extended the boundaries of Persian literature in
part by incorporating Indic content into their verse. Their merger of Persianate and Indian nar-
rative traditions, and even, in the case of Amir Khusrow, poetic devices and words from Indian
vernaculars, marked a turning point in Persian literary history.20 Their techniques set the stage for
subsequent centuries of multilingual and cross-confessional innovation. H
.asan’s narrative poem
Book of Desire is one of the earliest self-proclaimed adaptations of an Indian story to a Persian
18 REBECCA GOULD
.asan’s ghazal on the rad¯
astrikingly exempliﬁes the literary stimulus aﬀorded by this
Two days have passed since my lover parted.
Every joy left this body when he parted.
I scream at the threshold of parting from my lover.
I scream like a bird torn from its nest.
The arrow of his coquetry was caught near the city.
Signs of parting puncture the arrow’s tips.
Time will bleed the stars of their souls.
The grief of this parting crushes the heart-ravishers.
The sun sets while I scream,
severed from grief, from stars, from time.
Just once, gaze on Hasan, far from his lover,
with no news of his heart, severed from home.
This ghazal depends for its eﬀect on the repetition of the rad¯
a, the semantic spec-
trum of which includes “parted,” “separate,” “distinct,” and “divided,” at the end of every couplet.
My rendering of this rad¯
ıf seeks to reproduce its eﬀect in translation by oﬀering several variations
a, a word that bears consider semantic ﬂexibility in Persian. Thus, when the lover “parted,”
the poet is spurred by his “departure,” even though the terms for these diﬀerent meanings are
identical in Persian. Arrows pierce the poet with yet more “departures,” and the lover’s “part-
ing” is compared to death and time’s “departure,” even though, again, the word does not vary
in Persian. All of the variations on parting used in this ghazal correspond to a single word (jud¯
so, while the English rendering necessarily diverges from the original continuity, it does preserve
the refrain’s repetitive qualities.
The full power of the rad¯
ais activated in the concluding verse, with the introduction
of the second deﬁning feature of the Persian ghazal and another aspect of Persian literature’s
contribution to global poetics, the pen name (takhallus
.).22 In keeping with the ghazal form as
it had become standardized by the thirteenth century, the poet refers to himself in the third
person, while at the same time addressing an imagined listener/reader, whom he calls on to
cast his gaze (r¯
acyat) on Hasan, and to observe the poet’s destitute condition: far from his lover
ur), bewildered (b¯
ı khabar), and severed from his home (ze kh¯
a). In this instance,
the authorial positioning aﬀorded by the takhallus
.is internal to the refrain’s signiﬁcation, for the
alienation of self and other that is implicit in such forms of authorial reference is literally entailed
in the meaning of jud¯
a. In this way, the Persian refrain enables content to express form and form
to express content.
Beyond this speciﬁc example, another signiﬁcant function of the takhallus
poetics was its conferral of fame on the poet. A poet’s takhallus
.provided the formal testimony
of his position “at the court of the patrons for whose soirées his songs were composed.”23 This
observation, made with respect to the Ghaznavid poet San¯
ı (d. 1131), also clariﬁes the creative
power wielded by the takhallus
.at the court in Delhi. In particular, it sheds light on one of Hasan’s
most paradoxical ghazals, on the rad¯
ıst (is not, does not exist). This poem ends by deploying
.in a quite distinctive way. The maqt
.ac(closing distich) invokes the title of the ruler,
ı (r. 1296–1316), in place of the name of the poet, which would normally occur at
the beginning of the ﬁrst half of the couplet:
Shah, your one hundred servants
know the truth as well as the khaqan.
Your one hundred poets like Kh¯
say to the khaqan that truth does not exist.
Even more extraordinary than the replacement of the poet’s name by the title of his ruler, how-
ever, is the allusion to the poet Kh¯
ı (d. 1199), famed for his elaborate poetics, in the second
half of the couplet. This allusion is one of the rare moments in the history of the Persian ghazal
when another poet’s takhallus
.is invoked in place of the poet’s own. And yet, rather than sig-
nifying poetic genius, as he often did in Indo-Persian literary texts, Kh¯
ı here is ﬁgured as
a sycophant who deceives his ruler.24 The pun on Kh¯
ı, the poet’s name, and khaqan,the
Turkic term for a ruler, is more than merely fortuitous. Thus the elision of a conventional takhallus
achieves an eﬀect here even more powerful than its inclusion could have done. It implies that
Hasan is unique among his peers for his relative distance from the patronage network. At the
same time, this ghazal on the rad¯
ıf “is not [n¯
ıst]” never surrenders its panegyric qualities, for its
raison d’être is the praise of Shah cAl¯
ı. These complex signiﬁcations, each of which is
dependent on the takhallus
.’ presence or absence, demonstrate that, for the purposes of poetic
meaning, what is omitted can matter more than what is said.
