Editor's Note

Should we expect an English translation of an Urdu translation of an English translation to close the
circle and return to the source text, barring minor updates for a shift in eras and perhaps some stylistic
matters related to the individual translator’s voice? Sometimes a circle of translations turns out to be a
möbius strip. In this curious case of Geeta Patel translating Urdu poet Miraji’s translations of E. Powys Mathers’ translations of geisha poetry, there is a little complication— Miraji.

Miraji’s translations do not pass the fidelity inspection test. In fact, they make such a test look foolish. Some of Miraji’s translations/poems seem to have no corresponding originals. For those that do, we include the “original” 1920s translation by Mathers for comparison. Thus, this feature is really about Miraji’s translations (or not), and includes Patel’s translation of Miraji’s essay about geisha poetry where he discusses his views on the practice of binding feet as well as binding translations. We also feature Patel’s essay where she writes about the significance of Miraji’s voice, his intervention, and his body of work, and of her own passion for it.

— Mani Rao
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Miraji’s Intervention as a Translator

Miraji (1912-1949) is probably one of the most inventive poets in any Indian language, endlessly trying out new forms of lyric as well as prose. He translated voraciously from pretty much every Indian language including Sanskrit and, in a nod to his name, was translating the medieval mystic Mirabai as he died. He also translated widely from poets all over the world as well as from many different eras, including his own time (Alun Lewis, Anna Akhmatova, HD, E.E. Cummings, Stephen Vincent Benet and such). But his focus was often on poets who had been exiled over and over from literary canons, or consigned to the garbage bins of history, then dusted off and revived, or dumped again, or simply poets who were misplaced, forgotten. Here we can include, among many others that he wrote essays on, Japanese women poets, Sappho, Korean women poets, Charles Baudelaire.

Much of the substance in the historical narratives that accompanied Miraji’s translations of lyric was garnered from accounts in English, occasionally from one source. This was also the case with the essay on the geishas—both the poetry and the essays could be said to be culled and reframed from the those that E. Powys Mathers published in his twelve-volume collection Eastern Love probably written between 1928-1930 and republished in 1953.

Commentators on Miraji’s lyric and prose rarely speak of him as a philosopher or a theorist of lyric. Nor do they attend to Miraji as someone who was deeply concerned with not just what translation might enable as a transfer of archives and source material in the guise of ‘information about,’ but as someone whose translations were meditations on politics and theory.  For Miraji translations carried in something else as well. In what he translated, how he translated, what was composed during the process of translation and what a reader became as they immersed themselves or held themselves apart from Miraji’s translations and the accompanying essays – here lay some of Miraji’s most poignant, and potent philosophical and political intercessions and elucidations.

Miraji knew well the abrasions of the tongue, the forfeitures of memory that were the intergenerational aftermath of 19th century British colonial policy directed at reforming education and in particular at lyric as the form that spoke the everyday, the soul. For Miraji recouping what had been rubbed away could never be salvaged in a faithful fashion such as searching for archives of one’s own community; he regarded realism as the most parsimonious pathway to representation. Translation, as a literal project of transfer, was central to the politics of colonial control—whether it was through hegemony or dominance. It was the ground on which colonial laws were shaped. It was at the heart of what was carried, as commodity in the hands of scholars such as William Jones in the 18th century, from Asia to Europe to alleviate literary decline, giving rise to European romanticism. Translation from English and European languages into south Asian ones were crucial to Lord Macaulay’s project of refashioning colonial selves by transmuting local languages to produce vernaculars.

Miraji saw possibility in the tales, fables, narratives and lyric from other lives and other places, possibilities as openings to worlds that might—if readers let themselves go, softened themselves into belonging there, translated themselves in, took account of the lessons proffered by histories–invoke a release from loss.  However, he believed that this was only likely if translators did not themselves fall into the fiction that translation was transparent, ferrying something from one language to another without mediation. Translation then, for Miraji, was an intervention, a hiatus, it was a process of composition. It was mutual becoming, where, even as a translator became those she translated, what was being translated became hers. In the process translators such as Miraji led the lyricists he translated to unexpected places (Baudelaire for example ended up in Calcutta), even as he honed in on, delved into the psychic, political, epistemic conundrums he felt were at the heart of the lyric and histories he translated.  And this is where his interventions lay. Sappho’s lyric, in Miraji’s hands in his essay on her, expands vertiginously out from fragments, many of which seem to have been composed anew by Miraji, so that Miraji almost fades into Sappho, as Sappho bleeds into Miraji and in so doing gives Miraji the space to bring Sappho into a mehfil (a poetic symposium) with poets from Hindustan.

