„VERSschmuggel in Karachi“

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Madiha Aijaz Photo: Goethe-Institut / Madiha Aijaz

At first sight, Karachi may seem like a relentlessly growing bustle of people, cars, rickshaws, and colors, traversed by traffic noise and fish odour. Sitting atop the roof of a colorful tourist bus, German and Pakistani poets, translators, a photographer, and the staff of the Goethe Institute gaze at this bustle of Karachi from above.

Just beneath the surface of this bustle, numerous transformation processes occur, alongside one another, above each other and among themselves, negotiating with each other every day - peacefully or otherwise. In this "orderly disorder" as Laurent Gayer 1 describes this highly multiethnic and -religious mega city and the (political and criminal) violence related with it, the inhabitants of this city set up and negotiate their sanctuaries and spaces for living.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Madiha AijazPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Madiha Aijaz
Just as the two German, two Sindhi-speaking, and two Urdu-language poets find themselves in an exactly same space of creation, in "The Second Floor" (T2F) 2. It is a well-known alternative café where regular socially critical and cultural events, among other things, about literature and poetry, take place.

The two German poets, Daniela Danz and Andreas Altmann, came with appropriate curiosity and openness to Pakistan to "smuggle their verses to the other side". They encountered extremely different characters: the Karachi resident, Afzal Ahmed Syed, one of the best known contemporary Urdu-language poets, who has processed, among other things, his experiences of two civil wars (1971 in Dhaka and 80s in Beirut) in his poems and Ali Akbar Natiq who belongs to one of the younger unusual voices of Pakistan. He comes from a humble background of peasants and artisans in a village in Punjab and now teaches creative writing in Islamabad. The two Sindhi poets, Attiya Dawood, whose poems have been translated by the famous Islamic scholar, Annemarie Schimmel, and Amar Sindhu, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, are among the significant voices of the women's movement in Pakistan, especially in Sindh. Both deal with the role of women in society and love in their works.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Madiha AijazPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Madiha Aijaz
Against the backdrop of the greatest linguistic diversity and the many significant poets in Pakistan it was but natural to choose Sindhi alongside the official language, Urdu. After Punjabi, Sindhi is the most commonly spoken local language in Pakistan. Even though in Karachi - the capital of the province of Sindh and the headquarters of the Goethe-Institut Pakistan - only a select few speak Sindhi. There are but numerous literary events, magazines, and books in this language, which owes its name to the mighty Indus River, flowing through it. In Germany, hardly anyone has dealt with this language apart from Annemarie Schimmel. Even during the meeting in Karachi the translation process between Sindhi-German / German-Sindhi posed a huge challenge. Thus, the poets kept going on by dodging partly in English or Urdu.

Through this unique process of translation of "VERSschmuggel" and along with the support of translators and language mediators, the poets, who did not understand each other’s language, not only learnt about the history and the context of each other’s poem, but also discovered their own poems from the other’s perspectives all over again. All poets reported, how in the course of this intensive work and exchange process, they questioned (sometimes critically) their lines or verses. Perhaps, Walter Benjamin’s "infinitesimal point" lies on the tongue of the translator.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Madiha AijazPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Madiha Aijaz
During the public reading at the end of the translation workshops in T2F one of the most frequently asked question was: whether something or much more was lost or gained when translating from one language into another? "Poetry always metamorphoses during the crossing from one language shore to another. You can inspect it and wave at it and not be sure if it will wave back. But, the fact that the translatable poet and an interpreter would be sitting in the boat increases the probability of the two poems to be able to see each other in the eyes, recognize, and trust", says Andreas Altmann reflecting for himself. And everyone agreed. Even though there are very different socio-cultural contexts, from which the poets hail, "Poetry as a world language connects people in their existential matters together", since extremely similar or exactly same themes are addressed, although in different languages, images, and forms.

In his poem, "Escape", Ali Akbar Natiq describes the experience of fugitives and their fate in exile: "When the army of cold winds besieged the remote lying land / the sun fled south with her spears wrapped in fog / The birds of distant mountains beheld the defeat / and moved, latching in this or that city, in a foreign land. (...) ". Perhaps he speaks of the fugitives in 1947, when India was partitioned and Pakistan was created, perhaps the fugitives in 1971 when East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan and Bangladesh emerged or perhaps of the many Afghan refugees to Pakistan in the 90s or today. Daniela Danz, who also likes to use motifs from nature in her poems and gave this poem its poetic form, felt that it was as relevant for today's refugee situation in Germany and Europe.

The mutual reading and reciting of poems opened up a forum for discussion about the form and rhyme, sound and rhythm, as well as, about the tradition of reciting and the importance of poetry in everyday life in the respective countries. In South Asia, poetry stands as a part of everyday life, as a spontaneous adornment of moments and conversations. The relationship between poet and listener is marked by an intense communication and a lively atmosphere, in which the most beautiful parts of a poem are received with laudatory exclamations ("wah wah!").

Differences in the selection of topic in the poems were also apparent since they reflect the socio-cultural and political conditions of the respective contexts. So says Daniela Danz that the Pakistani poetry that she has been acquainted with so far, compared to the current German poetry, "is less experimental and emanates more from the consciousness of social effectiveness." Attiya Dawood, for example, deals in her poem, "A picture without color", with the equality between men and women in love and partnership, and Afzal Ahmed Syed processes his experiences in war-torn times.

With great attention to detail and patience, the linguists were able to afford the poets an appreciation of the corresponding comparison and its self-image. Through close cooperation during the six days, a trustful exchange developed between poets and language mediators, who roughly relate to one another, as the original to translation. Similar - and yet so different. Peculiar, each one, yet not unrelated to each other.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Madiha AijazPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Madiha Aijaz


  1. Gayer, Laurent (2014) Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, New Delhi: Hurst & Co. Publishers.
  2. T2F was recently (spring 2015) in the headlines, as the former, courageous manager of the café was murdered apparently due to her politically critical and enlightened attitude.

Nusrat Sheikh
Translation : Tina Gopal