With only a few exceptions, all of H
.asan’s ghazals give the poet’s takhallus
.in the concluding
verse (known in Persian as the maqt
.ac). Ghazals that omit the takhallus
.do so for a reason. In the
example given above, the substitution of the poet’s name with that of the shah makes a political
statement. In another exception, the elision of the poet’s name serves the poem’s purpose of
rhetorically denigrating the poet’s persona and encouraging his lover to go away.25 Hence while
the verses between the mat
.lac(opening verse) and the maqt
.acmay be loosely structured as
per Jones’s dictum, the opening and closing verses stringently adhere to a ﬁxed pattern: the
ıf must occur twice in the mat
.lac, halfway through and at the close of each distich, and the
.must occur in the maqt
.ac, generally towards the beginning. To the extent that I have
rendered Hasan’s takhallus
.in his concluding verses and his rad¯
ıfs in his opening verses, I have
preserved this pattern in my translations. When I have diverged from the original, for example
by placing the rad¯
ıf at the beginning of each verse rather than at the end, where Persian poetic
norms require it to be, the intent has been to convey the eﬀect of the Persian device through
means that resonate more sonorously in English.
In the history of the ghazal, the unvarying rad¯
ıf has often been rendered in translation
through patterned variation. For example, the German Orientalist Hammer-Purgstall rendered
one of Hafez’s ghazals on the rad¯
ıf amad (to come) by alternating between gekommen (to come)
and bekommen (to get).26 By adhering, like Hammer-Purgstall, to the principle of sameness in
diﬀerence and diﬀerence in sameness, I have endeavored to convey the poetic force of the origi-
nal without retroﬁtting the Persian text into an English structure that makes a reliance on rhyme
sound like monotony.
Others of Hasan’s ghazals do more with the refrain than simply letting it close each dis-
tich. In addition to reproducing the rad¯
ıf at the end of each distich, these poems incorporate it
elsewhere into the text. One example is the following ghazal by Hasan, on the rad¯
un is a
letter of the Persian alphabet ( ), as well as the ﬁnal syllable for many Persian words:
Without the ruby of your lips ﬁlling my eyes at the hidden court,
young man, the last gaze draws nigh.
20 REBECCA GOULD
Your brow is etched with softness. Your mole reigns above.
Your brows became the letter N. Your mole became another N.
Doctors legislate that the drinkers of grief are the sick ones.
If I give my soul in front of you, keep it within the law.
Layli lures the camels towards the Kacba.
The guardians of the shrine are crazier than Majn ¯
When faced with you, men like Hasan are calm.
A tear is a red agate. Order is a hidden door.
Beyond the rad¯
ıf, this ghazal uses words ending in n(the Persian letter n¯
un) throughout, for
example twice in the second distich and at the beginning of the third, with q¯
un (law). Using
un as the rad¯
ıf enables the poet to include other rhyming words such as akn¯
un (now; v. 1),
un (hidden, latent; v. 1 and 5), and, most compellingly of all, majn¯
un (v. 4). While this last
word can be translated simply as “madness,” Majn¯
un is also the famed lover of Layl¯
to the Arabic legend that entered Persian through oral sources, Majn¯
un loved Layl¯
ı more than
any lover has ever loved his beloved. Majn¯
un’s devotion to his beloved became a staple of clas-
sical Persian texts.27 When the poet claims in the fourth distich that the guardians ( ¯
ab) of the
shrine (haram) are crazier than Majn ¯
un, he is therefore claiming that such attraction can overturn
the social order, such that even the pious ﬁnd themselves beholden to worldly desire. Meanwhile,
the poet remains calm in the face of such chaos, for his immersion in poetry enables him to focus
on the hidden door, which signiﬁes an opening into eternity.