Miraji, then, believed in being an unfailingly unreliable translator; translation was processes of recreating. This is certainly the case with both the essay on geishas and their poetry. Sections of Miraji’s essay are picked up from Powys Mathers’ own brief piece on the geishas, some of lyric is to be found in Powys Mathers’ cycle of 80 odd translations.  I certainly don’t know if any of the bits and pieces of history and explanatory text in Miraji’s essay or any of the poetry, both of which diverge quite a bit from the Powys Mathers, were garnered from somewhere else.  However, given the final poem in the sequence, which evokes the India river Yamuna, many of these poems could be said to be those by Miraji composing, reciting, singing as a geisha.  The essay and poems may well be an allegorical rumination on colonialism, its psychic costs and what could be considered routes into that loss, and moments that offer paths away from them.

I have opted to refer to Miraji as a ‘he’ because the contrast between Miraji’s poetic name, which is that of a woman, the women Miraji translated, and the gender used when Miraji is spoken about is remarkably suggestive in the ways in which it plays with desire and across gender.

Miraji taught me how to be a translator—reading his essays, lyric and translations tutored me in the task. Miraji’s translations of Sappho, Li Po, Vidyapati, Mallarmé, taught me the skills I needed, and the political and philosophical premises that were folded into those skills.

Miraji: Geisha’s Songs

Source: Miraji, “Geshā’on ke Gīt.” Mashriq o Maghrib ke Naghmen (Lāhore: Panjāb Akademī TrāsT), 543-553.
Miraji’s introduction and selections of poems translated by Geeta Patel.

These songs are kin to those from Japan’s earliest times; some are well regarded and harmonious. Whatever the era in which a song is composed, once it has been born into the present it begins to blend into everyday lives. As they find their place, these particular songs are accompanied by the strumming of a three or four stringed musical instrument, a lighthearted, delicate viol of Japan, the samisen. The subtle timbre of the samisen seems to wash over Japanese hearts, and its echo brings the almost forgotten tales of love to life again in a tea or coffee house or reminds those in the closed houses of Yoshiwara of romances gone by. Its voice is neither loud and shrill, nor is it wildly cheerful; one may think of it as delicate, elegant and perhaps just a little sharp and piercing.

Every geisha plays the samisen, every geisha sings these lyrics, and in their lines and fragments, we notice the faint reflections and shadows of the trials and anguish of Japanese courtesans. If we could venture to coin a poetic name for these songs it might well be “waiting.” Every woman in Yoshiwara turns her considerable intellect to find a reasonable solution to her incessantly joyless sexually fraught life—searching for a compassionate customer who would be willing to enter into an agreeable covenant with her. She looks forward to a day, a path, by which her to-be-husband or master would release her from captivity by settling on a suitable price with the owner of the brothel and paying off her debt.

The owners or managers of the bordello buy her at a really young age—hauling her out of her extreme poverty or purchasing her from greedy village parents. One could say of her that her whole life is trussed into these enclosed places. There is nothing casual or ordinary about this entire business in Japan. The women spend their lives learning, and it is extraordinarily arduous and demanding.  Singing, dancing, learning to play at least one instrument, intimacy with every formal convention (such as the details of the tea ceremony), the etiquette of dressing, how to be elegant, how to adorn oneself, to choose delicate flowers for flawless bouquets—all these must be performed by these women of the market with inordinate taste and dexterity.

These songs embrace and manifest a briefly, concisely circumscribed passion; this is the character of all Japan’s finest lyric (which encompass life’s myriad aspect, ups and downs). And yet, the way that the courtesan’s education, taste, composition plays out in the unbounded romantic lyricism of all her songs seems to embody a shortfall of her facility, a failing of her skill. It’s certainly the case that when Japanese songs or lyric are translated according to western literary fashions, is almost like holding a dancing star hostage. In Japanese hearts specific image-concepts are associated with particularly striking passions and qualities and circumstances. The songs of a cuckoo bring sorrow to mind (as is also the case with poetry in Hindi). In Japanese plays, the simple call of cuckoo suggests to the actors that a truly tragic accident will transpire.   The moon’s appearance is proof of love. Autumn stands for the collective grief of the lover and beloved. And there are also the Makura Kitoba, that is “pillow words,” which are special and have unique meanings and purposes used for unusual occasions. Multiple descriptive doublings feature in this poetry, such as wife and tender, sky and beyond time or eternal.