The power of these verses is compounded by the double entendre (¯
am) that attends
haram (shrine). Vocalized diﬀerently, haram can also be read as harem, meaning the place where
women live in premodern Islamic societies (the spelling is the same). Although, given that the
Kacba was a shrine, the signiﬁcation of harem is not the dominant one, this secondary meaning
adds another layer to this poetic image. Hasan’s use of the rad¯
un in this ghazal extends poetic
meaning by bringing incongruous signiﬁcations into rhyming relations. To adapt W. H. Auden,
the end result of such technical feats is a “sound metaphor,” meaning a verbal congruence that
becomes meaningful through phonemic proximity.28
Although he may have been the most outstanding Persian poet of early modern India, the poetry
of Bidel of Delhi remained marginalized within world literary history. In part his absence can be
attributed to problems of translation. One obvious reason for Bidel’s diﬃculty is the distance of
his reﬁned Persian idiom from modern modes of expression. Yet there are moments when the
distance between the source language and the original facilitates rather than impedes the task
of translation. The endeavors documented here to render Bidel’s recalcitrant ghazals into English
help to clarify the interface between translatability and literary form. Many of the problems and
pleasures that pertain to translating Bidel apply to predecessors as well, including Hasan Sijzi,
who introduced the ghazal genre to the subcontinent four hundred years earlier.
Like his Indian predecessor, Mirza ‘Abd al-Qadir Bidel descended from a lineage of immi-
grants to northern India from Central Asia. Like many of the most important ghazal poets of
South Asia, he came of age in the multilingual environment that ﬂourished under the Mughals.
While his ﬁrst spoken language was probably Bengali, the erstwhile poet soon acquired ﬂuency
in Persian and Arabic through his studies. He attained proﬁciency in Sanskrit and is reported to
have memorized the Mahabharata along with the Qur’¯
an. He chose his pen name, literally mean-
ing “heartless” in Persian (“bi,” without; “del,” heart), soon after embarking on a literary career.
Although supported by numerous patrons, Bidel maintained his distance from court politics, and
strove to carve out a literary aesthetic that was beholden neither to sectarian religious diﬀerences
nor to the intrigues that ﬂourished at the Mughal court. Most importantly, he brought together
Persian and Sanskritic literary traditions in his poetry. The author of four narrative poems (mas-
navi), Bidel features prominently in contemporary Afghanistan and Tajikistan literary life, and
his poetry is recited by people of all classes to this day. In his native India, by contrast, Bidel is
remembered only within the rapidly shrinking ﬁeld of Persian literary studies.
Through his ghazals and narrative poems, Bidel crafted a uniquely metaphysical poetics,
which was at the same time severed from historical and social realia. To invoke the negative
terms in which the genre has been described, Bidel’s ghazals are insular, claustrophobic, and
repetitive.29 And yet, reading Bidel’s ghazals—not just once but repeatedly over the course of a
life—can open worlds of astonishment. In their fullest realizations, Bidel’s ghazals acknowledge
no reality outside the artiﬁce of literary form. As such, they epitomize a genre that, in words
of Pakistani-Welsh writer Sara Suleri Goodyear, “questions the limitations of a speciﬁc cultural
context and a speciﬁc language.”30
Even more than its content, the ghazal’s transnational dimensions are revealed through
its form. The genre’s peculiar way of proceeding through sonic association rather than semantic
logic makes it adaptable to a wide variety of geographies and traditions, without requiring any
grounding in a speciﬁc narrative tradition. Alongside its adaptability, the form successfully resists
the modern desire to ﬁx form and meaning into a single whole. Echoing Adorno’s dictum that
31 the ghazal pioneers ways
of literary signiﬁcation that are untethered to speciﬁc stories.
The ghazal’s metasemantic peculiarities are epitomized by Bidel’s alter ego, the insane
lover Majnun, who carried his home on his back on his lifelong journey across the desert in
search of his beloved, ghazals epitomize a literary form that “must travel and recreate its bound-
aries, however fragile they may be.”32 As Canadian poet Lorna Crozier writes, ghazals “don’t
seem to be going anywhere, even towards their own indeﬁnite conclusions.”33 The disconnect
in these poems between images and meanings shifts the burden of interpretation to the reader.
“The form,” explains Crozier, “demands trust as we look through the glass darkly to see or intuit
the hidden harmony that is there.”34 Frustrating the modernist desire for expectation of clo-
sure (which often coexists with a recognition of closure’s impossibility), the ghazal’s open-ended
structure undermines its own foundations. Through its asemantic lyricism, the ghazal as form
denies the possibility of an end, in life as well as in verse.
How is it possible that verse that fails to satisfy the most basic modern readerly expecta-
tions can provide delights unavailable in European literature? One way to answer this question
is by studying those aspects of Bidel’s poetics that can be retained—or rather recreated—in
translation. The most distinctive among these is the rad¯
ıf. Bidel’s many complex rad¯
ıb],” “absent-mindedness [tagh¯
afel],” and “wave [mawj].” This latter term in
particular features broadly in Bidel’s poetics, as a rad¯
ıf but also more generally to suggest how
life compares to the breaking of waves on the ocean’s edge. Bidel’s deployment of such rad¯
functions in a way similar to his pen name: in identifying his poetic persona, it enables readers to
recognize the distinctiveness of his voice.
The eﬀect initiated by the rad¯
ıf is compounded by the repetition of the poet’s name in
the closing distich at the end, combined with the requisite transition from the third to the ﬁrst
person, which, at some point between the thirteenth and the ﬁfteenth centuries, came to be
22 REBECCA GOULD
referred to as takhallus
.(from the Arabic term for “ending”).35 In Suleri’s phrasing, this closing
device acts as an “invocation of tragedy that certainly exceeds what may be called a signature.”36
The tragedy of the takhallus
.is that, as the ghazal proceeds towards closure, no end is in sight, for
the “very structure of the poem disallows closure.” Combined with the ﬁnal transition, which as a
rule invokes the poet’s name, the rad¯
ıf enables the poet to insert himself into a classical tradition
while intervening in and extending extant poetic canons.
Having seen how the rad¯
ıf functions in Persian poetics, it is now worth asking what
becomes of the rad¯
ıf in translation. Given that the English language is dominated by sonic values
alien to classical Persian, and resists the quantitative meters on which the rad¯
ıf depends, I was sur-
prised to discover that my most successful renderings of Bidel tended to be those with the most
ıfs. Precisely the poems I expected would be most diﬃcult to translate, including
ghazals with relatively adventurous rad¯
ıfs such as “here [inj¯
a],” “night [shab],” and “sun [¯
lent themselves most readily to translation. By contrast, ghazals with common rad¯
ıfs such as “is
ıst]” were more diﬃcult to render eﬀectively into English and came out sounding banal
and perfunctory, even when they worked in Persian.
In his study of semantic rhyme from Chaucer to Pope, W. K. Wimsatt explains the kind of
rhyming developed by Alexander Pope on historical grounds. As it developed into a modern
language and parted ways with its Germanic origins, Wimsatt explains, English lost many of its
“easy rhymes,” including “stressed Germanic and Romance endings.” As a result of these losses,
Pope was compelled to use “rhymed words diﬀering more widely in meaning.”37 Although the
suﬀusion of medieval Germanic and Romance languages by “easy rhymes” is paralleled by the
equally sonorous inﬂections of classical Persian, these phonic resources are unavailable to the
translator who undertakes to give life in contemporary English to the Persian rad¯
ıf. Instead, the
translator must make do with the same limited resources available to Pope, who was compelled
to bring unlikely objects into a rhyming relation. Wimsatt’s observation that, in contradistinction
to Chaucer, Pope’s couplet is marked by “closure or completeness, its stronger tendency to paral-
lel, and its epigrammatic, witty, intellectual point,”38 also elucidates the diﬀerence between the
Persian ghazal and its English counterpart.
While the English language’s paucity of easy rhymes cannot but limit the potential for
certain kinds of translation, the rad¯
ıf has demonstrated a surprising elasticity across languages.
It carries over into English features that would otherwise be lost in translation. The rad¯
such literary feats in part by merging sound and sense, form and meaning. The following ghazal
of Bidel, on the rad¯
ıf “sun [¯
ab]” achieves its eﬀect by bringing phonemic and semantic repeti-
tion together, thereby causing each iteration of these two syllables, ¯
af and t¯
ab, to generate new
The light of your hair hangs a shadow facing the sun.
Your musky lines are broken by the letters of the sun.
The entry of the eye into your mind is a miracle.
When does the pearl line the edge of ocean and the depth of the sun?
Our darkness, free from the light of union, lures.
The last shadow circumambulates the sun.