This lyric also has another peculiar characteristic—it is peopled by fleeting or transitional words or phrases. Through them, the mind can saunter or sashay or leap from one idea to another. Other words are almost meaningless, meant merely to arouse musical or sonic intonations.

It’s important to keep in mind that these songs by Geishas do not need to be composed according to formal prosody or in ordered arrangements such those from other Japanese genres; in Urdu we think of this as a feature of rustic songs. Geisha’s songs are much harder to translate than other Japanese poetry, more difficult to bring over into another language. But they are clearer. They are more suffused with passion and replete with subtle, delicate concepts. Because their compilers follow those who write more pastoral poetry—they don’t really adhere to cultural conventions, nor do they obey precepts cultivated by class and education. So, their natural simplicity mingles with their showy lyricism, and is extraordinarily pleasurable.

In Japan confinement seems to be an ordinary habit or disposition. Binding women’s feet, special techniques for husbanding giant trees and sprinkling them with water, nurturing them lovingly to produce entirely artificial plants. And in Yoshiwara, bringing human partridges from the fresh open spaces of the village to be impossibly shackled to the chains of a despondent life, with hopeless terror as their only nourishment – all these reveal themselves in the shapes that taste takes. So, it seems natural and quite appropriate that this milieu would have a profound impression on those living in these closed quarters, and their passions would flow out as though they were confined and concise. Tiny feet are differently savored across many countries, and whatever ideas emanate from desires hanging off smallish genealogical trees, whether or not those desires are actually present, we can attest to one thing: that we see these curbed, fettered desires everywhere. In them one notices the exquisite paradox of a world conquering the supplication to which any person may happily consent.

The translation of these songs [in Urdu] follows the English one and is therefore in free verse.  These translations, then, hold onto a non-metrical almost non-lyrical form, paying rather more attention to the breath time of what is said and the life-spirit of the theme. Also, the tone and mood are Indian in just a few places, so that those who come upon all the unfamiliar nouns and names in the verses do not find them unpleasant and dislike them out of hand.


Editor’s Note: We thought it might be interesting to compare the ‘original’ E. Powys Mathers’ English translation (that Miraji had translated into Urdu) with Geeta Patel’s English translation of Miraji’s Urdu version. Ironically, as we can see from the two texts Miraji culled to translate poetry by Geishas, one was the hokku by the male Japanese poet, Takarai Kikaku, a disciple of Matsuo Basho. Here too, Miraji translates deliberately across gender, stealthily absconding with verse attributed to a male poet to weave into those voiced by women.

“Songs of the Geishas.” E. Powys Mathers. Eastern Love, Volume 7.  London: John Rodker (for subscribers), 1928, 103-135.

“Forty Hokku of Kikaku, 1658-1707.” E. Powys Mathers. Eastern Love, Volume 12.  London: John Rodker (for subscribers), 1930, 53-66.

1. Conduct


partridge ruffles

leaf’s flutter –

I dance


Powys Mathers’ version





 Or falling leaf,

 Which ought I to imitate

 In my dancing? (Vol. 7, poem no. 13, p. 109)


2. Closeness


Hearts double

So far from anyone,

from my life shed

Quiet soothes, as

she says, “Listen to the wind’s cadence”

as pine branches reel


Powys Mathers’ version




 Two in their little room

 Far from other people and from life,

 The silence of boiling water,

 And she says: ‘Listen to the wind

 In the pine tops.’ (Volume 7, poem no. 18, p. 111)


3. Aloneness


I still, and gaze

drapes fold me into infinity

as I lose myself


4. Sleep’s snare


meeting by chance in dreams

melancholy clothes you, as

an unforeseen breath startles me awake

pulls my gaze here, to you, and then elsewhere

and everything that holds me is scoured away –

in the flick of your glance


5. In memory of the seasons


Autumn falls over hearts

Thoughts weave through spring

and I will not be lost

nor they mislay me


6. Gilden motes of time


The half-light of night has faded

Sleep wanes

No one remains

merely the lingering flutter of joining

swerves here, and sways elsewhere


Powys Mathers’ version




 The night is black

 And I am excited about you.

 My love climes in me, and you ask

 That I should climb to the higher room.

 Things are hidden in a black night.