Even our crazy fortunes are blessed.
Our nakedness can spend the sun.
In its sweat, a beautiful miracle is underway.
The ﬂower’s dew drips here from the sides of the sun.
Everywhere, the surface of your face is hit
by the rays striking the earth, the sun’s letters.
It is rare that we can boast of poverty while
The pearl of astonishment is surprised in the expanse of the sun’s ﬂourishing.
Sacriﬁces, Bidel, play on its face.
a ‘Abd al-Q¯
ı, ghazal 355)
Because every distich in this ghazal ends with the word sun, the word functions equally as
an end rhyme and as a thematic uniﬁer. In contrast to the English, the Persian lines follow a strictly
quantitative format, with the same number of syllables containing equal distributions of long
and short vowels in each verse. English does not handle such nuances well. As American poet
John Hollander wrote of his own ghazals, disrupting the quantitative syllabic pattern followed
by Persian poetics is one means of making rhyme “audible” in modern English.39 So, while there
is usually more to be gained than lost by retaining the rad¯
ıf, often there is more to be lost than
gained by striving for a syllabic pattern that English does not easily accommodate.
Even when they lack full syllabic ﬁdelity, Bidel’s Persian verses share with the English ver-
sion other formal qualities. In both texts, the incessant turn to the sun works as a formal device
that also conveys semantic content and generates wonder. That English translations of the
ghazal can embrace rhyming patterns marginalized within mainstream American poetics was
one of the most important insights of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001),
whose early death cut short his bold eﬀorts to merge Anglophone and Middle Eastern poetics.
In a classic discussion of the ghazal, Ali celebrated the genre on the grounds that it oﬀers an
opportunity for English-language poets to “again employ full rhymes, even the most cliché-
ridden, without apology or embarrassment.”40 Reviving literary norms discarded centuries ago,
Ali argued that “the rad¯
ıf enables the rhyme to lose, through a transparent masking, its strained
and clichéd element.”41
Repetition is made attractive in both the Persian and the English, as the rad¯
ıf changes its
meaning as the verses move forward. Opening with a typical image of a beloved, the poem
launches into a metaphysical disquisition on the meaning of life and the inevitability of death.
Whereas this ghazal began life as a love poem along the lines of what in English might qualify as
light verse, by the time it reaches its conclusion, it has acquired an ethical dimension, with the
poet instructing himself to make his every movement through life a perpetual turn to the sun.
The poem’s desire for closure has been compelled by the rad¯
ıf to yield to openness without end.
Far from generating a monotonous litany, Bidel’s rad¯
ıf confers on the poem a unity that is stylis-
tic and thematic, and imparts to it a forcefulness it would lack in the absence of this device. If,
in obedience to prohibitions on repetition, “sun” had been replaced by synonyms such as “light”
and “radiance,” the text’s poetic intensity would have been diluted.
The Poetics of Incongruity
Owing to a paucity of naturally sonorous end-rhymes, the English translator who aims to pre-
serve the rad¯
ıf in translation is likely to be compelled to repeatedly yoke seemingly incongruous
objects together. Incongruous marriages of sense and sound abound within Persian poetics, par-
ticularly among poets who participated in the school that later came to be called the Indian style
(sabk-i hindi). Bausani alludes to this shift in poetic values when he speaks of how “the shattering
of the law of formal harmony” becomes more marked the closer the ghazal approaches to
24 REBECCA GOULD
Wimsatt proposes that “the diﬀerence between prose and verse is the diﬀerence between
homoeoteleuton and rhyme.”43 Homoeoteleuton is the repetition of identical or similar endings
in close proximity to each other. Rhymed prose, called sajcin Persian Arabic, is one exam-
ple of a literary form replete with homoeoteleuton. The rhyming that animates sajcis intrinsic
to a given verbal unit. Similarly, in inﬂected languages, case endings of themselves generate
homoeoteleuton. The rad¯
ıf, by contrast—to carry Wimsatt’s distinction into a realm he did not
probe—calls on the poet to look beyond the automated mechanics of grammar and to reﬂect
on the limits of language itself.
In sum, my work with the poetry of H
.asan and Bidel has shown that those ghazals with the
most commonplace rad¯
ıfs tend to be most resistant to translation. Simple rhymes and rad¯
less that can cross the threshold on the journey from one language to another. Firmly rooted in
a speciﬁc idiom, these words and phrases are more closely yoked to linguistic convention than
their more amorphous counterparts. Prior to translating these poets, I expected that the rad¯
that demanded the least from the Persian poet would lend themselves most readily to English
translation. Such rad¯
ıfs, I assumed, would have less to lose over the course of their linguistic meta-
morphoses. Contrary to my expectations, the opposite turned out to be the case: the rad¯
had the most to lose also had the most to gain when they were rendered in translation.
My endeavors to render these extended rad¯
ıfs into English conﬁrmed a counterintuitive
hypothesis advanced by Walter Benjamin.44 The closer a text approaches to mere information
(Mitteilung)—meaning in this context the simpler the refrain’s grammatical function—the more,
to Benjamin’s mind, will it resist translation, because simpler rad¯
ıfs are less prone to generate
polysemy.45 Benjamin’s point is that texts that foreground language’s polysemy are translatable
(übersetzbar) relative to texts that conceal or suppress polysemy for the sake of communicating
information. Translatability becomes on Benjamin’s account a benchmark of a reﬂexivity that is
literary as well as conceptual, rather than a measure of clarity in language. Over the course of my
work on the ghazal, the rad¯
ıf became for me, the translator, a measure of a ghazal’s translatability,
and I came to expect that the most complex and creative rad¯
ıfs would lend themselves most fully
to the journey across languages.
ıf’s translatability bears equally on the work it does within Persian poetics and on
its life in translation. If the linking of incongruous objects through rhyme can be shown to be
more amenable to translation than mere rhyme, which remains conﬁned within a language’s
grammatical parameters, then the implications for translation theory are obvious. The rad¯
translatability supports Benjamin’s suggestion that “a ﬁxed meaning [bestimmte Bedeutung]
residing in the original text expresses itself” through the act of translation.46 While this signiﬁ-
cance inheres (innewohnt) within the original text, it is not contained by it; in fact, translation is
what makes this ﬁxed meaning visible. The translatable rad¯
ıf is a kind of metaphor—a “carrying
over,” as the Greek meaning of metaphora suggests—between two (and sometimes more than
two) linguistic worlds.
ıf’s translatability contributed to the ghazal’s “wide and deep inﬂuence on the
literatures of Asia” that has been the subject of multiple scholarly studies.47 This inﬂuence
encompassed the literatures of Albania, the Malay Archipelago, and the Deccan, to list merely
a few of the manifold geographies the genre has traversed, thanks in part to H
.asan, Bidel, and
other Persian poets of Islamic South Asia. Like the homeless Majn¯
un traversing the desert in
Bidel’s resonant image, the worlds the rad¯
ıf carries on its back are as divided by the language
of the original text as they are when they embark on their journey to another language’s shore.
Inasmuch as translation is a “provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of lan-
guages,” the rad¯
ıf is the ideal instrument for forcing us to face the incommensurability between
language and the object of its representation. In the very act of giving ﬂesh to sounds, the rad¯
reminds us of the incongruity of all comparisons. The breach between being and nonbeing that
translation compels us to confront is the dominant keynote of Persian poetics. The rad¯
ıf, I have
argued, is the key formal device that makes such confrontations possible.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems
of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in Fall 2015, which includes ﬁfty of
.asan’s ghazals organized by rad¯
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Gould works on Persian and Islamic literatures in a comparative context. She is the author of
After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern
University Press), Georgian Notes on the Caucasus: Three Stories by Aleksandre Qazbegi (Central
European University Press), and the forthcoming The Literatures of Anticolonial Insurgency: Aesthetics
and Violence in the Caucasus (Yale University Press). She teaches literature at Yale-NUS College in
1. Letter to Agha Shahid Ali, cited in his introduction to Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English,3.
2. I use distich and couplet interchangeably here to refer to the bayt, which is the basic unit of Persian
and Arabic verse and consists of two mis
a’s, or hemistichs. While the bayt is not ﬁxed with respect
to meter or syllable length, the key requirement is that both of its components are identical in
a’iq al-shi’r, 315.
4. For these details, see Heinrichs, “Rad¯
ıf,” 8: 368.