 Even the dream is black

 On the black -lacquered pillow,

 Even our talk is hidden. (Volume 7, poem no. 12, p. 111)


7. Separation


rain lashes

the window

a lone woman gazes


Powys Mathers’ version




 A rainy day.

 The lonely woman

 looks from her window. (Volume 11, poem no. 24, p. 60)


8. At the river’s verge


damp clothes

dry in the sun —

Joy’s bed?


Powys Mathers’ version


 Yearly General Wash


 Linen in the sun.

 Is that my marriage

 pillow? (Volume 11, poem no. 21, p 60)


9. As night’s joy comes to a close


Before we begin, let the moon ebb

The cuckoo calls impatiently

A brief pause

as we part


Powys Mathers’ version


 After a Night at a Tea-House


 The moon pales.

 Cuckoo sings.

 Good-bye moment. (Volume 11, poem no. 29, p 62)


10. Ascetic

She’s never left home, however

she stepped out into the wild rain


On the temple steps


Powys Mathers’ version




 The woman who never comes forth

 comes forth into the great storm.

 A visit to the temple? (Volume 11, poem no. 7, p. 56)


11. Kindled

An indifferent day crumbling

Curtains split the door open

and shadows cast the evening’s mood

My heart lanced by sorrow, so

unexpectedly pricked, engulfed by exhaustion

as I tally each thread of sunlight

A pause bared in a breath, time spreads

And so, I reckon each thread as it alights


Just this way


Powys Mathers’ version




 The pale day

 Pierces the bamboo blind.

 Grief pieces my heart

 And I count the bands of light

 Not knowing why,

 Like that. (Volume 7, poem no. 34, p. 116)


12. Waiting in the evening

We gather for pleasure

Blossoms celebrate my hair

Ah, but he hasn’t come back

I sit apprehensive, vulnerable

cultivating a stale habit

of long, hollow days

that stack up unadorned, desolate, and

warp this stubborn year


Powys Mathers’ version


 The Feast of Kamo


 At the feast of Kamo

 I put rose-mallows in my hair;

 He never came back, and I am waiting.

 Time has a away of piling long days,

 Long day, long days

 Into a great hill. (Volume 7, poem no. 23, p 112)


13. Absolution

Today I bathed in a tidal river

Rinsed in surges of pellucid water

Our collective grief washes away, and

Yes, something comes undone


Powys Mathers’ version


 Tamagava River


 I bathed my snow skin

 In pure Tamagava river

 Our quarrel is loosened slowly,

 And he loosens my hair.

 I am all uncombed.

 I will not remember him,

    I will not altogether forget him,

    I will wait for Spring. (Volume 7, poem no. 10, p.108)


14. My heart

My heart in the monsoon wash

Life’s fickle oscillations, mischievously

withdraw into these curtains behind

an array of dense clouds

A gorgeous silhouette

An exquisite disposition

One who fate loves, not I

A sharp spring breeze that lets leaves drop

shall consume my life, yearning


a cuckoo cries out from a tree

A spell of rain and my heart


15. Unpredictable

Ah, love is mortal, and I

look on dreams at the water’s flank, when

I flow on a boat, the night moon my guest

my flesh hemmed in, besieged

the dense mound of my thoughts without end

Ah, when do the anecdotes that make my life

assent to the mess of my heart, I

see them as reverie, on

a desolate bed, as my tears

call the temple bells


Powys Mathers’ version


 Unstable Love


 Love is unstable. I dream of a drifting

 Barque. My body is limited.

 My thought is infinite.

 Things do not go as I would have them.

 I see him in the dream of a light sleep

 Or resting on one arm in place of a pillow.

 Audible are the bells of Miï. (Volume 7, poem no. 9, p. 108)


16. Obscurity

The night is dusky

My heart warps, and I

wake from a dense sleep

a cyclone of desire

You say – let’s go

somewhere so empty, so secluded, that

sighs are tucked into night’s secrets

and the thick cloud of dreams turns murky

our conversation plays hide and seek in whispers, and

loses itself


Powys Mathers’ version




 The night is black

 And I am excited about you.

 My love climbs in me, and you ask

 That I should climb to a higher room

 Things are hidden in the black night.

 Even the dream is black

 On the black-lacquered pillow,

 Even our talk is hidden. (Volume 7, poem no. 12, p. 109)


17. Intoxication dissolves

I tug at everything I loathe in my heart

Flowers lining a jasmine branch

And overlook the message


Powys Mathers’ version


 Flower Intoxication


 The messenger hands me

 the branch of cherry blossom

 and forgets the letter. (Volume 11, poem no. 18, p. 59)


18. Spring comes to the garden

I walk into the garden

hoping for flowers, but

I notice, that

flower curtains hang askew


Powys Mathers’ version


 Spring in the Park


 I came to see a blossoming

 of flowers, I see

 a blossoming of curtains. (Volume 11, poem no. 14, p. 58)


19. Solitude

They will come, flowers crowding their hands

On this tender, clean path

When the moon skirts the sky


Yamuna waters

the water’s mild tempo, pauses, slows,

modest buds line its banks

bloom in harmony

to the descant of a cuckoo’s song

its lusty fragrance and birds drunk on music, surge

gust, cavort, swirl across branches

we meet suddenly today

our acrid parting laid aside, and

the boat on which we flow, sways

along the river’s verge


Powys Mathers’ version




 Would he came, a flower in his hand,

 following a little path.

 That night there would be a moon. (Volume 11, poem. No 9, p. 57)


Image credits: Yoshida, Hiroshi (1876 – 1950). Morning Mist in Taj Mahal, No. 5. 1932.
Medium: Woodblock Print
Size (H x W): 15.5 x 22 (inches)
Source: Ronin Gallery

Beverly Bryan: “Hiroshi Yoshida was a traditionalist who threw out the rule book; a romantic with a keen eye for the world as it is, as adept at portraying an idyllic mountain shrine in Japan as he was at capturing the dusty quality of the light at a busy market in Morocco. The mixture of modern and classic Japanese aesthetics in his work made him popular first with collectors in the United States and Europe, and only later in Japan. His work sits at a crossroads between the East and the West, the old and the new, the traditional and the revolutionary. Perhaps these complexities, combined with the sheer beauty of his images, are why his work continues to fascinate and inspire almost a century later.”


The story goes that Miraji took his name from Mira Sen, a Bengali woman hefell in love with when he was a young man in Lahore. Yet another fable was that he adopted the name of the 16 th century mystic, Mirabai.

Born in Lahore in 1912, Miraji, whose given name was Sana’ullah Daar, was self-taught; his schooling was in libraries, where he hunkered down before stacks of books. Miraji was known as an extraordinarily generous, gentle, subtle, tender reader and as an essayist. His musings on other poets changed the entire form of the Urdu essay on lyric or the lyrical essay. It was considered an honor at the time to have him agree to write on your lyric— every major Urdu poet (Faiz Ahmed Faiz among them) mailed verse to Miraji asking for a reading of their work. And he introduced the recitation of contemporary poetry and forays into essayistic translations to All India Radio, Delhi, in the 1940s, where he worked for a short while.

Miraji was a wanderer, only settling for a short time in many places. But the cities in which he began to find his craft and his practice of poetry conclaves were Lahore, Delhi and Bombay, where he died on an electroshock therapy table at the age of 37. Miraji was translating Mirabai’s lyrics and compiling them into a volume when he died. And much of the poetry Miraji composed was fashioned in the voices of women. Some more history. In 1906, Thalasso’s Anthologie del’Amour Asiatique translated a lot of “Eastern” love/erotic poetry. This included Japanese geisha poetry. In 1920, E. Powys Mathers translated the geisha poetry into English. Two decades later, Miraji was on a mission. He wanted to usher back those who had been left out of textbooks as an antidote to the colonial grip on the Indian imagination. He believed that we could repair the grief of colonialism by turning to poetry, and not just through what we wrote, but how we wrote.

For a comprehensive study of Miraji’s life and work, see Geeta Patel’s book Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002; republished New Delhi: Manohar Books, 2005).

Translator | GEETA PATEL

Geeta Patel, a Professor at the University of Virginia, began her intellectual life as a science geek child, whose world was made possible by hosts of beings. Water, fish, birds, insects, bacteria, worms, seaweed, fungi, layered rock were only a few. Her avid curiosity led her to several degrees in interdisciplinary sciences combined with philosophy, leavened by varied perspectives on South Asia. Everything she writes is composed for the voice. She has written two academic books and edited three special issues of journals, that mingle poetry, politics, theory, science, media, colonialism, nations and states, sexuality, policy, loss of the tongue, political economy and financialization. She also publishes nonacademic pieces on art, aesthetics, lyric, bio fiction and playful versions of her more academic writing as well as translating poetry and prose from Sanskrit, Urdu, Braj, Hindi and other languages. The lockdown led her, rather unexpectedly, to concocting her own lyric.

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