5. Crozier, “Dreaming the Ghazal into Being,” 66.
6. Jones, Grammar of the Persian Language, 232
7. See, for example, A. J. Arberry, “Orient Pearls at Random Strung.”
8. Bausani, “The Development of Form in Persian Lyrics,” 145.
9. Lewis, “The Rise and Fall of a Persian Refrain,” 201.
12. For a masterful study of this process of adaptation and appropriation, see Losensky, Welcoming
Fighani: Imitation and Poetic Individuality in the Safavid-Mughal Ghazal.
13. This is not to imply that Iranian poets did not also pioneer the rad¯
ıf. On the rad¯
ıf as cultivated by
poets based in Iran, see, for example, Losensky, “‘Demand, Ask, Seek.’”
14. The fullest treatment of the ghazal’s global circulation to date are the volumes edited by Thomas
Bauer and Angelika Neuwirth, Ghazal as World Literature.
15. For the interface of these two discourses, see Ingenito, “Tabrizis in Shiraz Are Worth Less than a
Dog,” esp. 102.
16. Although Borah (“The Life and Works of Amir Hasan Dihlavi,” 1) asserts that Hasan was born in Delhi,
Salomatshoeva cites a verse, missing from the edition of Narg¯
an, in which the poet states that
26 REBECCA GOULD
he was born in Badaun, 200 kilometers southeast of Delhi. See the introduction to her edition of
17. Borah argues that the other name by which the poet was known, Sanjar¯
ı, was a scribal error for
ı (“The Life and Works” 1, no. 1).
18. Borah, “The Life and Works,” 5, citing from Hasan’s prose preface to his divan.
19. Sharma and Losensky, “Introduction,” xxiv.
20. For Amir Khusrow’s use of Indian languages, see his Nuh sipihr, 147–201.
21. For a detailed discussion of this work, see Gould, “Persian Love in an Indian Environment.”
22. Major studies of this literary device include Losensky “Linguistic and Rhetorical Aspects of the
Signature Verse (takhallus
.) in the Persian Ghazal,” and de Bruijn, “The Name of the Poet in Persian
23. Lewis, “Reading, Writing, and Recitation,” 98.
24. For another engagement with Kh¯
ı, this time in the form of a qas
ıda rather than a ghazal, see
ı, 611. Also see Gould, “The Geographies of ‘Ajam,” for the reception
ı in Indo-Persian poetry generally.
25. This poem is included in my translations of H
.asan’s ghazals: After Tomorrow the Days Disappear:
Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi.
26. Hammer-Purgstall’s translation is discussed in Shamel, “Persian Ear Rings and ‘Fragments of a
27. For the Layl¯
un story in Persian literature, see Seyed-Gohrab, Layl¯
ı and Majn¯
Krachkovskii, Izbrannye sochineniia, 2: 588–632 (Persian translation in Layl¯
an: bih inz
ı va Majn¯
28. Auden, “Writing ,” 308.
29. See Crozier, “Dreaming the Ghazal into Being,” 62. Bausani more diplomatically refers to the ghazal
as one of Iranian civilization’s “hermetic forms” (“The Development of Form in Persian Lyrics,” 152).
30. Suleri Goodyear, “Ideas of Order in an Afterword,” in Ravishing DisUnities, 180.
31. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 41.
32. Suleri Goodyear, “Ideas of Order in an Afterword,” 180–181.
33. Crozier, “Dreaming the Ghazal into Being,” 64.
35. For the dating of this terminology, see de Bruijn, “The Name of the Poet in Classical Persian Poetry,”
36. Suleri Goodyear, “Ideas of Order in an Afterword,” 179.
37. Wimsatt, “One Relation of Rhyme and Reason,” 327.
38. Ibid., 328.
39. Letter to Agha Shahid Ali, cited in his introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, 7–8.
40. Agha Shahid Ali, introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, 11. Other recent Anglophone ghazal experi-
ments include Khalvati, The Meanest Flower, and Sedarat, Ghazal Games.
41. Agha Shahid Ali, introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, 11.
42. Bausani, “The Development of Form in Persian Lyrics,” 150.
43. Wimsatt, “One Relation of Rhyme and Reason,” 324. For criticism of Wimsatt’s distinction as
“problematic” (with no reason given), see Brogan and Gerber, “Homoeoteleuton,” 640.
44. These ideas are explored in greater detail in Gould, “Inimitability versus Translatability.”
45. Benjamin, “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” 4: 20.
46. Ibid. 4: 10; my translation.
47. For this quotation, see Bausani, “The Development of Form in Persian Lyrics,” 152.
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